Tbilisi Unbound

Posted on July 21, 2012 by

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Even before I arrived in Tbilisi the first time, for a week’s vacation in July 2007, I was telling people that the city would soon become the next Prague — a down-on-its-luck former imperial metropolis freed after communism evaporated to be reborn as a destination for expats and bohemians, history buffs and hipsters, and generally for people who get pleasure either from gazing out from the edge of Western Civilization with pride as it continues to push Eastward or from sitting on the edge of non-Western civilization and knowing they could escape into it at any time they wanted. Prague — safe, cheap, vibrant — the city had had its heyday in the ’90s before becoming too expensive for the casual traveler, too cliche for the adventurer. And since other major cities in the region like Warsaw and Bucharest weren’t taking advantage of the opening, Tbilisi looked like it could stride ahead of its East European counterparts and grab the baton from Prague.

I wasn’t qualified to make this claim, of course, having never visited any of those cities, but I wasn’t alone in making wild statements about Tbilisi. Around that time I had read another positive comparison to Prague. I recently heard of a business executive who claimed that Tbilisi could become like Vienna. I read a news article that quoted someone comparing Tbilisi to Paris, and a colleague last year said the same thing, but then she added, “I mean, I’ve never been to Paris, but….”

Sometimes, even when we don’t know what we’re talking about, we can still be right in some way. We all seem to share a sense of what an ideal city might look and feel like. And in some way, we know it’s supposed to be Paris. You could quibble, but I mean, we’re not dreaming of Des Moines, right? (Their French name isn’t fooling anyone.) Yes, for some it’s New York, whose residents have from their positions atop global media and entertainment empires assiduously cultivated the belief that New York is historically the most significant city in the history of human history. Many people buy into the myth; the rest of us are over it. When I lived in San Francisco, everyone — local residents, other Americans, visitors from Europe — we all would say that it’s the most “European” city in America. San Francisco and Montreal. “Yeah, and Montreal,” we’d say. It also happens to be livable, with great public transportation, real neighborhoods with distinct identities and a cafe on every block.

So what’s a European city? Well, it’s Paris, which also has all of the above-mentioned attributes. But Paris is maybe just a way of saying “cultured” or “cosmopolitan” or “international”.Are we just dreamy-eyed romantics, eager for the revival of a vanishing European world of idle afternoons and pretentious chatter? I hope not, because that gets old quick. Most of the Georgians I know who have been to Europe have told me that they don’t like Paris. Interesting, n’est pas? “It’s so expensive”, “it’s a giant museum”, “it’s too perfect”, “it’s not real”. All of which adds up to: “it’s not livable”. It’s a strange city in the sense that when you walk down a Paris street, you don’t envision yourself living there. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone living there. Maybe that’s what makes it an ideal — in the self-conscious attempt to create a great city, they may have succeeded too well.

Only about 175 cities are considered World Cities according to the criteria established by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network, a British university-based organization that evaluates the significance of major cities. Their “world cities” fall into three categories, and two additional categories, “high sufficiency” and “sufficiency”, contain about 125 “cities that are not world cities as defined here but they have sufficient services so as not to be overtly dependent on world cities.” Tbilisi is included in the fifth category along with Florence, Nice and New Orleans, placing it among the top 300 cities in the world. Considering that about a fifth of these cities are found in the US and Canada, Tbilisi finds itself in pretty exclusive company.

It’s not a complete coincidence that Tbilisi has that flavor of European-ness. As Tbilisi grew throughout the 19th and early-20th centuries, most major European cities followed to varying degrees the redevelopment principles that made Paris what it is — wide boulevards radiating from large public squares, large parks, public sculpture. These projects faltered in Eastern Europe during a century of wars, occupations and political and economic difficulties. But Tbilisi got Rustaveli Avenue, Freedom Square and several major parks. The Old Town, dating from the 6th century, was still the center, but the Russians grew the city by agglomerating several nearby villages and, after World War II, accelerating the Soviet Union’s aggressive urbanization policies. From the mid-19th century, the 150,000 or so residents of the tiny, crowded ancient city core added more than 1,000,000 new neighbors by the time of Georgia’s independence in 1991.

A lot has changed in the five years since I visited. Street signs (when there were any) were in Russian cyrilic and Georgian anbani and tacked near a corner of a building. On today’s newly renovated blocks, street signs are set atop streetposts and marked in Georgian and the Latin alphabet. The bilingual voice on the metro also changed from Georgian/Russian to Georgian/English. The Russian tourists who hadn’t been coming didn’t miss it, but the Western tourists who have been coming by the millions no doubt appreciate it. And almost every Tbilisian can now say “Last Stop” with barely a hint of an accent.

Every street had a billboard or two advertising planned real estate developments for a nearby run-down block. The headlong pace of redevelopment and the seeming absence of concern for historically and architecturally sensitive buildings and neighborhoods, expecially in the city’s old town, had even sparked a minor public protest movement that was only temporarily muted by the 2008 war.

On my first walk through the city after returning last August, I could see that most of the planned buildings — office towers, condominiums, government ministries — had indeed been built, and new architectural visions had taken their place on billboards twice as numerous as before, some of which were themselves already half-built but paused in mid-construction as a result of the global credit crisis.

Now, not only is a skyline developing, but entire streets are being reconstructed, from upgrading underground infrastructure to laying new road surfaces all while preserving or restoring historic facades and maintaining a sense of neighborhood character. Intended to complement the main avenues of Rustaveli and Chavchavadze as a destination for shopping, entertainment and strolling, symbolically-renamed Davit Aghmeshenebeli Street — after King David “The Builder”, whose rule led to a two-hundred year Golden Age that Georgians still speak of as if it were a memory from their own childhood — is the most heavily promoted of Tbilisi’s streetscape projects. A major public event space for the city, Marjanishvili Square is at the center of the street. Lining the edge of the square are a metro station, a McDonald’s and several retail shops. In the last month several new cafes have opened in time for the tourist season, including American franchise People’s Cafe, pastry shop La Boulangerie, and the newest of French-Georgian chain Entree’s six locations.

I only saw a few cafes in 2007, near the universities in the Vake neighborhood. One coffeehouse that has since closed was at the time just about the only place (aside from the few 5 star hotels for business executives and diplomats) where you could find espresso, and you could sit outside. It cost maybe a lari and a half, two lari for a double. I was a rare English-speaking tourist and the barista’s English was as bad as my phrasebook Georgian (if that was possible). Now, most young people speak some English, and the cafe staff usually speak it fluently. They also learned two things about expresso: 1) it’s not supposed to be weak and watery, and 2) you can charge 6 lari for a double and the tourists will continue to pay.

Urbanization is occurring all over Georgia, as it is in every country, though much more slowly here: Georgia is less than two-thirds urban (by some measures) and rising slowly (by any measure). While Tbilisi contains a quarter of Georgia’s population, it isn’t the country’s only city. Half of all Georgia’s urban-dwellers live in a handful of small- and medium-sized cities. The country’s second city, Kutaisi, one of Georgia’s many former capitals, is expected to experience a bit of an economic and cultural revival beginning in October when newly-elected members of parliament take their seats in their new glass-and-steel domed home. The urban heart of the very Autonomous Republic of Ach’ara, coastal Batumi, is a world somewhat apart from the rest of Georgia: determined to become Las Vegas-by-the-Sea, a project at which they’re, ahem, succeeding. It’s a hosting-ground for diplomatic visits, energy industry conferences, Turkish gamblers (who can’t legally bet at home) and tourists. Further up the coast, the planned metropolis of Lazika currently consists of nothing but swamp water and reeds. But if the project to erect the Black Sea’s largest center of tourism and trade is completed, then in 10 years 500,000 residents will spend at least some of their free time and disposable income at tables on sidewalks. But though its name resurrects the memory of a long-departed ancient kingdom, no part of this city will be old. Its newness may give it a sheen of techno-cool, like Tokyo, or ahistorical freedom, like Los Angeles; it will be difficult to generate from scratch the feeling of being somewhere, as opposed to just anywhere. It’ll just be new and cool and free (of business regulations), and probably expensive. If I ever have the money I’ll still want to by an apartment there, but it won’t ever feel like a real city. In all of these areas, bureaucratic disarray (let’s call it) has created questions about exactly who owns what parcels of land, but in a properly-functioning, fully-fledged democracy — a status the government has an opportunity to earn in October parliamentary elections — problems like this don’t last long. Other important regional centers — from Zugdidi in the west to Telavi in the east to industrial Gori and Rustavi closer to the center — all Georgia’s cities are receiving attention in the form of streetscape upgrades, tourist information centers and modern government buildings like police stations, hospitals and schools. The improvements are very visible, the first pieces of new architecture in decades, often directly affecting working conditions for teachers, police officers and medical professionals. And for a grandmother to be able to walk to the supermarket on a consistently flat concrete sidewalk instead of a rutted, muddy path marks a noticable, if minor, improvement in her quality of life.

But it’s in Tbilisi where the culture is changing most quickly. Something like a cafe culture is developing. A recognizably global urban culture sets the capital apart from the rest of the country, where an international elite shuttles back and forth from government or corporate headquarters in Brussels or New York and brands like Zara and Banana Republic are filling new shopping malls. Several major hotel projects are planned or underway, and demand has made room rates some of the highest in the world.

Some old burdensome ways have been sloughed off. I was sitting with one of my adult students in the courtyard behind Sioni Cathedral. She was explaining the differences between Orthodox and Western Christianity on the eve of a major religious holiday. Europe Park, fresh out of the box, and the flashing, undulating contemporary architecture of the Peace Bridge — together meant to represent the country’s hope for its future place in the orbit of the West — both were behind us as we looked at the half-restored rear of the 6th century church. For a moment she fell silent and then remarked that during Soviet times, our pre-meditated public idleness and the sort of casual stroll that brought us here were both forbidden, and in fact could have led to arrest. She told me this in part because she knew I was interested in what things had been like here during those times, but also simply because she had been thinking about it while we sat there. It had been on her mind. She wasn’t just killing time on a Sunday evening; our presence was almost an act of civil disobedience directed toward an authority that no longer existed, and she seemed to take a mild pleasure in the sense that she was getting away with something. Every act of sitting in the park isn’t a performance of protest against the restrictions of the past, but in the context of the evening it seemed that way. The groups of teenagers scattered around Europe Park — children who have grown up long after the time when Soviet citizens internalized those prohibitions — they don’t have a personal experience of the past to dwell on. They were simply hanging out with their friends, updating their facebook profile photos with their iPhones, singing English-language songs.

There’s plenty of resistance to these changes. As a gesture of thanks to my first host family for their hospitality, I offered to take them to a restaurant or a cafe. “Why?” was the response from the mother, with a defiant smile and a theatrical shrug. “I like my house.” It was a kind of dare, a challenge for me to justify what she knew was a tendency of people in my culture to … I don’t know, get out of the house once in a while. “I like your house, too,” I had to say. But I also like to know what’s going on outside of it. She was expressing her stubborn committment to a culture that on some level she seems to know is slipping away. She pretends not to know that her son isn’t really sitting in the courtyard downstairs all day, at least not every day. He and his friends make their way to some of the city’s cafes and restaurants. He’s part of his culture, too, but for him that means a future somewhat different from the past. He’s not afraid to get out and see new things. Cultural preservation isn’t a matter of what an older generation can coerce the young into doing. It depends on what parts of a culture today’s young people are willing to perpetuate as they take over the reins of society from their parents. Today’s Georgian youth are not content to sip instant coffee with their families in their living rooms. Young people have found new hang-outs. Though mainly available to children of families who have managed to move up the economic ladder, the abilitiy to drink a cup of coffee with friends at a cafe instead of in the family home may signify a social change on the horizon. They’re seeing and hearing and often interacting with tourists and foreign businesspeople and other walks of life they may never have encountered while sitting in the courtyard at their apartment building eating sunflower seeds with their neighbors. There’s a lot going on in Georgia these days, and things that happen outside Georgia often affect things inside the country, and Georgians want to understand it or experience it. Far from being mere idle curiosity, this internalization of globalization reflects the culture’s general opening up and its increased connectedness with the rest of the world. Granted, not everyone is drawn to shopping malls by world-historical events; sometimes they just want to go shopping. But still, it’s changes in the everyday behavior of ordinary Georgians that will have the deepest impact on the country’s future.

Proliferating cafes, historic preservation movements, condo projects — these are signs of middle-class life, indications that after only a few years of consistent progress the reactionary anxieties of recent decades are abating and a cosmopolitan sensibility is beginning to emerge. Georgians are becoming aware of their culture in a new way — not just as the total of the traditions and beliefs that they take for granted as the right way to live, but as only one way among many. For Georgians, however, as with people from other ethnic groups, their way of life is the only one they would ever want to live. With the Georgian people’s basic physical needs on the way to being met and their security more assured, the political debates tend more now to drift toward issues like media freedom, social justice and the integrity of the electoral process. And more and more, these discussions are taking place not in a private living room behind drawn curtains, but at a table under an awning at a sidewalk cafe. For some of these idlers, they know that they’re not just buying coffee; they’re paying for the freedom to go where they please and to speak their minds publicly — freedoms they can finally afford.

Two centuries ago Tbilisi became the administrative center for the Russian Czar’s recently-acquired possessions in the Caucasus. Five hundred years before that it was the seat of a Caucasus-wide Georgian empire. Today, there is no rival in the region to Tbilisi’s rise. My colleagues tell me that Yerevan is cheaper and more walkable, but it obviously lacks the promotional savvy of the Georgian government’s PR pros. I have heard that Baku isn’t as nice as Tbilisi, which may mean that it’s dominated by the uglyness and smelliness of the oil industry or that it has nothing like the tree-lined architectural sophistication of a Rustaveli Avenue. I’ll probably never know since the visa for Americans was just increased to $160 — which tells us that Azerbaijan isn’t even trying to lure tourists (and with its oil wealth probably doesn’t have to). Cities of the republics of the North Caucasus will continue to experience the fallout of external policies beyond their control. Living here, you don’t feel the sense of imminent danger in the way that residents of Yerevan or Grozny must. Tbilisi may be on the cusp of another period of regional economic, political and cultural preeminence. Whether this happens will depend on the people of Georgia.

With Georgia’s recent lifting of visa restrictions for its northern neighbor, the Russians are coming again, this time for vacation or for business. And so are Europeans and North Americans and Chinese and others. And when they return home and talk about what Tbilisi is like, they might make comparisons to European capitals, or they might say that Tbilisi is not in that league yet, or that it’s better, or maybe just different. But they will be speaking about Tbilisi in the context of Europe’s better-known, over-traveled cities. In this way, at least, Tbilisi has already taken its place in Europe. The Next Prague? The “Paris of the Caucasus”? Probably the best thing Tbilisi can do is to continue to become Tbilisi. So far, it seems to be working.

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