Tbilisi’s Old Town is a continuous treasure trove from gentler times, of delicate art nouveau buildings and of grand mansions second to none in Europe, but is a jewel in precarious equilibrium, seemingly just a few steps away from becoming a heap of ruins. Its properties appear not to have received a lick of paint since the ephemeral Democratic Republic of Georgia, crushed by the Bolsheviks in 1921, and perhaps it is the case; many homes lie in total neglect, dangerously tilting to one side, sometimes still inhabited despite the risks.
Much of the blame, according to the owner of a café in Lado Asatiani road where I stopped for a robust brew, can be laid at the Communists’ feet. Seventy years of dictatorship of the proletariat eradicated concepts such as private property, entrepreneurship or even self-regard from three generations of Georgians. Additionally, the new Homo Sovieticus must have frowned upon the beautiful residences built by the Tsarist bourgeoisie, favouring instead the more modern Socialist neighbourhoods, which were being constructed, in pure brutalist style, in the suburbs.
Beautiful, old Byzantine-styled houses abound in Old Tbilisi.
Then, hot on the heels of the crumbling Communism, a Capitalist frenzy ensued, transforming Old Tbilisi from worthless relic into commercial opportunity to make some fast bucks with enthusiastic, albeit often unscrupulous, redevelopments. Then it all ended again, on the wake of the double shockwave caused, in America, by the fall of Lehman Brothers and, much closer, by the defeat against Russia, whose 58th Army stopped a mere 50 kilometres short of Tbilisi.
Cynics will say that, at least, the unlikely combinations of corporate failures and Russian bombs managed to ward off projects which, like the redevelopment of Gudiashvili square, would have seen a district with a distinct bohemian flair make way to a featureless minimalist aggregation of buildings, bulldozing away a basement-turned-bakery for a preposterous parade of glitzy boutiques, all in an area whose inhabitants earn, in average, $600 a month. Instead, and perhaps mercifully, the foreign developers pulled out from the deal, buying the decaying buildings some more time.
This basement bakery might be safe for now…
…but other lots hadn’t been so lucky.
In spite of its undeniable charm, Old Tbilisi deserves to be salvaged. Its citizens, incredibly lively and active despite the odds, deserve to live in safe, dignified buildings that look more solid than the cars they park below; the whole city deserves it, for the touristic potentials are immense. But at certain conditions. It has to be a restoration and not a complete overhaul; new buildings, if needed, have to follow the existing rules and must blend into the pre-existing urban texture, without subverting it as it was scheduled to happen in Gudiashvili square.
Gudiashvili Square: safe, for now.
The situation of the Georgian real estate industry does not leave room for optimism, even though a few encouraging signals can be seen: a few properties have been restored and a few more are being recovered, such as an abandoned church not far from Gudiashvili; much of the Old Town has been granted status comparable to those of conservation areas in many European countries; and, finally, the government, in a joint effort with international donors, has pledged to provide funds for the resurfacing of the neighbourhood’s streets.
A Lada might not be built for the trade, but it surely can do its job, shuttling bricks and other material to this church.
Old versus new: a property has just been refurbished; many other lie awaiting.
The road ahead is still long and tortuous, but examples like these and the precedent set by the areas already recovered – such as Botanikuri road – show that there is a way for Tbilisi to infuse a new life into its splendid city centre.