Friday, April 19, 2024
ArtA vanishing past

A vanishing past

Addis Ababa’s historic quarters under siege from progress plows

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s enigmatic capital, is undergoing a makeover that’s as controversial as it is transformative. Historic neighborhoods that breathe life and culture into the city – like Piassa, Legehar, Arada, Postabet and Beherawi – are being bulldozed to pave the way for modern glass and steel structures.

While this redevelopment promises economic gains, it’s also erasing chapters of the city’s artistic and historical narrative. Even as new attractions spring up across Addis, preserving the city’s architectural remnants – irresistible to travelers and historians alike – remains paramount.

Piassa, Addis’ beating heart, is known for its Italian-style buildings remnants of the Fascist occupation. Its medley of European and Ethiopian influences has long epitomized the city’s adaptability and persistence.

The landmark Taitu Hotel, Ethiopia’s first, stands as a tribute to Addis’ rich past, hosting legends like Evelyn Waugh and Emperor Haile Selassie. Demolishing such structures means more than losing buildings; it severs Addis’ connection to the past that shaped its unique identity.

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Another target in Addis Ababa’s bulldozer’s sights is Leghar, home to the Franco-Ethiopian Railway, a remnant of Ethiopia’s early flirtation with globalization. The railway station’s distinctive Art Deco style is a tangible tether tying Addis to its international past. Snapping that line risks breaking residents’ collective memory.

In Postabet, the old post office area symbolizes Addis Ababa shaking off its traditional skin and transforming into a modern nation. The post office’s architecture recalls Addis’ entry into the modern age.

The bustle of Arada’s markets and artisan shops, traditional Orthodox churches like roaring St. George’s Cathedral – a religious and historical juggernaut – and Beherawi, birthplace of world-renowned artists, imbue Addis Ababa’s historic districts with their one-of-a-kind character.

Razing these districts means more than demolishing buildings; it is erasing stories, memories and a sense of place. Each district houses chapters of Addis Ababa’s collective autobiography, witnessing its struggles, triumphs and evolution. Their destruction signals a break from the past, a discontinuity integral to the city’s DNA.

For Wegayehu Derese, showing tourists Addis Ababa’s living history is her passion. But the city’s bulldozers are threatening the historic quarters that brought those stories to life.

The 32-year-old tour guide has witnessed Addis Ababa’s rapid modernization firsthand – and its heavy cost to the city’s architectural soul. The places she often takes visitors to experience Addis’ rich past – like Postabet’s shops and Leghar’s railway station – are now disappearing.

“Tourists really love hearing the stories connected to these historic sites,” Wegayehu says. “They always buy souvenirs from the shops in Postabet.”

But recently, she has seen increasing demolitions in these areas, making way for gleaming new buildings rising in their place.

While Wegayehu believes Addis Ababa’s modernization is inevitable, she wishes the city’s history could be preserved alongside it.

“Of course the new recreational areas and buildings are attractive,” she says. “But they shouldn’t come at the expense of the historic architecture, which also has its own charm.”

For Wegayehu, Addis Ababa’s living history – embodied in old railway stations, shops and churches – is as much part of the city’s appeal as its futuristic new towers. But if development steamrolls over that past, she worries the city risks losing not just architecture, but also the stories that bring those buildings to life.

Addis Ababa faces a choice: Bulldoze its past or find a balance that simultaneously preserves history and enables progress. Adaptive reuse – repurposing historic structures into new developments – could strike that delicate equilibrium.

This approach would not only retain Addis Ababa’s architectural heritage but also its cultural and historical continuity, breathing new life into its storied buildings.

Addis Ababa’s transformation reflects a global trend where the rush for economic gains often steamrolls over cultural preservation. But one must remember: Cities are more than concrete and steel – they are living histories shaped by the past and enriched by culture.

The loss of Addis Ababa’s historic quarters represents a loss for Ethiopians. Unchecked progress can forget the past instead of building upon it. And in doing so, we lose part of the human story that future generations deserve to inherit.

While modernization is inevitable, Addis Ababa must pursue it in a way that values and safeguards what makes it distinct: its storied buildings, cultural continuity and sense of place derived from history.

With careful stewardship and vision, Addis Ababa’s rebirth could preserve the best of its past while paving the way for a vibrant future — becoming a model for development that honors both history and progress.

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