Addis Ababa. New city, between past and future
In Amharic – the national language and lingua franca for 80 million of Ethiopians- Addis Ababa means “New Flower”. The city was founded just over a hundred years ago, but it bears witness to Ethiopia’s thousand-year history, with churches and obelisks and also to the incredible wealth of traditions, cultures, symbols and identities.Now, Addis Ababa is grappling with a sense of modernity that is realized with the flourishing of Dubai-style buildings throughout the city and the seemingly chaotic heterogeneity of places and relationships that most inhabitants rely on for their survival. So, it’s difficult to tell what Addis Ababa is all about. Fantasy cafes, shopping malls and large buildings still under construction are the landscapes of the main streets of the wealthy district of Bole. However, this is still an aspiring city. It is common to see young women and boys in their nice clothes or businessmen, waving suits, strolling through dusty streets where a shopping mall or luxury hotel will soon be built.The old part of the city, Piassa as the Italians called Arada or as it had been called since the early days of Addis Ababa, tells the story how the city was. Here, the old palace of Taytu, the wife of Menilek, the king who founded Addis Ababa and defeated the Italians, long ago became the oldest hotel in the city. Here are shacks sometimes dirty and dark cafes, and nightclubs reminiscent of the jazz band past, frequented by interpreters, writers, evidence of the vibrant urban culture of the 60s and 70s. Jewel stores, cinemas, the large buildings that Emperor Haile Selassie had built and a few other stores are the last traces of what Arada was.Armenians, Greeks, and Indians were the first foreign merchants to open their stores. The big old houses of foreign merchants or wealthy Ethiopians is what is left of Art Deco style furnishings. In the past many merchants, artists and wealthy Ethiopians fled the country and, more dramatically, many young people who opposed the regime in search of civil revolution were killed.Poverty has always been a characteristic of the city. Since long time the Ethiopian poor have lived in the city, especially around the churches. Begging was precisely the experience of poverty just as beggars were not only the poor or young people from the countryside, but also students and teachers at religious schools. Certainly, poverty has changed over time, but beggars, street children and people who live and find their survival in the street still form the backdrop of every story and transformation of the city. In general, poverty is the way of survival, reproducing life as it is; the poor live in shacks or, if they are lucky, in the rooms of the old houses of rich Ethiopians or foreign merchants that the socialist regime had nationalized.This is the poverty that the would-be city of fancy cafes and shopping malls wants to symbolically and visually erase from the urban landscape. At the same time, housing projects – apartment blocks in yellow and grey – are beginning to alter the city’s landscape. It may even be the case that the entire community is settled on the new condominium site of up to 50,000 apartments. New areas will be used for new construction and more condominiums. Certainly, the transition of Addis Ababa has been its stratifications, diversifications and interconnections. The city’s aspiration is to emerge with new locations and geographical areas under construction, but it is far from completion. It will probably take many years to realize this project.