Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Walking the City?


Walking throughout cities is a daily routine for most of people… Often this can be a boring, tiring, time consuming job. People have to go from their home to work, or visit family and friends, or run for a business purpose, or…




Since 1991 in fact everyone runs in Tirana… People want to catch the lost time in the past 4-5 decades of authoritarian regime. This is quite contrary from the past when people had to “kill” the free time around city. Yes, free time was not appreciated. There was a lot. People had to work 8 hours a day and than they were encouraged to stay vegetating, and in best cases just walking through the city and neighborhoods without even looking around. Tirana at that time was much smaller and green pedestrian “paradise”… There were not more than 5,000 cars all over Albania, and 2000 of them in Tirana, mostly for government officials and institutions and limited public transport… 

So personally I grew in the strange époque, and we were walking and walking every day, but not really enjoying the city. We were living with the city, which was changing gradually, but not very fast. I could say we know every inches of its own little changes, because there was indeed not change at all! All around there was a strictly managed statusquo... People did not really enjoy public space. Everything was public in fact… So much public, and almost nothing private! So the public space, roads and city squares were empty… Well there were many people around, but they were mouthless, speechless, and in the best case gossiping around banal issues… The city space was not a meeting space for gathering and enjoying, for protesting or celebrating, for fighting or rallying. No nothing out of that ! In  contrary it was dangerous and risky. Authorities were those meant for thinking everything! The rest had no brain, no opinion, no city… We were there only to work, to train for future fighting with potential enemies (bloody Russians, Americans, etc…). So there was not a time to walk and enjoy the city. There was no even local or foreign tourist at all. They were totally forbidden, as a threat of being potential spy… So why a hell to walk into the city and discover it, read it and study it. It could have been useless, meanless, painful and banal…

But since 1991, Albania changed and transformed. Tirana started to change radically and its own population doubled while surface tripled… Everybody bored by doing nothing and walking to kill time in the past, now was highly busy opening a new shop-kiosk, building a new (informal) house, doing a (extra-legal) business, and of course running, running, running… to catch the lost time.

Now there was no time to see the city, to enjoy the family, to meet neighbors, friends or cousins. Practically there was no time at all... There was just time for work and business! Simply hard business! It was the time to make money! It was the time to become free and rich... It was the time of getting a car, possibly a second hand one or a cheap stolen “Mercedes” one, somewhere away in Italy or Germany, and of course to drive it though the main roads and squares of the city to show of while rushing to the next meeting. In few words we simply forgot about the city. We were indeed living with it! We were using, eating it, consuming it, and destroying it. We were transforming it, maiking it seek, and not looking into it at all…

But indeed the city changed and transformed so much, so one day we had hard time to recognize it. Practically it is now a complete new city! Tirana has changed radically and transformed in such way that in other countries could happen in several decades or centuries. But here things change every second, every minute, every hour, day, week, month. A year is too long and too far for Tirana and Albania in general. The change is not only fast, but above all, dramatic.

Two decades after the change, one visiting Tirana might think he is every everywhere, but not in Tirana. The city has humiliated its own former ghost public spaces making them lively lousy 24 hours business districts, where life gets feaver… Aside the extensive unbelievable energy of people, during the last decade local authorities, also have intervened in the main access roads trying to improve them, plant some green, and of course paint colorfully the facades of the buildings along the main streets. Provocative advertising and cozy bars and cafés are seen everywhere… It is a hot urban cocktail, with lost of noise, pollution, traffic and crowded populated main streets. While the rest of city is a dormitory of buildings, buildings, buildings … and almost no public spaces.

We all have been the privileged testimonies of such change, but ignoring it, and unfortunately not understanding the privilege in itself... Nowadays who walks a bit further from his daily home-work routine itinerary would be surprised rediscovering the new CITY Tirana, surprisingly just next to his/her living-work area, or somewhere in the past where there was almost nothing or simply… nature! The change thus becomes an un-expectable shocking and suffering experience. It becomes a painful surprise and interesting subject for further exploration, first of all for Tirana citizens itself, rather than (foreign) visitor, whom will never be able to get a grip of the spectrum and amplitude of change!

But exactly if you want to understand THE CHANGE of the city, specifically in Tirana or anywhere else where there is already an urban laboratory present, than you have to WALK THE CITY! And not just walk, but see it, read it, explore it, make love and hate with it, because cities are like human bodies, they are born, they grow, but they also die, even many of them live in eternity…

So to understand them you need to understand the DNA of their life. And that is not to be found in the main boulevards or se called official streets. Against what most people think the real DNA lives with the alternative paths and corridors of the city, used by simple people or entrepreneurs with or without conscience….

While the main official access roads are just advertisement walls or parade façade corridors. They cheat authorities, people and visitors... They misinform us by fake urban images and walls, because the real city stays behind the urban walls and official access corridors… So walking the city means discovering the alternative parallel city… And this means to explore the real life and real people!

Well folks this THE REAL CITY! You have to have time, courage, willingness to do that: WALK THE CITY! But if you really do it, you will not regret at all... Be prepared indeed for the adventure and harshness as well. Be ready also with practical clothes-shoes, camera, some sandwich in the little bag, and a bottle of water, but be aware of walking and sweating to hell, by walking not in asphalt but on the mud!. Be aware of passing through difficult communities. Be aware of loosing your way, because a map is not always useful. However you will really open your mind, and enjoy at the end. This is indeed a big life lesson... But if you are an artist, a city activist, an architect a city planner, an environmentalist, then Walking the City is a MUST! Don’t miss it, because here is where the routes of your professionalism and intellectualism stay. After that for sure you will be with feet on the ground and people will respect more your opinion. Believe me! This happen only by WALKING THE CITY!


An article by Besnik Aliaj

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