Yerevan celebrated its 2800th birthday last year, but one would be hard-pressed to find any structure in the city older than 300 years. Over the previous century, Yerevan’s precious few historical buildings and entire neighborhoods have vanished under might of Soviet urban renewal plans, while surviving structures would later be gutted and replaced by bland high-rises of dubious legality in the post-independence era.
Incredibly, one strategically located neighborhood managed to avoid a similar fate. Nestled on a narrow hill overlooking the city center is the medieval neighborhood of Kond. In fact, ‘Kond’ in archaic Armenian means “hill.” With its street layout remaining virtually intact since it was rebuilt following a 17th-century earthquake, Kond’s winding narrow alleys and aging stone houses maintain the impression of a place whose distinct Armenian character survived empires and urban planners in a brazen act of defiance.
In fact, much of the reason why the neighborhood was spared from the teeth of bulldozers was specifically its backwater status. It was too hilly, too poor and too unimportant to redevelop. The Soviets planned, on numerous occasions, to replace the entire area with Brezhnevian concrete high rises, but the 1991 collapse put a halt to those plans. To this day, the neighborhood with an estimated population of 5,000 is left without access to utilities, indoor plumbing and other basic necessities.
This may soon change, however. A local street-artist collective, known as #YerevanTropics, recently launched a campaign to bring attention to the long-neglected community’s historical and cultural value. Their project, initially titled #KondGallery which consists of painting colorful murals on old walls throughout the district invoking the area’s history, has been met with optimism by locals.
Sergey Navasardyan, one of the street artists behind the project, hopes to create a curated outdoor art gallery which would attract other artists and creative types. This, he hopes, would at best tip-off municipal authorities to the slum’s potential for bringing in tourist dollars, or at the very least, spur organic redevelopment as young, affluent people move into and renovate the historic homes.
The concept has caught the eye of AYO!, a division of the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) which acts as a crowdfunding platform for non-profit projects across Armenia.
Laura Gevorgyan, AYO’s Program director, explained her foundation’s reason for supporting the project. “Yerevan is a very ancient city, but we don’t have anything resembling an ‘Old Town’ to showcase for tourists. I grew up in Yerevan and never even visited Kond before.”
Struck by the area’s poverty and lack of basic needs, Gevorgyan decided to take on the responsibility of reviving the economic prospects of a vulnerable community in any way she could. Sergey’s project seemed an ideal fit. “Since Kond is the oldest intact district in the city center, we thought it was time to revive its historical and cultural heritage for both Armenian and tourists to enjoy.”
AYO’s fundraising campaign, entitled “Kond that was, Kond to be” intends to raise enough money for painting supplies, as well as room and board for two internationally renowned street artists who are expected to leave their mark on Yerevan’s cityscape. As both have substantial global followings on Instagram, Laura reasons that “enthusiasts across the world would want to come to visit their murals for themselves.”
Locals don’t seem concerned by the prospects of gentrification either. Many, in fact, voiced their support for various government proposals to level the entire neighborhood, since they were promised new apartments in the high-rises which would replace their shacks.
While Sergey was leading a sightseeing tour of Kond on Sunday, a local man walked up to him asking for his phone number. From his angry demeanor, one would be excused for thinking he was there to complain about the waves of hipsters invading his neighborhood. Turns out, he actually wanted to invite him to paint a mural on the cinder block wall near his house as well.
As Yerevan continues to reinvent itself as a hub alternative culture in the post-Soviet space, complete with experimental electronic music, conceptual art scenes and a burgeoning tech ecosystem, it might not be long before Kond becomes the next Williamsburg.