Lately, noise pollution has moved from being a general problem that everyone complains about to a serious issue on a personal level. Having taken my beloved flat in an old, quiet area of town, I’ve watched askance as during just the past 2 years the area has gentrified and become hip. Very hip, indeed. Lots of cool restaurants and bars, shops, hotels, etc. Meanwhile, I’m also seeing some, though not all, small shops and vegetable stands close. A block from me, out of 3 little vegetable stores (each situated on a corner of the same intersection), 2 have closed in the last 6 months or so, though thankfully not the one I frequent. Yet.
Some of the new establishments are great; I frequent them (shout-out to Zala, a nice restaurant with good food and even more significant, good service) and I know neighborhoods change. That’s just how it is, generally. However, in Tbilisi, the change is completely, utterly unregulated, in every way. There’s no urban planning, no zoning, no noise control, no labor protections (at not least that are enforced) – nothing.
A case in point. I live on the second floor. My living room and office face the street, my bedroom window opens onto the balcony and below, the communal courtyard, and my kitchen windows, to the courtyard and balcony of the next-door-neighbor’s house, which is 3 stories high. Until about 6 months ago, a few families lived there. Then, the family living on the ground floor moved out, and the space was sold to someone who is building a restaurant there, cleverly named Mama Mia (yes I am being sarcastic).
In the past 6 months, therefore, I have lived in a maelstrom of noise. Drilling. Sawing. Sanding. Hammering. Shouting. Loud Russian pop music (the most egregious, which is saying a lot). This noise starts at about 10:00 am, and goes until after dark, often past 11:00 pm. As I watch out my kitchen window, I see they are creating a backyard space where people will sit, which means that I will have, at the very least, people drinking, smoking and shouting directly below me every single night of the week. My extensive experience in Georgian restaurants has taught me this: Georgians are loud. Very, very loud, and as the evening gets later, it can reach ear-splitting levels. Especially young Georgian women, who have a strong tendency to scream with laughter at almost unbelievable decibel levels, and young Georgian men, who have a strong tendency to get drunk and sing. Far be it from me to deny anyone their fun, but the fact that this can take place in a courtyard directly below where multiple families (some with children) live is just … I don’t know. I don’t really have words for it. People mostly own their flats in this area, and their property values are being severely decreased with no recourse whatsoever.
This whole situation may be exacerbated if the owner installs speakers to play music outside. There is absolutely no prohibition preventing this. Anyone who has been in a Georgian restaurant where music is played will know why I am so afraid. The volume is always turned so loud that conversation is literally impossible.
Lest you think it’s only me, a whining American, a few weeks ago my neighbor ran out on her balcony and started yelling at the workmen. “Shut up!” “Stop it!” “Let us sleep!” “I can’t live here anymore!” Etc. Unfortunately I missed the show, as I was in the shower, but Salome gave me a run-down when I came out. Had I been in the kitchen, I absolutely would have stuck my head out and screamed მეც!!!! Meaning, me too!!!!
So right now I’m living in fear. I’ve already adjusted to the nightly supra (party/feast) down in the courtyard, where pretty much every night my surrounding neighbors gather and, well, party and feast, with the same results described above. Every night, unless it’s raining, until 2:00 am. I’m not really invited, though if I went down there I am pretty sure they would welcome me. But I don’t want to go – I want to sleep! My downstairs neighbor plays extremely loud music for the occasion, often until the wee hours. Thank god he has great taste and plays jazz, or I’d kill myself. I’ve found an app that plays rain falling, with thunder in the background, and it drowns out a fair amount of the noise. Amusingly, a few weeks ago, I didn’t even know there was a huge rainstorm – a real one – the fake rainstorm drowned out the real one.
This is a summer phenomenon, and not even all summer – in August, many of my neighbors depart for family villages in the mountains, where the air is cool and the wine plentiful. Would that I had the same option. I have learned to deal with it, but if my kitchen (where I also eat, btw) becomes a place I dread being and cannot relax and read a book or listen to music, I will have to consider moving, something I do not want to do. Right now I’m in wait-and-see mode, but I have a bad feeling.
My bad feeling extends beyond just my personal space. The construction all around me is extreme, and beautiful, old, historic buildings are being replaced with mundane, brick/concrete structures that in many cases are butt-ugly and completely out of synch with the (formerly) lovely nature of the area. Here’s an example that is less than a block from me. On the left, a typical old Vera building. On the right, a new building that is going up directly across the street.
It’s far from an isolated case. A block away, a 7-story structure, very similar in design to the photo above, is replacing two old buildings that were torn down. The top floors will tower over our little courtyard, completely blocking out the sun. I don’t think I’ll be here when it finally happens, and thank god for that, because it would break my heart.
In the even older, ancient district of Sololaki, an area that is supposed to be a protected, historic neighborhood, a long walk a few months ago revealed that in the midst of this historic district of mansions built back in the 1800’s, which are currently being refurbished (though whether up to modern standards is very much open to question) also includes several extremely modern structures, some on sites where an old house used to be. Now, this area was allowed to decay beyond all reasonable standards in the last few decades, and some of these houses could not be saved. But do they have to be replaced with quasi-Geary-style buildings? It’s just so infuriating, and so, so sad. I am watching the city I have grown to love destroyed, all the charm and beauty demolished without any thought to what is being lost.
This is going on all through the city, on both a giant (Panorama project – see, https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/irakli-zhvania/tbilisi-panorama-project-urban-boosterism-at-its-worst) and a local level. It’s happening with roads through pristine high mountain areas (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1993230107565983/ – mostly in Georgian, but you can get the idea), through the unrestricted construction of hydroelectric power plants, through labor standards that are so lax that over 500 miners have died in the Chiatura mines alone in the last 85 years (https://www.georgianjournal.ge/society/34355-chiatura-mine-claims-yet-another-life-georgian-worker-dies-during-excavation-works.html) and workers on Tbilisi high-rises regularly die (270 workers died and 776 were injured in 2011–2016 as a result of occupational accidents – http://oc-media.org/worker-dies-on-tbilisi-university-construction-site/).
People here do organize, do protest, do demonstrate, and a few times, it has worked. But it always creeps back, and in recent years, has accelerated. It’s so sad to see, and it’s been getting me down lately. I’m starting to think about coming home, not that it’s any better there these days, but at least I can be in a better position to do something about it. Not planning anything immediately, but …. stay tuned!