Since arriving in Albania my research has centred on an informal settlement clinging onto the very outskirts of Tirana, the capital city. In actual fact the community is in the municipality of Kamza, a town that was founded upon the dairy industry during the communist period. The land where 2,000 cows once grazed has been turned into homes to house over 100,000 inhabitants. In 1990, at the fall of communism, the population of Kamza was a mere 5,000, so you can imagine the physical and social transformation of the area over the past 23 years (Co-Plan, 2002). Furthermore, the population of Tirana has almost doubled in the same period, and with a crippled welfare state and a huge lack of housing, nearly 55% of the population now live in some variety of informal settlement (Mele, 2010).
Tirana itself is a mix of crumbling communist concrete, informal buildings, a few flashy attempts at post-modern architecture, and a lot of bright paint. The ex artist-mayor (now the new Prime Minister) attempted to brighten the peeling communist apartment blocks and revitalise the city, building a city of colours, where a flush of colour, a sweep of a paintbrush, represented democracy and a bright, yet chaotic future. Mad patterns adorn facades, illegal extensions are in every view, every glimpse of the roaming eye. Blink and you’ll miss them going up. The government seems to have spent much of the past 23 years in some kind of sleep walk, treading the city streets in a confused daze, seeing but not registering the growth of informal buildings, lean-tos and extensions, even whole illegal building sites. The illegal construction industry seems to be the most popular thing to happen to Albania since their beloved Mr Pitkin (Norman Wisdom) last paid a trip.
Bathore in 1994 (Photo credit: John Driscoll, IIUD)
Bathore in 2007 (Photo credit: John Driscoll, IIUD)
My translator, Marjana, took me to Bathore for the first time a week and a half ago. It’s hard to imagine what this area used to look like before the influx of new residents. It’s on the edge between the formal city and the informal city – some housing is now legal, but most of it seems to be in the process – a lengthy, bureaucratic procedure that gets more expensive for residents each year.
This neighbourhood really does represent the vast and rapid (sub)urbanisation (or ‘Bathorisation’ as this urban process is now referred to) of Albania. Hastily built by thousands of migrants from the north, it was constructed with their sweat, their time and their money. Physically built from the ground up, from the stepped land of the collective dairy farm, it is a place built on remittances sent mainly from Greece and Italy. And so the once rich grass that fed the dairy cows has became a very different kind of production ground. This is the physical embodiment of millions of pounds worth of incremental investments; remittances that have kept the cycle of building going round and round. Buildings went up, up and further up and still the building continues: steel rods set into concrete protrude from the tops of houses – the mortar is set, but not for long. The next remittance might build a veranda, the one after that will get the tiles for the roof or get the plumbing in.
The majority of people that have enabled Bathore’s transition from rural to urban were agricultural workers themselves. Farmers from the north, desperate and penniless, many of them made the long trip down from the mountains to the pastures of the southern plains. What they found when they got there was empty land. Land that had been part privatised but much that was still in the hands of the government. Capitalism had come hard and fast. Yes, the transition was long and unsteady, but in the face of an uneasy state, and the lack of any democratic tradition, much of the land was merely taken. They found it empty, and the belief stuck that if the state owned the land then no-one owned it. In some cases land was handed back to its pre-communist owners, or separated out between the farmers working on the land. But, ironically, in most cases, the farmers sold the land to the families fleeing the hardships of the north, repackaging it as an ‘investment’, a place to build a new life. Thus verbal and informal contracts were hastily drawn up for pockets of land. People built huge fences around great swathes of land; protecting nothing but grass; a huge, messy gated community for the poor.
“There is no state, there is no law”: this was the reality that Bathore was built upon. But this was lawlessness of a most polite and desperate kind. In my first interviews in Bathore, I hear the same word when I ask about their background and why they came to Bathore: ‘Pune!’ – work. But not just jobs, people came for a new life, so their children could be educated, and for freedom from the grip of the mountains, from the harsh winters and the violence that ensued post-communism. For 45 years during communism people weren’t free to move around the country, so at the first chance whole villages upped and left. Many came from Kukes and Dibra in the north to build what they call ‘Kukes e re’ (new Kukes) in Bathore. But even in Tirana work has been hard to find, and good work even harder. Many people that I interviewed said that they had good jobs during communism, ‘professional’ jobs, as managers, working in local government, education or research.
That first evening in Bathore the rain came down hard. Marjana’s window wipers worked overtime and in the dark the potholes coming out of Bathore and into the hills seemed more brutal on the little Fiesta. On our way back I saw something so visually striking. A small boy was working in a pool hall; but the pool hall was a shell of a building, an unfinished ruin. Open to the elements, the concrete columns on its front had no sides. The white tungsten light emanated from this place, beating out into the soaked street. It was a most bizarre scene, like something straight out of a Tom Waits song – the kind of place that the mind’s eye can never construct.
The day after I took a walk through the streets of Bathore in the daylight. This was the first time I really saw how close the neighbourhood is to the mountains, glowering over the residents, reminding many of a past life. It’s a beautiful location, part rural, part urban. Hens run wild, whilst goats, sheep and cows keep the grass short. Vast gardens hide behind tall gates which adorn the symbol of Albania: the two headed eagle. Street names adorn every narrow track, every muddy lane: George Bush Street, Manhattan, New York. These are some serious aspirations. But in actuality they were a peace pact between the southern residents and the northern incomers. The community had intended to name them after the now semi-deserted villages of the north, but tensions ensued and so the streets now stand for some sort of non-ironic ambition.
Since these first observations I’ve been back to Bathore another few times and conducted some interviews, both with incoming residents and people who have been there since the days of the dairy farm. The historical and present-day experience of this place is becoming more apparent to me with every visit, and which I will write about in proceeding posts. But, quickly, on the subject of interviews, as always in Albania, the residents and people of this place are always welcoming and curious. The latest round of questions I’ve received from Bathore residents includes: How many brothers do you have? How many sisters? Do you live with your parents? What do your parents do? Are you married? Are your brothers and sisters married? Who do you live with? Will you get married? Do you like Albania? What do you like about Albania? Anyway, at least I don’t feel like they’re the ones who are being interrogated when I’m conducting interviews.