“The foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support.”
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
An article on my research published in Saturday’s Mapo (an Albanian national newspaper) has been met with a few negative comments about my favourable insights into Bathore and its residents, as well as criticisms regarding my use of Bathore and self-build housing in Albania as a model that could be translated to a UK context.
In the face of criticism regarding Bathore being built illegally, without any perspective on urban planning, being a dangerous place, and foremost, it being built on the lands of others, on stolen land, this post will discuss Bathore and its residents in a little more depth. I want to reserve a discussion of the translation of self-build practices from Bathore to the UK for my next post.
Firstly, any conjectures made about Bathore and its residents must be based upon factual information and not assumptions. Deeply embedded prejudices and misapprehensions must be placed to one side and instead the genealogical process of community creation must be focused on. This means that the what, the why and the who, must be considered in depth in order to forge a realistic account of this neighbourhood and its residents. My discussions with residents both young and old have aided me in creating a multi-dimensional account of this community and how it came into being. As a result of this research I feel that some misapprehensions about this neighbourhood need to be shattered.
Firstly, how this community emerged must be considered.
Bathore was developed out of a mix of processes and circumstances. Hastily, scratched out of the land of a collective farm, it wasn’t built over hundreds of years but in a flash, in the haze and confusion of the post-communist period. Each farm labourer was given a section of land to farm when the collective farms were broken up and, as in Bathore, many of these farmers sold this land to migrants from the north. In other cases land was given back to its pre-1945 owners, many of who also sold it on to the new residents of Bathore. It is however true that some state land was taken, but this must be considered within the context of post-communist Albania. A time of turmoil, of: ‘There is no state, there is no law’, and the misunderstanding ran that if the state owned the land then no-one owned it.
But what of this? What of the ‘taking’ or ‘stealing’ of land? In order to assess this, we must look further into the context of Albania’s northern regions in the 1990s. We must consider the plight of the northern regions and its communities, locked into the mountains for 45 years, into hardship, bad weather, violence, lack of opportunity, poor levels of education, healthcare and infrastructure. Opportunity, as for so many Albanians, was withheld, was just out of reach. And so they came to build a new life, physically and metaphorically in Bathore. The state could not provide for people so why shouldn’t people build themselves? Surely what these communities lacked in the northern villages are things that every person across the world values?
When the first residents of Bathore arrived they had no electricity, no water, no infrastructure of any kind. Water was taken from the well or by walking to Institut (a nearby area). There was constant threat of eviction from the land and in some cases housing was demolished in those early years. But the one thing that has persisted has been the community. One man remarked to me that 35 people helped him build his house. Another said that 36 families in Bathore were related to him. Whole villages came to build ‘Kukes e re’; a physical and social community-building process.
It is true that planning permission to build upon the land was, and is, rarely sought in Bathore. Yet it must also be mentioned that there are millions of cases in Albania of people ignoring planning regulations over the past 25 years. Every new balcony protruding from the façade of a cracked communist housing block is informal. Every bricked-up terrace, every new veranda is a violation of planning regulations. As I write this looking out onto the grim Tirana gloaming I can see countless ‘additions’, countless ‘alterations’ to housing, probably all without planning permission. So you see, the breaking of planning laws is commonplace here and is certainly not restricted to Bathore.
Some people have read the evolvement of Bathore as a process of entrepreneurialism. In fact one young man expressed readily: ‘Kamza is the promised land!’ Entrepreneurialism is something that many Albanians have come to treasure in the rush to make the swift switch from communism to capitalism. But in the UK it is the dark heart of capitalism, aligned so heavily with that very brutal strand of Thatcherism; the shadow that we still live under. Yet I don’t regard the transformation of Bathore as an account of entrepreneurialism. When speaking to residents of Bathore they don’t talk about the property market, or housing profits, gentrification or Bathore as a new form of ‘suburbia’. They discuss it in terms far more basic, more innate and more vital still; in terms of home and community. They didn’t come to Bathore to become entrepreneurs, they came from sheer desperation.
But Bathore is more than all of this; more than its history, more than mere housing. It is the spider-web city; a site of entwined connections; where people of the community have stretched invisible threads between their houses, from the corners of their houses, creating networks of strings and concealed relationships between old villagers, relatives and strangers. These threads are the means of a new community; of mutual communication and co-operation between neighbours. The residents of Bathore forged a new community, but also a new way of thinking about how a community might be constructed; built through inventiveness, but also through necessity.
If Bathore is the spider-web city then it is time to extend its threads to Tirana and the rest of Albania, to join this community with that community, to bring Tirana’s ‘there’ into Bathore’s ‘here’; to break down the imaginary boundaries surrounding place and to begin to see the reflection of another town in the windows of your own.