Where the Sidewalk Ends: Automobility and Shame in Tbilisi, Georgia
In July 2015, I met the urban planner Vladimir (Lado) Vardosanidze in front of the Tbilisi Concert Hall, a round, glass-plated building located at the convergence of a bewildering traffic pattern where two multilane one-way streets combine in a swirl of traffic to form a bidirectional road that becomes the main drag in Tbilisi’s downtown. Lado, a spry seventy-year-old professor with specializations in urban planning, architecture, and culture, greeted me with a smile and told me that he had selected this location to meet because he wanted to point out some features of the urban landscape that were indicative of larger trends in the development of Georgia’s capital city. This area, he told me, was nicknamed the Bermuda Triangle because of the erratic traffic patterns that render it particularly dangerous for pedestrians. As we walked toward his home office nearby, Lado drew my attention to a variety of sidewalk hazards: a set of plastic bollards that had been cut off at the base to allow cars to park on the sidewalk, loose and missing bricks in the pavement that made walking treacherous and wheelchair travel impossible, and a kiosk situated so close to the curb by a bus stop that it forced riders to wait on the street rather than the sidewalk, with the sharp edge of its exterior metal counter positioned at eye-level overhanging the ramp from sidewalk to street.1 Cars were parked on the sidewalks, and pedestrians dodged traffic to cross the busy street. The boundary between street and sidewalk was at risk of collapsing, and with it, the moral orders that the sidewalk symbolically supported.
Cars have steadily colonized the sidewalks in downtown neighborhoods in Tbilisi since I first visited in 2009. In recent years, the process has intensified. According to Lado, the municipal and cultural acceptance of behaviors such as driving or parking on sidewalks is one of several developments in Tbilisi urbanism since the 1990s that have set new unfortunate precedents. Once established as normative, certain modes of public comportment prove difficult to reverse. Lado contended that many decisions by the local government had ignored urban planning and environmental considerations in crafting Tbilisi’s urban landscape, demonstrating the triumph of private over public interests (Vardosanidze 2003, 2009). After the political instability and economic hardship of the 1990s, the pattern of urban development since 2003 shifted toward the privatization of transportation and a rise in what some critics have termed “investor urbanism” (Van Assche and Salukvadze 2013, 94). Following the 2003 Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili and the United National Movement (UNM) ousted Eduard Shevardnadze and came to power, implementing changes to the built environment as a means to remake public perception. Transformations of public space, such as the construction of glass police stations meant to symbolize transparency, have provoked scholarly inquiries into the political and social significance of the broader project that is afoot in the architectural reshaping of Tbilisi urbanity (Frederiksen 2012; Curro 2015).2 Mundane elements of urban material culture, such as parking, also underwent renovation during the same period. This article focuses on the politics of parking as a way to understand contested visions of the public good taking place at the edges of official, large-scale urban development projects.