In the 18 years since I began speaking Russian I have never found a good translation for the English word neighborhood. Yet, this is exactly the word I would emblazon on a flag when I imagine leading a battle to save Almaty’s “Kompot” from urban renewal—the destruction of cheap, old, out-dated, and often ugly housing to make space to build modern apartments or new single family homes with fine kitchen cabinets, two or three tile bathrooms, and the latest heating, air conditioning and electrical circuits.
Maybe соседство suggests some of the meaning and nuances of the word neighborhood but I don’t remember that I ever heard it used to describe a place like the Kompot. A neighborhood is both a place and a state of mind. No place in the world has ever embodied the meaning neighborhood better than the Kompot where I came to live in 1993. I was then an American consultant on housing and land reform, and with my generous salary, I could have lived anywhere in Almaty. I chose a house on a little street named for the war hero Oleg Koshevoi exactly because of the reasons that now condemn the Kompot by urban renewal—it was a well established, old neighborhood composed largely of narrow lanes and small, old homes where children played in the streets and any housewife knew everyone who walked by the gate.
Most of the families in the Kompot had been there for a few decades. My landlady and her husband had built their 70 square meter home after the war on 5 sotoks (about a fifth of an acre) they were granted because he had been an army officer. They and the people around them built their own homes, largely with their own labor and often with materials they begged or stole from a government that could not provide them with housing. Here they made their homes and they made their families and they had begun to watch their grandchildren and even great grandchildren begin to grow up.
I was over 50 when I first came to the Kompot, but I knew within a few weeks that I had come home. I was glad to walk through my gate after a long day of work, change clothes and go out into the street and talk to grandmother Kim about her garden or Uncle Vanya about his Lada’s brakes or Mikhail the gulag survivor about samizdat literature and Kazakhstan’s artists. Most of all I felt at home when I played football with the kids where two streets crossed or when we used the electric lines as the top of our imagined badminton net.
I had grown up in such a neighborhood in America during the war when we were poor enough that we had to heat the house by picking pieces of partially burned coal out of the dirt road where other people dumped their ashes. Being poor in such a neighborhood brought no more shame than being short or tall, thin or fat, old or young; Mexican, Armenian, German, or American. I chose to live in the Kompot because this kind of neighborhood is a universal human garden.
A garden, of course, complete with society’s evil bugs and weeds, but a place that shelters its seedlings from the wilder world beyond and that nourishes and grows people and friendships. The Kompot has always been a garden that also grows the usual vegetables and fruits from which it gets its name. It has been a place full of cherries, pears, apples, apricots, peaches and plums as well as grape arbors, currant bushes, berry bushes and vegetable gardens. And wild and cultivated flowers too. But this natural bounty is part of the human garden. Not only do the trees and bushes and gardens feed the human body, but they feed the soul as they grow old with the people who planted them and express the hope and optimism of the people who care for them.
I knew when I moved to the Kompot in 1993 that it was doomed. I told many of my neighbors that soon the Kompot would become one of the most desirable places in Almaty to live and that it would undergo what we call “gentrification”—the coming of people with money who renovate and enlarge the old houses or tear them down to build new palaces. My neighbors laughed at me as if to say, “Who but we fools and unlucky people would want to live here?”
I was not smarter than my neighbors. I had simply seen the same thing happen to such neighborhoods all over the world. However, I never imagined that gentrification would be forced on the Kompot by planners who decided that they knew better how people should live. I was naïve because in America too we have such planners. Only three years ago we had a celebrated case in the Supreme Court that confirmed that planners could justify the destruction of an old neighborhood to build modern homes and commercial buildings in the name of progress and a better tax base.
In America we are blunt and the planners say the old neighborhood must be torn down because it is “blighted”. Blight is something that happens when a plant or a garden is infected by a disease, and planners ask us to believe that these neighborhoods are fatally sick. This kind of planning arrogance has been a huge disaster all across America because you can’t destroy the neighborhood without destroying the fertile human garden that the word names.
I know in my heart that planners are intelligent people, but I know by experience that intelligence is neither wisdom nor compassion. Planners can build a city but they cannot grow a neighborhood. A wise American once wrote, “I would rather be governed by the first 200 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard.” And I say I would rather live in the unplanned neighborhood of the Kompot than in any bright and shining city created by professional planners. Why? Ask any native of the Kompot.