Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.

Piassa Town, Addis Ababa. Image credit Nebiyu.s via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed.

My elderly neighbor in Italy used to say, “Never return to places where you were happy; you might find them changed.” When I first heard this phrase at the age of nine, in response to my longing to revisit Ethiopia, I thought it was a bit odd and didn’t pay much attention to it. It took time for me to understand that the wise Mr. Giancarlo was referring to the eternal dilemma of returning to places and feeling a sense of unfamiliarity with both the surroundings and oneself. In essence, as the Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa sang, “Uno vuelve siempre a los viejos sitios donde amó la vida y entonces comprende cómo están de ausentes las cosas queridas” (“One always returns to the old places where one loved life, and then one understands how absent the beloved things are”).

As the historic district of Piazza—known locally as Piassa—in the Arada sub-city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia undergoes demolition to make way for road corridors aimed at improving the city’s infrastructure, I find myself wondering which places will disappear and how long I’ll rely on memory to preserve them. Who knows if I’ll ever be able to go back to the bar with the best baklavas in Addis Ababa, where my cousins and I used to argue over the last spoonful of dessert, and how about the rows of leather shops lining the streets, tempting my friend Mary and me to peek inside, play at being fashion experts?

Image courtesy Rachel Dubale © 2024.

For diaspora individuals, revisiting our places of origin often means facing inevitable changes. Each homecoming increasingly resembles a geography of memory, where places either cease to exist or morph into new forms, and one’s identity is constantly negotiated between losing the known and discovering the new. Yet, ongoing urban development plans in Ethiopia, particularly in Addis Ababa, force not only occasional visitors but also residents into the same dynamic: the city’s urban center and surrounding areas are vanishing rapidly, leaving residents with scant places to cling to. Conversations with my cousins regarding the demolition of these locations have led me to ponder whether, deep down, I, like many Ethiopians, am simply someone nostalgic for the past and anxious about the future. After much reflection, I realize that the destruction of urban spaces in Piazza encompasses more than mere nostalgia.

The capital has been undergoing demolition and reconstruction for years, yet the very “modernization” of this area brings to light the conflict behind it: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture. While the personal experiences stirred by a place might find a counterbalance in new experiences—as my cousin remarked, “we can find baklavas to argue over somewhere else in Addis”—the collective experience of a place is most vulnerable to fading away. This risk is particularly evident in present-day Ethiopia, where not only are older generations, the custodians of collective memories, gradually passing away but also ethnic divisions threaten the cohesive identity of the country.

Arada Piazza, its name derived from the Italian word “square,” stands as a cherished symbol of Ethiopian identity, resonating through the annals of time. Throughout the early 20th century, it was the vibrant economic heart of both the capital and Menelik II’s empire.

In 1935, the arrival of Italian fascists sought to reshape the landscape, imposing a regimented plan aimed at segregating local populations from the colonizers. Despite their efforts, the essence of the area remained, unyielding. Piazza, much like other quarters of the capital, has always thrived on its urban and social tapestry, where towering edifices stand juxtaposed against more organic, informal spaces.

Moreover, Piazza serves as a testament to myriad cultures that have left an indelible mark on the country. Beyond Italian influence, Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches grace its streets, standing as enduring symbols of two of the oldest foreign communities within the city. Over time, Piazza has borne witness to the birth of iconic landmarks, from the city’s inaugural cinema to its premier hotel, the Itegue Taitu Hotel, and the establishment of the first Bank of Abyssinia.

Piazza is now a place where every resident of Addis Ababa passing through can recall not only their memories but also those of their people. Indeed, amid its historical edifices, Piazza has accommodated more informal yet equally significant establishments for the populace, such as the series of leather goods shops and bars, passed down from family to family for generations, or the recently destroyed butchers.

Image courtesy Rachel Dubale © 2024.

Such places have long been targets of development projects, as evidenced by the events of August 2023. Media outlets reported directives to clear 42 shops, catching owners off guard with abrupt warnings to vacate. Unfortunately, no alternative locations were provided for their businesses. In the most recent instance involving Piazza, news of the dismantling of homes impacted by the latest project emerged after a mere three days. While inhabitants are being presented with housing solutions, navigating the bureaucratic hurdles to obtain them has proven a formidable challenge.

Amid the demolition of landmarks in the area, new sites are emerging, such as the recently inaugurated Adwa 00km Museum. This museum commemorates the remarkable victory of Ethiopians over the Italians in 1896, prompting several questions. First, one might wonder if the decision to establish an anticolonial patriotism memorial in an area named after the former occupying power is purely coincidental. Second, there is the question of how effectively these new sites serve to defend Ethiopia’s historical heritage, particularly when the heritage itself is being erased. In recent weeks, the area has continued to undergo changes, prompting reflection on the dilemma of not only who is Addis Ababa for but also what will remain of it. And the ultimate question remains: is it truly impossible to achieve a balance where progress and preservation can coexist? Until then, all that’s left is to say “Goodbye, Piassa.”

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