After an earthquake hit southern Uzbekistan in 1966, Tashkent – the “stone city” and capital – was left in ruins. The subsequent efforts to rebuild the city created a housing block boom, as evidenced by the colossal public building projects in the Chillonzor and Yunusobod districts. Two decades before, London had turned to similar mass social housing schemes to cope with the devastating effects of bombing in the city during WWII. In both contexts, the life histories and anecdotes that unfold within such housing blocks often remain untold. Lorena Lombardozzi lived in both capitals for two and half years, as a private tenant of council flats. Being a participant and observer of such realities gives her the rare opportunity to compare them and contribute to the narrative of “what happened behind these doors?”
Looking back on the daily lives of the two environments I was amused to discover so many similarities. The knowledge of the secret four-digit code that only your block is allowed to know in both places instills a sense of communal safety. Entering the gate feels like entering an inner world: shared bins of unrecyclable rubbish, playgrounds where kids mark their territory, idyllic courtyards preserved by long-time residents to resist the bland grey aesthetic. On the ground floor window ledge, every day you can find a different offer of lost, found, or unwanted random items: kitchen equipment, mattresses, chairs. Everything deserves a second life.
In both cities I was fortunate enough to live on the top floor. The bedroom window is a great spot from which to contemplate your neighbour’s choice of kitchen color or the tacky curtains someone has chosen for their kids’ room. Balconies are crowded with plant life, smelly winter shoes, bikes, giant underwear and birdcages. Indeed, the esthetic homogenization of the surroundings seems to bring the users’ adaptation instincts to the forefront, showing somehow their personality. The motto is: creativity with less.
However, the biggest privilege of living on the top floor of a housing block is the smell of cooking wafting through the building. In London, climbing the stairs and smelling a mix of curry, garlic tomato sauce, chili beans, jams and baking is like taking an ethno-gastronomic walking tour. In Tashkent, the smell of spices in the corridors can invoke intense physical hunger pangs. All of this gives the effect of homemade universal flavors swirling in a concrete jar.
Inside, identical floor plans are drawn up with utmost efficiency. However, differences manifest themselves as well, owing to different geographic, social and economic circumstances. Londoners are surrounded by thin paper walls and synthetic dusty carpets. In Tashkent, 25cm deep anti-seismic walls stand above thick, shining Persian wool carpets on top of wooden boards. Russian wood cupboards, handmade Suzannes, tea sets with cotton flower detailing timidly resist the invasion of IKEA wardrobes storing Primark jeans.
At night, the large containers reach their full capacity. The buildings buzz with the noise of people coming back home and dogs and birds alike welcoming the return of their owners. A shower with hot water pressure becomes a distant fantasy. In London, British talent shows and football games distract the tired breadwinners from budget concerns. In Tashkent, a Russian showman entertains the CIS audience with similar goals. Time to go to sleep, but somebody knocks on the door. The neighbor’s cat, which for whatever reason has jumped into my balcony, needs to be rescued. The communal adventure du jour begins anew.
In the early mornings a tiny but strong babushka in Tashkent screams “kisloe moloko” (sour milk)! Half the price of the Nestle version and creamier than any other. Although large franchises and wholesalers are slowly emerging, central blocks in both cities are still surrounded by the opulence of the street market (bazaar) just around the corner. Yet, what is a historically sacred place in Tashkent, in London often turns into a fickle hipster gathering point.
After Uzbek independence in 1991, as well as in the Thatcher era in the UK, it became possible to purchase council flats at discounted rates. Since then, in both cities social housing has not been replaced, and the free market has dictated the prices of those apartments. By coincidence, in both circumstances I was the last tenant before the landlord decided to surf the “housing bubble” wave and sell the property, which was bought for a very reasonable sum a few years earlier, for a much higher price.
In London, my neighborhood was one of the symbols of such “vested” regeneration, better described as plutocratic gentrification. As a consequence of public disinvestment and negligence, flashy banners now cover up the deteriorating condition of many social projects, from which most of the old inhabitants are progressively excluded.
In Tashkent, the housing market is not driven by “mono-portion” bankers’ salaries or overseas money laundering. Young households still tend to rely on their families and other social safety nets instead of getting into debt with unaffordable mortgages. Nevertheless buying a flat for the emerging middle class is the easiest way to secure an asset which is growing fast in value. Such blocks, although old, still stand strong around the city and provide the framework for a growing urban community, at least for now.