Baku's Destruction/Construction

In 1850, Baku - the capital of Azerbaijan - was little more than a sleepy, stone village on the Caspian sea. By 1900, it was producing twenty percent of the world's oil, and the population had boomed. In the last hundred and fifty years, Baku's population has grown from seven thousand to nearly two million people. A lot of buildings were put up very fast - now, they're being town down.
We arrived here in a period of mist and chill, to find a city on the cusp of becoming something entirely different from what it has been.
Baku is a city on the line between sea and desert, full of dust, mostly new. Near the water, large steel and glass towers erupt from the ground, standing near neglected oil-boom mansions and obliterating the older, lower houses. The european gilded age was once the style here. Now, it is being transformed into a city of blank lines and large-windowed boutiques. Walking down the main avenues, there is little evidence of place - it could be any wealthy, bland city. The houses that have been left standing are being furiously retrofitted and carved up.
Walking in the northern part of the capital, further away from the old town and the Caspian promenade, there are huge swaths of torn-up earth and knocked-down buildings. One can still see a few graceful rooflines and elaborate mouldings, though the structures are hollow and filled with rubble.
Partly, these blocks were leveled because the buildings there were deemed unsafe or unfit to live in. Skeptics aren't so sure - there are people who believe the government has been leveling houses to provide inexpensive land for development and to help keep the housing market from collapsing.
The housing market, unlike in other places, has been very strong (it grew 7.9% in 2011). Azerbaijan is becoming wealthier - at least on paper - and real estate prices have been going up. Sadly, there isn't a great deal of parity, and most of the people who have been displaced from their homes aren't able to afford the new apartments.
It's common to walk next to glittering, new apartments on sidewalks of earth and debris. Little has been done to help the cities infrastructure. Manhole covers are often missing. Electric lines sag. And row after row of houses have been left to decay and fill with trash, their front walls ripped out, their floors torn through. It's unlikely that they would have become like this on their own, though that's what the government claims. They sit, waiting to be bulldozed.
The modern construction standards aren't necessarily very good, either. Despite claims that the new towers are being built to improve the quality of life and safety of Baku's citizens, that's hard to verify. In 2007, a prominent fourteen-story building project collapsed, killing five construction workers. Look at the state of this scaffolding.
Baku is a place that won't have much of anything old. There wasn't much here to begin with, there will be less soon. In the old town - a potentially delightful warren of small streets and creaky buildings - they are ripping out the cobbles as I write this, to be replaced with more "modern" paving. The old houses have been bought up; oil-company logos grace the plaques on the doors. One corner of the town's wall was leveled to make room for a hotel.
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