The Fate of Arada Hangs in the Balance

Piassa, at the heart of Addis Ababa is representative of the city’s old face. It was long known for being the go to place for commerce, and leisure. But in the past few years, urban development has been changing the face of the area. As the older parts of the city are being demolished residents feel that Piassa has lost some of its unique character. EBR’s Menna Asrat went to Piassa to find out what makes Piassa tick and what residents think the future holds for Addis’ old city.

Early mornings in Piassa, a neighbourhood previously known as Arada, still play out like a scene from a vintage film. With a name that is a throwback to the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, Piassa’s morning routine has remained unchanged over the years, the empty streets slowly fill up with people on their way to work or school, or to one of the numerous cafes dotted about the streets of the area. In a typically Addis Ababa scene, older men gather at the patio tables of the cafes, buying newspapers from the dealers wandering the streets with broadsheets and magazines cradled in their arms, discussing the current issues of the day. It’s a scene that hasn’t changed in around 30 years.

The Piassa, located at the heart of Addis in Arada District has long been seen as the cultural hub of Addis, if not the country, dictating trends in music, literature, cinema and theatre. At the same time, for decades, it has managed to preserve the historical face of the old city, holding on to its look through regime changes, modernisation and urbanization. Unsurprisingly, many of the city’s residents have their own memories of Piassa, from the young to the old, all of whom hold dear the unique experiences they’ve had there.

Piassa still attracts the huge numbers of people who visit it to shop, relax and work every day. The walk from the far side of Ras Mekonnen Bridge, where the singer Sileshi Demissie once set up a park and café, to the end of Haile Selassie Street around Doro Manekia (Eden Street) was, and still is for some, like stepping into a time machine. Castelli’s, the best Italian restaurant, is also located in Piassa. The same cafes that have served the area for the last five decades still serve customers, albeit with slightly more updated menus and furniture. The facades of the shops largely hold on to the silhouettes that are visible in the archive footage of the city during the Imperial era. But more than that, there is an air to the place that many Addis Ababa residents hold dear, a touchstone to the cultural, musical and fashion trends that link them with their parents and grandparents.

But in the midst of urban redevelopment, many of the area’s residents and widespread fans feel that the area is losing what made it unique. The changes on the surface, such as the demolition of the densely populated areas and homes that date back decades, in the eyes of many people, have reduced the essential values of the area.

George Desta, who works in the sports supply store his family has owned for the past 75 years, is one of the people who feel this way. Mulu Sport House, first established as House of Sports, has been under his management for the past 20 years.

The 57 year old business owner, who was born and raised in Piassa, has witnessed the changes that the area has undergone. “In the past few years, the area has lost what made it ‘the old city’,” he told EBR at his shop located in Piassa. He stepped outside to point out the box signage on the shops, and the tiling on the walls of the many jewelry shops on the street.

“In the name of modernisation, the buildings in the area are changed. When the owners give them ‘facelifts’, the buildings lose the character they had when they were first built,” explains George, contrasting the tile façade on many of the buildings with the original brickwork that his shop still retains.

“Those were designed to hide the shutters on the shops,” he says, pointing out the box signage on many of the shops up and down Haile Selassie Street. “But at the same time, they hide the face of the building. The area loses what made it special in the first place,” he explained.

Indeed, architecture of the area reflects not just in the history of the area, but the history of the country. Many of the buildings were designed and inspired by the influx of foreign visitors who came into the country during the imperial area. The surviving stonework and wooden accents on the buildings are reminiscent of the early work of Italian, French, Armenian and Indian architects, among others. Prime examples are the buildings of the Ethiopian Electric Utility and the Arada Branch office of the Bank of Abyssinia as well as the old Main Post Office.

However, with new businesses moving in, refurbishments have covered over the stonework that made Piassa iconic. As Addis comes to grips with another rainy season, street work is being done around town to improve pedestrian and vehicle routes. However, in an area where the streets are as narrow as the older parts of town, explained George, construction as normal doesn’t work. “The roads no longer have sufficient drainage ditches,” George explains. “It causes flooding when there is rain, and then people can’t move around.”

Architecture is only one of the aspects of the Piassa area that has been changing. The cultural face of the area has also changed over the last few years. With the advent of social media and online music platforms, and the changes in the music business some of the legendary production companies that made their home in Piassa have closed down, including Mehamud and Ayalew music stores. What used to be the centre of the music that still defines Ethiopian music on a global scale has been whittled down to a few shops that still sell CDs. This ties in to the changes that are visible in the commerce of the city.

Cinema Ethiopia and Cinema Empire are among the oldest movie theatres found in Piassa retaining much of their reputations while Hager Fikir Theatre a playhouse where modern Ethiopian music and drama were born and nurtured still stands in the area for more than 70 years.

“Instead of still being the go to place for everything in the city, it became an area where people just go to get gold and silver,” George added.

Yemaneh Gebremedhin, a photographer who set up shop in Piassa 20 years ago agrees that over the past few years, the area has lost some of the appeal it had. “In the past when you wanted to buy something, whether it was clothes, or household goods, you went to a few places. It was just Merkato and Piassa,” he explained. “Now that everywhere has become a place for commerce, you see people trying to make themselves stand out. They put their wares out on the street to attract customers, which completely takes away from the pedestrian experience. People are forced to step into the street to walk around obstacles.”

Of course progress in a city like Addis is inevitable, but in George’s opinion, it is the lack of certainty that weighs on Piassa. “Every other administrator has different ideas of what to do with the area,” he explains. “One demolishes while the next say that the demolition was a mistake. In the fray, you lose a lot of heritage.”

As much as things have changed in the area, some Piassa fans are feeling that it is a part of development. Leul Menberu, a businessman, says “People, by nature idealise the past, and elevate the future. I think part of the complaints now is that things are not like they used to be in the past. But progress is inevitable.” However, even Leul agrees that there are things that have changed the culture of Piassa from what it was even a few years ago. “The areas that were demolished for development removed a big part of the culture of Piassa. A place isn’t just the buildings. The people were what made it special.”

However, for those who have memories and lives linked with Piassa, it does seem as if there is something missing from the area they love. Even though the superficial substance of what makes Piassa special hasn’t changed to the casual observer, the removal of many of the people who created the specific culture of the area is one of the biggest issues.

However it came about the era of Addis Ababa’s development spells out some major changes for Piassa. Holding on the identity and culture that makes it the old city of Addis Ababa is going to be a challenge for the city administration in the coming years.

6th Year • July 16 – Aug. 15 2018 • No. 64

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