Uncertain future: A Baku neighborhood faces change

Author: Nargiz Mammadli

When 42-year-old Sevda Gafarova looks out her window, she no longer recognizes the historic Baku neighborhood where she has lived her entire life.

Gafarova was born and raised in Keshla, a large district in the center of the Azerbaijani capital.

“Before, when I walked down the street, I knew my neighbors. I’d say hello to the majority of the people I passed,” she says. “But now I don’t recognize most of them.”

The Baku district of Keshla looks out onto the Haydar Aliyev Baku Oil Refinery.

Urban change has become a constant for residents of the Azerbaijan capital Baku.

Entire districts have been bulldozed and rebuilt: one area, historically known as Black City due to the pollution created by its oil refineries, was completely demolished to make way for a high-end residential and business district, the new White City.

Some residents of Keshla hope they will be next.

Once one the two industrial centers in Baku, the district has been hit hard by economic change in the country.

Waves of migration and unregulated construction have chipped away at the sense of community that used to define the historical neighborhoods in the district, according to locals. Shuttered factories and undisposed industrial waste have added to the sense of despair.

Keshla once stretched from the borders of White City in the south to Ziya Bunyadov Avenue and the Airport Highway in the north. While administrative changes have shrunk its official size, it is still one of the oldest districts in the city, notes Gafarova’s husband, Jeyhun Gafarov.

The southwestern border of historical Keshla is known as the Lahijians’ quarter. It was named in honor of one the most ancient villages in Azerbaijan, Lahij, which lies in the southern foothills of the Great Caucasus on the slopes of the Niyal Mountains.

Like a mirror of the city itself, Keshla has expanded and transformed over the past several decades. Once famous as a place to keep horses during the rule of the Khanates, Keshla became an industrial center and the stop for crude oil on the railway.

Many of the families who live there have deep roots in the area, according to local residents.

“One of the oldest buildings of this district is Shah Abbas mosque, which was built in the 17th century,” Gafarov notes.

He adds that over the centuries, the district developed its unique maze of small houses and tiny, narrow streets because families would build new homes on their property for each generation . Later, larger houses—built to accommodate subsequent waves of newcomers—fanned out around Keshla’s historic center.

80-year-old retired math teacher Arazxan Farzaliyev lives near the concrete-hardware factory in the district.

“Over the last couple of years, life here has become especially hard because of dust and exhaust gasses coming from the metal manufacturing plants and the concrete-hardware factory and the smell of petrol from the oil refinery.”

People were drawn to Keshla in the 1950s to the factories operating along the railway that was built through the area, according to Elmaddin Shukurov, the lead architect of L groupe, which works in the 16 Baku municipalities.

The railway became the heart of the district, with apartment houses, schools and other facilities opening up to meet the growing population.

Even though many of the factories closed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, trains still race through the district.

In his book Keshla and Keshlalians, historian Vali Habiboglu mentions a local legend about the pipes seen in this photo. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, right after the first oil boom in Baku, it is said that these pipes carried petrol to the Nobel brothers’ oil refinery. Some locals would pierce holes in the pipes, fill  big tubs with petrol and sell oil and refined materials to the Nobels’ refinery. That’s why Keshlalians were once known as “pipe-piercers.”

11-year-old Sadiq and 10-year-old Kamran remember how the sound of the trains on the tracks would keep them up at night. The heavy rail traffic used to make it hard for children to find safe places to play, according to residents. But the train stopped running on one line, and the city turned that area into a park.

The factory itself became a mecca for newcomers in the latest wave of migration, even though the area was designated for industrial use and construction waste. People who were displaced by the Karabakh conflict also moved into the area, at times taking up rooms in the apartment building that once served as a living space for the meat factory workers.

“This place [near the concrete factory] was a vacant area,” notes Farzaliyeva Tamella, 62. “Some bought land, some simply occupied it and built houses.” While there are no exact figures, it is estimated that as many as 200 houses have been built near the concrete factory and the nearby oil refinery over the past two decades.

This part of Keshla District, which is situated between the Heydar Aliyev Baku Oil Refinery and the concrete-hardware factory, was settled by a new wave of migrants in the early 2000s.

Children play near the concrete-hardware factory, where families built homes in the early 2000s. The area was not originally zoned for housing and urban designers have many of the homes are unsafe.

The view from the eastern border of the Keshla to the railway leading to Hayday Aliyev Baku Oil Refinery. This railway, which is still in use, carries crude oil.

Ulviyya Valiyeva, 47, remembers that when she and her husband moved to the area in 2001, there were few houses. “There were nothing but just little hills made out of concrete.”

Ulviyya’s sister-in-law, Gunel Valiyeva, 38, lives nearby with her five children.  “I came here once I got married. There were just 50 houses here back then.”

Out of the over 25,000 people who currently reside in Keshla, some live in slum-like conditions, notes architect Elmaddin Shukurov.

The area’s proximity to the center and its links to the newly developed White City have given rise to expectations that Keshla will be the next district to get a makeover. Reported sightings of city employees measuring and marking areas for demolition worry long-term residents like Sevda Gafarova. But others, like Gunel Valiyeva, hope the rumors are true because it might mean compensation or a new apartment.

Today this part of the railway is no longer used but residents still remember the time when railway cars would run near the houses and wake up the children at night. The constant train traffic used to make it difficult for children to find safe places to play.

To receive compensation, the property would have to be “put on the plan,” an expression that means it is marked for demolition. The city would then pay the owners some compensation for the property. While nominally tied to the size of the property, many factors determine how much the city pays, and the system is not transparent, notes Subhan Manafzadeh, an architect at Pilla Studio, which researches urban problems.

Manafzadeh’s colleague Nazakat Azimli adds that the lack of an official master plan for city development makes the process even more opaque.

“There is no approved master plan of Baku that would inform us which areas are meant to be renovated and when. When locals use the expression ‘put on the plan’ they have no reference point for the plan, which could indicate the order for the demolition of the districts and the timeline or could explain how the compensation mechanism would work,” Azimili notes, adding that the last time the city adopted a master plan was in 1986.

 “As we don’t have a master plan of Baku, we don’t know the schedule of renovations…and if there is a plan for a city renovation project, most of the time it is either not complete or inaccessible, so we can’t even see it or analyze it.”

Locals living near the concrete-hardware factory settled in Keshla in the middle of 2000s. Many are hopeful that the city will pay them compensation to move if a rumored restructuring project starts in the district.

But despite the uncertainty, Valiyeva and many other residents are hopeful that the next wave of change in Keshla could mean a better life. Currently the family lives in a poorly constructed home that consists of concrete walls and two bedrooms.

“Last year municipality workers came, marked houses in the neighborhood, took measurements and left. If they need us to leave here, I hope they’ll give us enough money so we could buy an apartment that is big enough for all of us,” she says.




Chai-khana Survay