The charm of these courtyards, though, is slowly crumbling. In 1975, the then-Soviet authorities declared much of the Old Town an historical district, but failed to develop a conservation plan for it. Today, many buildings are at risk of collapse. Decades of neglect have piled up and left thousands of balconies, staircases and facades in decay.
“Are there actually people living here?” is a question that tour guide Levan Giorgadze is frequently asked. The 30-year-old says he’s often ashamed to admit that the government, as he puts it, is not interested in preserving these buildings.
“Sometimes I say that public officials regularly check the houses, the conditions. I explain that the rehabilitation process needs time and money,” he says.
City Hall told Chai Khana that the rehabilitation of listed sites is the responsibility of the Tbilisi Development Fund. The latter rejected an interview request from Chai Khana for a response to criticism of its work.
Causes for the buildings’ decay lies elsewere as well, however. The 1990s shattered both Georgian society and its buildings. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the country slipped into civil war. Corruption and crime ran rife, poverty grew and residences that required careful preservation bore the effects.
The magnitude-6 earthquake that hit Tbilisi in April 2002 dealt a further blow. It destroyed scores of buildings and damaged hundreds.
The rehabilitation of the Old Town and other sites of historical architectural interest never made it onto the political agenda until 2010, when the national government set up the Tbilisi Development Fund, a public body tasked with preserving and restoring Tbilisi’s historic sites. Since then, districts like Kldisubani, Abanotubani, Rike, and Aghmashenebeli Avenue have had large-scale makeovers with mixed results.
Architects, urban planners and artists have criticized the Tbilisi Development Fund’s restoration methods, claiming they resulted largely in disfiguring many buildings.
“They think that restoration means ‘nice,’ but rehabilitation can only be either high-grade or low-grade,” laments guide Elisashvili. “There are procedures to be followed to get a valuable result, but the city authorities mostly don’t care about it.”
While some experts claim that these spaces lost their historic features during the rehabilitation process, residents are still eagerly waiting to receive help before their houses collapse.
“The balcony is slowly falling apart, but City Hall forbids us from doing anything. They say [the building] is a piece of cultural heritage. Yet nobody has come to repair it,” laments Chichakyan. She claims she was told that the house ranks in the second-to-worst category for hazardous buildings.
Indifference has also taken a toll on the very communal essence of the courtyards. Many of the longtime residents at 4 Ietim-Gurji Street are poor and poverty has pushed out others, who sold their properties, recalls Eliso Gegechkori.
Like those Georgians who lived through the rough-and-tumble 1990s, the 58-year-old is not short of stories.
“[Back then,] when people literally were shooting in the streets, we even would make a bonfire on the balcony in order not to freeze in winter.”
Despite the building’s decay, such memories, and the life found within its ezo, are part of the reason why she, like many others, intends to stay put.