Street hustlers helped build Addis Ababa. Now they’re being pushed out

An Addis street scene. Image: Getty.

The population of Africa is booming, but as long as productivity and employment remain unsteady, “global experts” and economists contend, African cities could descend into conflict and disorder.

From their perspective, activities like street hustling are seen to embody chaos and delinquency. Hustlers are assumed to be young, sometimes criminal, unemployed, and enmeshed in the informal economy of the streets, living in informal settlements or “slums” and illegally occupying urban land that could be used more productively.

These portrayals have a long history, rooted in colonial attitudes toward informal workers and economic policies that have long overlooked the value street hustlers have created in modern African cities.

A successful hustler is embedded in the city’s social relations. To get by, hustlers connect people, provide services and enable economic exchange, in both licit ways (such as retail, brokering transactions and providing electricity, water, transport and sanitation) and illicit ways (retrieving and fencing stolen goods).

Of course, the street economy is not all roses. Hustling can be predatory and criminal. But this not the whole story, as my own research on street lives in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa taught me.

Smartness in the city

Hustling has a special place in Addis Ababa, especially in Arada – a historic part of the city centre. Since the mid-20th century, Arada has conveyed a sense of smartness and urban sophistication, which generations of residents have nurtured and cultivated.

In the 1950s and 60s, intellectuals, artists, government officials and members of the city’s emerging middle class described themselves as “Arada” to make sense of how the city, with its bars, restaurants, cinemas and theatre, shaped their lifestyles, sensibilities, and social lives. To this day, being Arada signifies a proud local history of cultural and intellectual production among the city’s middle classes.

At the same time, hustlers and sex workers – poor men and women who lived side by side with the middle classes – also claim to be Arada. For them, the hustler’s ability to navigate the city and get by against the odds was a sign of smartness. Being Arada has been a way for these people to assert their presence in the city and achieve a sense of self-worth and respect.


Hit with evictions

Both the intellectualism of the elites and the street smarts of hustlers and sex workers transformed the neighbourhood of Arada into a social and cultural hotspot. But today, the very people who gave the neighbourhood its meaning and value are under attack. In the past decade, the Addis Ababa city government has initiated waves of evictions targeting inner city areas, including Arada and neighbouring Arat Kilo.

Government officials I interviewed over the years are adamant that the cleared areas were unfit to live in, with dilapidated housing, poor sanitation and health conditions. The evictions are for development, they say – they make room for private investment and regeneration.

But in all likelihood, evicted residents won’t be able to return to the city centre. Those who can afford a down payment of between 25,000 and 180,000 birr (roughly $850 to $6,200), and monthly instalments of 2,000 to 3,000 birr ($70 to $100) over 15 to 25 years, will relocate to the outskirts of Addis Ababa, where the government has been building large tracts of “affordable housing”. Those who cannot afford it – 20 per cent of the city’s residents – will need to look for a cheap place to rent elsewhere.

Commercial spaces, high-end apartments, leisure facilities and office blocks will replace inner city residences, alongside a few blocks of “affordable housing” for a lucky few. The old trope of the African city as a site which needs to be ordered and contained has struck again. And this time, it has hit longstanding residents hardest.

Location, location, location

For elite economists, developers, investors and policy makers, hustlers have no place in the new, beautified vision of Addis Ababa, and places such as Arada – with their dilapidated housing and informal economies – have no economic value. In fact, these very actors stand to profit from the cultural meaning and value generated by the residents that they evict from these historic areas.

One of these investors is Jonny (not his real name), an Ethiopian businessman in his fifties who I interviewed as part of my research. While holding a drink at the lounge bar at the Hilton, he showed me pictures of furnishings he had ordered from China. He was building a hotel in a newly cleared inner city area. It is an exciting business opportunity, he told me:

It was an old house, in an old area. Very beautiful, very beautiful.

The real estate motto “location, location, location” has as much to do with the historical and cultural significance of a place, as its proximity to local amenities or spectacular city views. But while developers like Jonny can now pursue their dreams, the people who made the area desirable in the first place are being pushed out.

Urban exiles

“They want to get rid of the poor,” said Ibrahim, a former hustler and current car attendant in his late thirties, as we walked around what remained of nearby neighbourhood Arat Kilo after a wave of evictions in 2012. Others clearly agreed. Just a few days after the evictions, graffiti appeared on the remaining buildings: “Since they were jealous of us, they tore down ours,” one message read. Some parts of Arada are still standing, but residents worry that sooner or later, it will be their turn.

In research interviews, government officials emphasised to me that evictees are compensated, and that being offered place in the government’s affordable housing programme is a change for the better.

But Eden, a mother of two who lives in a new built housing complex on the eastern outskirts of Addis Ababa, did not agree:

We live in these new houses, but there is not much change! Now we have to pay thousands for the mortgage. Then your salary is cut, first by taxes and then by transport costs – it is not fair!

Evictions in Addis Ababa will continue regardless, this time also with the involvement of international investment. In November 2018, Abu Dhabi-based real estate developer Eagle Hills and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched La Gare, a new development with shopping malls, luxury hotels and over 4,000 high-end residences. La Gare will replace Kirkos, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the inner city.

This April, Abiy Ahmed announced another milestone in his plans for the regeneration of Addis Ababa. His riverside project, “Beautifying Shegher”, will be supported by the Chinese government: a 12-kilometre redevelopment of densely populated parts of the Ethiopian capital.

As Ethiopia’s economy continues to grow, development is in demand and inner city residents, including hustlers, expect it. But it should not be pursued at the expense of the very people who helped create value and meaning in the city. This value must be recognised: historically and politically but – above all – morally and monetarily.

The names of individuals interviewed as part of the research project have been changed.

The Conversation

Marco Di Nunzio, Lecturer in the Anthropology of Africa, University of Birmingham.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.