Every city has its flea market–St. Petersburg has Udelnaya, Paris has Les Puces, Pasadena has the Rose Bowl, and Tbilisi has მშრალი ხიდი, or the Dry Bridge. Here the material culture of antique (imperial Russian) and vintage (Soviet) Tbilisi is for sale, alongside an assortment of secondhand flotsam like extension cords, playing cards, medical instruments (don’t ask), and lamp shades.
It is generally considered a must-visit for any tourist or expat resident, and attracts hundreds of local and international visitors each weekend. After all, the kinto (street-peddler) is a romanticized symbol of Tbilisi’s traditional role as a center of commerce.
Recently, however, Dry Bridge market has become a poster child for Georiga’s tourism and urban renovation issues. An informal bazaar, it is one of several amorphous urban structures that cropped up in public spaces across the former Soviet Union, the products of liberalization, privatization, and simple lack of commercial/urban planning regulation. This is exactly what draws tourists but repels many local residents and officials. It has the same qualities of roughness and lack of planning that have led Old Tbilisi neighborhoods to be celebrated as exemplars of urban picturesque by foreigners, but detested as signs of oriental backwardness, chaos, and disorder by westward-looking Georgians.
There is a general perception that “quaint” bazaars, street vendors, and kiosks should be replaced with the sterilized convenience of Western-style supermarkets (Carrefour, Smart, Populi). While part of the bazaar-snobbery has to do with the inferiority complex that comes from Orientalist tourists wandering into your backyard and taking Instagram photos of the “poetic” dilapidation, it also has to do with the antagonistic attitude of new Georgian elites towards petty traders–the modern-day kintos. Refugees and recent migrants from rural areas (“peasants”) are strongly associated with petty commercialism (Sumbadze and Tarkhan-Mouravi, 2003). They are generally looked down upon as “simple people,” who cannot afford, and do not appreciate, the progress embodied in supermarkets and other fetishized products of Western progress.
So as anthropologist Paul Manning points out, while the Shevardnadze period was, in effect, as thoroughly liberal in its economics as it was in its approach to civil society–allowing private petty commodity production and trade (even in state services) to proliferate, the ‘top-down’ Rose Revolution seems to take aesthetic offense at the marginal economic activities of the impoverished population. Hence, they began to wage a war on bazaars and petty commerce, as well as similar forms of ‘bottom-up’ market-based forms (such as the formerly private system of marshutka taxis, abolished and replaced by a regulated municipal marshutka system in mid-2011).
The threat against Dry Bridge, which may or may not be mitigated by the demise of Saakashvili’s party, is the culmination of a campaign against street vendors that began at the same time as the closing of the Iveria hotel/refugee camp in 2004 (Bazhiashvili and Kavelashvili 2004), which was subsequently converted into the Radisson Blu luxury hotel. The forced evictions and privatizations in attempt to purify the urban landscape of non-Western elements are difficult to rationalize coherently in terms of any typically liberal ideology of ‘bottom-up market liberalism,’ indicating that the Rose Revolution’s allegedly westernizing reforms are more preoccupied with westernization of surface appearances rather than substantive economic goals.
This Western facadism, accompanied by the placement of serious socioeconomic issues on the back burner, has been obvious to international observers for almost a decade–as historic buildings received new facades but minimal structural repairs, as fountains were installed as a quick and easy way to beautify public spaces instead of addressing more complex urban planning problems (leading to Saakashvili’s nickname, “Misha of the Fountains”), and as hotels and luxury shops were commissioned en masse, even though the majority of visitors to Tbilisi are backpackers looking for guesthouses and hostels.
The problem I see (and that I hope Ivanishvili recognizes) is that Saakashvili has been aggressively trying to modernize–while the Western world he aspires to is post-post-modernizing. What Saakashvili and his westernizing elite see as backwards, forward-thinking Americans and West Europeans are celebrating: small businesses, historic vernacular architecture, green spaces, backpacking/eco-tourism, farmer’s markets, flea markets, public transportation, handcrafted products, etc.–as we try to undo the damage caused by the very things Georgia now aspires to gain: supermarkets, fast food, disposable plastic everything, big business department stores, and car ownership.
The type of tourist who visits Tbilisi doesn’t want to shop at high-end groceries or outlets, or spend $250 for a night at the Holiday Inn (rumor has it that the government has repeatedly bailed out Tbilisi’s luxury hotels, which don’t attract enough guests to be commercially viable). Let’s face it, if that’s the type of tourist they are, they’re going to do it up right and go to London, Paris, or NYC for luxury experiences. And Dry Bridge is a perfect example–it’s minutes away from the newly-renovated Aghmashenebeli Street, intended as a showcase tourist draw full of fashion outlets and Easter egg colors, and yet you still see Turkish tour buses unloading at the very flea market Misha has been cracking down on.
Given the political and socioeconomic issues surrounding it (and the potential policy changes with the rise of Ivanishvili’s “Georgian Dream” over Saakashvili’s enthusiastically pro-Western UNM), I highly recommend showing your support for Dry Bridge and paying a visit. Below is a labeled map showing how to get to the market from Ruvtaveli Ave. The numbers indicate roughly which areas of the market sell what, although visitors should be aware that there is a lot of mixing. The best times to visit are on non-rainy weekends between noon and 4pm. Before noon, many vendors will not yet have arrived/set up (Georgia likes to sleep in), and after 4 most will begin packing up. The market is year-round and even runs on weekdays, although more vendors show up on the weekend and in warmer weather.
My favorite finds from Dry Bridge:
- 1980 Moscow Olympics commemorative espresso mugs
- earrings made from 19th century kopecks
- a poster of young Stalin reading Rustaveli against a backdrop of the Caucasus mountains
- Soviet-era ID tags and “medals” for police and security dogs
- antique tea tins
- weird early 20th century photos and postcards
- a more or less complete tea set cobbled together from various vintage sets of the same color pattern
Bezhiashvili, Keti and Gela Kavelashvili. “On Prohibition of the Street Trade.” Internews Georgia, issue 277, 2004.
Humphrey, Caroline. “The Unmaking of Soviet Life: Everyday Economies after Socialism.” Cornell University Press, 2002.
Manning, Paul. “The Hotel/Refugee Camp Iveria: Symptom, Monster, Fetish, Home.” 2008.
Sumbadze, Nana and Giorgi Tarkhan-Mouravi. Working paper on IDP vulnerability and economic self-reliance. Tbilisi UNHCR, 2003.