The path to the old hippodrome

Author: Tamuna Chkareuli
Edition: Neighborhood
Topic: Environment City

On October 5, Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze presented a new plan for the old hippodrome in central Tbilisi. The 36-hectares, which was owned by former prime minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s fund, Kartu, is set to become the city’s Central Park. Kaladze presented the plan for a modern park divided into 26 zones and designed by a Dutch company, LAP Landscape & Urban Design. The plan includes Japanese, French and botanical gardens; and a skatepark, football and basketball fields. There will also be an artificial lake, amphitheater, restaurants, and parking spaces for 500 cars, and much more.

The only thing that is missing is the opinion of the local residents. The old hippodrome had been a natural space, left to its own devices. It had been a space that grew and developed naturally after the horses were moved to a different location over 20 years ago—a patch of wilderness in the center of Saburtalo, a place where everyone could do their own thing.

I’ve been coming here since childhood. The terrain is as familiar to me as the lines on my palms, so I’ll give you a tour. We’ll enter on foot, from Tamarashvili Street. There are many ways to get here, but as this is my tour, we will follow my usual path. We start from where I used to live. We could go straight past the parking lot of a big residential complex, one of the many that sprouted up around the hippodrome over the past decade, but let’s not. We’re here to escape the city, after all—so we take the small staircase on the right, behind the parking lot. The small riding arena where horses jumped over the barriers that used to be here. After the horses left, the cycling enthusiasts came and made a pump track here. Today, a boy stands on the top of a hill on his bike, summoning the courage to ride down. We pass him and continue to the underground passage that leads to the hippodrome. Until about ten years ago you could just walk through the woods, but now there’s a highway between the park and the rest of the neighborhood—another development that ate a chunk of public green space.

Now we have entered the main hippodrome space. The field isn’t visible from the entrance because of the cypress bushes that grew around, it grew together with me. An unpaved track wraps around the field. Once it was used by horses, then appropriated by joggers. I used to come here for a run, to feel the first sun rays on my face and hear my own heart pumping hard in my chest. This track, which offered me so many challenges, was perhaps the only place in the city where I could run nearly two km on an even surface. Despite many joggers, I always felt these mornings were just for me. I guess we all felt that way. Now, with half of the hippodrome fenced off, we can’t do that anymore. The most stubborn ones still try to run on what’s been left to them, the field.

But I’m not going there yet. First, I want to pass what I call “the benches”—my favorite reading spot. Between the old pines, someone’s blessed hands made wooden benches where I started and finished reading whole novels. It’s the coziest spot in the hippodrome, perhaps that’s why a group of extremely committed elderly comes here every single morning to exercise, and dogs curl in between the roots of trees and watch the curious human activities. But on my imaginary map, it’s always late summer evening here—just after the long shadows of the pines slowly fade into dove-colored twilight. I can’t help thinking about what will become of this place, a spot that is not even marked on the new project map.

From here we follow the path to The Woods—that’s what we used to call the thicket of bushes and trees on the hill. It’s the place to share your secrets: here couples walk hand in hand, friends gossip away from curious ears and small children pretend the woods are foreign, mysterious lands to be discovered. There was a bench in the woods where my friends and I used to go when somebody needed a haircut—we were saving money on salons by cutting each other’s hair here, and then went to celebrate with a beer or two at “the tribunes.”

“The tribunes” —everyone still calls it that even though the last signs of the platform were removed in 2009. Since then, the slowly decaying concrete stairs had offered the widest view of the neighborhood and your inner mind, for there was no better place to sit and contemplate life. Perhaps this was my favorite place since I still refuse to process its destruction. Where once fig trees and blackberries grew wildly through the concrete, where I spent so many moments—with friends, with a lover, alone—is now just piles of dirt. This is why I started to avoid coming here. I avoid looking at it as one would avoid taking a look at an amputated limb.

But enough of that, it’s time to go to the place we are really here for, the reason why everyone comes to the hippodrome, its essence—The Field. Sometimes I wonder if my gravitation toward open spaces, the way I perceive community, my artistic preferences, are shaped by the time I’ve spent here. This is the only big space where I’ve seen so many different groups of people peacefully, freely being themselves. Whether you’re sad or full of joy, the field welcomes everyone. People on a picnic, groups of friends on colored blankets or families with children, who just met each other and will perhaps be “hippodrome friends” for the rest of their lives. Sports lovers—cricket, rugby, badminton, frisbee—all side by side with dogs that are only waiting to seize the moment to snatch the ball or the plate away. Every kind of dog, running around like mad: spaniels and setters, dalmatians and German shepherds, dogs chasing each other or a flock of crows. The solitude-seeker souls with their books or drawing pads or cameras, watching the sun slip behind the boxes of the high-rise apartments. There are no boundaries and no dedicated zones here, and we all experience it together. In this field, which used to be huge before the project started cutting it in half, we always managed to find each other.

This is where I’ll end my walk. I made this project because I felt that this map doesn’t live just in my head, but in the minds of everyone who comes here to find their kind of freedom. I wanted to put it together, piece by piece. I wanted to preserve a small part of the collective memory we share, for the project that we’ve been “generously gifted” has nothing in common with it.

We are a non-profit media organization covering the topics and groups of people that are frequently ignored by mainstream media. Our work would not be possible without support from our community and readers like you. Your donations enable us to support journalists who cover underrepresented stories across the region.