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I’ve been driving all day with Mohammad Othman, a Palestinian activist who’s traveled the world raising awareness of the humanitarian disaster facing his native country. He is famous for his role in the controversial BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement, which aims to help global consumers steer clear of products and services that rely on exploited Palestinian laborers. Today, however, we are actually there in the West Bank among them, making the trip from Jayyous to Qalqilya where Mohammad is working on a project much closer to home. Sequestered in a corner of a run-down zoo is SkateQilya–a small skate park consisting of a single mini ramp, which was built after Mohammad and a team of activists discovered that the local youth had taken to the sport despite a total lack of institutional support or cultural precedent. It’s story is an unlikely one, but the unassuming park has become a safe haven for Palestinian youth trying to seek some respite from the daily hardships of living in a war-weary country.

Our drive between Jayyous and Qalqilya is tense. As we make our way Mohammad points out all the buildings that were seized from Palestinians over the years, sniper towers, cellphone jammers, and roadside checkpoints. Propping his camera up on the dashboard, Mohammad takes pictures with his head tucked low in an attempt to be discreet. I ask him if he’s ever been stopped for taking pictures, “Sure, so many times, but I just change the card quickly and tell them I have deleted it.” Both sides of the road we travel on are lined with the more common barbed wire fence separating the Palestinians from the settlements. Looking down each turnoff there is the occasional military checkpoint leading to a Palestinian village, and above us suspended by small balloons, surveillance cameras film everything from a bird’s eye perspective.

After passing a large sign warning visitors that we are entering a dangerous zone labeled “Area A,” we arrive at the city of Qalqilya. At the entrance, Mohammad and I are greeted by a towering mosque; all around us the streets are busy with small markets, bustling cafes, and for some reason, couch stores. Finally at the end of the main road we arrive at our destination and the reason I’ve traveled all this way from Jordan to this forgotten part of Palestine: the Qalqilya Zoo.

SkateQilya got its start back in 2011 when Adam Abel was researching an installation project that highlighted divisions of land and people around the world. He was drawn to the city of Qalqilya because of the infamously large cement wall that divides the city from the occupied territory on the Israeli side. During his visit he met Sajed, a 28 year old Palestinian skater from the area. Sajeed arranged a tour for Adam with Mohammed Othman, who at the time knew nothing about the skateboarders of Qalqilya. They were both immediately inspired by the youth they met on their tour and decided that together, they would formulate a plan to help them. Their plans were realized in 2012 at the Dubai International Film Festival, where the pair met skatepark designer Brad Kirr who was subsequently able to convince Tashkeel, an arts organization, to bankroll the project. When Mohammed and Adam returned to Qalqilya with the news, the mayor of Qalqilya immediately volunteered land inside the Qalqilya Zoo, which is actually the only zoo inside the West Bank.

After we’re waved in by local security we get on our boards and ride deeper into the zoo. On our way we see small tea vendors waving to us and old theme park rides that look not only vintage, but somewhat handmade. Inside the zoo’s natural history museum I see a taxidermied giraffe propped awkwardly into the space, its head just barely touching the ceiling–locals tell me it succumbed to tear gas and concussion grenades during an Israeli bombardment a few years back. Further in, we roll past an emaciated and exhausted looking lioness resting in her pen and staring vacantly through the bars of her cage; a sun-bleached sign informs me the zoo is or was once maintained by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.



Finally we pass through two arched wooden doors and find a skate ramp–known as a “Mini Ramp”–which sits under a canopy of blue tarp suspended from above to protect the skaters from the blazing sun. About 22 boys and girls aged 7-18, loud, laughing, and full of energy, their large helmets resembling bobble heads are engaged in a variety of activities. In one group I see Kenny Reed, a professional skateboarder and traveler, teaching fundamentals to some of the kids and guiding them through the tedious process of learning the basics. In another group, Adam Abel is projecting video documentaries of skateboarders from all over the world, he’s here working on a new documentary about these kids. I watch Mohammad sitting with a group of children in the shade of some nearby olive trees, he asks them what their friends and parents think about them skateboarding. I gather from their responses that it seems that many of these children and their families are simply happy that these youths have a safe place to play and learn.



Myself, a skateboarder of almost twenty years, I find it amazing to witness the learning experience first hand. Some of the kids have already mastered dropping into the ramp in under a week and are already going completely vertical on the larger side–something I still struggle with. More remarkable to me, however, are the anomalies within the group that seem unique to the Middle East. The gender split, which is heavily biased towards males in the West, is not apparent among these young skaters. I learn that the sheer novelty of skateboarding, along with the individualistic nature of the activity, has left it an open question about its propriety for different genders. Young Palestinian women, who would experience those barriers if they pursued bicycling or playing football (soccer), aren’t faced with navigating gender associations and community disapproval when it comes to skateboarding. Speaking with some of the youth, I’m surprised to learn that skateboarding has sometimes been billed as an activity more appropriate for women, a complete reversal of the machismo that permeates attitudes about the sport in the West.





It is hard to ignore the constant reminders of how SkateQilya exists entirely against-the-odds of the geopolitical nightmare facing these children. One day as we leave the village of Jayyous for the Zoo, the road opens upon a field of olive trees where about 30 IDF soldiers in armored cars flag us down. As they’re interrogating Mohammad and our driver, a blond woman wearing a helmet that looks as though it can barely contain her hair takes my passport through the back window, “Are you enjoying your stay in Israel?” I nod, although I want to say I haven’t been yet. “You’re from California? Me too” she says, handing back my passport, “I lived in San Francisco up until I came to this shithole.” After they finish their interrogation we watch the group slowly stalk back across the olive orchard, as though hunting down some ominous danger. There is a palatable sense of irony to the scene: here in the outskirts of Jayyous where I have spent my evenings skateboarding and taking walks at night, the climate of fear is like a fog choking the pastoral serenity.

Even within the city itself there are daily, even hourly reminders of the fragile state of affairs that allow for even the modest moments of refuge these kids find to escape from the ongoing conflict that surrounds them. This lesson lands hard on the day we charter a bus to take us and the kids to Nablus where we plan to visit SkatePAL, another organization that funded a skatepark in the larger city. Upon our arrival we find that the park is empty, and the large blue shipping container that housed all of the skateboards and pads has been completely burned out. Volunteers working on the project inform us that the police are not investigating the fire as a potential case of arson, instead claiming that a bottle of turpentine, a mineral oil known for its stability, spontaneously combusted inside the container.

The situation in Nablus demonstrates the complexities of starting organizations within the Arab world. Mohammad explains to me that when an organization relies exclusively on ex-pats and foreign NGO’s, without seeking a buffer of local support or involvement, their communities will have a hard time accepting the activity and are often inclined to reject it altogether. In an occupied country like Palestine, the climate towards outside intervention by the West is decidedly skeptical and often adverse. Not to mention the challenges of dealing with the American-supported local government, which is infamously rampant with corruption. Unfortunately, the outsider nature of their support has been a stumbling block to securing the future of skateboarding for Palestinians. Unlike the West where skateboarding gets along well enough without much institutional support, in Arab countries programs like these need directors, possibly security, and some degree of ongoing oversight by the local community to keep them safe and afloat.

This was entirely the case when SkatePal founder Charlie Davis first came to Palestine as a voluntary English teacher. Naturally, as a skateboarder Charlie brought his board along with him and found that most of his students, having never seen a skateboard before, were utterly fascinated by it. He was inspired by their enthusiasm and on subsequent trips began bringing skateboards along with him for the kids. Eventually his philanthropy grew, and he held the first official SkatePal Summer Camp in 2013.

Today, SkatePal is four years old. With the added help of Theo Krish and some dedicated part-time volunteers, they visit at least twice a year to build relationships with local communities and work on crowdfunding skateparks around the region. Their next project, in collaboration with Adam and Mohammad’s SkateQilya, is to build a full-sized cement park in Qalqilya. They are hoping this project will help to finally establish their existence within Palestinian culture and specifically the local community of Qalqilya–not as a foreign entity run by outsiders, but as part of a sustainable Palestinian skate scene that doesn’t rely so substantially on international volunteers.



When I was a young teen, skateboarding taught me the values of challenging status quo. And in the era I discovered it, it allowed me to flow just outside the fringe of social norms, its teachings were always about pursuing passions and never giving up on dreams. For the 22 children in Palestine who come to the small zoo in Qalqilya a few days a week, who found skateboarding by fate, and came to SkateQilya for some refuge from the world, I can only hope they continue to have access to this means of respite, even a measure of hope. Freedom in the West Bank is a change that will take strength beyond my understanding. For now though, this small oasis from turmoil, the mini ramp in a forgotten old zoo, is a place where the larger barriers in life recede into the distance, where these kids come together as a community with purpose beyond mere subsistence. The skatepark is not just a means of escape in this setting, but a place to feel alive, free, and fully human.

Help Skateqilya here.

http://skateqilya.org
http://www.skatepal.co.uk

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As ethical opposition to bullfighting grows in Europe, an army of its practitioners has crossed the ocean to Latin America — and especially to Peru, where the number of bullfights has tripled in recent years.

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The high-profile corridas take place in Lima, but the sport’s true hotbed is high-elevation, low-population pueblos. In San Pablo, an annual religious festival celebrating the birthday of the patron San Juan is spiked with the graceful choreography of men and beasts, continuing to conjoin worship and sacrifice, death and the dance.

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San Pablo’s weeklong celebration is one of a number of local events conflating John the Baptist’s birth and the Festival of the Sun. The corrida occurs inside the brand new bullring positioned at the towns entrance. As it has been for many generations, the entire town arrives dressed as if they are going to church on a Sunday.

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The bulls used at corridas in rural villages are typically older; while less dramatic, older bulls are also unpredictable and more dangerous. And since most matadors are not from the Ceja De Selva (the eyebrow of the jungle) region of the Andes, which rises to nearly 9,000 feet above sea level, they must adapt quickly to the altitude lest they become the bulls’ prey.

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Banderillero Jose Antonio Vera, nicknamed ‘Verita.’

Banderilleros lure the bulls without the aid of a cape, relying solely on their agility.

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After dodging a few glass bottles that are thrown by the crowd A picador is trampled by the bull. The Picador is the first member of the cuadrilla ( a matador’s group of assistants) to face the bull, the picador uses a long lance to initially wound the animal, giving the matador an unfair advantage. Hence, a picador’s entrance into the ring is often met with boos and a flurry of spectator thrown projectiles.

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meandmomMy mother was 21 and attending university in Leningrad when she met my father, an American.  She was studying English and he was studying Russian. They were married shortly thereafter.  In the beginning, she hid her marriage plans from her parents. Her brother even went as far as to hide the wedding rings in a locker at a train station. Her family, having heard all the horror stories of what could happen to their daughter in the West (including being sold into slavery), did not approve.

meandmomEventually, when the administrators at her university learned of her marriage to an American, she was expelled; she was followed around by the KGB, including on public buses and into cafeterias. In 1981 she began to gather all of the proper paperwork in order to be granted permission to get a Soviet exit passport — it took one year. The most difficult hurdle was needing her father’s signature in front of a notary to allow her departure from the USSR.

meandmomIt was her pleas and then, finally, a bottle of vodka she purchased him that convinced him to at least visit the notary. Struggling heavily with the thought of consenting to his daughter going into the unknown, he signed the form, but then he stormed out of the notary and told her she had tricked him into going there. In August of 1982 my mother boarded an Aeroflot flight to Canada where my father would meet her and take her to her new home in San Francisco. As a result, her brother, Sasha, lost his job in Moscow and was sent to the army where he would clear forests in a remote region of Russia for two years as punishment.

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meandmomWhen I was 6 years old, I lived in Los Angeles and loved Ninja Turtles and Peter Pan. I have a vivid memory of jumping into our apartment’s swimming pool without water wings on my arms and sinking to the bottom peacefully before being rescued. It was then, in 1991, that the Soviet Union collapsed. Everything in Unecha fell apart. All the major processing plants were disassembled and sold. The railroads that led to what is now the Ukraine and Belarus fell to the same fate. If you could steal– you stole, which added to the high murder rate. The money that my mother’s family had saved disappeared, but they were just able to feed themselves from their small family farm-plots called dachas.

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meandmomTwenty years later, as the economy and private sector have stabilized and increased, some of the plants and production facilities are running again, albeit as shadows of their former selves. It has been three decades since my mother left Russia, and now I am 27 years old. This is my fourth trip on the night train from Moscow to Unecha. I have lucked out: this train is newer and has AC. My Uncle Sasha, who now travels around Russia and inspects the wheels and undercarriages of trains, picks me up at 5 AM from the station. We don’t say much because my Russian is not very good. I rest for a few hours and wake to the smell of fried fish. Lunch starts with a shot of vodka, then fried fish, potatoes, and cucumber salad. After the meal ends, I am full of food and a lot more vodka. We step outside into the cool afternoon and walk towards my grandmother’s apartment, the same one my mother and uncle were raised in.

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As I walk around Unecha, I wonder about what it is about this place that feels so nostalgic to me. I can’t help but think about all the events that took place in order for me to be here as a stranger: the Russian revolution and WWII ( which sent my father’s side of the family first to China and then, finally, California) and my mother’s chance meeting with my father. I don’t feel like I am of this place, but I also don’t feel completely severed from it.

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rayaMy grandmother’s apartment is small and railroad style, having  been fitted with a gas heater, toilet, and running water only in the last decade. It is a museum of our family. Every single space on the wall is covered with photographs of her children and grandchildren. There are photographs of me that I’ve never even seen. In an instant I can see my entire childhood and young adult life. Even though she wasn’t there for it, she watched me grow up. Sasha can barely stay awake inside her apartment. It is dark and warm in a comfortable way.  I can’t stop yawning myself, so we go outside to wake ourselves up. My grandmother looks up at the sky, sizing up the clouds and the weather, deciding if she will take an ancient soviet bus to her small farm-plot in a neighboring village where she plants garden vegetables and herbs. We walk to the bus and ride it to my uncle’s house where he and I get off and she continues on alone to her farm-plot.

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rayaThree days later I pack my belongings and hug my grandmother for what may be the last time. My two uncles walk me to the train station. Fueled by my impending departure and some vodka, our interactions are lighthearted: we crack jokes in a mixture of broken English and Russian. I board the train in the few minutes before it departs. As it sits still, you can only just stare out the window at one another and wait. There is then a big jolt, and the train slowly starts creaking forward. I quickly look at Sasha and he looks back– we both smile and nod goodbye, both happy and sad.

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During the last half of the twentieth century Bushwick became a home for the Hispanic immigrant community. In the early 2000′s the Bushwick Initiative began with the city and state pouring resources into revitalizing the area. From sanitation, commercial revitalization, and housing improvements, Bushwick began to experience rapid growth. As a result, naive to the history, and in search of a more affordable lifestyle in comparison to Williamsburg, I moved into a small apartment on Stanhope street in 2013. The resulting series is a collection of my observations of the great people I met during my time there. Stanhope is an on-going series. This page will see revisions and updates.

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There is a stark contrast between the residents of Stanhope in Brooklyn: half being affluent or middle-class students and professionals that commute to the city, myself included, who typically live no more than two years in the neighborhood, resulting in a assembly line of people always moving in and moving out; the other half are a dwindling number of local residents, whose story began to unfold the more time I spent enjoying cognac on the sidewalk with them.

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By getting to know them over the past three years and listening to their stories, I discovered that the families have been living and caring for the neighborhood together for generations. Some locals were soldiers that served their country; some are homeless and struggling with addiction; some left Brooklyn for decades and then returned. Their presence keeps the neighborhood safe as no one comes in or out without their knowledge—yet the newer residents walk by them visibly wary.

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meandmomThis is Eli. When I first photographed him, he said with a big grin,”Now you can show all your friends and say:”That’s my Puerto Rican homie”. As time passed, I started to bring my camera around the neighborhood so I was always ready to photograph him. Later on, I began having a hard time leaving Stanhope street at all and eventually would just sit on my stoop and hang out all day, shunning most of my daily responsibilities. When I discovered Eli had been sleeping outside on Stanhope street for the last four years, I could only admire his personality and humbleness towards strangers and his incredible ability to endure the harsh elements day in and out. Eli is a survivor. He threw no pity parties and always interacted positively with others, no matter how grim the weather or his situation was.

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It was the death of Eli’s father and the tumultuous years that followed that led Eli into a heavy drug addiction. Sadly, as a result, he eventually lost his apartment on Stanhope, where he had lived in for decades. Eli can be best described as living on two different planets: on one he is happy and just out of rehab, working on some random upkeep project in the neighborhood;on the other he is struggling with addiction, wandering the street in a daze.

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On his worst nights Eli will sleep on the sidewalk; sometimes the locals will open their basement for him, or he will live in a shack on one of the roofs. Regardless, there is rarely a moment you won’t see him on the street. His nickname is “Sketchy”; he has seven daughters and is a grandfather.
*Update November 2016: Eli has supposedly checked into rehab and has not been seen on Stanhope for two months.
*Update March 2017: Eli has still not returned, they believe he is living somewhere in Far Rockaway where one of his daughters is located, Possibly in a rehab facility.

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meandmomAlex, also known as “40”, moved to Stanhope when he was three and has lived there since for over thirty-three years. At twenty years old he was already partying heavily, and one night, after a serious spell of drinking, decided to join the Marines without telling anyone. Unaware of the escalating situation in the Middle East at the time–and to his surprise– he was shortly thereafter shipped off to the Iraq War. The experience was without a doubt an eye-opening one, changing his perspective on the fragility of life while teaching him to appreciate it. For the rest of his military career he was stationed in California, Hawaii, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, East Timor, U.A.E., Kuwait, Dubai, and Egypt. After eight long years serving, he finally returned to Stanhope, where he can enjoy himself a 40-oz of Old English.

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Alex recalls Stanhope street in the past as a family-oriented block where kids played on the street. Today families are slowly disappearing from the neighborhood, as rents are now climbing at astronomical rates due to the high demand. Alex fits into the category of a dwindling number of local residents who are being pushed out by landlords  capitalizing on the higher rents collected from newcomers. He was recently told by his landlord that he and his mother “either pay a 30% rent increase or vacate within the month.” Fortunately, unlike many others who accept small cash bribes to move out and enable bullying from their landlords, Alex and his family took the matter to court and won. However, this small victory will only last the next year until the lease is up, and they’ll face the possibility of leaving a neighborhood they’ve called home for the last thirty-three years.

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birdieBirdie(nickname) is one of the more mysterious characters of Stanhope. He is covered in box-cutter scars and is usually riding around Stanhope on his bike. At some point many years ago he married a Russian woman in a cash deal for marriage that would result in a U.S. citizenship for her and her two children. They had to spend time together and learn every intimate detail about one another. She had to memorize all of his tattoos, and they had to take photographs of themselves together in bed as if they were a happy, intimate couple. Although I can’t verify how true any of it is, the last update he gave me three years ago was that they had not seen each other in over a decade and they were still married.

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Birdie shows me the razor blade scars where his girlfriend sliced him up when she caught him cheating.

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Skateboarding down Stanhope and seeing flattened dead rats was common. For a while I wondered why so many met their demise in that manner. Then one day, while sitting on my stoop, I saw Birdie and Eli, obviously high, chase a rat into a corner, stomp it to death, and then throw it in the street for the cars to run over it.

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birdieAndy grew up across the street from the Wyckoff hospital in Bushwick. He was originally drawn to Stanhope because all his peers congregated there after school. Although he moved away from the neighborhood when he was eighteen, he continues to go back to Stanhope where he has forged his strongest friendships. In 2004, he had to take a break from hanging on the block when he became a father to twins. He now lives in Ridgewood, Queens, about seven blocks from Stanhope, where he works as a custodian at a public school and raises his children. Now that his children are a little older, he has found some time again to return and hang out with his old friends.

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NYC traffic code is a complete mess. ATVs are not considered motorized vehicles, so the usual laws do not apply to them the same as to cars. I Bushwick you’ll see a lot of ATVs, dirt bikes, and street bikes flying by, especially on Flushing Avenue.

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birdieBlake takes a rip off of his blunt on a rainy night on Stanhope. Blake moved to Stanhope in 1984, but when his parents split in 1992 he was moved to the Bronx. He describes his youth in Bushwick and the Bronx during the 80’s and 90’s as a more turbulent and violent time. Nowadays, he is living a relaxed lifestyle, usually sitting in a lawn chair on Stanhope while enjoying some Hennessey.

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Modernization and economic development, once only a dream in Georgia, are beginning to take hold, and because of Georgia’s natural beauty and the strength of its rich culture, the world is beginning to take notice. The almost empty castle-facaded hotels, which stand crumbling in the beautiful Georgian countryside, are beginning to see revitalization, as the old soviet world drifts away, forgotten. Yet here, in Chiatura, a reminder of Georgia’s past still remains…

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Suspended over the impossibly steep slopes and down into the valley of Chiatura, countless steel cables twist across the sky like a web of indiscernible dimension. A gruff man, red faced and smoking a cigarette, ushers me into a steel box hanging from the cables, then closes the door and locks it from outside. Within the cable car there are no chairs, just rudimentary holes cut into the steel plate, their edges rusting beneath a thin veneer of blue spray paint. I poke my head out in time to see the man approaching a box on the wall nearby, he presses something within and rings a bell notifying an operator above that a passenger is ready to ascend. Immediately, the cable car lurches into motion and I am lifted, swinging slowly up into the sky.

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zvereff-chinthe-5At the end of my six minute ride I find myself atop one of the numerous cliffs surrounding Chiatura. A crude steel box, small and painted a bright pink, is perched at the very edge of the cliff. A woman waits patiently inside, listening to a small dated radio and boiling water in a ceramic cup on an open stove nestled beneath a table in the corner. She sits here every day looking out across the mountains and valleys of Imereti, a fertile region of Georgia that is rich in manganese ore, the primary export of Chiatura.

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A dwindling populace, just shy of twenty thousand, lives among the dilapidated, soviet-style panelák structures left over from nearly a century of Bolshevik occupation. The buildings stand as a constant reminder of Georgia’s subjugation as a vassal state of the Soviet Empire, which began in 1921 under the auspices of a rising Joseph Stalin, who was himself an ethnic Georgian.

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After consolidating power in the mid-twenties after the death of Vladimir Lenin, Stalin went on to replace his predecessors form of socialism with a highly centralized command economy. Stalin’s collectivism rapidly developed the agrarian economies of the USSR into a significant industrial power, but the developments came at the cost of instigating the catastrophic Soviet Famine of 1932-33.

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In the following decades, the USSR also began a violent purge of political dissidents, wherein “enemies of the state” were imprisoned in Gulag labor camps and executed by the millions. Members of the bourgeoisie, as well as intellectuals, artists, aristocrats, scientists, and generally anyone suspected of political dissent were hunted out and executed in startling numbers; it is estimated that more than 900,000 Georgians were executed or exiled before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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With an estimated 239 tonnes of mineable ore available in the region, the USSR’s insatiable desire for natural resources quickly transformed the economy of the ancient city. However, a decline in the value of manganese, crossed with a bolshevik seizure of mining property and foreign divestment in operations, ushered the unintended decline of production at the mine, which had only a decade earlier provided more than half the world’s manganese ore.

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The divestiture of the mine caused officials to renege on plans to build infrastructure that would have modernized the mine and the lives of its workers. Miners continued to spend much of their days winding their way up and down steep, 80 degree cliffs, working excessive hours and in miserable conditions, until in 1954, shortly after Stalin’s death, city planners took to the sky to solve the issue of transportation. Almost miraculously, and without the use of heavy equipment, they constructed the intricate cable car system that would become a unique feature of Chiatura, transporting miners and citizens between the city and the mines above. Sixty-one years later, the system is still in operation and free to ride.

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When Georgia declared independence in May of 1991, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union the following December, it immediately became embroiled in a brutal civil war that lasted until 1995. During the war, ethnic violence instigated by Russia decimated the populace in South Ossetia, a breakaway state located some nineteen miles from Chatura. Roughly 275,000 ethnic Georgians were either massacred or forced to flee–many taking refuge fled into the mountains and settled in the mining town.

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The wary tension of the aging cable car system seems to parallel the political atmosphere of Chiatura, where the residual effects of civil war can still be felt among the Soviet relics. One feels the region’s tragic past still lingers in infrastructure that continues to dictate the daily life of those living there.

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The rusting gondolas sway from their steel cables over a city in limbo–an anomaly of a planned economy, tailor-made decades behind its own, foreclosed prospects. At the top of one mountain, where the cable car operator sits in silence, she passes the time with little tasks in her small steel timemachine, which goes neither forward nor back, but lifts its occupants up into a different world, carried out of context, a world swinging gently over the horizon one blue gondola at a time.

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