The Ruin Economy

What happens to the homes left behind when a neighborhood relocates? Before they're knocked down, these buildings will often sit empty for weeks and months at a time. With the Azerbaijan Manat plummeting in value and unemployment on the rise, one way people have found to make ends meet is to strip these empty homes and sell their findings in pop-up bazars around the city. The following is a story from Chinara Majidova, our reporter in Sovetski who spent the summer learning about this new economy.

A market in the upper part of Sovetski. Windows and doors are collected and brought here to sell.

It has already been two years since the the demolition of Sovetski began. Most of the residents have moved from their houses and left behind old furniture, books, family portraits and other personal items. Of course the doors and windows were left as well. Right away a lot of people started to make business from it. People who were smart and resourceful enough in the moment to find value in these seemingly unusable things.

A house in the process being stripped. Flooring and large furniture on upper floors is often lowered down through windows.

These people can be separated into two groups: First are the people who bought the discarded stuff directly from the property owners; the second are the people who came after the owners have moved and started to strip the houses bare. The first stage of this process is taking any items the owners left behind. "There is a category of people, they go here and there and see who is living [in a building], and who is going out of it." Mehmed, a resident of Sovetski told me (name changed to protect privacy). Mehmed lives in one of the larger apartment building in Sovetski and has seen the process first hand as his neighbors begin to move out. "Those that are going out, these people go into their home and say, 'What can we take?'" It could be anything which was not broken or ripped: Furniture, old closes, books, old stoves, carpets, vinyl flooring, heating batteries , dishes, etc. "Everything that could be taken from here was taken."

People selling furniture in Sovetski.

In the second stage teams of men tear out the wood floor and wood ceilings which could be used for construction and as firewood. Not bad right? You can make quite a bit of money from someone's floor and for free. This cheap wood is one of the best selling products, trucked out and sold in the surrounding Absheron villages. "It can be taken and sold to people building houses in Bigeh (a village outside of Baku)." Mehmed told me.

A floor thats been stripped to be sold.

The last stage before the house is demolished is taking off the doors, windows and metal lattices. Most of time these items are sold by the home owners themselves. These items are best sellers in this market. Most of time when I was passing recently emptied houses there were a lot of people with big car outside to haul all the stuff. These people were shy about their work, cause they looked like vultures who appear straightway after death.

Workers collecting wood and metal from a recently demolished home.

As the demolition project advances it becomes harder and harder for these workers to tell which houses are empty and which are still occupied. Because residents aren't moving en mass but rather on an individual basis, some buildings can appear empty and even be partially demolished despite still housing families. Some larger buildings are entirely empty aside from a single resident. Over the summer as electricity cut-offs swept through Sovetski and windows darkened, tensions rose between the remaining residents and workers looking to strip empty homes. On a few occasions I saw workers stripping one house of wiring, only to be chased away next door.

Workers loading up their car with stones from a demolished home.

For the first few months they brought and sold everything outside of Sovetski. After the business grew however they started taking over Sovetski's open spaces, places where houses had been demolished, and started selling right there. For the present moment there are two places on Sovetski where people are selling the things taken from houses. Because these markets are located out in the open they have to have a day shift and a night shift to prevent theft.

An open air market in Sovetski. (This is a 360 video, click and drag on the video with your mouse to change the angle.)

People shopping at a market in Sovetski.

The prices at these markets are different from anywhere else in Baku. By accident I met a buyer at one such place, he was carefully choosing what to buy. He was in need of new doors for the bathroom and some windows, which could be good protection before the winter came. He told me that it is at least two times cheaper to shop here rather than buy a new one; he could buy all that he needed for the same price as one new door costs. Of course there is one other point as well, after buying it you have to arrange for delivery and installation. But even with these additional expenses it is a much more economical choice to buy in Sovetski. In Baku there are no more alternative places where you can buy used doors and windows for such a good price.

Loading up a window from a market in Sovetski.

For the present moment they have enough sales, but what will happen in a few months no one knows. The Sovetski demolition process stopped a few months ago, and when it will start up again we can only guess. Despite some tensions, most people who live in Sovetski are not against these markets, one of the inhabitants told me “We perfectly understand what is waiting for us, we shall have to leave sooner or later, at least it is one more way to get more money for our property and it is additional work for unemployed people."