Tehran Cleans Up After Years of War and Neglect
PIPES and girders hang from the ceiling, air vents breaking the monotony of the bare brick walls. The floor is rough-cut stone, massive slabs sloping down to drainage grills cut into the floor. There is no luxury here, no waste.
Two years ago, Tehran's Bahman Cultural Center was a camel slaughterhouse. Pollution poured from its chimneys, and the stench made it an unbearable neighbor. Thousands of people lived in uncomfortable proximity, too poor to move, but jammed together in this tumble-down section of the city.
Now all that is changed.
Today, the slaughterhouse has been transformed into a public swimming pool; its open sewer, an open-air theater. An art gallery stands where once hung rows of camel carcasses. Gymnasts and chess players train body and mind next door, alongside the Turkish baths and the 48 bookstalls.
This achievement can be traced to one man, new city mayor Gholam Hussein Karbaschi. Just 39 years old and already an accomplished hand at city planning, Mr. Karbaschi has achieved some serious results since he arrived from Iran's second largest city, Esfahan, two years ago.
Tehran was suffering uncontrolled expansion at the time of the revolution in 1979. In the 1970s, the shah had poured his oil money into the capital and neglected other towns. Tehran's dive into poverty
Tehran became the mecca for employment, health care, schooling, and culture. Iranians flocked to the city, swelling its population to 10 million, and soon it became dirty, overcrowded, and polluted.
Furthermore, the Islamic revolution and an eight-year war with neighboring Iraq plunged the city into crisis. Daily bombing raids destroyed vast residential areas, worsening the already acute housing crisis.
Karbaschi got the garbage collection system working, and placed trash cans along Tehran's busy sidewalks. He built parks and gardens, planting flowers wherever he found open land. He outlawed campaign posters in Iran's April 10 elections to keep the city's walls clean, allocating $1 million to remove those he could not stop. He built high-rise apartment blocks to alleviate the city's housing crisis. He even painted the curbstones.
At first, Karbaschi refused to allow the city newspapers to print his photograph, government officials say. He would turn up unrecognized at a city government department and apply for municipal services. Several times, city employees refused to help without a bribe. He then revealed his identity and fired them.
Karbaschi can afford to ruffle feathers without fear of retaliation. President Hashemi Rafsanjani wants to clean up Iran's image abroad to attract Western technology and investment. Karbaschi has managed to transform Tehran, so the president will make sure he stays, say officials from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance.
Karbaschi's beautification schemes, however, have made him some powerful enemies. While the city's budget expanded by 1,000 percent, government funding bottomed out. National oil revenues were redirected into industrial reconstruction.
Desperately in need of cash, Karbaschi turned to the only people who could afford to pay: the "bazaaris" - local merchants.
He demanded these city businessmen paint their shop fronts, or threatened to do it himself and charge them for it, Ministry of Islamic Guidance officials say.
He hiked taxes on new building permits, adding charges on property rental. He put up property rates in chic north Tehran and taxed shopkeepers for the small bridges they built to help customers cross the city's semi-open sewer system. He introduced a payment plan for driving in the city center.
"If certain companies and certain stores do not pay the amount of money, we close them down," Mayor Karbaschi says. "Of course, we don't want to close down companies that produce vital things. Then we take the money from their account in the banks."
Understandably, the bazaaris are not happy. Massi Monfered is typical of them. He owns an electrical store, rents out office buildings, and makes a mint on Iran's free-market exchange rate by importing electrical items from Canada.
"I have to work hard to stop the city government taking everything. They took my father's building when he died. I had to pay $10,000 to get it back from the officials." He was abroad when his father died, so the city government claimed the building to rent it out themselves.
Mr. Monfered says his fellow bazaar traders have been equally angered by the financial demands of Karbaschi's reforms. Business is bad, inflation is rampant, and disposable income at rock bottom, he says. Consumers bear costs
Many traders simply pass the cost of the taxes on to the consumer. Property rental agents, for example, now levy a 120,000 rial ($85) annual charge for city taxes on even the smallest office, city officials say, in addition to the standard requirement of 10 months' rent as deposit.
Karbaschi's reforms have pushed up everyday prices. Shop deliveries are more expensive with the introduction of a payment scheme for driving in the city center, Monfered says. Tehranis once could buy anything from balloons to assault rifles at bargain prices from street traders. But Karbaschi outlawed these peddlers, calling their work "unproductive" and "easy money." He may have stopped the traders, but he charged consumers for the trouble.
Karbaschi shrugs off all his critics. He knows the value of self-confidence and determination. In his 20s he was already a director of national television, and he brought pride to the city of Esfahan during his eight years as its mayor. "I think most mayors in third-world countries face criticism. Wherever there is a lot of construction work to be done, I will be criticized."
But despite the economic hardship, Tehran's residents grudgingly seem to accept that the mayor's changes are necessary. Karbaschi is the first mayor to have a positive impact on the city since the shah's time.
"The people are poor," says an official from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. "It is difficult for them to pay all these taxes. But they are happy that Tehran is cleaner."
Karbaschi uses this to justify his policies. "I do what I do for the good of most people," he says.