I just got back from dropping Emma off at a friend’s house for Sunday afternoon. By “dropping off,” I mean riding over with her in a taxi, walking her up to the apartment, and then riding home. A taxi will pick her up later. We decided next time she could do it on her own, because it’s pretty easy to find the apartment.
The friend lives in an apartment complex called River Garden, over on the other side of town near Emma’s school. River Garden is a nice place. Really, it could be just about anywhere in the world, but it happens to be in the southern part of Ulaanbaatar, right on the Tuul River, hence the name River Garden. Actually, the full name is River Garden Luxury Village, though it’s not a village. It’s a cluster of 10-story apartment buildings and a much taller glass tower called River Tower. The buildings and the pine tree landscaping look like they could be in southern California, or where I used to live in northern Florida for that matter. Compared to where we live in the eastern side of the city, it’s quite nice. There are many more trees, and green spaces, and tennis courts, and a bicycle path along the river. The air is also a lot cleaner on that side of the city.
Most of Emma’s friends from school live somewhere on that side of town. Really, all of them do, except for her friend who lives in the Japanese embassy, closer to the city center. The south side of town is also where a LOT of the construction is going on. High-density “luxury” apartment complexes are springing up like mushrooms on an overwatered lawn. I’ve been struck by the names of these complexes, clearly, because I have three or four memos on my phone about names that I’ve noted down on various taxi rides. I think it fascinates me because some of the names are so generic, while others are much more tied to this specific place: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. At some point, I’d like to do a more extensive analysis of the names, as well as the complexes themselves, and what they say about this city and its developers, but here’s a preliminary stab at it.
River Garden Luxury Village is across the street from a complex that is under construction which will be called Sky Garden. The signs on the construction fence claim that it is a True Luxury Residence with a Kids First Concept. The pictures, artists’ renderings, look gorgeous, if you like that sort of thing. There will be shops and sports facilities, as well as a bicycle path. It will no doubt match its neighbor, River Garden, in its generic look and feel. You’d never know you were in Mongolia, which is the idea.
Other names I call “aspirational,” in that they aspire to a certain luxury image, include Casa Da Vinci, Encanto Town, Park Villa, Time Square, Emerald Residence, King Tower, Elizabeth, Roma Town Luxury Apartment, Bella Vista Town, Royal County Complex, Olympic Village, and Marshall Deluxe Village. A new complex that isn’t even visible over the construction fence yet is Palm Springs Resort and Villa, complete with a picture of palm trees on the sign. This one threw me, because I spent a lot of time in the Palm Springs area after my parents retired there in 1994, and the sign looked like it could be from there. Indeed, all of these names are probably found in many places around the world with up-and-coming urban or even suburban populations looking for high-end places to match their high-end lifestyles.
Some of the names are more locally derived, or what I’ve been thinking of as “authentic.” They evoke aspects of Mongolian geography, history, and culture. These include Residence Hunnu 2222 (Hunnu were a nomadic empire that predated Chinggis Khan by around 1100 years), Khan Hills, Luxury Zaisan Village, Blue Sky Town (which evokes Tenger or Tengri, one of the main deities in shamanism), Buddha Vista, and Mandala. These names may be more tied to this place, to Mongolia, but the residential complexes they name are just as luxurious as their aspirational siblings: large boxes of glass and concrete with underground parking, surrounding parks and playgrounds and strip malls.
These are the names that have signs in English (or at least the Latin alphabet). I’m also starting to note down the names in Cyrillic. The easier ones are those that mimic English words, like Comfort. There are also more utilitarian names, like the X-Apartment across the street from my university, named because the building is shaped like an X if you look down on it from above. There is also a neighborhood that shows up on Google Maps as the intriguing “Rapid Harsh Town,” next to the national stadium and just northwest of Emma’s school. I walked through there once just to check it out, and it seemed neither rapid nor harsh, so the name must mean something else. Unless it was built very quickly and is more unpleasant to live in than it seems.
I think one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by these apartment complexes and how they are named is that they represent a mismatch between the severe housing crisis Ulaanbaatar has been facing and what seems to be offered as a solution to it: high-density housing. With more than half of the city’s population living in what amount to informal settlements, not hooked up to the city’s infrastructure or services, known as the “ger districts” after the prevalence of ger or yurts, the traditional rural housing form, some kind of solution is urgently needed. Various international organizations and city administrations, not to mention local and foreign real estate developers, have been pushing high-density housing, but the people who move to Ulaanbaatar from the countryside because their livestock have died or they’ve otherwise lost their livelihoods tend not to want to live in high-rise apartment complexes in the city center. Even if they could afford them.
It’s not all that different from San Diego, where real estate developers build million-dollar homes and say they are addressing the housing shortage there. Well, guess what? People need homes they can afford and want to live in. Developers want to make money, and lots of it. Often their goals are incompatible with the needs of people who seek housing. Especially if those people are poor and have just lost their livelihoods, or are still seeking employment.
In Ulaanbaatar, this is a major crisis. No matter how beautiful the new luxury complexes are, or how aspirational or authentic the names, most people simply can’t afford them. In the city center, many long-term residents have been forced out of their Soviet-era homes to make room for new developments, often cheated out of fair market value for their property, or promised housing the developers did not deliver. The people forced to reside in informal settlements considerably outnumber those who can afford the luxury, and they are also the cause of the deadly air pollution that afflicts the city over half of each year.
So, the luxury complexes like River Garden and its soon-to-be neighbor Sky Garden, become comfortable homes for foreign residents and very well-off Mongolians, while doing little to mitigate the serious problems this city is facing. I’ll write more about how they are making things worse, by using resources that contribute to the water shortage and climate change, in another post. In the meanwhile, I am also thinking of names that might be more appropriate, like Capitalist Sham, False Hope, Unaffordable Luxury Village, and Corruption Town. I’m not sure what the marketing for those would look like, though.