Category Archives: Urbanism

The Wild East

As an untempered development boom surges in Yangon, an uncertain fate is placed on the architectural icons of Old Rangoon.

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n 2011, the enigmatic country of Myanmar, once isolated country under nearly six decades of violent military rule, installed a quasi-civilian government bent on its reformation and integration into the world. Soon after, the U.S. and EU eased fifteen years of sanctions, thrusting the country into a surging real estate development boom with aggressive players from both the West and the East. Corporate offices began quickly outpacing new residential and hotel properties, with even the most astute developers and urban planners puzzled on how to best calibrate the developments in the absence of sound regulations.

During the military rule, citizens endured a dark age that saw streets lined with child soldiers and myriad human rights violations; political opponents and journalists released from jail, then thrown back in again, but it appears now that the transition towards reformation and integration is prevailing, if still incomplete. In November 2015, the country held its first democratically held election in 25 years – the first was discounted by the military – and just three months later, the National League for Democracy led by noble laureate Aung San Suu Kyi sat as majority rulers in a country that once imprisoned her in her home for 15 years due to her calls for democracy.

For the country’s former capital of Yangon and its residents, decades in isolation and economic stagnation had brought life in the once burgeoning British-ruled port city to a complete standstill, while the military-tied elite stood as the privileged few who would mount meaningful new business.

Most in the city of over 5 million, meanwhile, had to use what they had, making homes of abandoned banks, office buildings and even within the hundreds of dilapidated structures their former colonial masters built there at the turn of the 20th century.

With the reformist government finally taking power, foreign backers began flocking to the city with hopes of pouring investment into rejuvenating one of the world’s most promising economies: a country still rich in underutilized natural resources.

Yangon was finally set to thaw, and as the stench of oppression began to fade, a shocking reality about the dwellings that once served as the pride of Southeast Asia began to emerge.

img-2The long abandoned alternative entrance to the Balthazar Building.

The sight is a common one. Heavy traffic and betel nut splattered roads surrounding once gorgeous Edwardian or Victorian architecture, now weather stained and mutated, with carefully lain bricks now carelessly kicked out to make way for makeshift plumbing.

Large rats and street dogs overrun parts of the town and the smell of open sewage is widespread, while tenants hurl their trash into the alleys.

Standing over the railing of his second floor apartment, 74-year-old U Than Win, a former Burmese naval officer, points down into the open-air courtyard of the building, now being used as a dumpster.

“Look, there is garbage everywhere,” he says. “I moved into this very old building one year and seven months ago to live with my daughter, but there is too much damage.” Win is just one of the building’s 60 or so residents that wish to see the building, known affectionately by locals as the Balthazar Building, restored to its former glory. Instead, it stands as a Relic of Rangoon.

Built by Armenian merchants in 1905, the iconic structure in downtown Yangon stands today as one of the most important examples colonial-era architecture in Myanmar. Today, it’s more significantly an example of the eastern city’s rich architectural heritage which is vanishing in the wake of the development boom.

The scale is staggering—as much as 35 percent of downtown Yangon, or about 1,800 buildings, were destroyed between 1990 and 2011 to make way for new development projects, according to the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT). Established in 2012 by Harvard educated historian Thant Myint-U, the YHT is composed of prominent historians, architects and scholars who collectively lobby government bodies to preserve the city’s unique architectural legacy.

Since the reformist government took over in 2011, the country has experienced unprecedented growth in foreign direct investment and swelled to $9.6 billion in 2015-16, according to data released in April, up from just $329.6 million in 2009-10.

Ne Win’s government seized control of Myanmar in 1962. For most of the last six decades of autocratic rule, Yangon’s heritage buildings have been left to spoil and the Balthazar Building is no exception. An Edwardian red-brick façade, Italian marble art-deco tiles and intricate iron rails leading up the three floors of the building hint romantically at the prosperous past of the Balthazar Trading Company, but these glamorous architectural features are now covered with mold and cobwebs, its walls dilapidated. The enchanting birdcage elevator that rests on the ground floor has been defunct for nearly 40 years.

img-3To the left is downtown Yangon’s historic City Hall and to the right is the Sule Pagoda.

Most of Yangon’s colonial architecture was built in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the city, formerly known as Rangoon, was a major trade hub for the region and as such served as a major source of income for the ethnic Indians that inhabited it at the time. Downtown Yangon contains a wealth of heritage buildings including ancient Buddhist pagodas and monasteries, churches of various denominations, over a dozen mosques, a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue and the country’s only Armenian church.

In fact, Rangoon was in the early 20th century the second biggest port in the world behind New York.

So well-known and fascinating was old Rangoon that it drew the likes of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who lived there as an honorary consul of Chile in 1927, and English writer and poet Rudyard Kipling.

According to conservationists, city officials are at a pivotal crossroads, where they can opt to showcase its heritage as an aspect of its attraction to the tourist trade, much like Malaysia’s Penang has, but will face relentless pressures and obstacles marked by new developments.

“It was a major center of international exchange. Famous writers and famous people lived here and wrote about it and so it has a legacy that is completely unique,” says Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monument Fund. The WMF, which has been advocating for at-risk landmarks over the last half century, added downtown Yangon to their prestigious World Monument Watch list in 2014.

“I also think in 40 or 50 years if that’s successful, Yangon will be the Charleston or the Boston of the Orient in terms of having utilized its history as part of its vision for itself in the future,” says Burnham.

With the downtown cityscape consisting mainly of inhabited older buildings in poor repair, the issue for the government has become striking a balance between preserving the city’s heritage and promoting modernization, says U Toe Aung, director of the urban planning division of the municipal Yangon City Development Committee. “Both of these have to be harmonized.”

Win Khaing, president of the Myanmar Engineering Society and vice-chairman of the Myanmar Engineering Council, says that while conserving Yangon’s past is essential, it also has dire infrastructure needs that includes providing adequate housing for its 5 million inhabitants.

“In terms of infrastructure, we are below par. We need a lot. What we have now is nothing,” says Khaing.

Many of the new projects slated to reinvent Yangon as a modern commercial town are being built on the cheap and without guidelines, endangering the neighboring historical sites and residents in the process. In particular, the area around the 2000 year old Shwedagon Pagoda is widely considered holy land that is supposed to remain free free of new development. Yet what constitutes this land is vague and large projects jutting up into the skyline overnight.

“We can still see improper developments going on and some of it is quite threatening, especially near Shwedagon [Pagoda]” says Daw Moe Moe Lwin, director of the YHT. “Unless you really care about the issue, or have insight about its potential impacts before you notice the damage happening, it could become irreversible.”

According to Lwin, only 189 buildings throughout all of Yangon are protected by the municipal government’s regulatory body, the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), while urban planners do not have a concrete definition of what a heritage site is.

Add to that, there are other challenges to the preservation of Yangon’s heritage, as confusing leasing agreements bury revitalization plans of well-known public buildings in red tape, and confused ownership rules around private property prevent signatories from investing in the upkeep of their buildings.

Another issue, according to Rupert Mann, senior program officer at YHT, is that land owners will often intentionally allow for buildings to become dilapidated with the hopes of gaining government approval to partner with developers to demolish it and build more profitable structures.

img-3A resident of the Balthazar Building looks down the elevator shaft of the building from the top floor.

“As a result,” says Mann, “the land owner refuses to allow the upkeep of the building because the longer they can make the building look like it’s going to fall over the more they believe that they can convince the YCDC to allow them to demolish it. Meanwhile, the tenants are sitting in there. They are unable to pay for a new roof, or upgrade the façade or even fix broken utilities or stairs.”

While the most trafficked city in Myanmar, only an estimated average of 250,000 visitors pass through per year. This is in part due to its isolation, but equally due to its modest hotel infrastructure, another side effect of years of underinvestment. (Only 3000 of the 8000 hotel rooms are considered suitable for tourists.) Without the restoration of landmark properties alongside grandeur and mystique of its historic architecture to lure travelers from far flung locales to its storied cultural center, Yangon is at risk of a future identity crisis.

While the question of which new economy will emerge in the city over the next ten years is one many are trying to answer – cultural tourism, or an offshore colony of corporate offices – the answer will shape the skyline.

RUSH THE HOUR

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n 2012, the French city of Rennes, with its fast growing metro area of 700,000 inhabitants, recognized it had lost control of its morning rush hour. Between 7:40 and 8:05 a.m. on the sole subway line, tension was mounting in the overcrowded train. Some riders were getting into physical scraps while others struggled to make an exit at their respective stops. Quips were increasingly made about the public transport functioning as a moving circus container, but there was a deeper unease at play.

By some mysterious force that same year, thousands of Rennes’ local university students had their schedules moved back by 15 minutes. One year later, the city’s notoriously crowded rush hour had thinned out by 17 percent. The unlikely puppeteers were a unit of social engineers called the Bureau des Temps, France’s well-oiled and omnipresent but often invisible Office of Time.

“When it’s crowded, the first reflex for public transportation operators would be to increase the number of subway carriages, not to go talk with the people who have the ability to control the rush,” says Evelyne Reeves, manager of Rennes’ Bureau de Temps.

Determined to find a more fundamental solution, Reeves spent a year meeting with “time producers” at universities, hospitals, local businesses and administrative offices. What Reeves and her colleagues in the bureau discovered was that by staggering the start-time of 18,000 university students at the local Université Rennes-2, they could engineer an effortless commute for the citizens of Rennes. And it worked.

The Bureaus des Temps are the clockmakers of contemporary urban life in France, juggling the diverse daily rhythms of French citizens with those of government and private institutions. Many initiatives have been put into motion in France over the past ten years, crafted from these studied attempts to enable its cities to function better.

Working with local firms, the city of Lyon has developed a virtual carpooling system for employees who live and work in the same area. In Paris, the city’s 20 arrondissements were once accustomed to Saturday morning wedding jams – it was the only window in which City Hall would be open. Now, the halls stay open through the afternoon in 9 arrondissements, transforming scrums of bored and anxious intendeds into blushing brides. In the French capital, where some swimming pools now stay open until 10 p.m., the sports clubs and associations who use them become the defacto employees for a few hours. In the southern Montpellier, the public library is now open on Sundays and until 9 p.m. during the week, holding students and avid readers in its aisles of narrative and out of the rush hour.

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With time becoming an increasingly valuable commodity around the world, in parallel with the greater use of new technologies, time management has become an essential concern, evidenced by vast supply of tips, lectures and books – something more capitalistic societies have been obsessed with since the 1980’s – but without the shrouded society of clockmakers to retool the gears of the city.

Through simple data collection, the bureaus work determinedly to identify the intricacies of their respective districts in order to improve the quality of time. They are governed by the belief that such is equal to quality of life, which in turn correlates to the virtues of a city and its ability to stay relevant and prosperous. “We produce surveys to understand how much time people are taking to get around the city, how they are using their leisure time,” says Lucie Verchère, manager of Espace des Temps in Lyon, where time and space are considered interconnected.

In the wake of World War II, the French went back to work and coined a famous expression anchored to the mundanity of their daily ritual: “Métro, Boulot, Dodo”, or “Subway, Work, Sleep.” It was this way until the city passed a law that would shorten the work week, resulting in leisure time as a new commodity. “It all started with the first Aubry law on the 35-hour working week and the new work-life balance it implied. We all knew it was going to change people’s needs and lifestyles,” says Verchère. But at first, there was a general perplexity around how to manage it.

One out of 8 French citizens now works on Sunday and more than 7 percent of employees have a night job. While the city dwellers enjoy living in a high-speed society, some pinpoint a social pressure to be time-efficient all day long.

“In the 19th century, the way people were dividing their time was easy – family, working in a field or in a factory and the church” says Reeves. But as life expectancy has increased by 31 years since then, French work time has been divided by 3 and leisure time multiplied by 4. “We’ve never had so much time for ourselves,” says Reeves, “yet we are living with a constant feeling of pressure.”

The Bureau des Temps originated in 1980’s Italy where a newly emerging feminist movement started challenging the burden of a double workday. Female breadwinners with children were caught between their responsibilities at work and at home. Recognizing the stakes, city offices organized committees to find solutions and ease the pressure of time by extending hours for city services.

In 1986, a communist deputy, Livia Turco, who would go on to become the Minister of Social Affairs, suggested the idea of “a right to time.” Since 2000, every Italian city with more than 30,000 residents has to feature a Progetto Tempi della Città, or a City Time project.

Similarly, some of the French offices started with a focus on gender equality to improve accessibility to city services such as childcare for women working unusual hours. In recent years, with gender equality inching towards equilibrium in France, the root focus has shifted to reflect a more vast and intricate society.

“We went interviewing all the [Paris] mayors with concrete questions. We did not want to philosophize,” Verchère explains of a 2002 project. After meetings with parents, childcare administrators and associations, the results were more nuanced than anticipated.

Thierry Halay, one of the project’s managers, is by trade an author of books on Paris’s history and neighborhoods, and co-founder of the Association of History and the 20th Archaeology Borough (AHAV). He recalls,“We realized that residents in East Paris – which includes a significant part of low-skilled jobs – would prefer day nurseries opening early in the morning, while residents in western Paris featuring more executives asked for late-afternoon shifts.”

But extending opening hours means longer working hours for employees, which in turn often leads to collective bargaining regarding wages and working conditions. And naturally, cities are inherently full of conflicting objectives and agendas.“You get neighbors in popular nightlife areas who complain more and more about the noise, you get bar owners who complain about legal rules of closing time and liquor-licensing laws and you get night workers concerned by their safety,” explains Thierry Charlois, the nightlife project manager of the city of Paris.

Verchère refers to the early years of 2004 and 2005 as a golden age for these Bureaus des Temps, acknowledging that “… afterwards, we realized that [the subject of] time in urban public policy is a much more cross-disciplinary issue. [So] we have become an innovation lab.”

After working on mobility and flexible working hours, the main focus of her work has been set on leading new projects such as “Gare Remix” which calls on transportation users to share clever ideas on what useful or fun things people could do while waiting for their train. Meanwhile, in Paris, the focus of the Bureau des Temps has shifted towards nightlife.

Verchère concludes, asserting the importance of these near mythical collections of time makers – “Digital technologies cannot solve all issues. Most people consider the fastest way to drop one child at school and another one at kindergarten during their morning commute without the help of an app.”

Artwork by Trash Riot.

RIO | OSLO | NEW YORK CITY | JUBA| REYJKAVIK

To Protect and Serve has varying definitions across a global stage. Here, a look at excessive force through the lens of five cities.

Rio De Janeiro

In 2015, an NGO that monitors police violence found that the Brazilian police force kills an average of six people a day. Amidst many years of soaring crime rates, Rio De Janeiro’s police in particular have long been criticized for their vigilante-style “pacification” programs within the city’s favelas (slum neighborhoods). On the eve of 2014’s soccer World Cup, which cost the Brazilian government $15 billion including security, police arrived with armed rifles in Pavao-Pavaozinho in an attempt to clear out the drug traffickers and armed gangs who control much of the neighborhood. The body of a 26-year-old dancer, Douglas Rafael da Silva Pereira, was discovered during the process, and amidst claims he was beaten to death by police, deadly protests and fires broke out. Ahead of the Summer Olympics in Rio this August—costs similarly projected at $15 billion—police raids and pacification units have stepped up armed security in more than 40 of the city’s favelas.

Oslo

Norway is one of the few European countries where the police are not routinely armed, but in November 2014 they were ordered to carry firearms at all times. The experiment resulted from a threat assessment predicting that a terrorist attack was likely to happen within the next year. With the threat deemed to be over, they were permanently disarmed in February, and now officers in Oslo have returned to carrying weapons in their patrol cars. From 2002 to 2010, the most shots fired by Norwegian police in one year was six, and the most deaths from police shootings during the eight-year period was two. Jørn Schjelderup, deputy chief of police at the Norwegian Police Directorate, credited Norway’s high levels of police training for their officer’s restraint when handling weapons.

New York City

In 1993, after a rising number of deaths in police custody from “traumatic asphyxia,” the NYPD issued an order banning the use of chokeholds. “We are in the business of protecting life, not taking it,” Chief John F. Timoney said at the time. A year after the ban Anthony Baez, a 29-year-old security guard, was choked to death in the Bronx by an officer attempting to arrest him. Baez had been playing football outside his mother’s house when a stray pass had landed on the officer’s car. More recently, in 2014, Eric Garner died after an officer used the banned restraining maneuver while trying to arrest him for selling illegal cigarettes. The videotaped arrest shows the 43-year-old lying facedown on the street audibly gasping, “I can’t breathe.”

Juba

Despite gaining its independence from Sudan in 2011, the hopeful Republic of South Sudan swiftly plunged into civil war and widespread corruption, right down to its poorly paid, ill-trained police force. As with most of the world’s conflict zones, violence against women is rarely considered a crime and largely goes unreported, and religious mores are just another layer of bias. “Woman is inferior to man—this isn’t just our tradition, it is written in the book of God,” explained a local officer from the capital Juba. The Israeli NGO IsraAid program is currently training local officers to deal more sensitively with victims of gender-based violence. According to Angelo Ingi, the NGO’s protection program manager, in the year since the project began there has been a significant increase in hospitals and social workers reporting rape and domestic violence cases to the police.

Reykjavik

In December 2013, a man with a history of mental illness was shot and killed by Reykjavik police after he opened fire on them during a raid in his apartment building. It was Iceland’s first death at the hands of police and it set off a bout of national grieving. (The average number of people fatally shot by U.S. police in 2015 was estimated to be at least 2.8 per day.) The police chief apologized and offered condolences to the victim’s family. Many believe that the main reason for Iceland’s low violent-crime rate is social equality.

VANISHING VENDORS

Inspired by American media, the cornerstones of Hong Kong’s vibrant street food scene are disappearing in the wake of a Westernized food truck trend.

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treet food has become the latest political fault line in Hong Kong, nearly two years after the birth of the Umbrella Revolution, the pro-democracy movement that occupied the city’s streets for 79 days in 2014. On one corner, you may stumble across a vintage food truck selling dry-aged steak and ale pies for the cost of lunch in Los Angeles. On the opposite corner, an itinerant hawker sells a bowl of fish balls for a tenth of the price, at the risk of imprisonment.

In his 2015 budget speech, the city’s financial secretary, John Tsang, announced a plan to legalize food trucks, which so far have been limited to festivals and other private events. Tsang was reportedly inspired by Chef, Jon Favreau’s 2014 movie about a beleaguered restaurant chef who reinvents himself by selling Cuban sandwiches from a food truck. Tsang’s enthusiasm was shared by local restaurateurs whose menus already reflected the food truck ethos of the United States, featuring kimchi burgers and tacos made with Cantonese barbecued pork.

While it may be an innocent enough agenda in most Western cities, Hong Kong’s traditional hawkers see this as the death of their livelihood. “This will just end up helping the chain restaurants or big companies as a marketing ploy,” said one hawker, Chan Kong-Chiu, after Tsang’s speech. “We may never see those licenses.”

Hawkers have reason to be cynical. When the details of the government-funded food truck pilot program were finally released last December, it revealed that the trucks would be restricted to a handful of tourist-friendly locations, and each would benefit from estimated startup costs of HK$600,000 (US$77,000), to cover license fees and detailed design specifications.

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Meanwhile, traditional food vendors have found themselves in the middle of pitched battles between activists and police. A few days before Tsang’s speech in 2015, hawkers selling Chinese New Year snacks in Sham Shui Po were chased away by swarms of government inspectors and police. They found shelter in busy Mongkok, where democracy activists shielded them from police. Thousands of people thronged the food stalls until four o’clock in the morning.

At the start of 2016, things took a turn for the worse. When government inspectors tried to clear an illegal New Year’s market on Portland Street, they were met by a crowd of angry activists. Police arrived in riot gear, prompting an overnight confrontation that has been dubbed the Fishball Revolution. Activists tore up sidewalk bricks and threw them at police—some of whom hurled them back into the crowds. At one point, a police officer fired his service weapon into the air—a shocking turn of events in a city where guns are few and far between. By the time the battle ended 10 hours later, nearly 100 people were injured, including police, journalists and protesters.

Hawking wasn’t always a blood sport. Street food has always been a part of Hong Kong’s culture and economy. In the 1950s, when hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into the British-controlled city from Communist mainland China, running a food stall was one of the best and only ways to make a living. Wooden pushcarts and green-painted roadside shacks pioneered a new kind of fusion cuisine: curried fish balls, stewed offal, chewy egg waffles, noodle soups and rich milk tea that gave heart to factory workers, longshoremen and manual laborers.

“Back in the day, there was food everywhere,” says Edmond Ma, the second-generation owner of Keung Kee Dai Pai Dong, one of the original 1950s-era street food stalls licensed by the government. “The food culture was so lively. The only issue was hygiene. People left their rubbish on the street.”

By the 1970s, it was enough of a problem that the British colonial administration decided to crack down. In 1973, when there was one hawker for every 80 people, the government stopped issuing new hawking licenses. In the 1980s, it began to buy back those licenses. Today, there are fewer than 7,500 licensed street hawkers, most of which sell dry goods and groceries. Another 3,000 ply their trade without a license.

At the same time, Hong Kong’s shift to a post-industrial economy has led to stagnant wages and economic forces at play, engendering worsening inequality and a job market dominated by finance and real estate. An influx of tourists from mainland China has pushed up retail rents to mind-boggling levels, driving many family-owned restaurants and shops out of business. Meanwhile, food prices have doubled since 2007.

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Ironically, many of the poorest parts of the city—far-flung new towns built in the 1970s and 80s—have the most expensive food, thanks to the dominance of conglomerate-owned chain businesses. In response, illegal street hawkers sell everyday items at a discount, always on the lookout for hawker control officers who tolerate them on some days and arrest them on others. It’s a game of cat and mouse that has in one case proven deadly: in 2006, a 65-year-old Chinese herb vendor named Lo Kong-Ching drowned when he was chased by officers into a river.

Chinese New Year is the only time of the year when unlicensed merchants are given a reprieve. Streets fill with the savory aroma of barbecued meat and charcoal-fired fish ball carts. Many of the vendors are young people earning entry-level salaries that haven’t budged in decades, says Kel Lee, a recent graduate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “For years, the wages for university grads is the same, about HK$10,000 – HK$12,000 a month [about US$1,300]. Nowadays a cart costs less than HK$10,000, so they can sell fishballs during New Year and earn a lot of money.”

Lee is a member of HK Indigenous, a so-called “localist” group dedicated to livelihood issues that was founded during the pro-democracy protests in 2014. Over the past year, the localist movement has grown unexpectedly powerful, drawing condemnation from Beijing but surprising support at the polls—one localist candidate earned 15 percent in a recent by-election, a remarkable turn for a group that had until recently been dismissed as fringe extremists.

The support reflects a shift in mentality among young Hongkongers, many of whom see Hong Kong, not China, as their home. In 2014, when the Chinese New Year hawkers fled to Mongkok, Hong Kong indigenous activists didn’t just protect them from police, they helped clean up the street to set a good example. “We were patrolling the area, sweeping, cleaning, tidying up the street,” says Lee. “The government tries to say the hawkers are dirty, but we showed they aren’t. The environmental issues can be managed.”

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It’s part of what Lee calls the “Lion Rock spirit,” a reference both to a local mountain peak and a 1970s-era TV show, Below the Lion Rock, that depicted the lives of Hong Kong people lifting themselves out of poverty. “If you work hard, you’ll have the opportunity to move up, and hawker culture is part of that spirit,” he says.

So far, the government hasn’t done anything to dissuade the notion that food trucks will help established interests instead of the poor. Introducing food trucks “is not the same as reissuing hawker licenses,” said Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce, Gregory So. Official policy still calls for the eventual elimination of street hawking.

Meanwhile, Edmond Ma’s Dai Pai Dong has outlasted all of the buildings on his street in Sham Shui Po, which have been torn down one by one for redevelopment. Standing over a vat of steaming fish broth, he says food trucks could be a trojan horse to reform the government’s approach to hawkers. “If people keep it clean, everyone will benefit,” he says.

And if they don’t? He shrugs and glances around at his stall. “We’ll still be around.”