Strange Death of a Famous Park

There was once a beautiful park in downtown Tashkent. The trees, some nearly a hundred years old, had leafy canopies virtually impenetrable to the sun. In a city where summer temperatures routinely climb above a hundred degrees, the square was a welcome island of shade, cool even on the hottest day. Old men played chess, mothers pushed strollers down shaded lanes, and young couples lounged on benches. Smack in the middle of the city, the park was a hub, a meeting point, a playground. Several generations of Tashkent residents grew up with it. Then something strange happened.

Late last year, municipal workers with chainsaws and axes turned up in the park. Within days, they chopped down every single tree, prying the root systems out of the ground. The fallen trees—an Eastern sycamore called chinar--lay dismembered into chunks, and were soon carted away. The trees were swiftly replaced by a newly seeded lawn with gnarly saplings poking out of the ground. Tashkent residents were infuriated. Why would you cut down a perfect park to make room for a bad park?

The destruction speaks volumes about the mercurial workings of Uzbekistan's dictatorial regime. Uzbek authorities didn't bother to explain anything. So rumors proliferated. One was that the regime—paranoid about enemies—was worried the park provided not only shade but also cover to miscreants plotting to attack government officials. Another whispered reason was that the tall, canopied trees obscured the vista toward a newly built government palace, a grandly oppressive structure executed in the new style of Tashkent architecture: a façade of huge white pillars, behind which sit floor-to-ceiling banks of reflective windows. Another rumor was that someone wanted to turn all those trees into furniture. Uzbek authorities suggested that the hundred-year-old trees were foreign to the native flora of Uzbekistan and that their sprawling root systems were dangerous.

A few days ago, I stopped by the park. It was a sorry sight. In the middle of it sat a chubby statue of Amir Timur riding a horse. The government anointed the medieval warrior as a mythical progenitor of the Uzbek people, and worships him with countless monuments, street names and museums. Newly planted saplings wilted in the summer heat. In the late of afternoon the park was empty, save for a group of teenagers sweating on a bench. Five years ago, I played a long, and ultimately unsuccessful, series of chess games against an old man in the shade of a chinar. Chess junkies used to congregate in the park the same way they do in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. I went up to the spot where I thought the chess tables used to stand. I touched the paved ground under my feet. You really could fry an egg on it.