A Symbol of Urban Place-making in Central Europe?
by Alexander Tölle
|A mury runą, runą. runą
||And walls will be falling, falling, falling
|I pogrzebią stary świat!
||And they will bury the old world!
Jacek Kaczmarski: Mury (Walls)
The above lines of the late Polish singer-songwriter Jacek Kaczmarski are the refrain of what in 1980 was to become the hymn of the striking workers of the Gdansk Shipyard. The world to be buried there was that of soviet oppression, of constant shortages, uniformity and dictatorship. There is arguably no second place in Central Europe that has become as symbolic for the courageous struggle for freedom and democracy of the societies east of the Iron Curtain as this cradle of the Solidarity movement. The Gdansk Shipyard came to represent the thorny but unstoppable way into a better, a post-communist future of Central Europe. Today, the world-known sights related to these events are still to be visited: the Solidarity Square with the famous Shipyard Gate and the three giant crosses of the "Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers" next to a "Roads to Freedom" exhibition in the very assembly hall in which the August Agreements have been signed in 1980. Ostentatiously the way from the gate to the exhibition is flanked by an original part of the fallen Berlin Wall.
What cannot be visited any more however is the Gdansk Shipyard itself, as it went bankrupt in 1996. The bitter irony in that has often been stressed: In the end of the day the Gdansk Shipyard workers had fought long and hard for a new system that was going to sack them. While walls here are now rather crumbling down than falling, the fate of the Gdansk Shipyard has become representative for Central Europe again, yet in a quite different way: it stands for the hard repercussions of entering as a latecomer into a globalising world, in which mass production is increasingly removed from European production sites. Yet following the plans of Synergia 99, a Polish company with US-American investment funds money that is by now the owner of the Gdansk Shipyard land, the site will again become a positive symbol: an emblem of a successful transformation into a modern post-industrial city and society. For when the blight of de-industrialisation affected western cities, they started trying to tackle the phenomenon of economic decline and derelict inner-city sites by converting them into places with modern office and service functions, attractive living opportunities, upbeat consumption, tourism and leisure amenities. These are new worlds of "Festival Market Places" and "Urban Entertainment Centres", possibly with an attractive waterfront promenade and an impressive city silhouette. Examples are to be found from Oslo to Lisbon and from Dublin to Genoa, and it is exactly this kind of venture that under the name of "Young City" is to emerge from the ruins of the Gdansk Shipyard.
The potential of this project for the city as a whole is intriguing. As in most cities in the former eastern block, the Gdansk inner city - however loud one feels obliged to praise the skilfully rebuilt historic facades with its rich Hanseatic splendour - is not fit to offer room for modern city functions such as service, tourism or shopping facilities on any larger scale, as new developments are restricted by ownership disputes, rights of residents, and due respect for historic city structures. The "Young City" could be seen as a perfect solution to give room to badly needed inner-city functions, and in addition also develop into a common central district of the so-called Tricity. The Tricity is a result of the shifting borders in this part of Europe, as in the "Free City of Gdansk" interwar period the tiny seaside village of Gdynia in the then "Polish Corridor" was developed into the major Polish port city with some 100,000 inhabitants, a potent competitor to the old Hanseatic City. While after the Second World War Gdansk and Gdynia with the seaside resort of Sopot between them grew into the one urban agglomeration called Tricity, a certain rivalry represented by a more or less complete lack of cooperation prevails until today. This kind of parish-pump politics - unfortunately not at all unusual in Central European cities that only after 1989 regained self-governance - is however rather dangerous in a world in which cities are rather not rivalling with their neighbours, but cooperating with them in metropolitan networks to beat their European opponents. The "Young City" could well become a project initiating and representing Tricity cooperation, and thus even become a model for other Central European agglomerations.
Regarding the project's undeniable potentials, the role of the City Council seems obvious: to firstly define public objectives, and then to implement them in negotiating the best deal with the private land owner, as well as with attracted investors. Instead there prevails an approach full of hesitation, resulting finally in a policy of exercising "development control" by approving land use plans. This is a procedure common in western cities until the 1970s, in the golden times when there was growth to be directed. However the situation in Gdansk is not quite that of a surplus of investors rushing in. And those who are indeed coming to Gdansk will find a major obstacle to investing in the Shipyard site: no public engagement in infrastructure investment. Yet to make things even more bizarre, the City Council tries to yield a quick profit from the "Young City" project. Following ring road schemes long abandoned in western cities, the City Council intends to build a six-lane expressway across the Shipyard site in full length. And its financing is to be assured by applying legislation to get a share of the anticipated land value increase. Yet even when ignoring that the number of Polish property owners who do not know how to bypass this rule appears to be rather limited, it is obvious that the starting phase of a venture such as the "Young City" will require financial input and cooperation with private partners instead of treating them as cash cows. It is unfortunately a common feature of Central European local governments that the task of city management is reduced to elaborating plans for controlling some future growth and for providing large-scale car-friendly infrastructures. From a western perspective, it appears unavoidable that such attempts to dig out technocratic planning approaches of the 1960s will lead to the necessity to costly eliminate the resulting planning errors in a not-to-distant future.
However it is not only local government in Central Europe that has mentally not entirely entered into the post-industrial age, but also the city populations they do after all democratically represent. Accordingly the "Young City" has its opponents also among parts of the Gdansk population. Those are people who have perhaps difficulties to comprehend that large-scale ship production has left Gdansk forever and that that is so not because of some fancy restructuring plan for "their" Shipyard promoted by foreign capital, but because of global market conditions. People who as a rule may have rather distrust in the intentions of city officials, yet if they expect anything of their local government at all, then it is not making deals with real estate developers, but providing in some conventional ways for additional jobs, housing, and social services. People who rather fear the ousting of the few still remaining workers on the Shipyard site by office clerks and the loss of livelihoods of corner shop owners through large-scale shopping facilities, instead willing to believe in economic synergy effects and future opportunities. With the land owning company having its seat in the former Shipyard headquarters building once occupied by the bigwigs implementing official party politics, this is to some in a strange way the suitable protest target in a renewed battle of the brave shipyard workers against an arrogant enemy.
Bearing those facts in mind, one understands why another typical feature of today's western cities receives a different reception in Central Europe: the so-called "theming" of urban environments. Following the rules of marketing, urban and architectural projects need an identifiable theme and image in order to be easier sold. And it appears that particularly well sells a theme based on history, which is why developments similar to the "Young City" are characterised by exposing the - more often than not rather inventively constructed - "special" historic significance of the respective site. With the Gdansk shipyard having a really remarkable past indeed, it is small wonder that the "Solidarity theme" is integrated into the plans as a dominant feature, with a broad "Promenade to Freedom" to lead from Solidarity Square to the Vistula waterfront esplanade, and an impressive "European Centre of Solidarity" as a major convention and exhibition building. The evolution of the original "Solidarity Centre" scheme which could not find a financial basis in years to the "European Solidarity Centre" scheme in Poland's pre-accession years would be a worthwhile topic in its own right as an example of a Schwejkian wittiness linked to European funding opportunities, yet the issue here is the generally tricky aspect of using the Solidarity for urban "theming": Solidarity may be worldwide exclusively positively associated with the successful struggle for freedom, yet that is unfortunately with the exception of Poland itself. Here the movement is also associated by many with rather unfortunate political reforms implemented in the early 1990s, leading to the fact that the movement has no political role to play anymore in today's Poland. So using these features for giving an image to a new district will be to some simply slightly irritating. On the other hand side, the Gdansk Shipyard for is seen by most as the national "holy ground" of the August 1980 agreements, so integrating this history in an urban redevelopment scheme sustained by US-American capital - polemically one could easily call it some "Solidarity Theme Park" - may be perceived as a kind of blasphemy. And it will not help that the first new building at Solidarity Square will not be any proud European Solidarity Centre, but probably a profane large shopping mall.
There is another aspect to the difficulty of using heritage in this Central European city, a territory characterised by shifting borders and multi-ethnicity. In similar projects all over Western Europe, industrial heritage buildings and recycled historic names have been used to give the new place some splendour, an aura of tradition and continuity. Yet when the "Young City" scheme tries to do the very same and proposes a shopping and entertainment centre under the title of "Imperial Shipyard" in converted red 19th-century brick buildings, the history brought out is unavoidable that of the German past of the city, when part of the Gdansk Shipyard was named after the German Kaiser. One would like to see in that a straightforward way of dealing with a sensitive topic, yet unfortunately it appears to be not much more than the rather bad reflected outcome of the try to find a catchy slogan. This appears to be the case also with the title of the whole project: The name refers to a "Young City" ("Jungstadt") founded at that place in the 14th century by the Teutonic Knights' Order, after subjugated the Slavic population. The only intention of this city foundation was to create a major rival to the still independent and prospering Hanseatic City of Gdansk, and consequently the historic Young City had been traceless flattened to the ground together with the nearby castle after the defeat of the Order by the Polish. That is why the project name of "Young City" has stirred loud disapproval by some locals, and the City Council has until recently preferred to use the notion of "New City" in its documents. Yet this is not to say that a sophisticated and carefully reflected use of the site's legacy and history could not contribute to the image of Gdansk as a Baltic city that is conscious and proud of its multi-ethnic tradition. And indeed, in Gdansk as generally in the cities of Central Europe, one may observe a growing interest of local populations - especially their younger members - in those aspects of local history that have been eliminated by the official history versions under communist rule.
So what does the Gdansk Shipyard - with its crumbling factory halls and rusty cranes next to the Solidarity edifices and the site now and again used by international stars as concert venue - stand for in today's Central Europe? Certainly for the deindustrialisation process taking place there, not sparing any sites of special significance. And certainly again for the hope for some brighter future in a post-industrial society. But also for the fact that this future will need once more the falling of walls, and notably of walls in the heads and minds of people. In those of local officials needing to understand that there is much more to city management than controlling and counting incoming investment money. In those of developers required to recognize that Central European city societies are not entirely prepared to accept images of attractive new leisure and consumption compounds along marvellous waterfront boulevards as promising visions of a better future. In those of parts of the population having to come to term with the fact that the transformation journey they have been sent on will not just smoothly convert their old world into a wealthier and more democratic one, but will change it profoundly and thus rendering former moral and life values invalid. And there is yet another wall to be knocked down, the one separating communities from knowing the past of their local territory shaped by shifting borders and various ethnic groups, from making this their own history and carrying it into the present for the good of future generations. There can be no doubt that the Gdansk Shipyard stands for the burying of an old world in Central Europe. Yet it remains to be seen whether it may also become a symbol of the emergence of a new one.