Monday, 31 October 2011

Manufacturing a city of culture

I was in Łódź over the weekend to speak at the Regional Congress of Culture (how strange that sounds in English!). Taking part in a panel about fostering growth of a creative industries sector and urban regeneration, my role was to present the UK experience in this.

Łódź has a problem with its self-image. It's clearly a second-league city; Warsaw, Poznań, Katowice, Kraków, Wrocław and the Tri-City are fast-growing metropolises with low unemployment (3.5%-5%). But Łódź (10.4% unemployment) - with Lublin (9.2%) and Białystok (11.9%) - are cities lagging behind. I did note a burst of rapid growth around the second half of the last decade in Łódź - but that growth spurt ran out of steam. My most recent visits here left me with a vague sense of disappointment that the city has somehow stopped developing.

One of the problems of the city is its people. As the deputy mayor told yesterday's session of the congress, Łódź has over 250 million zlotys (₤50 million) in unpaid rent from its council tenants. (Private landlords fare no better - a UK investor recently approached the BPCC to see what could be done about tenants not paying him rent.)

Łódź has a run-down feel to it. I stepped out onto Piotrkowska, the main drag - early Saturday evening... the lights were on but the streets were empty. The main shopping street of Poland's second* city, and yet shops shut at four o'clock on a Saturday. Turning off Piotrkowska, unsavoury characters stood menacingly outside alcohol shops filling the air with expletive-filled dialogue. Grafitti lacked any other purpose than marking territory and mindless football preferences. No art, no culture, no humour. The city's art cinema has three shows a week (none at weekends).

Time, then, for a communist-era joke. The Soviet ambassador in Warsaw was puzzled when he received an invite from the Czechoslovak embassy to attend a celebration marking the Czechoslovak Day of the Sea. “But why?” asked the ambassador. “Czechoslovakia has no sea” "Well,” came the reply, “you invited us to the Soviet Day of Culture..."

So is Łódź a City of Culture or not? Is this merely an aspirational slogan, driven by the accidental presence of a world-class film school, the vestiges of a fashion industry and a few software companies? And is this enough to build on?

It's worth turning to the UK experience, the extent to which cities like Liverpool have Glasgow managed to turn around and to shed old stereotypes. To what extent do the city authorities need to pump-prime the turnaround, putting money into refurbishing public buildings, public spaces – will that attract creative people?

The impression I was left with was of a city that's lost its way - that has an idea of where it want to get to, but is clueless as to how to get there. The debate was interesting. Certain notions were agreed by all; Łódź needs to attract and retain talented young people, who will come to study in the city, and will stay there to build their career, start companies, employ others, contribute to local society. The university has pulled itself up - it's now joined Warsaw University, Warsaw University of Technology (Politechnika Warszawska) and the Jagiellonian University in Kraków as Poland's only universities in the global top 500.

So the students come; but how to make the students stay?

Łódź has potential. The streets have atmosphere; crumbling industrial-era tenements, unreconstructed communist-era klimat (the architecture of the TV building being a nice example)... low rents by Warsaw standards - vast swathes of real estate ripe for gentrification, a huge film-set (much like London's Docklands before redevelopment). Yet the deputy mayor shied away from gentrification as an answer (what would happen to the indigenous people squeezed out by yuppie-style property prices?).

And here we reached a certain problem, one that even robustly politically-incorrect Poland doesn't wish to confront. When talking about 'culture' in the sense of high culture - theatre, ambitious cinema, classical music, literature - there will always be large proportions of any population for whom it is simply inaccessible. Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek, standing outside the Żabka store swigging vodka z gwintu and swearing aggressively, are not going to enjoy an Ibsen play no matter how much money the public sector pumps into subsidised theatre.

What to do with these people (who're probably not paying rent either)? Let the market force them out of town? The city authorities don't know... Where are they going to find the money to build social housing into which they have a duty of care towards anyone evicted from council flats in town?

Grafitti, smashed windows, litter, boorish behaviour in the streets do not endear the city to would-be gentrifiers. Tackle these first, and the rest will fall into place. Trendy bars, cafes and eateries will spring up, entrepreneurs will have ideas, people will flock - it can be done. Look at Warsaw's Praga district - Ząbkowska, for example. It's gentrifying at a rapid pace.
To what extent do public authorities have any influence over market forces in terms of which cities are on the ascendant, which ones are stagnant, and which are dying on their feet? What can City Hall do to promote growth - driven by a creative industries sector?

If we’re looking for exemplars – take a look at this. The cult design store, Pan Tu Nie Stał, with its ultra hip and trendy PRL-themed clothing and artefacts. It shows what can be done with an idea.

One of the speakers on the panel was the boss of a local IT firm. He mentioned a sobering fact. His company posted job ads for a junior programmer and for the personal assistant to the head of HR. There were five applications for the programmer's job. Over 500 application for the PA's job. Poland - like many other countries in the developed world - is churning out too many marketing, sociology, philology, media studies and linguistics graduates - and not enough engineers, scientists or biotechnologists. How to address this - at primary school level, I would argue. Every bit as important as imbuing in schoolchildren an love of the arts.

To sum up – far more questions than answers – despite the evident good will of the city authorities and the cultured part of the local population, there’s still no road map for the way forward. How will Łódź look in four years time, when, via Stryków, it becomes accessible my motorway to Warsaw, Poznań and Gdańsk? When Łódź Fabryczna is completed and a rail journey from Warsaw takes less than one hour?

My guess is a Łódź renaissance will slowly get under way, driven by young people getting increasingly wealthy, displaying hipness and trendiness, buying flats in old tenements and doing them up, more trendy bars appearing. But this will happen much more slowly than in Warsaw's Praga. We shall see.

Above: Hipster hangout; Owoce i Warzywa ('Fruit and Vegetables') ul. Traugutta 9. On the window it says KAWA ALKOHOL TWÓRCZOŚĆ ('Coffee alcohol creativity'). In the door, a poster for Bajkonur, a 'creative space' with rehearsal rooms, a stage, a café. In the foreground, bike stands of the correct design, correctly situated with correct signage. And an amsterdamka - lady's framed pushbike. Not as hip as a fixie, but nearly there - and front tyre different from rear tyre...

* Łódź has traditionally been Poland's second city. However, due to depopulation (it's one of Poland's fastest depopulating cities), it has been overtaken by Kraków in terms of numbers of inhabitants. And if you take the Silesian agglomeration as one cities rather than as ten towns clustered together, Łódź is actually Poland's fourth city.

This time last year:
My thousandth post

This time two years ago:
Closure of ul. Poloneza

This time three years ago:
Scenes from a suburban petrol station

This time four years ago:
Red Arrows over Lincolnshire from 30,000 ft


Andrzej K said...

Very interesting. Part of the problem with Lodz is the fact that it is very much a 19th Century invention with no real history or culture prior to the location of "dark satanic mills" by German and jewish businessmen fronte by "podupadla szlachta" vide Ziemia Obiecana. So there is not much to relate back to.

Of course the fact that once the motorways have been completed it will also be at the crossroads of transport may trigger renewal. But I would agree this will require the rehousing of the lumpen proletariat.

As to Pan Ziutek maybe the 19th Century experience of the UK led working class self improvement led by the arts and crafts movement (William Morris et al) might be the zeitgest needed to promote cultural and personal development over and above consumerism!!!

Kit Green said...

Perhaps if investors in residential letting properties were willing to sponsor cultural projects there could be a payback in improved self-esteem that would itself create the correct local vibe leading to regeneration, employment and rent payments.

Sigismundo said...

About a year ago, I met an elderly Israeli couple in Warsaw who had just visited Lodz. She was an ex-Lodzian and they were looking for their Jewish roots.

Although themselves exceptionally pleasant, affable and urbane folk they had nothing good to say about the place, something (in my experience) extremely unusual for former Poles visiting their birthplace.

"It's like the Wild West, or rather a Hollywood version of the Wild West," he told me. "The main drag, Piotrkowska, is pleasant enough in itself – but it's like a movie set. The moment you go behind the painted facades you enter an underworld, with grey, dilapidated buildings and miserable, unfriendly people, who have no interest in helping you, no matter how pleasant you are to them."

sportif said...

"Warsaw Technical University (Politechnika Warszawska)"

studiowałem na Politechnice, ale po angielsku to było: Warsaw University of Technology

Pan Steeva said...

Although you've described the Łódż that I saw, a friend of mine from Birmingham lived there and thought it was a great place.

One of the problems, I felt, was the concentration on Piotrikowska Street alone, without creating a welcoming surrounding area. Its length as a shopping and restaurant area being a disadvantage for the city's wider development. Simply walking from Factory station along the back road directly parallel to Piotrikowska, was to walk through a slum area, whilst walking up the wrong end of the street was to walk in a blackened, crumbling and semi-derelict eyesore.

Maybe it has all changed now, but I found it a profoundly depressing place (compared with Kielce, especially). However, my feeling of Łódż politics is that even forcing people out of the town centre into the area with the blocks of flats would be unacceptable.

The interesting thing about the motorway, etc will be to see if Łódż becomes a vibrant crossroads or a place that everyone passes by more quickly.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ sportif - duly corrected - but note that the University of Oxford is more commonly referred to as Oxford University...

@ Steve - Łódź 'profoundly depressing compared to Kielce'? Am I missing something in Kielce?

@ Sigismundo - once I drove to Łódź early one morning and was asking a local woman where ul. Piłsudskiego was. "Nie mogę Panu powiedzieć" was her answer. It was the next street parallel. Like not knowing where Al. Jerozolimskie are when you're on ul. Nowogrodzka.