Field Work

Before the Spirit of the Place Vanishes

Olga Drenda

I don’t believe that there exist places completely devoid of a genius loci ­– a unique spirit of their own. According to the Słownik antropologii i socjologii kultury, “The concept of the spirit of the place (genius loci) is understood as an expression of the identity of a place, which thus becomes significant.” However, although present, it sometimes remains hidden, and an effort is necessary to bring it back to the surface.

In contemporary interdisciplinary research that uses written, spoken and imagery sources, sometimes the metaphor of the memory or biography of a place is used, which may be helpful to us. It concerns all records, accounts, and material relics related to a given place as well as the memories of people who lived or visited there. Such a biography consists of interactions with it, of everything that makes it a living place.

It is easy to tell stories about favourite meeting points, monuments, local attractions, places where something important happened and which have their hallmarks. Then one story chases another, the location stimulates the imagination and becomes known by name. But what to do with such biographies of places that have frozen, changed course, stopped at the stage of potentiality or a sketch – or serve practical purposes? How much memory can be extracted from a place that at first glance is not associated with anything, from a street where we simply go to school or travel by bus, treating it in a purely utilitarian manner?

When the ties between a place and its visitors are loosened, associations, private maps, unofficial names, and shortcuts disappear, it transforms into a space devoid of an emotional dimension. Marc Augé called this category a non-place: one where you live out of necessity, through which you go anonymously, and which remains anonymous to its usually numerous users.

Passing through Bohaterów Westerplatte Street in Zielona Góra many times, I wondered how a place can become a non-place by accident or a misguided intention. This is the fate of the main shopping and pedestrian streets in many Polish cities. Especially in those places where the investment momentum of the 1970s encouraged the widening of streets and the construction of commercial and service complexes, at that time still under the aegis of the state. Katowice, Częstochowa, Sosnowiec – these are just a few examples of cities where we can find equivalents of Bohaterów Westerplatte Street: today, large-scale facilities, department stores have been pushed to the background by the modern model of a shopping mall with everything under one roof, with social, café, and cultural life moving into more intimate and pedestrian-friendly corners. As a result, the once grand arteries become silent and turn into a transit space. You can do some quick business here, park your car, get on the bus, but everything that requires more attention, looking around, spending a long moment has moved to other areas.

In the case of Bohaterów Westerplatte Street, its prime did not last long. In the first years of Polish Zielona Góra, urban areas actually ended here, and the greenery of houses and gardens began. Topolowa Street – as it used to be called – was a small and intimate alley (this tradition has been maintained, as the little Topolowa Street is now only a bit further away). The pre-war Kapellenweg was a quiet, low-rise street, separated from the train station by a green belt, gradually developed over with fashionable villas, such as the Hermann Muthesius one on today’s Ułańska Street; small remnants of this state of affairs can be observed until today. In the 1920s, the street was connected to the larger Kapellenstrasse (now Wojska Polskiego Street).

Some time after the city became part of Poland in 1945, a decision was made to ease the pressure on Niepodległości Street, then named after Joseph Stalin, and move the traffic a little further. On the cobblestoned Bohaterów Westerplatte Street, asphalt was laid and a site was marked out for the construction of the Provincial Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party. This is where the May Day marches were supposed to go, as well as some of the grape-harvest processions.

Residents who spent their childhood nearby in the first years of Polish Zielona Góra still remember the small houses and orchards with fruit trees, gradually replaced by new buildings: low blocks typical of the 1950s, seamlessly blending into the pre-war complex – a watchful eye will notice the difference in the types of staircases . These sections of the new street resembled the more intimate, walking areas of Nowa Huta near Kraków or the district of Muranów in Warsaw. Archival photos show discreet neon signs: Hairdresser’s, Drugstore. It was only the 1970s that saw an investment momentum characteristic for the period, with appetites for building a “second Poland[M1] .” It was then that the construction began of what one of my interlocutors called a “Warsaw-style city centre,” with office buildings and large department stores that at one time were impressively well-stocked and modern. As in many similar cases, time was not kind to them – the architecture of that decade has been exceptionally unlucky. Materials were aging quickly and buildings were losing their prestige. Although the location has remained the same, the facility is often difficult to recognize, as was the case with the Topaz shopping mall (formerly a dance restaurant), today with a completely new façade.

Among my interlocutors, representing almost all generations of post-war history, many people remembered with sympathy and sentiment various conventional, spontaneous spaces, elements of what a research team led by Marek Krajewski once called the “invisible city.” Sometimes such locations are dismissed as “there was nothing there,” but personal accounts reveal “something” of them anyway: a lawn, a slope, a clump of bushes, a trodden path. These are spaces or objects that are usually not predetermined or installed for a purpose, but have been chosen by residents to spend time together. Walks, chats, dates, sharing a homemade cake or a beer with one’s peers are recurring themes in the testimonies. But for those to take place, you need a square, a yard with a sprawling tree, but also places, such as a shop or a kiosk, where you can talk to someone, see a familiar face. Desserts immediately evoke sentimental feelings, so many people fondly recalled enjoying “Sultan’s cream” at the Mocca café or reading newspapers over a cup of coffee at the Empik. These are almost postcard scenes from the Polish golden 1960s. But earlier memories also reveal the life of a city centre, where almost everything is within walking distance. A school, a milk bar, a market place, sports facilities, even the “Warsaw” summer cinema (at Chopina Street). “I miss a good grocery store,” many of the respondents say. For them, the centre of Zielona Góra is primarily a space that has lost its familiar and neighbourly character. Neighbourly most literally, because the subtle threads of relationships connected the various service establishments along the street: a seamstress sewed stage costumes for a Topaz stripper, in the same Topaz, married couples had loud arguments  (usually over the dancers’ sex appeal), which in turn were watched by a neighbour from next door, while Pewex provided supplies of marbled denim for local tailors sewing for export. The different testimonies, often often tinged with a sense of humour, comprise a sort of panoramic picture.

Distance and haste already creep into the memories of younger residents. Bohaterów Westerplatte Street is more often remembered as a street that you used to visit for school, work, and shopping rather than one where you lived. The neighbourhood of the DH Centrum department store is associated with family shopping trips or even with departures by coach to Germany. The large scale of the People’s Poland-era department stores has given way to small shops and service outlets that sublet space in enormous buildings. Life is bustling in the markets – the “Konfina” and the “Bangladesh,” where you can buy jeans and pirate tapes. Pubs, music stores, and second-hand clothing stores have nestled in the alleys leading away from the main street. It is a paradise for students. After school, they meet at Plac Bohaterów. Before the age of the Internet, there was a need for a single, well-known location where you could spend afternoons together and experience teenage drama.

However, this is already a decline. The main shopping street was already turning into a transit street, animated at night by club and concert crowds rushing to the Kawon or the X-Demon. This evolution was not stopped by new galleries opening in the area. This is not a scenario specific to Zielona Góra: very similar stories can be found in other cities. But what is the reason for the loosening of the threads of attachment that make the spirit of the place palpable and obvious?

The answers come along with the words of the people I speak to. In almost every conversation there is a feeling that there is no point in stopping today on this street. At the same time, it seems that it is crying for development, and on the other hand, that it lacks outlets and features that invite you to feel at home, to stroll and wander, to look around. As if its own dynamism has undone it.

In the respondent testimonies, the disappearance of greenery from the street and the surrounding area goes amazingly hand in hand with the disappearance of the identity of the place. Trees and shrubs indicate places where it is good to meet and sit, play and stroll. People recall what tree grew where (the former Topolowa Street was  famous not only for poplars, but also for its black locust trees), in which backyard neighbours sat down together for refreshments, which proves that even a serious, official street benefits from informal and peaceful facilities. The former Plac Bohaterów is associated with picturesque rose bushes. Today, the return of greenery on Bohaterów Westerplatte Street invariably evokes emotions: residents complain about the felling of old trees, about unsuccessful planting attempts. For them, it is an abandoned, orphaned alley in the fairy-tale garden of Zielona Góra. These memories indicate where the memory of places and the genius loci hide: where you not just pass through, but where you can stop and be.

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