free zone / NGO zone

Suwałki: The New Polis

Insitute of Reportage

In order for city-dwellers to reclaim their cities and become true urbanites, the cities need to understand themselves first – Anna Kuczyńska (Polish School of Reportage) on Olga and Adam Pogorzelski’s City Foundation (Fundacja Miasto).

The roundhouse in Suwałki. The SUM begins, admission is free. It’s not a club called “The Roundhouse”, but an actual roundhouse, which is still in use. And SUM? In Suwałki, everyone knows what that means.

SUM [Polish: catfish – ed.], aka Suwalskie Ucho Muzyczne (Musical Ear of Suwałki). Why this name? Because it was supposed to simultaneously refer to music and Suwałki. And the ground floor of the building where the first gig took place housed a fish warehouse. So that’s how SUM came about.

So far, SUM has organized a dozen or so concerts. Often in unusual and unexpected spaces: the courtyard of the Communal Housing Management, a bus station, and now a roundhouse. Once the music is playing, one of the musicians steps off the stage – or rather: the handcar, which serves as a stage this evening. For a while he plays among the audience, and then starts making his way back and falls into the pit underneath the railway tracks. He emerges from it with a broken saxophone.

Adam Pogorzelski from the City Foundation, one of SUM’s co-creators, is already counting the repair costs in his head. But the musician laughs it off: “People of Suwałki, this is my gift to you.”

one of the SUM's concerts

fot. Adam Bolewski

PKP, PKS, NGO

That happened at the PKP roundhouse. Meanwhile, at the PKS bus station in Suwałki, on the second floor, right next door to a lawyer firm and a local TV station, the City Foundation shares a room with the Out of the Way Association.

The Suwałki bus station is nowhere near… any place, really (it takes 5 hours for the bus to get to Warsaw).

And Adam and Olga Pogorzelski form the City Foundation are nowhere near average. Readership among Poles is plummeting, yet they keep publishing a quarterly magazine, as well as various albums and culinary books. In a world where only every 5th Pole occasionally contributes to his local community, and researchers lament the lack of social capital, they do the work of several active NGOs.

“Because of our name, some people think we are an agency of the City Hall, and only do Suwałki-related projects” says Olga Pogorzelska. But Olga’s interest in the phenomenon of the city only began after her move from Suwałki to Warsaw. “The only fixed element of my life,” she recalls, “was this constant flux. New lodgings every year. And new questions: what changes when space gets constrained and the city begins? What does the city do to us? But also: what can we do with the city?”

A MEETING IN THE BORDERLANDS

“Whenever I find I can’t fit my things into a backpack anymore, I feel like I’m getting rooted, and it scares me” claims Olga.

Adam, on the other hand, was an avid collector as a child. Except instead of objects, he collected activities. He got involved with anything and everything in Sejny, from dancing and choir to boy scouts.

Olga wasn’t active in her community before she went to college. She was close with her family, and spent all her time in that realm: with her sister and two brothers.

Adam eventually got involved with the Borderland of Arts-Cultures-Nations Center in Sejny. Once there, he was talked into taking up Cultural Studies at the Warsaw University, because the faculty seemed to fit in with everything he had been doing so far.

Several years later, Olga ended up at Borderland Center too. That’s where she met Adam, by then a 4th year student of Cultural Studies. He encouraged her to enroll in his program. He said it broadened one’s horizons. They lost touch after that. Olga called him up only when she took up Cultural Studies herself. Eventually they moved in together, and after two years, they knew they wanted to spend their lives with each other. They’ve been married for seven years now, and they’ve been jointly running a foundation for five.

WHO AM I? THAT’S A DIFFICULT QUESTION

Olga doesn’t remember much from the summer seaside holiday in Lithuania they went to after completing the Together and Apart project. She slept through most of it: “When you’re working on a project, you always give it your all. And then you need to wind down.”

Together and Apart project

fot. Marta Białek

Together and Apart consisted of 14 intense August days in 2007: theatre workshops, music workshops, film screenings and a meeting with the Jewish commune in Vilnius.

People in Suwałki noticed their project, and were surprised that it worked. Because up till then, nothing really ever happened in Suwałki. And that, somewhat counter-intuitively, motivated Adam and Olga.

Despite the post-project exhaustion, Olga would never trade this life for working at an office.

She tried her hand at 9-to-5, but every day was like the next. And now? “You create your own project, you implement it, it’s fabulous” - she claims.

There’s a scenario flipchart at the foundation. They teach young people how to write them at the Film Workshop. “Actually, it is they who teach me,” laughs Olga. “Young people are critical and creative. I know how to write scenarios, but they are the ones with ideas.”

During another film project, the youths picked a word - road, shoe, boredom, chaos, coffee – which served as a starting point for filming the city. They also asked their friends who they were and who they wanted to become. It turns out these are difficult questions. “Who am I?” repeated the film’s protagonists, and after some thought replied: a little girl, a jongleur, a high school senior, a son of God, a patriot, a Suwałkian, my girlfriend’s boyfriend, a strange being of mist and jelly, nobody.

VARSOVIAN OVERABUNDANCE

The foundation idea began to congeal when they started observing their friends working for NGOs. They have themselves cooperated with such organizations too. Olga worked with the Leader School, among others. But after some time they asked themselves: why work on someone else’s projects? Isn’t it better to have something of your own?

They settled on a foundation, because associations require 15 founding members. They had no idea about statutes or the Companies House. Neither did they have a Warsaw address, so they used Olga’s parents’ apartment in Suwałki as their seat. They drafted their college friends onto the Board. They registered the foundation in March 2006. It’s a family affair: Olga, Adam, and Olga’s brother Marcin. They are aided by Olga’s parents and her younger, 17-year-old brother who acts as a volunteer and gets his school friends involved in the foundation’s projects.

Their Suwałki address obliged them to do something in that city.

Besides, the Warsaw NGO scene seemed overabundant. They didn’t feel connected to the capital – they spent every year a new neighborhood, so they didn’t get to know or grow to love any of them.

They didn’t have a webpage, or the money to start one. They barely scrounged together the PLN 1100 for the startup capital. So Adam called a webmaster friend of his, Janek Czarniecki from Suwałki: “We need a webpage. But I only have PLN 100.” “No problem, man, send me the details in an email.” Janek continues to support them, he’s also on the foundation’s Board.

YOU SALT YOUR WATERMELON?

For the first two years of running the foundation, they lived in Warsaw. They did their projects on holidays, Adam used his time off from work. After Olga graduated, the idea to go to Sydney was floated. They were both charmed by their friends’ stories about this non-urban city, a metropolis composed of “building block” districts.

Olga wanted to go, Adam wasn’t as keen. They were wrapping another of their endeavors: “I’m Young, So I Act”. They explained to 16-year-olds how to set up projects and handle invoices, which most of them had never even seen before. Later, these young people created their own projects, and then closed them, as the most interesting ones were financed by the City Foundation (irish dance, unusual postcards from Suwałki, a production of “The Snow Queen”, and a series of musical events).

It was another success, so Adam argued that there was no use to go to Sydney, that things will get easier now that they have some experience. And if they left, they’ll have to start again from scratch. But after 13 months in Sydney, it was he who didn’t want to go back to Poland.

In Sydney, Olga studied and worked at a café where everyone knew your name and remembered what type of coffee you like. Adam was a house painter. They spent everything they earned on travels.

Living with people from France, Bangladesh, China and England, they experienced many cultural and culinary clashes (“You salt your watermelon?” “You eat jam with cheese?”) and bathed themselves in otherness. But they never forgot their foundation – after all, a part of their team stayed behind and kept working. Every day was filled with Skype, emails, and the Internet project management system. They came up with ideas in Australia, which were then transformed into grant applications and approved by Polish grant institutions. Once they got back, they dove right back into work.

Sydney also inspired them with its “pro-social” spaces. There was no pressure regarding your professional decorum there: they once saw a “suit” exit his office building and walk barefoot down the street, or sit in a park – whereas in Warsaw, a “suit” would never even dream of talking to you.

They could use such a “pro-social” park in Suwałki, because the one they had was as stiff as Polish white collars. If you wanted to lie down on the grass, it was a law enforcement-grade problem.

It was all flower beds, clean-cut paths, and a strictly enforced vision of a perfect landscape. And they wanted to give the space back to the people.

After they got back, they began with Sunday breakfasts al fresco. They were attended mostly by their friends, because they didn’t advertise this particular project. And rain often got in the way. Half the success in Sydney was the weather. In Poland, throughout most of the year people retreat indoors.

They wondered how to create “pro-social” spaces in Suwałki. And how to discuss them in a public forum, since the city had tradition of community consultations. They began with a debate on CCTV. It drew many Suwałkians, including Katarzyna Szymielewicz from the Panopticon Foundation, who sowed the seeds of unrest. Everyone left the debate with big question marks in their heads, not so sure anymore that using CCTV was the best way to achieve a sense of security.

City Variations project

fot. Krzysztof Niewulis

KAKORA I JOŻYKS

They returned from Sydney to Suwałki convinced that everything is possible. Olga opened a Russian cookbook on the “From the Russian Oven” section. It included kakora (made from potatoes, eggs and smoked bacon), soczewiaks (lentils, onions, smoked bacon, potatoes), łazanki noodles with poppy seeds, jożyks (flour and cottage cheese) and guszcza (ground barley and pearl barley). It wasn’t their first project implemented in cooperation with the Russian minority. Before that, they collected pictures of Russian Old Believers living in Poland. They published them in a Polish-Russian photo album.

Olga also worked on the film “Year of Birth: 1989”. She wanted to learn how Poland was perceived by people born in 1989, and how it was seen by her parents.

Ordinary people turned out to be vessels of stories no less incredible and worthy of unearthing than those of the Bororo Indians from Brazil.

The elderly told them about opposition fliers copied at the Community Center in Sejny, which was run by a communist. And about pretending they were too ill to attend 1st May rallies. But also of their slight regret at having to miss out on the sausages with mustard and orange soda…

When she asked them about their travels, one of the gentlemen said that until he graduated primary school, he had never been out of Krasnopole. Only once he started high school did he go to Augustów on winter holidays. After two days, he escaped through the window and made his way back home – 30 km through the Augustów Forest – on foot.

The young people just ticked off country after country: Lithuania, Germany, England, USA…

At the same time, Adam was preparing “Science for Development” – a support program for NGOs in the region. During this project, members of a dozen or so NGOs learned teamwork, communication, and public speaking, but also bookkeeping and using word processing and graphics software. In order to show what they had learned, they created and published a book called “Designed” in which they presented their organizations. They also learned how to obtain funding. The City Foundation itself relies on it to implement its own projects. It obtains funding from other foundations, Ministries, EU programs and local governments.

Film Workshop project

fot. Karol Bogdan

MP3s WON’T GIVE YOU THAT

Adam also created the SUM-experiment, a series of musical workshops that are part of SUM. But SUM is mostly managed by Paweł Bydelski from Fri Stejdż Bend and Marcin Siejda (member of the City Foundation’s Board), a therapist working at the Suwałki psychiatric hospital. They wanted to overcome Suwałki’s “non-event” atmosphere. For the first concert, they constructed the stage using panels and boards they got from the Forte furniture factory, prepared the posters using a Xerox machine, and rented the sound equipment for free from the Community Center.

Now they’ve set up an informal local SUM coalition. The print shop takes care of posters, they get all the permits they need quickly, the hotel charges them symbolic sums. Someone takes photos for free, another person films the gigs. The bands themselves often agree to play for a handful of Zlotys, a beer, and a place to sleep. At times Paweł had 7 people sleeping on the floor of his apartment.

“It’s intense, in general. We rush from one project to another, without stopping” says Adam. There are no holidays, because without any permanent employees, they can’t just drop everything and leave.

In the middle of last winter, when the temperature in Suwałki reached -13 degrees Celsius (when it gets cold here, it gets really cold, and when it gets white, it seems as if Spring will never come again) they returned to the idea of forming 14 organizations into a Center for Nongovernmental Organizations. People often call the City Foundation to ask what to do, how to finance their projects, etc. But the foundation doesn’t just give money out. Sometimes it helps them look for it, or acts as a supporting institution – like in the case of a girl who contacted them because she had finished her studies in Toruń and wanted to return to Suwałki to make an inventory of historic monuments. Because here, buildings which allow you to get a glimpse of times long gone, are sometimes simply demolished.

Since they don’t always have the time to help people from outside, and aren’t experts in every field, they decided they needed a Center. They want to use it to help young people realize their potential, as that’s the only chance for the city to open up, and for local NGOs to get involved in anything besides local folklore, alcoholism and handicapped children from broken homes – not that these aren’t all important issues.

As far as culture-oriented Suwałki NGOs go, obviously they know the “Out of the Way” Association best, since they share an office with them. In the winter, “Out of the Way” has slightly less work, but in the summer, since 2006, they’ve been organizing Theatre-Actions, a holiday festival specializing in staging theatrical events at seemingly non-theatrical venues. This year, the main motif is to be the culture of Southern Europe.

“Out of the Way” invites guests from all over Poland and the world to Suwałki. But it doesn’t stop there. They also run “Autumn with Madam Art” (a program for kids) and gather traditional songs, melodies and oral tradition stories, which are then posted on the Internet.

The Pasture.org Association is another organization that encourages people to act on the Internet. They focus on young people whose parents have left the country to work abroad. Thanks to the Internet, they can share their experiences, and at the same time pursue their passions: photography, film, journalism. Pasture also reminded people that the creator of Reksio, Lechosław Marszałek, was from Suwałki. It has created a webpage, and got city kids to submit their drawings. For everyone who wants to learn more about the city’s history, the association has recorded an audio guide to Suwałki called “Słuchałki”.

All you need to explore the city is a free mp3 download, and a print-out of the map.

Suwałki also hosts a Blues Festival. It is being organized by the City Hall and the Regional Center for Arts and Culture. Once, there were more independent gigs and bands, basement rehearsals, etc. But they’re slowly disappearing.

“Maybe there’s something to the idea that nothing works here?” ponders Adam. “Or maybe people just close up shop upon achieving their goal?”

He’s not surprised. He doesn’t see the point in excessively drawing out projects, even the successful ones. “People are hesitant to wrap things up and let go of projects, because it’s a matter of prestige. But you can’t force anything. Why maintain some institution or program once it has reached its objective?”

Olga: “I’m scared of the words: ‘ideals’ and ‘mission’. I don’t like getting into abstracts and closed communities. We like fluid constellations, a looser form of cooperation. If something doesn’t work out – it’s not the end of the world. Maybe it’s a recipe for avoiding burnout due to excessive proximity? I myself am involved in various circles: family, sports, the foundation, my friends from Warsaw. I have many points of reference. And I like it.”

City Foundation team

fot. Ewa Radzewicz

BETWEEN SHOELACES

The Foundation is 5 years old, so it seems like a good moment to reflect upon it. Should they expand their team? And add whom? It would be best if they could learn from this new addition as well. Olga would like to have more women involved. So far, she’s the only female out of the 5 Board Members: “Initially, I felt like my voice was weaker. It took me a while to learn how to work with the boys.”

Or maybe they don’t need an office at all? Maybe they should scan everything and put it on a hard drive somewhere, switch to notebooks? Maybe they should move the “City Culture” quarterly completely to the web?

The idea for “City Culture” came to them in 2006. They figured that since they live in a city, they should know what it has to offer, how it is shaping them, but also how they can consciously shape it in return. Additionally, they came back from Sydney with the idea of a city that is cool to live in. A mixture of cultures, disparate elements coming together, openness, directness… They wanted to talk about it. And it seemed like a magazine would be a good forum for such conversation and reflection.

“City Culture” isn’t just about culture perceived as artistic endeavors. It talks about the changes in the family and neighborly relations, the challenges posed by the plurality of cultures, ethnicities and languages.

As soon as they got the idea for “City Culture”, they contacted Krzysztof Nawrotek, who currently teaches architecture at the Plymouth University in Great Britain. Adam asked him if he’d be interested in cooperating with them… pro bono.

In the first issue, Nawrotek wrote that he doesn’t believe that a neoliberal city with a shrinking common space, but growing enclaves of gated communities, privately-run shopping malls – in other words, a privatized city of consumption and never-ending entertainment – was a perfect creation.

Today’s cities are something of a dead-end street, a mistake, a trap. But the city as such is not evil. The city is good.

Urbaneness is good, and should be defended. But what sort of urbaneness? The Greek polis governed itself as a community. And this communal ownership is – in his opinion – the true essence of the city. The city is a proud community, self-aware and independent of anyone. Yet today’s cities have little in common with the polis. They are dominated by the state, colonized by global corporations, and torn apart by feuding districts. It could be better, but in order for city-dwellers to reclaim their cities, and become true urbanites, the cities need to understand themselves first.

The first issue of “City Culture” came out in 2008. It was too thick, as its authors had no prior editorial experience. But their joy at making it shone through. The Russian artist Mikhail Evstafev contributed his illustration for the front cover for free. Why? They simply sent him an email asking, if he would do it.

“City Culture” received favorable reviews from academic circles. Professor Bohdan Jałowiecki wrote: “Even though this quarterly is being published on the outskirts of Poland, there is nothing provincial about it.” Professor Anna Ziedler-Janiszewska added that its creators have succeeded at the daunting task of combining the cognitive with the educational. And Professor Ewa Rewers notes that due to the mixture of the authors’ excellent education, their experiences from abroad, and their obvious interest in local processes, she feels compelled to keep an eye on the development of this initiative.

When their friends told them that they saw “City Culture” among the newspapers and shoelaces on one of the stands in the underground passageways beneath Dworzec Wschodni (Eastern Railway Station) in Warsaw, they knew their project had managed to push through to people.

THE END OF DINOSAURS

“City Culture” has ventured outside Suwałki. As to whether anyone reads it – they have no idea. They like to peek at other local communities too. They share their experiences with Italians, Norwegians, Hungarians and Lithuanians. Even as they’re implementing their projects in Warsaw, they look for other Warsaws: the Vietnamese, Russian, or Jewish one; they visit squats.

Some people fault them for not making “City Culture” focus on local issues. They receive emails: “New York? Way to get over-ambitious. Better do something about local greenery.” That sometimes takes the wind out of their sails. They try to explain that they aim to reflect upon the city as such, as opposed to Suwałki in particular.

Adam: “Gone are the days when you just sat in one place all the time. Maybe it’s a generational divide, as the gentleman we’ve exchanged emails with was 50 years old?”

Olga: “I thought these dinosaurs who spent their whole lives in one place were long gone.”

Adam: “The important things are local and universal at once. They’re the whole package.”

“I’d like to live in both these spheres at once. To venture outside the local every once in a while, otherwise you can get burnt out, run out of ideas. Besides, why should I even have to justify what I want to do with my life?”

Right now, they have enough money for two more printed issues. Adam: “Maybe it’s time to wrap up “City Culture”? You shouldn’t grow too attached to your projects.”

They see each new project as a short-term contract. They rarely promise anything more. Olga: “We don’t want to disappoint people – maybe something more will come of it, maybe not. People sometimes approach us, saying ‘Let’s do something else, it was so much fun.’ But you can never recreate the energy of a particular project. You have to know in advance that it will end one day. And I think that’s the proper attitude for the times we live in. It’s honest. Reality is brutal. Each project is a passing adventure. Then you move on to new things. It’s not enough to just be happy that the foundation exists.”

Anna Kuczyńska
The author consulted the webpage http://www.fundacjamiasto.rg/
Translated by Wojciech Góralczyk

This article (together with the questionnaire) is part of a series of reportages on grassroots cultural/social initiatives in various Polish cities. They were written especially for ECC by students of the Polish School of Reportage established at the Institute of Reportage in Warsaw.

Thre photographs: by courtesy of City Foundation