free zone / NGO zone

Łódź: The Familiar City

Institute of Reportage

“The city, on the decision level, has to be subjected to a form of acupuncture”, says Agata Zysiak, the founder of the “Topographies” Association based in Łódź in the article by Agata Listoś (Polish School of Reportage).

According to one of the local urban legends, the apartment blocks built for German officers in the Stoki neighborhood were supposed to form a swastika.

“That’s totally untrue,” says Zysiak. She checked maps from 1945. She asked family, neighbors and locals about her neighborhood. Today, her knowledge of the city is uncanny. She’s intimately familiar with almost every building, street, and courtyard. “Łódź is a difficult city. Many say that it’s best to just move out. But there’s another way, you could stop whining and do something for a change. You only get one place on Earth to call your own. ”

She studied sociology but found it too constraining. So she started taking classes at other departments: anthropology, ethnology, urban planning, cultural studies, philosophy. Every year she picked out her own classes. “It was very tiresome, required lots of patience, but I wouldn’t sacrifice 30 or more hours of my life for something I do not care for,” she says.

She spent her junior year in Estonia with the Erasmus program. “At the University of Tartu I learned how easy it is to move out, to meet new people, gain perspective. But I knew I had to return to Łódź.” She came back.

STOP COLLECTING EASY As

She came back with an idea for a new map of Łódź. You can see it at http://www.topografie.pl/mapa/. Every place has an entry filled with words, photos, and memories. Everyone can log in and add their experiences to the entries. “We’d like people to submit stuff like private photos, fragments of journals, first-hand accounts, things that will bring us closer to the past. By giving the average locals a voice, we strengthen their bond with the city,” explains Zysiak.

The project was created in 2007, when Web 2.0 was still in its infancy. Ortografika, a web design studio based in Łódź, created the projects website. “They were the first company to believe in us,” recalls Zysiak. “They told us all we have to do is hash out the details, they liked the project so much. Price wasn’t an issue. Back then we didn’t even have more than 20% of the required sum.”

Agata’s enthusiasm was contagious, and soon thereafter she founded the “Topographies” Association with a bunch of friends. In our junior year we suddenly found ourselves with time on our hands. If you’re not busy collecting easy As, you can spend your time creating an organization. Most of the ideas were already in our heads, we just needed an outlet for all that accumulated energy.

“Topographies” members are rarely reimbursed for their work, but they don’t need to be motivated. At the copy shop, the gas station or even at the construction supply store they pay out of their own pockets.

Agata would like the association to make money to support its continued operation. “We receive grants to organize festival or urban games, but we haven’t been able to find a permanent sponsor. We’re still living event to event. I’m afraid that if this state of affairs continues, we will never become a fully legitimate, professional institution. Right now, project coordinators spend their weekends doing construction because a presentable office is supposed to be the first step towards legitimacy.” They rented the space from the University of Łódź. Agata remembers it as “a forgotten wreck, this place. There were even some classes taught here, but only because there was not enough space in the more fancy buildings. In the winter, you had to wear a coat and dodge falling chunks of plaster.”

When the renovations are done, the office will house a gallery, a city studies center, and a coffee shop.

A PH.D. WORTH ITS WEIGHT IN GOLD

“If you really want to make your social activism count for something, you have to make it your day job, not something you do after hours,” Zysiak explains. The association eats up most of her time, and almost all of it is writing emails. She eagerly awaits the moment when all project discussions will happen on a face-to-face basis. “Until we have a proper office, I will serve as project manager, communication relay and conflict mediator, because with 30 people on staff, not everything will always run smooth. I’m the association’s president, but that’s in title only, all decisions are made by the entire staff. It’s our one, common vision.”

Right now she makes ends meet thanks to a doctoral scholarship funded by the local government. She’s writing her dissertation on cultural elites in Łódź – and the association will also benefit from it.

“We’re engaging in projects with a popular science component and we’re planning to expand into hard science real soon. With a Ph.D. in front of my name, it’s going to be easier to navigate the world of academia.”

“Many grants require the project coordinator to have a Ph.D. It might just turn out that my dissertation will be worth its weight in gold,” says Zysiak, explaining later that writing articles for peer-reviewed journals is a source of physical pain for her. Her boyfriend often helps her, they write and do research together. “We’re on the same program, so fills me in on theory while I help him with the practical applications. We’re both low on free time, so there’s not much chance of any collisions.”

Every year they travel with friends during the summer. They fasten their bikes to the top of their 12-year old Lada Niva and go east. This year they spent two months in the general vicinity of Murmansk. Their goal was to ride around Lake Onego on their bikes. She bought the truck with those summer trips in mind.

Agata jokingly recounts that “the car is a blessing in the East; it makes people more open and friendly, everyone knows how to fix it, spare parts can be found in every workshop. Once or twice it even helped us weasel our way out of a ticket.”

They have been to Kazachstan, Russia, Armenia and Georgia. “Southern and Eastern Europe are being modernized at a very rapid pace. I think that out there we’re seeing the last vestiges of the Soviet past.”

CAPITALISM

On most days she commutes by bike. It’s faster than taking the bus or tram, the 6-kilometer route usually takes her up to 10 minutes. Moreover, a bike doesn’t spew noxious fumes and improves overall fitness. She used to commute 16 kilometers to work every day for two years when she worked at a private company before enrolling in her Ph.D. program.

The company was founded by alumni of the technical university in Łódź. They specialized in mobile technologies, like QR-codes and Bluetooth. Łódź was the first European city to introduce a mobile tourist information service based on QR-codes. Many of the city’s monuments and sites have such a code somewhere on them, a shock of black and white rectangles that when scanned, direct the mobile Web browser to an appropriate site filled with information, short video clips and even a guided tour. There are even entire routes where you follow QR-codes like breadcrumbs, e.g. Villas and Palaces or Industrial Architecture (you can find them at http://www.odkodujlodz.pl)

She spent two years in the company’s marketing department. “My then-boss was looking for people that knew their way around Łódź and he found me thanks to our association. I learned much at that place but it was a very trying time. When I got the scholarship, I left the company. I can spend my time on research instead of selling it to capitalism.”

OPEN YOUR EYES

“Łódź was always a bit strange. German and Jewish immigration infused the city with rampant capitalism and transformed Łódź into a bulwark of labor in the midst of countryside manors. We want to show its historic continuity, it’s a bit short but substantial.”

This is to be done via the Speak the City project. Its goal is to amass a library of oral histories collected through personal interviews with the oldest people in Łódź. Some recorded conversations are already transcribed and are exhibited in a gallery; these free-flowing recollections show us the city, its culture, customs, and everyday life through the eyes of the locals.

The entire Łódź Memory Project is supposed to capture what’s absent from the official histories – the unique memories of locals.

“This project will never end, there will always be one more history to find,” says Agata quickly adding that she has an idea for a book collecting uncensored conversations with professors and interviews with people from dying professions like leatherworkers or stove craftsmen.

Urban games, however, draw the biggest crowds. The “Topographies” people have organized more than a few dozen already. The goal of “To Catch a Thief” was apprehending Blind Max, a legendary burglar from Bałuty, while “Among the Looms” transported the gamers to the capitalist world of big business. There was also one game that familiarized participants with the avant-garde works of painter Władysław Strzemiński.

“It’s a way to familiarizing the locals with the city and its history. The games are an eye-opening experience.”

The association has also prepared training workshops for teachers. They gave them tools with which to construct their own urban games. “The seeds fell on fertile ground. Some of them are already making their own games.” You can also look at the city through a lens of a camera, especially an old one, like a LOMO or Smiena that your grandparents have probably stashed somewhere. The result of the “Łódź through a Lomo” project (available at http://www.lomujlodz.pl/index.html) was an exhibition in Manufaktura that collected almost 13,000 photographs.

Some of the photos showed plastic booths that came to the city along with capitalism after 1989. Today, their owners make a living selling bus tickets and doughnuts. The association sent one of these booths to Giessen. “We wanted revenge for all these old German washing machines and refrigerators dumped here. But it turned out that what for us was a symbol of the country’s transformation after 1989 and a symbol of capitalism, for them was a memory of socialist times. The perspective was totally different.” The “Topographies” people have also organized urban Olympic games (with events like running with a fireplace poker and stove rings, bottle cap races, boules championships, turbo golf tournaments, running up flights of stairs), regional education campaigns, festival and live shows. They also collect mind maps made by the locals.

“We ask people to draw Łódź how they remember it from childhood and then draw the Łódź of today. This shows us how the perception of a city drastically changes with age. You also get a taste of it when organizing exhibitions. The youths ask for coat check and toilets, the elderly ask for the number of stairs they’ll have to take on.”

They celebrated the association’s third birthday at Piotrkowska Street. They put a table, some couches and a fridge together, so everyone could join in.

The group has more ideas than means implement them. For four years they have been backed by a few dozen institutions, like the University of Łódź, the Łódź Municipal Museum, the Museum of Art, the Institute of National Remembrance, the Jewish Community of Łódź, Krytyka Polityczna, and even an organization of circus performers.

Agata is thankful for any help, every new face that shows up at events she helps organize. “We want to change the way people talk about Łódź, to reinforce the identity of the locals. Although it’s hard to talk about it with those who feel no connection with Łódź, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reach them somehow,” she says.

THE AMERICA OF POLAND

When she shows friends around the city, she starts with the worker housing and Karl Scheibler’s textile factories at the Księży Młyn complex.

“This place clearly demonstrates the way authority works: a giant factory clock dominates the entire neighborhood, you can see it from every house. Every apartment was filled with people who lived and died by that clock. It can show you the birth of modernity but you have to know what to look for.”

Agata lives in the Stoki neighborhood, which she claims is a part of the city’s war heritage, as it was built by the Germans. For Zysiak, the flashy tenement houses and palaces built on Gdańska Street are living proof of lack of zoning regulations. “Łódź isn’t a traditional city with a pretty square in the middle,” she says, adding that the “cultural continuity of the city was repeatedly destroyed. In the 19th century, this small town got its chance to shine. Around that time, Łódź became the America of Poland, the promised land. Housing sits next to factories, smokestacks stand almost next to apartment windows. Other places suffused with history are the Evangelical cemetery on Ogrodowa Street and dark archways with their tiny workshops, old signs and Jewish huts built for Sukkot.

The city can be as much irritating as it can be charming. Agata lists cars parking on every square inch of the sidewalk, dog feces, potholes and tenement houses in serious disrepair as the main sources of irritation.

“The city, on the decision level, has to be subjected to a form of acupuncture. The city authorities have to level the rents and engage in some reasonable renovations. They have to provide an attractive alternative for the locals, instead of placing them in even more dilapidated hosing in Bałuty or pretty little huts in Olechów, 15 kilometers from the city center. Building separate gated communities for the rich and the poor will only hurt us in the long run.”

“Łódź is still compared to a big village. We’re either going to overcome this opinion by finding a field in which we will be the avant-garde or we’ll have to use that opinion to our advantage,” says Agata, quickly adding that if Łódź is destined to be Warsaw’s bedroom, then “we should at least make it an attractive bedroom. Students will stop fleeing a city where one can live life in peace and on the cheap, a city where parks don’t turn to war zones at night, a city that offers a wide variety of cultural activities. You have to put much effort into making some changes here, but if you manage to do it, the impact is bigger than it would have been in Warsaw, Cracow or Wrocław. But first you need a foundation upon which you can build some form of bond with the city. I’d like the locals to take some responsibility for their environment, to put faith in their city, to love it. Although I myself know how tough this love can be. If I hadn’t created »Topographies«…

8 HOURS

“I’d create some other organization, no doubt about it. I had a fantastic job, lots of freedom, an open-minded boss. But I still didn’t feel fully comfortable. Right now I couldn’t handle spending 8 hours behind a desk, repeating the same activities on an everyday basis. I’m financially secure thanks to my scholarship, so instead of thinking about earning my living, I can think about what can I do to help my city. The association? I wouldn’t describe it as a job. I’m just doing what I love.

Agata Listoś
Translated by Jan Szelągiewicz

This article (together with the questionnaire) is a 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.