Saturday, February 17, 2007

The makeover of a city

I can't remember the chain of links that led to this article, but it coincides with something I've been meaning to write about Poland.

If you look at the pictures in the article, you'll have a pretty good idea of what communist-era buildings look like. Closely-packed neighborhoods of cookie-cutter concrete buildings are ubiquitous in former "iron curtain" countries. This article suggests that, rather than updating the energy systems, the buildings should be torn down and built anew.

I am aghast at the idea. I agree that they are ugly, and those neighborhoods are virtually dehumanizing in their stark, grey, sameness. But there are other ways. My husband and I have recently discussed the different "face" of Krakow, as we are coming up on the ten year mark since we first moved here.

Ten years ago, the area around the older part of Krakow was clogged with such neighborhoods. I wish we had pictures of what it looked like then, since "before" and "after" pictures would be so eloquent, but I shall do my best to explain in words why it looks different now.

Picture several rows of identical, 11-story, unpainted concrete buildings, blackened by decades of steel pollution. Now picture the same buildings, in the same configuration. But the first building is red, with tan trim. The next is done in two shades of gold. The next one is a light green/dark green combination. The next one is a deep rust color with beige trim. One of the buildings is lighter on the top and darker on the bottom, but the line between is not straight--it is a wide, contemporary wave. No two buildings are the same color, although some have the same painting scheme in different shades.

You cannot imagine, unless you have seen it, what a difference this makes to the appearance of the city. Neighborhoods that looked grim, stark, and unappealing now resemble modern condos. Also, the buildings have not only been painted. At the same time they were painted, they had a type of insulation wrapped around the building. Basically, about five or six inches of hard styrofoam is screwed onto the exterior, then plastered over and attractively painted.

While this renovation is taking place, the inhabitants are subjected to some inconvenience--the noise, the presence of scaffolding and workers nearby (imagine how peculiar it would be to have someone working outside your sixth-floor window), and the styrofoam "snow" that floats in the air and litters the ground. But all that is temporary, and no one is rendered homeless in the meantime.

Housing is at a premium in this city, although I cannot speak for anywhere else. New construction is going on all the time, and the newly available apartments (often no bigger, by the way, than the ones in the old buildings) are immediately occupied. I can't imagine turning out the hundreds--in some cases thousands--of residents of a single building so that it can be torn down and rebuilt, let alone doing that with all those hundreds of old buildings. Where, exactly, do the authors of that article suppose they will live in the meantime?

Krakow looks much nicer today than it did ten years ago. My own old neighborhood is hardly recognizable. Sometimes fixing up what you have is a better idea than tossing it out and buying something new. In this case, it is certainly more efficient and humane.


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