Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 21
15 November 1999

C I T I E S:
A Tale of Many Cities

Wojtek Kosc

For an outsider looking through a car window, it is hard to discern whether he has just left Katowice or entered Chorzow. Similar, grey, 1970s blocks of flats or pre-war red-turned to-black familoki (an acronym of the German words Familie and Blok) with coal-mine chimneys between them: this is the stereotypical picture of Silesia in the minds of many Poles and foreigners. One that is only partly justified, though. It is true that the region is best known for its coal mines, steel plants and polluted environment and held a cherished place in the hearts of Poland's past Communist governments. Those times, however, are gone, and today Silesia is facing the difficult legacy of its past as well as the equally difficult prospect of the future, which will undoubtedly bring changes to this unique region.

Why unique? Well, Silesia has always been different from the rest of the country - no matter whether it was under Prussian, German or Polish rule. As early as the Middle Ages, people have known that Silesia's soil hid treasures, but it was not until the Industrial Revolution, when coal began to be truly in demand, that these treasures started to be exploited. They continued to be exploited long after the Second World War, putting Silesia in a primary and privileged position in Poland. Industrialisation took forms that were far from sensible, causing ecological degeneration. Enormous amounts of coal and steel continued to be produced in the region even after the rest of the world started seeking other energy sources.

Naturally, such large-scale production needed people, buildings to house them in, services, etc. Thus, the authorities encouraged people from outside the region to settle in Silesia and offered them a system of bonuses hardly available elsewhere in Poland. People flocked to the region; cities grew, eventually forming the biggest agglomeration in Central Europe. Today, the Upper-Silesia Industrial Area (Polish acronym: GOP) - as it is officially known, since "Silesia" officially encompasses a huge region of southern Poland stretching from Wroclaw to Katowice - consists of 23 cities clustered together, totalling over 4 million people.

As most large urban areas, GOP is struggling with many problems. It is impossible to isolate just one of these as the chief one, as the region's problems cannot be solved in isolation. Authorities cannot concentrate on fighting pollution and neglect social tensions caused by the closure of mines and subsequent lay-offs. GOP is a difficult area to manage, and many of those in charge, including the region's current governor, Marek Kempski, have been criticised rather than praised.

GOP's problems, with the exception of transportation, are specific to the region. Nowhere else in Poland is there a threat of such massive lay-offs. Environmental pollution is a result of years of maximum industrial activity concentrated within a relatively small area. In many cities (such as Tychy), dull housing estates are virtually the only architectural landmark.

Pollution has long been almost synonymous with GOP. Levels of air pollution used to be some of the highest in Europe, but thanks to the gradual introduction of modern filtering technologies and the closing down of mines, they have recently been brought within reasonable limits. Water and ground contamination have a more persistent character, as it takes years for dangerous chemicals to decompose. Last week, plans were revealed for the clean-up of the River Rawa, which flows through Katowice. Such clean-up initiatives should be implemented in every one of GOP's river, since in their present state they are mere sewage tracts emitting a foul smell on hot days.

Another problem is the existence of old underground mining sites which cause buildings to crumble, forests to dehydrate and dry areas to unexpectedly become damp - all results of setting the delicate system of underground water and layers of rock off balance.

To ensure an efficient transportation system is not an easy task either. GOP's roads have shown to be unprepared for the automobile boom of recent years. The result has been notorious traffic jams and heavy transport travelling straight through cities instead being directed into (non-existing) outside rings. The region's only motorway is from Katowice to Cracow. Construction of others is progressing much too slowly. As most of the world's public transport systems, GOP's internal transportation network (buses and trams) has never been profitable, but whereas the bus network is managed as a whole, trams are administered separately by each of the region's 23 cities. This causes chaos in the distribution of funds, and since the government's contribution is uncertain, it is feared that the tram network might be liquidated.

Travelling by tram, one will notice the omnipresent blocks of flats, marring the surrounding landscape more than any of the industrial sites (the latter actually have a certain charm). Built according to the "the faster the better" rule, this architecture is definitely not here to stay, due to a short life expectancy, made even shorter by the disadvantageous environmental conditions of polluted air and shaky ground. What will happen once these structures are past their expiration date? No one dares to ask, but some future governor will no doubt add this to his/her agenda. The obvious solution is to at least improve the pre-fabs so that they will last longer, but there are no funds for this, let alone for building new municipal housing estates.

On the brighter side, there is interesting architecture to be found in Silesia, both old and new. Contrary to yet another common stereotype about GOP, the region is not merely a 100-year-old human settlement; some cities, such as Gliwice, date back to the 13th century, and architectural testaments to this remain. New architecture is perhaps best exemplified by the Silesian Library, an extraordinary construction, housing one of Europe's most state-of-the-art libraries.

Certain other buildings, however, are already being closed down or torn down. Theses are the profitless coal mines. And while the buildings themselves (or the free space left after them) may be used for commercial purposes, the people who once worked in them who are scheduled to be laid-off cannot be simply put on the dole. The government's plan is to provide special funds for the miners affected by restructuralisation (some of them have received payment already), but not everyone is willing to leave their workplace after 30-odd years spent there. Social tension mounts; a vivid example of this was the recent hunger strike begun by a group of miners from the Siersza coal mine, who were protesting against its closure. If one had to pin down the chief problem of the area, then social tensions brought on by GOP's loss of its defining characteristic as an area of heavy industry would have to take first place.

So, which new features will GOP acquire? With a huge potential market of 4 million people, it has already become a very attractive place. In 1997, a ranking of Polish cities most attractive for investors, published by the Warsaw Business Journal, GOP cities occupied seven out of the ten top positions. A shift is under way from heavy, non-ecological coal mining and related industries to modern services and lighter, more precise branches of production (such as car manufacturing). It may be tough to wave goodbye to the ethos of hard work which many people associate too narrowly with the industrial past. On the other hand, this ethos could prove to be useful when hard work will be needed again to build a different future.

Wojtek Kosc, 10 November 1999



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