You live in an apartment block and want to grow food but have no access to land. So you look around the immediate vicinity, around the building, around the neighborhood. You find a few promising spots that get some sun. You decide try to use the regular channels — to actually get permission from the authorities to use the land. You invite your neighbors to participate. Build the garden. Take care of the garden. Share the garden.
Urban Greens. Miejska Zielenina. Food in the Commons.
There is a lot of common space in Warsaw. Many people say that one thing the communists did right was to plan for common space in the apartment complexes, known here as bloks. This is one reason, some say, that Warsaw has so much green space. These bloks are not really much different than any other 20th century apartment complex nightmare. They fill every Eastern European city. BLOK, a film by Hiermion Neumann gives you a feel for the ups and downs of life in the Polish blok.
These bloks have a certain charm to be sure, especially to Americans or West Europeans who have romantic ideas of communism, who find charm in all the ugliness. But living in one is really not so charming. The rooms push in on you. Odors of cabbage soup and fish float through the vents that connect the floors, kitchen to kitchen, and bath to bath. These vents also make it easy for all the residents to share cockroaches, arguments, and all too rarely, laughter. The walls are so hard, they bend any nail that comes near.
However it is is always how it will be: these bloks are not going away anytime soon. There’s no point of dreaming of a “nicer” apartment because almost no matter where you go in Warsaw, you’ll open the door to the same apartment. (Of course there are the “new” apartments, which typically means a tacky, plastic one.) Yep, even this old shitty thing is the best thing going! And people are dealing with it. A symphony of pounding and drilling pipes out of almost every building. The sound of the drill, drilling into these hard walls, always someone, somewhere, drilling, drilling, this sound of the drill will never leave me. Old windows are stacked against the garbage houses like so many old prostheses. Trucks come and go with the socialist-era rubble. People are doing up the inside and painting the buildings all manner of pink and green and yellow.
But in the in-between spots, little changes. There is an almost ideological separation between public space and private space in Poland, and the reasons are complex and sometimes baffling. The idea of public space hasn’t quite caught on here. In fact a lot of Poles will tell you, “There is no public space.” At any rate, the common space outside the blok, the marvelous open promising shared space, is today mostly unused and definitely not shared.
What’s strange about this common space is that nobody treats it as common; that is to say, there are very few community activities going on in the blok yards. Now this wasn’t always so. A film from the 70s, REPLIKA (1975, Kazimierz Bendkowski) depicts a single summer day in the blok using time-lapse photography from a high angle. The blok’s yard is filled with children playing, well-utilized playground equipment, people moving about, cleaning, playing, spraying water. The blok today is a dead sea of cracked asphalt. Nothing moves there. Nothing lives. The playground equipment has been removed. (A friend told me this was because EU regulations deemed it unsafe.) Once in a while you might see one kid sitting alone on a crooked bench with a flattened ball. Or two boys beating each other with sticks.
What can we do with this space?
Well my idea was to grow food there. Lately I’ve been thinking of a few other ideas.