I found a garden allotment that had been abandoned near the Railroad tracks. I took out the garbage. I fixed up the fence. I cataloged the plant life. I pruned the trees. I planted some food and fed my family. I helped the soil. I paid attention to who and what uses the space. I met the neighbors, the passers-by, the drinkers, the sleepers, the talkers, the kids, anyone. Talked and listened. Learned about food, history, drinking, Warsaw, Poland, the weather, anything.
In Warsaw there are these amazing little plots of paradise: urban gardens known as działki [pronounced JOW-ki. Singular: działka]. In fact, they are not so much gardens as allotments, a direct translation, little pieces of land assigned to people by some sort of authority. Who are these people and who is this authority? This is a mystery I am still trying to unravel. It seems like either your family has a działka and always had a działka, or your family doesn’t have one and never did.
There are two types of działki: the so-called Rodzinny Ogród Działkowy, or Family Garden Allotments, and the Pracownyczych Ogród Działkowy, or Worker’s Garden Allotments. The latter seem to have been given to workers (or apparatchiks) as a sort of perk. One can be forgiven thinking działki originated during the communist era, but in fact they predate even the first world war. Actually, they predate the last century. Działki aren’t only in cities, either but can also be found in abundance in the country. Country działki are often little cabins in the woods, or spaces to grow food out of the city. In the city, działki seem a little bit like gated communities; everything is locked up neat and sweet, fenced in with gates and locks, supplied with water and sidewalks. Some even have mail boxes.
The allotments seem to be private property, but I recently learned that when a person buys a działka nowadays, they are actually just buying the right to use the land. However a person may have come by a działka in the past, this right-to-use is now bought and sold. Who actually owns the land? A sort-of consortium or association that is a holdover from communist times. Well they don’t even own the land. The city owns the land. In some cases the State might own it. I read about a case in Praga where a private person owns it, and guess what? He wants it back! So the garden consortium rents the land from the city.
Działka are used for recreational or other use, typically horticultural, which in Poland means growing flowers. Growing food in the cities is either frowned upon or simply never considered. Recreation might mean bearing your belly to the sun, dancing with a beer can or with one of your buddies, or simply sitting, looking at flowers, and sighing.
They say that Poland is currently experiencing a boom in the gardening business. But “business” by this measure more likely means “grill” and “grass”. Perhaps in the suburbs, where people are building ever bigger homes here, landscapes are growing, but in the city the działki are disappearing, giving way to high rises and freeways. In my neighborhood, they are in a very sad state indeed. Many are neglected and abandoned. If you do happen to spot a person working one, they are not likely to be under the age of 70. Still, they lug bags of dirt, work all day in the sun, squat and bend. It’s amazing. I often wonder who will take care of the land when the old folks die.
This project aims to take one of these neglected, abandoned spots and give it back its life.