The Struggle and the City. Introduction to dVERSIA’s 6th issue
by Jana Tsoneva & Pavel Yanchev
Dear reader, on your screens you see dVERSIA’s (dВЕРСИЯ) sixth issue, devoted to the privatisation of and struggles for public spaces. The problem of the ‘common’ has been a subject of heated debate for years and has become central to perhaps the majority of protest mobilisations in recent times. We are increasingly reluctant to hear about plans for large-scale reconstruction projects or projects that affect cultural built heritage. To illustrate this growing uneasiness, let us be reminded of the protests against the reconstruction of the so-called ‘House with the Berries’ on San Stefano Street in Sofia, or of the enormous public pressure on the Ministry of Culture to suspend the restoration of Roman Serdica* for activists’ fear that the authentic ruins were being buried under walls made of contemporary bricks.
What does the current issue add to the flourishing discussion on our common spaces? To start with, we want to steer the debate in a direction that goes beyond personalising frames which tend to account for the problems of the urban environment only in terms of individuals and their supposed moral and aesthetic deficits. For instance, the idea that the ‘odious’ Peter Dikov, Sofia’s former Chief Architect, is guilty because he is corrupted, has come to dominate the critical debate over Sofia’s over-building and loss of green spaces. Far from admiring Mr. Dikov’s work, or justifying his actions, our aim in this issue will be to overcome our habit of staring at the lone-standing ‘rotten tree’, in order to see the forest. In other words, we seek to understand the systemic problems not reducible to the personality of any particular individual in power. For instance, investment pressure, combined with restitution* of land property and the lack of town plans, would lead to over-building no matter who is acting as Chief Architect. Hence, we strive to avoid such personalising reduction of urban problems which has come to define the majority of these discourses. However, pointing the finger at hyper abstract culprits is not a solution either. Here, we will elaborate further on two examples of similar abstractions: ‘the ghost of communism’, on the one hand, and ‘chalga music’* on the other.
As often happens when confronted with the aesthetic taste of those in power, citizen activists in Bulgaria mobilise the repertoire of anti-communist and anti-populist rhetorics, in order to delegitimize the authorities’ attempts to refine public space. Let us take as an example the protests against the ‘restoration’ project of the Largo in Sofia*. Protesters constantly emphasised that the Director of the National History Museum Bozhidar Dimitrov worked as a State Security* undercover agent during the Communist regime, or that the Minister of Culture Vezhdi Rashidov had ties to the Multigroup business empire*. The latter is widely used by expert and scholarly interpretations of the Transition period as the most ardent example of the ‘derailment’ of the transition to market democracy by the Bulgarian Communist Party/The State Security. Such interpretations work as part of a common theme – an explanatory framework that can be summarised as ‘we don’t have real capitalism’ because ‘the Committee for State Security is still in power’.
Bozhidar Dimitrov laconically countered these attacks by calling the citizen activists ‘jihadist’, and concluded that ‘we should either turn it [the Largo – Transl.] into a tourist site or bury it straight away’ (Mediapool, 2015). Doesn’t this show that Dimitrov’s intentions are in fact hypercapitalist? He subjects the governance of cultural heritage (newly built or not) to market imperatives – a move that constitutes a break with the Enlightenment vision of culture as an end in itself. If we were to paraphrase his words, monuments should either be a successful tourist product or there is otherwise no purpose for them. Had Bertolt Brecht witnessed the scandal, he would have probably asked, ‘what do we need capitalists for if we already have such communists?’
The other type of intervention, this time mostly on behalf of public intellectuals, is based upon a critique of ‘chalga’ and ‘mass taste’. It explains outrageous decisions in the realm of public space governance (ranging from the erection of nationalist memorials to the building of Medieval-style fortresses) with ‘populism’ on behalf of power-holders in their attempts to respond to the demands of the so-called ‘mass taste’ – of which chalga is most commonly cited as an example. That is to say, when ‘good taste’ activists define the new fortresses as chalga (which to them is an emanation of ‘bad taste’ and ‘vulgar crowds’), cultural heritage policies, the people, and a particular music style are effectively being short-circuited. The danger which the so-called ‘House with the Berries’* faced was ‘explained’ in a similar manner. For instance, it was pointed out that Zlatev (the owner) is of a peasant stock – his grand-grandfather was a swineherd (Afera.bg, 2011), and this is why he wanted to transform the beautiful gem on Sofia’s San Stefano into a ‘pigsty’. A consistent feature of the activists’ opposition is then such a hunt for the peasant(like) in elites. The criticism of the infamous reconstruction of the ‘Japanese hotel’* in Sofia by Vetko Arabadjiev was advanced in a similar manner. The criticised replacement of an aesthetic indicating high class belonging by one of lower class belonging is possible only through a metaphorical displacement, which has nothing to do with real existing relations and spatial organisation of the countryside. The designation ‘peasant’ is used as a byword for a vulgar person with bad taste. But to what extent can we claim that such opposition based upon the absorption of what is ‘high’ into what is ‘low’, is in any way meaningful? And doesn’t the elitist critique of ‘peasants’ alienate potential allies in the struggles for public space? After all, no peasant owns a bourgeois house from the beginning of the 20th century or a multi-story hotel in the city centre, nor does she design her house or hotel in line with global luxury fashion – something which, in fact, is vehemently despised by the heralds of the ascetic ‘flea market’ taste in the circles of the educated urban middle class.
One of the unproductive consequences of this discourse is that it frees the real culprits for the deteriorating public space from responsibility, because it substitutes them with something quite blurred and abstract – ‘Bulgarian mentality’, ‘mass taste’, ‘populism’ and so on. In this way, for example, the fact that, a private philanthropic foundation run by a rich, successful and patriotic Bulgarian, financed the construction of the monument of Tsar Samuel* (which received moral and material support from Sofia City Council, who also provided public space for its erection), failed to receive critical attention. While we point the accusatory finger at the ‘masses’ and ‘mentality’, the concrete and quite elitist ‘culprits’ for the nationalist folly erected in front of Alexander Nevsky cathedral remain out of sight. Also, the reduction of the debates on architectural or urban planning practices merely to the quality and aesthetics of the urban form – or the utilised materials – prevents us from seeing the power relations behind their construction, as well as the inequalities caused by them.
Since the state is accused of not being liberal enough, as well as of being populist and prone to succumb to ‘mass taste’, it has become widely accepted that its corrective – and in some cases, its substitute – are the ‘citizen initiatives’ from below. An example of such an initiative is the renewal of Plovdiv’s Kapana* neighbourhood which inspired a similar project in Sofia: the so-called ‘quARTer’. What is interesting here is how the initiative simultaneously combined an opposition to ‘uncleanly business interests’  with the wish to create a space for ‘entrepreneurial urban ventures’ . Yet, how is it possible that the project is at once ‘for’ and ‘against’ the subjection of public spaces and urban environment to business interests?
It is indeed possible because the logic, according to which formally equivalent practices (like investment, ensuring favourable conditions for business, etc.) are being distinguished, is entirely aesthetic. We can see this for instance when businesses take on ‘urban renewal’ projects which result in forms that are pleasing to the new ‘creative class’: ‘hipster’ bars in old houses with bare brick walls, industrial aesthetics and, all in all, everything which carries the spirit of ‘Old Sofia’ – this, despite the fact that bare bricks, ‘raw’ lamps made of cables, and flash bulbs or polished concrete floors can’t be found in any old house. The design of urban space after the ‘Old Sofia’ model, even when it draws on aesthetic forms unfamiliar to construction practices from the beginning of the 20th century, is a key element of nostalgia for the times before Socialism. In the symbolic universe of the anti-communist imagination ‘the heritage of Old Sofia’ and communism are placed in a relationship of absolute opposition. If we look back in history, however, we would see that this opposition fails to make sense as ‘Old Sofia’ exists primarily because of Communism. (If anything is capable of saving whatever is left of it, it would not be pro-investment policies but precisely the contrary – a curb on the investment drive that leaves behind ruined old houses in order to make place for the construction of housing blocks, malls, business centres etc.) For instance, the National Institute for Immovable Cultural Heritage – the state institution directly responsible for the preservation of cultural built heritage – was created in 1957 . At the time, prominent immovable properties in Sofia and across the country were declared cultural heritage sites. Even without having to examine very closely the roots of the discourse on the ‘Old Sofia’, we can speculate with a high degree of certainty that whenever it emerged (be it after 1989 or, even more comical, during the Socialist regime), this discourse wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the Socialist State’s preservation of the material heritage, which ends up being its target today. As often happens, socialism provides its opponents with critical resources, which are then used against it. (An example of this could also be seen in contemporary forms of Bulgarian nationalism, which reject the thesis of Bulgarians’ Slavic origins. This type of nationalism is rooted in the efforts for cultural detachment of Bulgaria from the Soviet Union undertaken by Lyudmila Zhivkova.)
And if we are to reject the naive personalisation and the even more naive ghostbusting of regimes that have disappeared long ago, how does dVERSIA’s current issue help shed light on and gain an understanding of the processes of losing public spaces?
Firstly, our approach looks at public spaces not as if they were inert and objectively given – subject to the latest portion of interventions by ‘chalga music listeners’ or ready to accept a ‘gulp of normality’ by ‘investors with good taste’. Instead, these should be seen as spaces pierced by conflicting social relations. The latter are by definition unequal and infused with power, while public space acts as a canvas upon which inequalities are not only inscribed but also through which they are exacerbated. In other words, pressing problems such as the lack of satisfactory public spaces and the bleak state of neglect engulfing what is left of them, the sort of inequalities that make it possible for empty houses that await their buyers or investors to co-exist with armies of homeless people, the kind of inequalities that divide our cities into a relatively well-maintained centre, some ‘hipster’ pockets, and an abandoned periphery – all of these problems exist not because the establishment of ‘mature capitalism in line with a Western model’ lags behind (impeded by ‘communist chalga mentality’ or corruption), but precisely because since the early 1990s all efforts were directed towards its very creation and stabilisation. In other words, all these quite different and, at first glance, disjunct spaces are moments of the same totality – of the ‘mad dance’ of self-valorising value.
For instance, as Peter Dobrev shows in his article devoted to the sea baths in Varna, the loss of accessible public space combined with repair works that fail to match the original architecture cannot be understood without considering the baths’ privatisation and transformation into a space for luxurious consumption. In other words, ‘bad taste’ and ‘mutra-style baroque’* are not engendered by an alleged lack of education and aesthetic sense, but by investment pressure which the State is rather unwilling to limit (it often even encourages it, as in the case when Varna City Council sold huge chunks of the Sea Garden and Alley First* on the pretext of lack of financial resources to reinforce landslide zones). Capital is reluctant to put up with spaces which are (from its own perspective) ‘empty’ – i.e. those used for non-commercial or social purposes, while bearing money-making potential (due to their proximity to the city centre or to the tourist flows).
Again looking at Varna, but this time at the privatisation case concerning a segment of the Sea Garden, Bozhin Traykov demonstrates that a critique focused only on taste is subject to certain limitations. It is limited in so far as it is incapable of offering accounts of the mechanisms of privatisation beyond conspiracy theories about outside interference by ‘bad communists’ (or ‘peasants’). Critique should instead attempt to gain an understanding of the immanent processes of deterioration of the public sphere brought about by any transformation of public space into capital.
As previously suggested, the commodification of public space tends to provoke protests from activists for urban environment. However, as Georgi Medarov shows in his article ‘Liberalisation or Democratisation of Urban Activism’, the resistance against gentrification in Bulgaria embodies its own negation in so far that the champions against it work precisely in its favour, calling it instead ‘urban renewal’. In other words, the reduction of the critique of political economy to a critique of aesthetics is bound to reproduce rather than challenge what it is aimed at.
Speaking of struggles, in her own article here, Raya Apostolova focuses on the struggle played out between the architects and technicians of the incarceration of asylum seekers in specialised prisons on the one hand, and the refugees who appropriate various elements of the makeup and interior of there prisons, on the other. The incarceration and pacification of prisoners is an extremely oppressive aspect of the already oppressive profession of the architect, but its grip isn’t total – the incarcerated populations constantly attempt to evade its hold. Apostolova examines the tactics of the imprisoned as well as those of architects in midst of the struggle, without at the same time losing sight of the ways in which asylum politics produce suffering and homelessness.
In her article Neda Genova engages with the optimistic tale of the social mobility of Bulgarian Roma who hold higher education. This tale is based on neoliberal clichés about personal responsibility and depoliticises both the ‘ghetto’ and the ‘university’. Genova demonstrates how depoliticisation turns both topoi of neoliberal teleology ‘from the ghetto to the university’ into abstract spaces, erasing their political and power specifics. In this way, the neoliberal account reproduces the conditions for the existence of inequalities which force some populations into ghettos, while other populations take advantage of their membership in the ‘aristocracy of the skin’, all the while celebrating the cases of ‘successful’ and ‘integrated’ Roma.
We have also what to offer to the criticizers of critics and to their eternal refrains ‘where are your constructive suggestions?’ We have invited architects, urbanists and activists to comment on the opportunities for urban development – opportunities which would not be punitive or socially exclusionary of the populations who are already punished by virtue of their marginalisation. For instance, one of the issue’s co-editors Pavel Yanchev draws attention to some significant infrastructure barriers to equal access to public space as well as to the opportunities it offers for free movement of people in the city. Rositsa Kratunkova shows how several Bulgarian local governments pursue a politics of apartheid against the Roma population. Apartheid has not only physical dimensions (the building of walls) but also immaterial ones (a perverse deprivation of Roma of their right to vote). At the same time, the analysis shows how institutions secrete racism in order to justify their own politics and to burden the victims of their policies with the responsibility for their own destitution. Kratunkova also draws attention to the local government initiatives which do attempt to overcome the effects of racist politics, and which need to be encouraged.
Silvia Chakarova’s and Nurhan Redjeb’s contributions are to the discussion over a ‘more human city’. They offer ideas for how our cities could become more accessible for pedestrians and how we can, through citizen participation, preserve and increase the number of pedestrian urban zones. Chakarova’s article focuses on Sofia while Redjeb’s – on Silistra, but both texts share the conviction that it is high time we reverted the tendencies which turn our cities into hostile places, estranged to common human activities like walking or outdoor leisure. As Redjeb shows, urban development that is subordinated to the logic of private property, inevitably leads to the worsening of the quality of the urban environment.
Another problem taken up by texts in this issue is the myth that the best way to develop the city is through the chaotic investment efforts of mutually uncoordinated but purposeful agents who only pursue their own interest, and that the state should not interfere with these inverstors’ efforts to make urban life better for all of us. Yet, if we look closer at the process of privatisation and at the loss of public spaces, we will notice that such loss has occurred precisely where the state has retreated from its regulatory role. This makes it possible for parks to become over-built; for retail malls to be constructed on large areas of thousands of square metres each; for gigantic advertisement panels to be placed on buildings and along roadways; the dilapidation of cultural heritage sites. The refusal to draft out working plans for cities and neighbourhoods gradually unties the hands of initiative-driven individuals to conquer and privatise public spaces with the aim of accumulating private, rather than common wealth. To see those acts as isolated cases of unscrupulous investment ventures would be naive, especially at a time when all mainstream media establish a symbolic equation between the ‘successful’, the ‘financially well-off’ and the ‘entrepreneurial’, while at the same time problems of inequality and solidarity remain extremely unpopular topics. It turns out that the engineering of social isolation in cities, as well as the irrevocable loss of public spaces in favour of investment interest, are purposeful practices on behalf of local governments and the State that function for the benefit of a few and at the expense of us all. The texts in this issue plead for city planning that prioritizes the majority’s democratic right to a city, rather than the right to profit on behalf of a minority of investors. This denotes a reversal of the role of the state from one which facilitates investment or is itself an investor into one which builds parks, social housing, good public transportation – i.e. all those things that make life in the city convenient and secure. We would like for the majority of the urban population to participate in the formulation of its interests and that these be taken into account – even when they undermine those of a minority of private investors.
We could trace the unfolding of the conflict between ‘public’ and ‘private’ in many other spheres: from the loss of common spaces between housing blocks due to investment pressure to the prioritising motorised transportation at the expense of public and rail transport. Isn’t it namely the car that epitomises private transportation? We shall leave these questions for another issue.
In an effort to avoid attempts to break away from dominant urban solutions which only ever reiterate their own conditions and presuppositions, we included a translation of Alberto Favaro’s article for Schlock magazine. He calls on us to discover the utopian charge of imaginary architecture emancipated from the existing limitations with which conventional architecture is forced to abide by. We chose to close the issue with a manifesto-like piece by Favaro as we hope that it would help to fill the gaping lack of daring to dream a different world – rather than simply attempting to ‘correct’ the already given.
What we tasked ourselves with and what we didn’t manage to achieve
Our approach presupposes the need for a radical perspectivism. Part of the plan for this issue was to examine perspectives to space that would be irreducible to one another. For instance how is this space concurrently inhabited by homeless people, sex workers or drug users and by hipsters from ‘Hristo Botev’ Street in Sofia. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to engage researchers with these problems for various reasons and this is why we are putting them aside in a ‘future creative plans’ category. The problem of the city is inexhaustible and we will surely come back to it, equipped with new perspectives which are different to the dominant approaches of the urban middle class. But we wouldn’t do this just so we ‘give voice’ to the marginalised and put on display the ‘colorfulness’ of race and class in the city. It would be rather an attempt to disrupt the dominant critical narrative of urban development which reflects only the limited perspective of those educated stratum privileged enough to be concerned with urban environment. They protest against the deteriorating aesthetic looks of big cities’ central areas without putting into question the processes which have led to such deterioration and without looking at the city from the perspective of what Charles Brace called the ‘dangerous classes’. The fact that we couldn’t fully depart from the perspective of the urban middle class defined our self-ironic choice of title for this issue – making a reference to the popular TV series ‘Sex and the City’.
Translation from Bulgarian: Neda Genova & Veronika Stoyanova
- Mediapool (2015) Bozhidar Dimtrov: Whoever Doesn’t Like it, Should Not Pass By The Largo / Божидар Димитров: На който не му харесва, да не минава покрай Ларгото. [Online] 14th October. Available from: http://www.mediapool.bg/bozhidar-dimitrov-na-koito-ne-mu-haresva-da-ne-minava-pokrai-largoto-news240435.html [Accessed: 4th December 2016]
- Tsvetkov, P. & Vassileva, S. (2011) The thin ‘golden’ line of Pravets Oligarchs / Тънката „златна” линия на правешките олигарси. Afera.bg [Online] 7th June. Available from: http://afera.bg/%D1%82%D1%8A%D0%BD%D0%BA%D0%B0%D1%82%D0%B0-%D0%B7%D0%BB%D0%B0%D1%82%D0%BD%D0%B0-%D0%BB%D0%B8%D0%BD%D0%B8%D1%8F-%D0%BD%D0%B0-%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B0%D0%B2%D0%B5%D1%88%D0%BA%D0%B8%D1%82.html [Accessed: 4th December 2016]
- Vladimirova, J. (2016) Festival ‘kvARTal’ Or Why Kreuzberg Is Also Possible In Sofia / „квАРТал фестивал” или защо Кройцберг е възможен и в София. A-specto.bg. [Online] 14th September. Available from: http://a-specto.bg/kvartal-festival/ [Accessed: 4th December 2016]
- Momichetataotgrada (2016) kvARTal in Sofia – At Last! / квАРТал в София – най-сетне! [Online] 25th August. Available from: http://www.momichetataotgrada.com/article/ochakva-ni-kvartal-festival.html#.WANm1fl96Un [Accessed: 4th December 2016]
- National Institute of Built Cultural Heritage (2016) About us / Представяне. [Online] Available from: http://ninkn.bg/Posts/view/2 [Accessed: 4th December 2016]
Jana Tsoneva is pursuing a PhD in Sociology at the Central European University in Budapest. She works in the fields of political and economic sociology and is a member of the Collective for Social Interventions, Sofia.
Pavel Yanchev is an architect and an urban scholar.