What do you with a dilapidated old power station that has definitely seen better days?
In Warsaw, they’re converting the Elektrownia Powiśle to apartment buildings, offices and a retail offer. It looks good.
The site is vast, situated by the river Vistula and the ambition is to retain the original features of the power plant. The factory opened in 1904 and continued to serve Poland throughout the century, including during World War Two.
It was involved in the Warsaw Uprising, ensuring the power stayed on through this time and the owner also ‘hired’ many people to ensure they would not be rounded up.
Like many urban regeneration and urban renewal projects, the intention is to retain as many original features of the complex as possible – preserving the history, the memories and the story of the building.
Across the river in Praga, where I was joining a street art tour, the district is also undergoing urban renewal/regeneration or ‘gentrification‘, if one wishes to convey a sense of disapproval.
Praga is one of the poor districts in Warsaw, explained our guide. It is not unique in the problems that it faces – crime, poor housing, alcohol and substance misuse. It’s a part of Warsaw that suffered the heaviest bombardment and killing in World War Two. The Vistula provides a formidable barrier to the rest of the city.
The apartment buildings are old and in disrepair. On some are nets to catch falling bricks and slates before they land on the heads of pedestrians walking on the pavements. Some buildings don’t have central heating and, in others, three apartments share one bathroom.
Art has been used to work with young people and children to help them address issues. One project Art Gang designed the painted bear that waits at the zoo to welcome visitors. The words and design were chosen by the children to symbolise strength and courage.
Another two projects worked with children to create a picture of the perfect bag and a coded mural with clear (for those who understand) messages about important people in their lives and to hurl abuse at rival streets. (The kids were able to verify that their insults were included).
The contents of the bag were not what would be anticipated in a 5 year old’s backpack. They had looked to their mums for inspiration so the list included: lipstick, combs, cigarettes, tampons, keys, spoons, dummies, tissues, corkscrews and screwdrivers. These women are clearly prepared for anything.
One of the murals we saw was titled ‘Fight Club’. The residents of Praga were not keen on a tired cliche representing their district. The painting is actually a comment on power, politics, money and poverty. Across the road from the artwork is a palace undergoing renovation. The ordinary apartment block next to it has been untouched for decades.
The final mural summed up the issue of gentrification in Praga. It shows a radiator (many buildings are without heating) and at the top is the word ‘Resist’.
Gentrification is bringing improvements to the district – central heating and bathrooms in all apartments. The first real sign of this urban renewal is the construction of a new metro line. The new arrivals aren’t likely to earn their money within the district.
Already new conversions are too expensive for the residents whose families have spent their entire lives here.
Will the district retain the factors that attracted the developers in the first place once the urban renewal is completed? There’s no doubt (from a Public Health perspective) that living conditions ought to be improved but why does that always seem to result in moving people out – the people who created the atmosphere, the vibe, in the first place?
- Featured Photo: Elektrownia Powisle – the new look taking shape.