Łódź – an authentic city, a city with a soul, making the most of its chances

Jacek SARYUSZ-WOLSKI

The first Polish Minister of European Affairs, architect and negotiator of Poland’s association with and membership of the EU, the first Polish vice-president of the European Parliament and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee; a longtime vice-president of the European People’s Party – Christian Democrats; founder of the European Integration Office, the College of Europe in Warsaw – Natolin, the European Institute in Łódź and the EuroNest Parliamentary Assembly; originator of the Solidarity Avenue running along the European Parliament in Brussels; member of the EP’s Committees on Foreign Affairs and Constitutional Affairs.

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The right to host the Expo 2022 would give it a chance to regain the glory and significance it had enjoyed in its heyday – writes Jacek SARYUSZ-WOLSKI

You would say that Łódź is Poland’s most European city. For two reasons. First of all, no other place in our country has ever seen so many cultures and nations cross and mix. Poles, Germans, Jews, Russians – they all had their part in building the success of Łódź at its heyday at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Second, it was already more than a hundred years ago that Łódź had experienced the benefits of what Poland only began to enjoy only after its entry to the European Union in 2004: the open market.

When Łódź was slowly switching from agriculture to industry in the mid-19th century, it was able to do so precisely thanks to this openness, which enabled it to take advantage of cooperation with many very different partners. From the West (Great Britain, France, Prussia or later Germany), Łódź sourced machinery, technology and knowledge of how to put the industrial revolution achievements into practice. From Kazakhstan, huge quantities of cotton were collected, and fabrics made of it were willingly bought by Tsarist Russia. In this way, Łódź quickly became one of the most thriving Polish cities.

As a native of Łódź, I share the belief that Łódź is a disadvantaged city. It has always paid a high price for being so close to Warsaw. Skilled workers were poached and investors would rush directly to the capital, bypassing us. Unlike Silesia or Pomerania, we have never been the government’s favourite. In Łódź, work was hard and wages were low. The city was underinvested and brain-drained.

The transformation which began in 1989 brought further tensions, having namely dealt a severe blow to the city’s textile industry. Even if inevitable to some extent, it should not have been done in such a chaotic and inconsiderate manner. The actions lacked that would enable the systemic redevelopment of the city and would make its shift from an industrial monoculture to a modern urban centre, with a highly-developed services sector, swifter and less painful. The price to pay for this was temporary stagnation.

Now Łódź is overcoming these problems. The right to host the Expo 2022 would give it a chance to regain the glory and significance it had enjoyed in its heyday. What has been the curse of Łódź for decades – the proximity of Warsaw – may now actually become a blessing. With the motorways that have connected Łódź with Warsaw and the rest of the country, the city is finally picking up momentum for which it has been waiting for so long. You can already see the first signs of it, with businesses relocating from Warsaw to Łódź.

Such moves will be ever more frequent as the quality of transport routes and infrastructure improves. And it will take place as a large and long-neglected infrastructure project – the Central Airport halfway between Łódź and Warsaw supposed to serve the binary agglomeration – gets closer to completion. The new airport will not only radically upgrade the public transport in Łodź, but it will also bring Warsaw and Łódź closer together, giving rise to a binary agglomeration, a megapolis, with a population of over 3 million. This is going to be a new quality. And it will not be unusual to see things like in the unforgettable scene from “The Promised Land” by Andrzej Wajda, referring to the founding myth of an industrial Łódź, in which Moritz Welt (played by Wojciech Pszoniak) speaks loudly to Karol Borowiecki and Max Baum (Daniel Olbrychski and Andrzej Seweryn respectively): “I have nothing, you have nothing, he has nothing,” and Borowiecki replies: “Together, we have enough, just enough, to set up a big factory…”.

The first step towards it should be the Expo 2022. Łódź should then expose its beauty and functionality of what remained from the past times. These are the Secession-style tenement houses, eclectic palaces of factory owners, and beautiful, red-brick former factory buildings. Unfortunately, a number of sites failed to be saved, as was the case of Łodź Kaliska, a beautiful railway station razed to the ground in a fit of stupidity. The hope that whole quarters of old townhouses will be renovated fills my heart with joy. They will house modern but climatic offices and apartments. Nowadays, when steel and glass skyscrapers, which often seem to deny the laws of physics, can be built in every corner of the world, as shows the case of Dubai or Qatar, authenticity and history is what makes true value.

This does not mean that there is no room for modern architecture in Łódź. I still hope that it will be possible to see through the “City Gate” project, designed for Łódź by Frank Gehry, an outstanding contemporary architect, the winner of the Pritzker award. In no way will this weaken the spirit of Łódź. Quite the opposite: it will highlight how much the city is open, reminding that it is Poland’s the most European city. And we will no longer talk about Łodź’s redevelopment, but rather about its rebirth.

Jacek Saryusz- Wolski

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