Sunday, November 28, 2010


Some time ago, I was in a place where my main form of entertainment was watching CNN International and experiencing real life through hand-picked news segments by the news channel. During commercial breaks, they would constantly play the commercial above, enticing the viewer to discover this place somewhere in Central Europe that is pronounced remarkably different from how it is spelled. Would you in Lodz? Would I what? It didn't matter, as I became more bombarded by the commercial, I cared less about what exactly I was supposed to be doing in Lodz, I just wanted to do it there. It seemed so exciting, so lively and so full of energy.

A year on, I finally "would" Lodz. I feel cheated. I guess I was supposed to "would" a depressing city filled with crumbling secessionist buildings and industrial growth made defunct by decline in its post-industrial state. Everything was rundown, nothing was spared. Even buildings that must have had its fresh coat of paint not a few years ago are already aging. One rounds a corner, and things become more depressing and more hopeless.

One of the city's claim to fame is its very long market street, Piotrkowska, filled with bars, restaurants, and alcohol shops (that look a bit more upmarket than the liquor stores back home, especially Piwoteka, which offers a number of regional Polish beers). It's actually a great street if it was well capitalized. But I suspect that with the rise of Manufaktura (a vast mall--supposedly the largest in Europe--that the local tourist bureau calls a "cultural center") foot traffic shifted a block away from the street and what I was witnessing is the street's slow decline. On a Saturday night when the bars should be buzzing like those in Nowy Swiat in Warsaw, the street is dead except for a few drunk teenagers, ambling intoxicated homeless men, and preening old women in fur coats. There was a mini parade of girls on stilts wearing angel wings, but instead of commotion, people just turned and stared as if those wings were just sorely out of place.

At the northwestern end of Piotrkowska right next to the gate to Manufaktura is the Poznanski Palace, a palatial residence made by the man responsible for Lodz even existing. See, Lodz has been around before Kalman Poznanski entered the scene, but it was for all intents and purposes a mere sleepy town. But Poznanski was an industrialist with an idea: Lodz was right in the middle of Western and Eastern Europe, perfect for transporting and manufacturing goods on the cheap. What he specialized in was textile, and by the end of the 19th century the town has grown from a few tens of thousands to roughly 600,000. All of this literally was at the service of the glorified industrial zone that Poznanski created. But although Lodz likes to call this palace the "Versailles of Lodz", it's far from a palace, more like a bourgeois mansion straight out of Detroit.

For what it's worth, Lodz actually exudes a sort of a dilapidated charm, a city rich in art nouveau but poor in attention. If one thinks about it, Lodz is like Venice, without the hordes of tourists or the grandeur of being the last vestige of a long gone powerful empire, itself on the slippery slope to deterioration and ultimate destruction. Lodz only represents the uber-pragmatism of an industrial city built solely for that purpose, but the purpose for which is long outlived by the remnants built to serve it. A shadow is cast over the city, like it is secretly longing for its glory days, but impotent to act upon that desire.
The days of Lodz being in the shadows of Warsaw or Krakow is apparently about to end: steering away from the romanticism of its neighbors, Lodz is looking at contemporary art and music, avante-garde films, and modern shopping complexes to revitalize it. At the same token, it is aggressively trying to lure young entrepreneurs willing to build on top of the heap new factories, new housing complexes, and new strip malls. To an extent, I don't think their commercials lied; they just focused it on the banal. Lodz has a gloom akin to Genova or Torino, but its marketers do not know how to market it. All in all it should be good for the city, but I'm sure it will also lose that nostalgia of a faded beauty in exchange for an L.A. makeover.

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