The back door
You can see the city from fifty kilometres away, where the road begins its descent to the plains. Actually, what you see are mainly its industrial envoys: the cement factory and the huge steel mills now belonging to U.S. Steel.
There’s something odd about driving from Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, to Košice, the country’s second-largest city. The quickest route is not through the country’s own territory, as you would expect, but through neighbouring Hungary. Thanks to the expansion of the Schengen Area, you can use Hungarian highways to circumvent the Low Tatras, without any delays at the borders. This is the return of older times, for Bratislava and Košice are part of a ring of cities that flourished around the Hungarian capital, Buda. In those days, Košice was still called Kassa. But there is hope for Slovaks with nationalist inclinations: Slovakia is working away on its own highway, the D1.
I’m taking the third route to Košice, the E58 from Vienna to Odessa. The European route designation promises more than it can deliver: for the most part, the E58 is a two-lane road that winds through the Low Tatras. But arriving in Košice this way more than makes up for the inconvenience. You can see the city from fifty kilometres away, where the road begins its descent to the plains. Actually, what you see are mainly its industrial envoys: first the cement factory with conveyor belts and hills of waste, then the smoking chimneys of the huge steel mills now belonging to U.S. Steel. Then, after passing through a forest of billboards on both sides of the road, you come to the airport, followed by the parking lots of the Optima shopping mall. Welcome to Košice.
There are advantages to avoiding the official entrance and coming in by the back door. At the back, you can see how people live, how they earn a living, where they leave their rubbish, what they hide behind a respectable front.
The fine images that Košice likes to promote are the pristine, forested hills surrounding the city and the rectangle of its late-medieval centre. And I have to concede: the heart of the city is perfectly preserved. The industrial and post-industrial eras seem far removed.
Palaces, churches and the homes of the gentry line up along the Hlavná, a central pedestrian street, in a rich palette of styles. Almost all are in perfect condition: the Gothic Cathedral of St. Elizabeth looks newly built. On either side of the Hlavná you will find restaurants and pavement cafes, with a few luxury shops to complete the picture. This is where students have their graduation photographs taken, the girls in evening dress, the boys neatly suited. The centre thus looks like a stone version of an English landscape garden, maintained from generation to generation by dedicated craftsmen, the result of continuous cutting and pruning, of meticulous maintenance and careful development. But in fact, it was as good as dead in the sixties.
As far as the buildings went, Košice survived the war relatively unharmed. The population however was decimated. The Jewish community, numbering more than ten thousand, was deported and murdered, as was an unknown number of Gypsies. Subsequently, under the “Košice Government Programme” declared in 1945 by the newly re-established Czechoslovakia while the city was briefly its capital, many thousands of the original German and Hungarian inhabitants were driven out. All topics that are still being glossed over.
The young state of Czechoslovakia was in a hurry to repopulate the city. Factories and houses were erected to attract new inhabitants from all over the country. For such a large-scale operation, the old city was simply too impractical. Besides, even after the wave of expropriations, property rights were still a complication. Building flats on an industrial scale required large tracts of land where construction cranes and lorries had room to manoeuvre.
The city grew dramatically. In 1950 there were only 60,000 inhabitants, but just thirty years later that number had more than tripled. While blocks of flats sprang up everywhere, the city centre was left to its fate. In the late fifties, when a new law made the Gypsies’ itinerant ways illegal, they were directed to the empty buildings in the city centre. The respectable front had become the back yard, the part that the city blushed for.
I can easily imagine the dereliction. City centres in the Western world were also as good as dead in this period. I remember how dark and run-down Amsterdam was at the time. Even Manhattan fell victim to decay in the seventies. It was not until the early eighties that the tide turned, in Košice as elsewhere. In 1984, the kilometre-long Hlavná was graced by a musical fountain. Two years later it was turned into a pedestrian zone. After the fall of communism, Rudolf Schuster, the new mayor, burdened the city with heavy debts to revive the past: the Hlavná was paved with medieval flagstones, with a trickle of water down the middle to represent a brook that once flowed nearby. Public transport was redirected around the centre, but the tram tracks were left in place for a historic tram to occasionally take the tourists back and forth, giving them the perfect illusion of some unspecified bygone day.
To find any of the city’s vitality, you have to look behind the doors, or in the messy, interconnecting courtyards; for instance in the Kolosseum, a concert space comprising several connected buildings. The rough interior offers a temporary relief after all the stucco exteriors.
However, you will not find any Gypsies in these yards anymore. A new back yard has been created for them. Since the eighties, the Gypsies slowly disappeared from the city centre. An official dispersal policy ensured that flats were allocated to them in all areas of the city. After 1989 they, like all the residents, could buy their rented flat for a bargain price, and sell it on for a profit. You could sell your four-room flat for a three-room one and some cash, and then trade that for a two-room one and more money, et cetera. The result was overcrowded flats. In 1995, Schusterde facto designated a new area for Gypsies, Lunik IX. This area is part of a much larger urban expansion dating from the seventies, but unlike Lunik I to VIII, it lies just outside Košice’s ring road. If I had looked more carefully on the way in, I would have spotted the impoverished, isolated housing estate, directly across from the Optima shopping mall.
So I return to the city’s back door. As the crow flies, the distance from the mall to Lunik IX is only seven hundred metres, but the cloverleaf of the E58 and the ring road keeps these two worlds sharply separated. Instead of spotlessly clean public spaces, piles of garbage surround the flats in Lunik IX. No flower boxes watered daily, but potholed dirt roads and dusty fields. No gleaming facades, but balconies with washing of every colour hanging out to dry. Instead of piped muzak, a wailing guitar issues from a shabby lobby. Instead of vast parking lots full of cars, a bus stop just outside the estate that connects it to the outside world. And children on the streets, children everywhere.
Košice was supposed to grow to 330 thousand inhabitants, but the collapse of communism put paid to that. Many young people moved away, mostly to Prague, and the population fell slightly, to the current 235,000. This brought an end to the construction of housing estates.
There was no need for new flats in the nineties, people needed new shops. Supermarkets and shopping malls rose along the roads out of the city. Forces pulled the city in two directions: a centrifugal force pushed development to the outskirts and a centripetal force strengthened its heart.
The area between the city centre and the periphery has been left to its own devices, becoming the city’s new back yard. As the 21st century begins, many cities have a neglected transition zone like this. But in Košice, there’s something special: the river to which the city owes its existence flows precisely through this zone. While other cities are hard at work developing their waterfronts, all is quiet on the banks of the Hornád. The chimneys of the abandoned magnesite plant tower over the plain, there are some sports fields, a few commercial areas, mainly for used cars dealers, the partially abandoned rail yards, some fields where sheep graze, and a sulphuric spring.
Here you can see how comfortable a “back yard” in the middle of a city can be. People are fishing, walking, flirting, drinking beer, swimming, lighting fires. The highlight is Bufet Pri Súdkoch, an improvised shed, where cyclists and car tuners, hippies and punk rockers, children and old people share long tables like brothers. ”Don’t change a thing,” I think to myself, as I am presented with a large pint of beer.
Special thanks to Martin Drahovský, Mišo Hladký, Mišo Hudák, Milan Kolcún, and Jana Vargová.
Published in: Urban Landscapes of Košice