New Zagreb Is No Ghetto!

When contemplating New Zagreb, it’s hard to conjure up anything save for the perception of it being the city’s bedroom outpost community, a place of gray socialism, severely lacking any type of gallant urbanity. However, an association of young museologists and art historians, Kontraakcija, has given us food for (different) thought. The independent association Kontraakcija initiated the Neighborhood Museum Project in 2009 as a logical result of the need for research and comprehending the identities of local communities within the social and town-planning specific qualities of New Zagreb neighborhoods (communities). Posing the question what a specific New Zagreb identity is and detecting its problematic issues, Kontaakcija successfully carried out the Neighborhood Museum Project through three neighborhoods: Travno, Središće and Zapruđe, and now it’s Stara Trešnjevka’s turn. We talked to the members and initiators of Kontraakcija, Marijeta Karlović and Vladimir Tatomir, about the goals, purpose and future plans for the Neighborhood Museum:

* Neighborhood Museum / Stara Trešnjevka

Could you please elaborate a bit more on your project Neighborhood Museum, what are its goals, and how its multidisciplinary approach makes it possible for it to catch “all” the components of any given neighborhood?

The function of the Neighborhood Museum in its entire context is to question identities – not those that have no basis for developing such as nationalism, but researching history, short stories, neighborhood leadership and places relevant to life within a community. The goal is to raise the residents’ self-esteem in order to further encourage self-reflection, an active approach to life, to educate themselves to be able to evaluate what’s valuable in their neighborhood, so that they can argue and make a case as to what’s worth saving and what’s just mere passing fashion. We strive to encourage people to break away from apathy and inertia, the reasoning that there’s nothing worth fighting for. There’s already one formation of persons present that wants to change promptly, you can get through to them easiest, while you don’t ever get through to some of them, they don’t even hear you, let alone respond. Those persons who’ve already started thinking progressively find that they can lean on us as a support system, they ask us how to address various formal organizations and structures… how to draw up a petition to stop something from being constructed, etc. Thus a network of people who are willing to change things is being assembled.

* Neighborhood Museum / Travno

The positive thing with a multidisciplinary approach is that the Neighborhood Museum stayed broad by its definition, providing the opportunity for a 1001 idea to be realized within the context of research and presenting a neighborhood, while not being tied down to strictly one methodology. When you’re involved in a locality, you’ve got to be able to single out key identity points and people that will get involved with a particular area within the neighborhood. You’re not conveying your own personal experiences, but issues that pop up during the process. The worst is when we work with people who don’t consider this particularly significant or important, especially in New Zagreb, the term “’hood” was derogatory, almost denoting a “ghetto.” It was necessary to explore some sort of “neighborhood pride,” identification that isn’t tied to either Croatia or Dinamo, as that’s the wrong kind of pride. Still, it’s great that the attitude towards the concept of neighborhood has changed through our project, hence things tend to get done more quickly and efficiently. For example, we started out with Središće, which was intended as the future center of the new city, New Zagreb. It’s impossible to call Središće a ghetto as it has all the prerequisites for “normal functioning” and is well connected to the old part of the city. This prejudice of considering New Zagreb a ghetto came about solely from ignorance about its history, town-planning notions, and the only thing they had going for them in the 90s was some kind of nationalism.

* Neighborhood Museum / Središće

How do local organizations and local communities function within this whole story, how strong are your network ties to various institutions? Has your project partly taken over their role?

Local organizations didn’t even exist – only in name as part of the town administrative structure, but have no governing authority, they’re activated just in time for elections with a decentralization strategy which consists of sending representatives to the parliament, while in reality they don’t have either a giro account or budget and they operate through the Local Governance Office within the City. They could encourage and urge towards putting up a bench perhaps, maybe lobby for some municipal request or other, and they have enough money for celebrating national holidays. That’s about it.

The neighborhood association and a series of red-tape obstacles don’t allow anything constructive to be done, they are opposed to any kind of cultural refinement, promoting the planned urbanism, as the whole west side of New Zagreb wouldn’t wall up to the Arena, there would be no golf course in Zagreb’s midst at the Sava-Odra Canal. Nobody talks about Zagreb’s completely devastated west side, south of Siget.  Of course, it’s clear that this wild town planning in Lanište is tied to the promotion of a sole person, the Zagreb Mayor. The problem lies within the fact that neighborhood local organizations don’t have any authority over themselves – it’s beyond all belief that if one wants to get anything done in a given neighborhood, one has to get approval from the mayor.

A big problem also lies within the Zagreb Tourist Board which on the one hand sells kitsch at Gornji Grad (the Upper Town), while on the other hand doesn’t show the slightest interest in setting up a brown sign – i.e. a signpost for the MSU (Museum of Contemporary Art), let alone mention the routes proposed by Neighborhood Museum in one of their many brochures.

* Neighborhood Museum / Zapruđe

Kontraakcija has been in existence for three years now and you’ve realized the Neighborhood Museum Project in four Zagreb neighborhoods: Središće, Travno, Zapruđe, Trešnjevka. What are  your experiences with them, what are their similarities and differences; how would you compare and contrast their initial contemplations of the project?

Our initial premise in New Zagreb was to make a better social life possible for the residents through well-planned urban spaces. That proved right a few times through the NZ, which is planned differently everywhere: we went to Sopot at one point, where a public space was never planned, so that people practically do not know one another, don’t mingle and do not have a joint space. It was impossible to do a project there, we didn’t manage to organize even one workshop or realize contact with anyone, give people a heads-up to what we’re doing. There wasn’t an association to speak of that functioned there, the premises of the neighborhood association are on the first floor of a skyscraper… This is a clear example of town-planning failure where the neighborhood is surrounded by roads while “public houses” are situated on the perimeters, which have since turned into office buildings, where housing projects for 10.000 people have been packed tightly into the gap.

Zapruđe, on the other hand, has this large public space where people reside in, and where “everything is everybody’s”, and that’s where we had the best feedback. Their square is located in the midst of immense greenery, so that in whichever area of that neighborhood one passes, this very greenery is highly visible. People are more open for collaboration. Holjevac’s idea about a silver town of advancement, i.e. a positive modernism is highly visible.

Your new project, the Trešnjevka salon explores the Old Trešnjevka’s history and presents a new approach to studying Zagreb neighborhoods. What problems did you run into in regard to this project?

In view of Trešnjevka, the Trešnjevka Center for Culture hired us to jointly initiate a project. It is specific and completely different – the structure there is mostly based on small houses and small buildings for workers, there’s a few modern structures around Nehaj Street, as that street was always overbuilt. It had paths and small houses as early as the beginning of the 20th century and wasn’t considered as an important part of Zagreb for a long time as it was located behind the railway tracks and inhabited mostly by the working class. It was “illegally” constructed for a long time as nobody considered it important enough for serious zoning. However, it got new contours with the First Croatian Savings Bank. Still, there was a plan even before the nineties to remodel Trešnjevka, but it all went awry with the privatization that took place in the nineties. The Berlage Institute had a public discussion in the early nineties in view of reshaping Zagreb, where the Dutch School of Architecture was followed. Two modes of reshaping Zagreb were agreed on: through large projects and small actions: taking care of Sloboština, redefining Trešnjevka. Unfortunately, nothing was ever realized, and the construction of substandard housing projects is still being carried out – huge buildings built on small plots, with apartments lacking windows, light and parking spaces. The provincial fashion of construction is being continued, especially visible through the façade colors: lime or apricot. Negligence and neglect are the main features of today’s Trešnjevka, all under the ruse of progress. In such a situation, which is completely different from New Zagreb, there are many cul-de-sacs, small family houses, not enough greenery, we take it upon ourselves to point out what works and what doesn’t. It is an especially complex neighborhood in which they’ll no doubt be many Routes. Numerous studies exist on the topic and civil initiatives function within it, particularly in the Center for Culture and the Modulor Gallery, which surpass their primary function by far.

* Neighborhood Museum / Travno

So far, you’ve dealt with neighborhoods whose history was complex and concentrated. However, Zagreb currently has to deal with new megalomaniacal construction projects of new living quarters and neighborhoods that demonstrate impotence and a lack of urban-planning vision such as Novi Jelkovac, Sopnica. Could that also be the center of your research?

Novi Jelkovec is a neighborhood where we can practice our profession, it’s a typically capitalist way of ghettoizing the residents, people barely existing on the margins of society live there as these are the only apartments they can afford, these people don’t have to be in the city every day, but are basically a part of the city.  A whole new base of dissatisfied people was created by this neighborhood lacking any content. A pig farm was there before a neighborhood was built and a thicket barrier was built to protect the city from the stench. Now it’s a neighborhood where people reside, while the barrier is still there. That alone speaks volumes. And the people should be working in the neighboring shopping centers, which serve as a place of integration, the only place that can provide necessary service to this large part of town. An intervention is definitely needed, which would require a third principle of work, probably a residential program in one of Bandić’s empty housing projects.