The Flip Side of Croatian Cities

We’ve already covered this phenomenon we perceive to be happening somewhere else, while the middle-class tendency to lurk around the life of the less fortunate so as to catch a glimpse of how the “other side” lives hasn’t bypassed curious voyeuristic Croatian tourists and has already been dubbed as “slum tourism” in tourist lingo. This could be a source of flattery and pride for some people as a way of nurturing social awareness. Thus last summer a few tourist guides were left bewildered as various questions popped up on standard routes showing the city’s best assets. Questions such as “Haven’t you got homeless persons on the streets, where are your poor?” Had those tourists dug deeper and bothered to look around more closely, they would’ve seen a continuous onslaught of people patrolling the dumpsters in hopes of digging up ‘treasures’, even at renowned Zagreb tourist spots such as Zrinjevac or the most beautiful secession building in town – the Croatian National Archive. These are our poor, but where do they live, the tourists ask?

Thanks to the socialist practice of allocating apartments and tenants’ rights, the poor are all around us, from the city center onwards, although spatial stratification still exists.

Let’s take the three largest cities in Croatia as an example – Zagreb, Split and Rijeka. All three cities have ties to tourism: Rijeka is seen as a gateway, Zagreb a place where group tours are organized daily, while Split has recently morphed from a mere transitory into a real tourist destination. It’s not likely any tourist will see the flip side of those cities, i.e. the worst part of each respective city. So why don’t we take a tour to see what lurks beneath the surface.

While groups of tourists stroll through the center of Zagreb in the summer, in the east part of town, at Kozara Bok and Kozara one isn’t likely to run into other people. Perhaps only a stray child splashing around in an inflatable swimming pool in front yards of rundown houses while a strong stench permeates the settlement. The septic tanks tend to “come alive” dependent on the weather. The tenants will tell you that sewage infrastructure is what’s needed most. They already have electricity, they got water a few years ago, the roads are paved, and all that’s lacking is wastewater infrastructure. And the possibility of legalizing their houses – adds a man we met in front of an unfinished one-storey house. As soon as he saw us, he asked us what we’re doing here and why we’re taking pictures. You don’t go unnoticed here. Unfamiliar faces are rare in the settlement, there are no accidental passers-by; one comes here intentionally – for example politicians during election time with their promises in an attempt to collect votes.

Emerging as various periphery settlements, on convenient or city plots, without valid infrastructure or public content, often without permits, the living standard improved somewhat in Kozara Putevi and Kozara Bok, while the bad reputation lingers. They’re rumored to be dangerous places although a good part of the settlements look like usual Croatian villages: semi-detached family houses with barely-finished facades. There’s neither anything special to see nor anything to be afraid of. At least not on first sight.

Zehra Novaković moved to Kozara puteve from the Zagreb neighborhood of Knežija eight years ago and says she’s content with her current neighborhood for the most part. She lives with her husband and children in a big new house and gets along fine with her neighbors, mostly immigrants from Bosnia and Herzegovina. When asked what she considers a priority in view of improvements, in addition to the septic tank stench she complains about, everything she mentions is tied to the conditions in which she’s forced to raise her two children. She considers the only school in the vicinity, the ‘Dr. Vinko Žganac’ Elementary School, too small for the area deemed “Zagreb’s highest birth-rate region.” She’s also very worried about the drug dealers loitering about, even outside the school, she notes. That’s why they accompany their grade-school son to and from school every day, even though the school is only some 500 meters from their house. “I’m afraid he’ll succumb to the bad influences around him,” she explains and adds that the police aren’t really all that quick in dealing with the drug problems.

The Split periphery settlement Sirobuja encounters similar problems. Sirobuja started to emerge on the city’s east outskirts during the late sixties. Mostly small family houses were built practically overnight and landings subsequently began to sprout throughout the years as the children grew up and needed their own housing. For the most part, Jugoplastika workers set up house here, as did other factory workers whose factories have long since bitten the dust. They just arbitrarily decided to build on the then nationalized land, where no zoning plan anticipated individual building. As it was far from the city and far from the eyes of the citizens and local authorities, nobody really cared enough to look into the matter. And thus Sirobuja expanded according to the ever-growing onslaught of newcomers.

Sirobuja isn’t known for its poverty, there’s a neighborhood in Split that carries that name, the Poor Neighborhood although it’s not especially known either for either poverty or drug problems, there are many other contenders in this particular area, although the Poor Neighborhood is in fact the result of unlicensed construction – it emerged as such and hasn’t changed to this day. Sirobuja is the largest Split unlicensed community where out of some six hundred buildings, the only ones legally built are the St. Leopold Mandić Church and the elementary school. A few family houses have been legalized in the meantime, but only through the law stating that all structures built until 1968 can be legalized. There are few such structures in Sirobuja. In much the same way the neighbors helped one another to stir concrete and build houses they also joined forces and funds to improve their living quarters. In a true socialist manner, through joint work activities and voluntary local taxes, they built roads, electric, plumbing and other installations, while wastewater infrastructure remains a pipe dream to this day. As does legalization. For approximately 3.500 residents, hopes for legalization, so “they have something to leave their children,” have started up even before the current disastrous Legalization Act. Sirobuja was the first community included in the legalization pilot project seven years ago, but the problem still hasn’t been resolved.

If there was a contest for the coolest “slum tourism” neighborhood, the winner would most probably be Rujevica, one of Rijeka’s neighborhoods. Situated on the north side of the Rijeka bypass motorway, only three kilometers from the city center, Rujevica offers a breathtaking view of the entire Kvarner Bay. And that’s about all it has to offer. With the Treaty of Rome signed in 1924, the city of Rijeka was annexed to Italy and Rujevica became the border zone where bunkers and other military structures were built. The first inhabitants arrived after the end of the Second World War, trying to escape an even worse state of poverty that reigned in other parts of Yugoslavia, and precisely those military bunkers were utilized as their living accommodations. In the following decades, they have expanded them and turned them into very modest places of living. Today, there are about a hundred of them still serving as houses for about six hundred people. There is no tarmac, municipal infrastructure, it is impossible for the ambulance to reach some of the houses because the roads and paths that lead to them make it virtually inaccessible, the crime rate is high, and of course, all this has been illegally constructed. Instead of dealing with the situation once and for all, it looks like the fate of Rujevica might be sealed by the only advantage it has – its favorable position. The city authorities have decided that this is a great location for a new “secondary city center”, i.e. commercial-business-financial center of the city. Shops, business properties, banks and housing complexes would be built here. However, in order to do that the homes of former, predominantly Roma inhabitants would have to be removed. “The southern portion is characterized by the illegal housing construction used mostly by the Roma population. Although numerous, these accommodations cannot be left in the given area under any circumstances.” This is stated in the architectural-zoning competition for Rujevica published last year. Although the competition suggests that the inhabitants of Rujevica should be relocated to the new apartments that will be built here, there have been various possible solutions that have unsettled the population. Even relocation to Vrbovsko has been mentioned; a suggestion harshly condemned by the Primorsko-Goranska County “Roma Unity” Organization, that defined it as a mirror of the negative mentality and prejudices towards the Roma people as persona non grata in Croatia.

Prejudice and fear in view of the city outskirts are quite common. Ignorance can often be found at the root of such irrational consternation. In order to dissipate ignorance, and not just to experience the thrill of “slum tourism” one should set out towards settlements such as Rujevica and Kozara bok if for no other reason than to get our facts straight before blithely passing judgment on such social and spatial outposts.

Fotografije: David Kabalin