I was born in the 1980s, in Warsaw: a socialist city caught amidst deep economic crisis and hopes for a “liberalized” better future. In better times, Warsaw was the well-managed example of a miraculous post-war reconstruction, internationally paraded at architectural congresses. In the 1980s, it became a city of kilometer-long queues in front of grocery shops, bakeries, butcher’s… A city of food stamps which one could exchange with neighbours if they, for example, needed one’s monthly alcohol allowance more than milk or even chocolate.
Since then, a lot has changed. Neoliberal policies, investment boom and later crisis transformed the city almost beyond recognition. By exploring my childhood memories I would like to point to the deep transformations in the urban fabric that happened after the collapse of Communism. The local authorities adopted not only neoliberal economic policies, but also ways of talking about and understanding what a city is and for whom it is here.
From a symbol of socialist reconstruction, Warsaw was transformed into a growth-machine oriented at attracting international direct investments. But what were the consequences of that change?
I remember that one day, probably in 1989, just out of the blue – as it seemed to the little girl I was – the queues disappeared and suddenly, there was various kinds of meat in the shops. and my mother changed her job from the local state-owned video and film rental to a private company owned by Turkish businessmen. The offices of the company were located in what was then for me the most luxurious building in the whole city: the hotel Marriot.
Marriot is a symbol of Warsaw´s post-Communist transformation which changed the city into a growth machine measuring its success by the aggregate capital worth of the land and the investment projects located on its land parcels.
Marriot´s construction began in 1977, “deep in the socialist period” under the guidance of the Polish United Workers’ Party. It was meant to become the headquarters of LOT Polish Airlines and host also a LOT-operated hotel. The ambitious plan included a creation of a specialized city-terminal from which passengers would travel directly to the airport. Obviously, the project was state-financed.
However, due to the financial crisis and the following political unrest (Solidarność protests, martial law etc.) the construction was halted in 1981. It was relaunched only in 1987, but this time as a joint venture between the state-owned LOT, an Austrian construction company Ilbau GmbH and the transnational hotel giant Marriot International, the largest hotel chain in the world. Since its completion in 1989, it became the ultimate symbol of capitalist transformation and Warsaw’s new capitalist identity.
During the liberalization period in the end of the 1980s and the full-swing transformation of the 1990s, the joint-venture path was the most popular way for foreign capital to enter the country. The transformation of the 1990s has a face: it is embodied by the neoliberal finance minister Leszek Balcerowicz. I remember his face from the TV, and I remember how it one day turned from black-and-white to full colour as we managed to buy a colour TV somewhere in the beginning of the 1990s. What fun it was!
Unfortunately, the economic reforms were less fun for many Warsaw inhabitants . They brought a wide-ranging sale of state-owned property at unrealistically low prices, in the name of privatization and transition. The goal was to secure enough foreign investment (enough for whom?).
Balcerowicz, aided by actors previously unheard of and unseen in socialist Poland, e.g. foreign advisors and consultants, emphasized that the economic shock therapy is ultimately designed to produce “growth”. If nothing else, the vibrant “advisory activity” certainly produced growth in the annual revenues of the foreign consulting agencies.
Through joint-ventures, most of Polish industry, the banking sector etc. were quickly transferred into foreign ownership. The dominating, and the only one valid discourse praised those developments. Warsaw’s local authorities quickly followed the example from above. Together with the new government, they adopted the rhetoric of “coming back to the West”. This “back to the future” rhetoric provided legitimization for often controversial moves. Some later called it a “lemming-rush towards urban entrepreneurialism”(Peck & Tickell 2002) – an uncritical approach to urban growth which was characteristic for the former Eastern Block’s transition to market economy.
With time, the dominating discourse on the neoliberal market economy as the only model leading to growth was pushed more aggressively by the local authorities. This had real material effects in the urban fabric of Warsaw. For example, through the inflow of consulting agencies and other foreign companies which were supposed to contribute to the desired growth, and which most often established their office in the centre, the rental prices in the centre became so high as to push out local entrepreneurs to more remote locations. According to one survey, especially foreign business consulting firms and real estate agencies concentrated their operations in the city centre (Lisowski & Wilk 2002:84).
The results of the survey align well with wider theoretizations of urban processes in post-Communist cities made by Stanilov (2007). Decentralization and chaotic development patterns, depopulation of city centres due to rising rents and increasing social inequalities are characteristic for post-transition urban development in Eastern Europe.
As one friend from ex-Yugoslavia put it bluntly while referring to the centre of his home town: “never again will an ordinary factory worker be able to afford a flat in the centre of any town”.
Justyna Pierzynska is a PhD researcher at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Media and Communication Studies, in the Helsinki University. She is interested in the interplay of geopolitics and history in the media sphere in Central and Eastern Europe, and the flow of ideas that shape modern geopolitical imaginations of the region. She pays attention to geographical scales, including the role of history and geopolitics on a city-level.
Lisowski A & Wilk, W, 2002, The changing special distribution of services in Warsaw, European Urban and Regional Studies 9/1, pp. 81–89.Peck, J, & Tickell, A, 2002, Neoliberalizing Space, Antipode.
Stanilov, K., 2007, The Post-Socialist City. Urban Form and Space Transformations in Central and Eastern Europe after Socialism, Springer Netherlands,