About Praga, the other Warsaw beyond the river
Those who visit Warsaw for the first time may not know it, but the Polish capital used to be two distinct towns, just like Budapest. Whereas the districts on the western bank of river Vistula include the UNESCO protected old town of Stare Miasto as well as the most important landmarks of the civil, political and religious power plus the magnificent Łazienki Park, along the eastern bank there’s Praga. Yes, written precisely that way. No relation with the Czech capital of Prague, though.
Historical sources mention the settlement of Praga for the first time in the 15th century, but only in 1791 the town becomes a district of Warsaw. Formerly a suburb inhabited by many Jewish people, formerly a workers district, formerly (or still) an area with a bad reputation, today is hard to stick a label to this part of Warsaw. Theoretically speaking 21st century Praga is a huge area whose western border is the Vistula river and whose northern and southern limit are two bridges: Toruński and Siekierkowski. However, the actual Praga is much smaller and divided in two districts: Praga Połnoc (North) and Praga Południe (South) encompassed by two other bridges: Gdański and Łazienkowski. Of course, this being Warsaw, there are further subdivisions such as Stara (Old) and Nowa (New) Praga, Saska Kępa and Szmulowizna, but let’s not split hairs now.
My first encounter with this district dates back to 2007, when my friend Alicja told me: “I grew up not far from that part of Warsaw called Praga, on the eastern bank of the Vistula; you recognize this area because it’s full of ugly looking social housing.” Back then, I would have never thought that I could end up living in a place like that. In 2011 I crossed a dusty and ghastly Targowa Street ripped open by the construction works for the second line of Warsaw underground and that didn’t help either. However, it’s in a flat along this wide street where I.B. Singer set one of his short stories (The Spinoza of Market Street) that I moved in 2014 coming from a much more respectable neighbourhood of Krakow.
As soon as I heard that I dwelled in Praga Połnoc, my Polish colleagues and acquaintances told me to be alert.
“Are you sure you’re not afraid of living there?” pressed me Piotr whose home was in posh Mokotów and who seldom crossed the Vistula.
“A friend of mine got beaten black and blue by a bunch of drunkards next to Targowa, one evening,” told me Małgosia who used to live in the faraway western suburb of Ursus.
“So how do you like it in Francuska street?” asked Wojtek while handing me a bottle of beer. He had settled in the outskirts and always forgot that my flat wasn’t located along the main street of upmarket Saska Kępa, but somewhere else even though not one mile from there as the crow flies. Along Francuska you may spot young and smartly dressed couples talking about theatre in English or French as they head to a bakery; in my courtyard I hear the sharp catcalls of pigeons breeders and kids donning Legia Warsaw football club scarves set off firecrackers.
Varsovians who grew up on the western bank of the Vistula may still hold prejudices against Praga. Some call it “the Wild Side,” others “our Bronx,” a few prefer nicknaming the district “Brooklyn.” Some still look at this district as an area full of drunkards, brawlers and never-do-well; a place where outsiders – and particularly foreigners – aren’t welcome. However, hearsay can’t beat direct experience. I’m a foreigner and easily recognizable as such, and yet I’ve never faced any trouble in the three and a half years I’ve been living in Praga. True, this district bears little resemblance to hip Williamsburg in Brooklyn, but neither it does to dodgy parts of Detroit.
As for those who are born and bred in Praga, some look at the people living on the western bank in a mocking way and feel different. “To this day many elderly people living in areas of Praga Południe such as Gocław or Kamionek don’t feel 100% Varsovians – tells me Łukasz a translator and Polish teacher.” This is confirmed by Emilia who works as a tourist guide in the capital and used to live in Praga Połnoc. “My fiancé’s grandma has spent all of her life in Praga and all the times she has to cross the river she says: I’ll pop over to Warsaw.”
As of 2018 one Varsovian out of seven lives in Praga, meaning 250,000 people. According to data from the Polish Central Statistical Office, over the last twelve years the population of Praga Połnoc and Południe has dwindled, while it has grown in Warsaw. It’s unclear whether many people have left the eastern bank for the western bank, but Praga is struggling to attract newcomers. Today the catchwords written on posters all around the district or used by local politicians are rewitalizacja (revitalisation) and rekwalifikacja (requalification). It’s at least fifteen years that people in Warsaw warn about gentrification going on in Praga dreading tourists, hipsters and real estate speculators storming the district. It has been happening, but on a much smaller scale than feared. Again, Praga is neither hipster paradise nor an artistic heaven, but has kept a complex identity, so far.
Life for beginners
Praga’s transformation into somewhere else is slow, patchy, sometimes exciting and sometimes poignant to witness. There’s little doubt that the district is getting a lifting with fancy residential building sprucing up here and there, significant investments in infrastructures and money poured into culture. However, even though some things are looking up, the area still faces significant issues. To name one, it holds the highest unemployment rate (about 8%) in Warsaw. Besides, as very few companies or offices are based here most of the people living in Praga are commuters heading to the other side of the Vistula.
The requalification that is likely to change Praga’s identity, for good or for evil, is Port Praski, a former abandoned industrial wet dock, a stone’s throw from the glittering National Stadium. Once (and if) completed this huge project is due to deliver a brand new marina to the Polish capital encircled by thousands of fancy overpriced flats with stunning views on Warsaw’s skyline.
As for revitalisation, there has been much going on over the last ten years. Once seedy Stalowa Street and Wileński Street host their fair share of street art, art cafès, restaurants, and boutique hotels. As for still dodgy Brzeska Street – whose bad reputation reaches as far as the 1950s thanks to works by Marek Hłasko – it has recently chosen by Radiohead as the setting for the videoclip of their song I Promise.
Nearby, Creative Hub Targowa – one of the first co-working spaces in Warsaw – opened its doors in a restored flat located along Targowa Street, in 2009 and is still there today. Between Brzeska and Targowa lies the notorious Bazar Różycki, that used to be a popular black market place during the Nazi occupation and that journalist Hanna Krall described in the early 1950s. The open air market has seen better days and its stalls are often unmanned today. Even though there’s an ongoing project to upgrade the bazar, it doesn’t seem very popular with many local residents.
Meanwhile, something significant has already been done in the neighbourhood On the right hand side of the main entrance of the bazar, one of the oldest tenement houses in the district hosts the Praga Museum displaying an interesting permanent and interactive collection on the history of the area. The museum can be visited for free on Thursdays and also boasts a shop, a tiny cafè, rooms for workshops, a lively courtyard for gigs or events, and a panoramic terrace overlooking the bazar. On the left hand side of the Różycki gates, a huge restored building provides plenty of room for events, exhibitions, co-working as well as a little local library with booksharing shelves.
Turning right from here, you reach Ząbkowska, the most popular ‘Bohemian’ street of Praga for revellers and tourists. It begins with one of the first milk bars in Warsaw and goes on with a bunch of eateries and clubs such as the almost iconic W Oparach Absurdu and Łysy Pingwin plus fancy bakeries, burger joints and sushi bars with the odd watch repairer, shoemaker and trimming shop. Don’t aspect anything like Montmartre or Kreuzberg as this street could look dead after 9 pm. However, thanks to an initiative like Otwarta Ząbkowska (Open Ząbkowska) on summer weekends this is where something creative and family friendly happens in Praga with buskers, jugglers, workshops for children, food vans, and banned cars.
Ząbkowska is also where Google opened its Campus (a sort of hub for startups) at the end of 2015 within the Koneser Centrum Praskie compound. This is a former distillery that is on its way to be turned into hundreds of flats, a shopping gallery and even a Vodka Museum whose opening date has long been postponed. Koneser is one of those controversial cases of ‘requalification’ that leaves some lukewarm as it may be seen as real estate speculation with brand new expensive condos built instead of old red bricks tenement houses so abundant in the neighbourhood restored. What local residents hope is that small picturesque businesses in this area such as the family-run Russian restauraunt Skamiejka won’t disappear overnight once Praga Połnoc gets posher.
Moving south to Praga Południe, Soho Factory on Mińska Street managed to mix requalification with revitalization quite effectively. This area hosts the usual expensive eateries and clothes boutiques, but is redeemed by architect studios as well as by two interesting small museums: the Neon Muzeum and the Czar PRL. The first one is home to the biggest collection in Europe of those artistic neon light signs that use to glitter and shine on Polish nights until the late 1980s. The latter is the place to visit if you’re a geek for all things PRL (socialist Poland) from furniture to toys, from posters to canned food.
More memories from the past can be found rummaging through the bookshelves and record racks of Antykwariat Grochowski in Ludwik Kicki street. This second hand bookshop may be a bit off of the beaten path, but it’s worth a detour as it’s a true gem of a place with an unforgettable atmosphere. While listening to old nuggets by Czesław Niemen, Mira Kubasińska or Budka Suflera surrounded by old photographs and curios, bookworms can dig into thousands of Polish books and hundreds of English books at very affordable prices.
Hopping on a tram down Grochowska Street, you can hop off at the corner with Zielenecka Street. This is where Teatr Powszechny next to the Wedel chocolate factory. Since October 2015 this theatre hosts Stół Powszechny (Common Table) a café run by the cultural association Strefa WolnoSłowa focusing on inclusion, migration, integration and cooperating with international subjects. There’s always something interesting happening at Stół Powszechny whether it is a book presentation or a theatre workshop, a poetry slam contest or a seminar on philosophy in the pleasant garden outdoors.
Heading back to Praga Połnoc, the neighbourhood of Szmulowizna is where football club AKS Zły (meaning ‘Bad’) play their home matches at the Don Pedro Arena. This club calls itself ‘alternative’ as it pursues a revolutionary approach to football whose cornerstones are self-financing, democratic management, gender equality, and fair play. At Zły nobody gets discriminated for their nationality, sexuality or religious belief and the women team gets the same financial support of the men team. Supporters on the stands are forbidden to insult opponents and those who cannot afford paying the ticket fee enter for free. It’s not a coincidence then that both football teams are pretty multicultural with players coming from Belarus, Georgia, Germany, Israel, Italy, and Vietnam wearing the black jersey of the club.
Last but not least comes a cool post-industrial courtyard along 11 Listopada Street where you can find two excellent clubs for live concerts and DJ-sets such as Klubokawiarnia Chmury and Klub Hydrozagadka. Not far from here, next to monumental if a tad stifling Haller Square, there’s Imiradio. This is a Web radio created by Mamadou Diouf a musician who came to Poland from Senegal some years ago, speaks flawless Polish and is now an active social and cultural player in Warsaw. Imi is a multilingual radio like no others in Poland. It’s run by foreign volunteers and it broadcasts in Polish, English, Arabic, French, Russian, Spanish, and Ukrainian.
Of Dreams and Stones
Praga has become a tourist destination in Warsaw. It’s not unusual today spotting old Żuk vans with the logo Adventure Warsaw speeding along Mińska, 11 Listopada and Ząbkowska Street or stumbling upon foreigners walking down Targowa Street and looking lost. But then again, this is most definitely not a sightseeing hotspot and, as such, may look disappointing at a first glance. Some tourists head to this district upon knowing that Roman Polański shot much of The Pianist here while others may cross the river looking for the zoo where a more recent movie, The Zookeeper’s Wife is set (although it was shot in Prague, not in Praga.)
Let’s put this straight: Praga is fascinating but challenging. Most people need time to appreciate its rough charm and few of them can catch it in a single visit. The beauty of this part of Warsaw is mostly hidden, peculiar, invisible to many. It’s true that this district survived WW2 largely unscathed – when compared to the utter destruction that obliterated the western bank of the Vistula – but it’s misleading to sell Praga to tourist as a corner of “pre-war Warsaw” as it sometimes happens. This is because most of the district went through complete devastation before WW2 and in multiple occasions, between the 18th and the 20th century due to Russian marauding invaders, fires and wanton building policies.
Monument-wise what is left to be seen is two cathedrals, the Catholic Saint Florian and the orthodox Saint Mary Magdalene, and the fine neo-classical building called Komora Wodna (Water Chamber) by the Italian architect Antonio Corazzi where civil weddings are officiated.
There is no shortage of leafy green areas with Park Praski and beautiful Park Skaryszewski being the jewels of the crown. In the warm season an extensive and well-maintained networks of paths along the Vistula is perfect for runners, cyclists and sports enthusiasts indulging in outdoor activities such as tennis, beach volley and roping. Two sandy beaches along the river, Plaża Miejska and Plaża Stadion, are perfect to watch the time goes by, have a bonfire or bask in the sun (whenever Warsaw capricious weather allows it.) Drinking your own booze is technically not allowed on the sand, but both beaches have fancy bars just a few steps away.
As for those who are already thinking about moving here, be warned that prices have been skyrocketing over the last couple of years, when it comes to rent or buy property. Whereas Praga – except for Saska Kępa – used to be one of the most affordable districts in Warsaw to settle in, things have changed. Brand new investments such as the aforementioned Port Praski and Centrum Koneser have brought the prices from a maximum of 10,000 PLN (2400 €) per square metre to 15,000 and growing, while it has become hard to find anything below 8,000 PLN.
In the meantime, infrastructures are improving. The second line of Warsaw Metro that reached Praga on March 2015 is currently being extended to include three new stations on the eastern bank of the river, Szwedzka, Targówek and Trocka, by 2020. Also, a new pedestrian bridge linking Praga’s Okrzei Street with the new embankments on the other side of the Vistula should be built in 2019. Moreover, there are plans to complete the modern thoroughfare of Trasa Swiętokrzyska connecting Praga with the hip area of Powiśle and the eastern district of Targówek. It’s around the metro station of Stadion Narodowy that the sheer scale of this infrastructure is visible. Here the small crowds of cigarettes smugglers whispering “Paperiosy, papierosy” to passersby described by author Maciej Sieńczyk in an interview on daily Gazeta Wyborcza have not moved yet.
A few steps to the right, after passing under the railway bridge, you can still see a dozen rickety stalls selling cheap clothes. They’re the only remnants of what used to be Jarmark Europa, the biggest open air market in Central Eastern Europe with hundreds of sellers crowding the then Stadion Dziesięciolecia. That derelict stadium was demolished and gave way to the futuristic National Stadium built for the 2012 UEFA European Championship co-host by Poland and Ukraine. The new arena home of the Polish national football team changed the face and, to some extent, the reputation of Praga, but the disappearance of Jarmark Europa is regretted by some. Requalification and revitalisation are all very welcome, but some Praga residents think it would be a pity to see the few Chinese and Vietnamese sellers who are still working in the area pushing their carts to and fro disappear completely. The hope is that this district will manage to improve its standards without losing the peculiar identity that made it unique and worth writing about.