The Color of Communism
Krakow is cute. Very cute. Yes, I’m a man, and I just used cute to describe a place. That’s how cute it is. Possibly the only Polish city to survive destruction in World War II, Krakow is so charming it’s old town was one of the original 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites. How’s that for cute?
You know who’s not a big fan of cute? The Communist Party, that’s who. Cute doesn’t fly there. Communist ideology demands monumental architecture to both shelter and inspire the proletariat masses. Communist Party-ruled Poland took one look at cute, non-destroyed Krakow and said “Nie, dziękuję” (No thank you). Now the Communist Party could have "improved" Krakow with a few new buildings here and there. But no, that would have been small "c" communist thinking. The Communist Party begins with a capital "C" for a reason. It thinks big. The Communist Party was going to show Krakow what’s up. They formulated a plan to build Nowa Huta, a shining Communist city on a hill that would show the bourgeois (and notoriously anti-communist) Kracovians how much better capital "C" Communism really was. Brand new Nowa Huta would lie just 10 kilometers east of Krakow, and would have even have its own steel mill. The proletariat would flock to this paradise. That’s what’s up Krakow. And because the Communist Party is a party of doers, that’s exactly what it did.
The Communist Party begat Nowa Huta. One of only two pre-planned model socialist realist towns ever built in the world. A city of 200,000 people. Where Lenin statuesquely commanded the main square, and the ever-so-creatively-named Lenin Steel Works employed 40,000 people and boasted the largest blast furnace in Europe. When Fidel Castro came to visit, he skipped Krakow’s old town and went straight to see the steel works (because that’s where the Party was... pun intended).
However, that was then. Now, Lenin’s statue is gone and the Communist Party parties no more, but Nowa Huta is still there.
As an American, when I imagined Eastern Europe, I didn't think of Krakow and its UNESCO World Heritage Stare Miasto (Old City). I thought of massive communist tower blocks, like this:
So when I read about Nowa Huta, I knew I had to go. I pictured a place where every stereotype of communism and post-communism would be confirmed. Massive housing estates, graffiti everywhere, impersonal architecture, trash, scowling old ladies with kerchiefs over their heads physically bumping you out of line to get that last lemon, that sort of thing. In short, I would be fascinated.
The day the Mrs. and I decided to pay a visit to Nowa Huta was cold, gray and drizzling. In other words, Perfect.
Except when we arrived to Plac Centralny (now renamed after Ronald Reagan no less), that's not exactly what we found. While yes, the whole place gave off the feeling of being inside an urban planner's architectural rendering, it lacked the "post-communist-collapse" feeling I was expecting. While I know that's a good thing, the thing about expectations is that when they're not met, even the negative ones, you're still left a little disappointed. I had arrived to Nowa Huta 20 years too late (if even what I was expecting ever actually existed).
The Nowa Huta of today is remarkably nice. There's lots of greenery. Parks are everywhere. You can even pick fruit off many of the trees. The buildings, except for all being uniformly grey, are actually pretty cool. Besides the architecture, and the remaining (and still in operation) steel mill, remnants of the Communist Party-era are confined to the Nowa Huta museum (complete with a built-in bomb shelter in case the USA nuked Poland). This was definitely not Nowa Huta I expected, or necessarily wanted, but that's what's there now (photos below).
PS - See if you can guess my thoughts on the "color" of Communism from the photos below.
PPS - You can see I think the color of communism is gray. As you can see from the photos, and I've seen from my observations, it seems that almost every building left from that era in Poland is gray.