Nadodrze, a forgotten area with a new lease of life

The story of a neighbourhood which was marked by a history of depravation, now unveiled by a wave of tolerance and ready to become the new cultural meeting point of Wrocław.

When telling the story of a city, many will think immediately about the old town, those places where the most tourists gather, where pictures from postcards are taken, souvenirs are bought or where free-tours start. But on the contrary to what happens in many cities, Wrocław has its own history far from the center.  Beyond the river Odra, north from the well-known entertainment area of Wyspa Słodowa, a particular place starts: Nadodrze.

See the full gallery; This article was published in the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia

As an urban oasis surrounded by a turbulent past, this neighbourhood has something unique and it has been able to keep and show as it was part of Wrocław’s history. Pure and dirty, quite and noisy, awesome and disgusting, this city quarter lives through decorative nineteenth-century architecture and concrete utilitarian buildings, abandoned structures that stand next to garbage fields and graffiti facades. Sometimes grimy, sometimes sparkling, Nadodrze surprises and proves that it has much more to offer than what it is expected at a first glance. With a lively art scene, unique galleries, cultural initiatives and newly becoming meeting point for hipsters’ “wrocłavians”, the area has developed a special charm.

This article goes through Nadodrze history. How a zone marked by depravation and misery has turned into a focal point of cultural initiatives and young entrepreneurs; which changes lead to achieve this transformation and what has been the consequences for the community. What is shown and what is hidden from Nadodrze is presented next.

Nadodrze 17

The area of Nadodrze covered 110 ha and had around 35,133 inhabitants (Rada Miejska Wrocławia, 2011). The total zone is currently unknown, though due to recent expansion. It is one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the city, where magnificent 19th century tenement houses, called Kamienice, stand next to post-industrial buildings along with big German hofs (courtyards), a legacy of Wrocław’s time as German Breslau.

In broad strokes, the area goes from Bolesława Drobnera, once crossing the island Słodowa, till the railway station, north of Wrocław. The river Odra used to mark the limit from the west, while Księcia Józefa Poniatowskiego streets does the same from the east side. Right now, due to recent expansion, the total area is being recounted. 

Located in Przedmieście Odrzańskie, this northern district of Wrocław was left intact by World War II and so a unique architecture has survived until today. A regular, geometric layout of streets and squares comes to the fore as a peculiar feature of this area and follows the routes of former dirt roads. The majority of buildings usually have 4 to 6 storeys and are around 20 meters high. Commercial properties are located on the ground floor, most often with direct access from the sidewalk, while residential apartments are on upper floors. (URBAMECO, April 2009)

The project of revitalisation conducted since 2005 and still ongoing has brought positive infraestructural changes such as facades, parks, squares, new cafes and several numbers of socio-cultural activities. However, the neighbourhood has started to face other social issues.

The beginnings

In order to understand the winds of change that occurred few years ago, we must imagine ourselves in the following scenario. Beginning of the 19th century. A vast area of kamienicas, factories (brewing alum, labels, buttons, mirrors, glass), ongoing houses, craftman shops and semi-rural houses covered with straw. Buildings were loose and chaotic, but the streets already were paving some arteries of the city and suburbs. However, lack of sanitation and sunlight was commonplace, and the crowding became noticeable. As it is mentioned in the analysis of Marta Swoboda, translated as History of Przedmieście Odrzańskie, the development of Wrocław suburbs accelerated the introduction of railways to the city in 1842. Nadodrze Railway Station served as main railway station to “cover the needs of local and national population”.

Facade of Nadodrze Railway Station. View from Plac Staszica.
Façade of Nadodrze Railway Station. View from Plac Staszica.

Swoboda maintains that the expansion of Wrocław suburbs “proceeded rapidly and sometimes haphazardly”. So it is easy to see reflected this chaotic distributed architecture in the current Nadodrze’s map, as well as the intense faulty buildings with poor housing conditions that were built at that time.

“The guetto of porters, carpenters and laundresses”

August Semrau

In the second half of the century began the construction of big houses on the Trzebnicki square, Łokietka street, Pomorska street, Obrońców Pokoju street, featuring a giant human crowd. Closer to the city center, the area was maintained in much better condition. Later on, as Swoboda claims, even in 1850 the area of present Nadodrze “looked more like bottomless puddle rather than a residential city street”.

“In times of rainfall, there is a suburb that is best avoided”

Anonymus (1850)

By the end of the 19th Century the present side streets of Nadodrze already centralise the poorest and the neighbourhood was also impaired in terms of public utility, without development plans. Some improvements were applied when the municipality tried to keep most of the streets an appropriate width and leave open spaces for squares. The maintenance of adequate roads and provision of water supply was at the core of the changes, but in Swoboda’s words, “there was still much to be desired”.

Nadodrze 13
Kamienicas. View from Świętego Wincentego street.

Following the logic of what has been said, the hostilities coming into the 20th century had a mild effect on Nadodrze’s area due to most of the buildings date from the years 1860-1880. However, even having avoided heavy damages in the World War II, which actually devastated most of Wrocław, Nadodrze was “left to decay with limited renovation”.

A significant decline of the neighbourhood was expressed by increased crime, poverty rates and infrastructural disinvestment of both interiors and exteriors of buildings and dwellings, claimed the PhD candidate Wojciech Kębłowski.

Under communist rule, Wrocław became the “fortress of Solidarity”, the centre of resistance when Poland’s trade union was made illegal under martial law in the early 1980s. That spirit, as explained James Hopkin for The Guardian, remains in Nadodrze’s venues, especially when it comes to the block of flats from 1950s or 1960s that have filled the gaps from those old houses not preserved.

The 1997 flood accelerated the deterioration process of Nadodrze. The arrival of new millennium exposed the characterised physical decay of historic buildings, degradation of public space and devastation of urban infrastructure. All together brought forth huge problems of poverty, low skills, social exclusion, long-term unemployment, high crime rates and social pathologies which made the neighbourhood a marginal place, as it was reported in 2013 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

“At the turn of the 21st century Nadodrze had become a neighborhood of dilapidated infrastructure, derelict green spaces and largest amount of social housing and vacant housing in town. The area became known as ‘dangerous'”. 

Witkowski, P. (2013)
Part of a courtyard
Part of a courtyard. View from Ludwika Rydygiera street.
Winds of change

It was in the beginning of a new millenium that the town hall of Wrocław decided to act, based on a few issues: high level of poverty and exclusion, high unemployment rate, high level of crime and offences, low level of education, low business activity rate, relatively low value of residential resources, low market value of the local housing stock and low level of economic activity. With these ingredients and owing to the neighbourhood’s condition, the upcoming changes that started in 2005 turned out to be not only a simply renovation, but a revitalization of the whole idea Wrocłavians had of this particular place.

As it is stated by the coordinator of the Fundation House of Peace, Maja Zabokrzycka, in an interview made at the beginning of September 2018, the process of revitalisation began with a shallow consultation to the neighbours. “It was rather estimating and guessing from the level of the Municipality what would be the best pace” – says Zabokrzycka. The City Hall, through its department of Entrepreneurship and Development, connected the idea of a ‘revitalised area’ with a place for artists, creatives and young people. Through this way, the full plan was led to the Governors, leaving the residents with no power to negotiate how should their neighbourhood look like.

In case you would  live in a building that has never been renovated, or maybe it was fifty years ago, but currently it is in horrible conditions, you would not care much if there is a boutique just at the corner or an artistic workshop around. Overall, there was a huge gap between the idea of the Municipality and the real needs of inhabitants“.

Maja Zabokrzycka

Therefore, the current result of Nadodrze’s plan might have grown apart from the initial initiative and other issues may have also come up due to this rift. In any case, local organisations like the Foundation House of Peace took actions to encourage citizens within the area and to not let the whole process in the hands of the Officials. We will discuss this topic in the following sections. 

Nadodrze 15
Woman walking in one of the most known courtyard of Nadodrze, due to graffiti and paitings on the walls, near the street Jedności Narodowej.

In any case, the OECD describes that the main goal of Wrocław’s comprehensive regeneration was the prevention of marginalisation of the inner-city areas and transforming them into attractive tourist and economic centres. The Capital of Culture 2016 and the new EU programming period provided an opportunity to mobilise the joint efforts of higher education institutions for urban regeneration. Indeed, Wrocław application for the title of European Capital of Culture 2016 set out a high ambition to transform culture from a “mere supplement” to a key component of “the life of every human being”.  In other words, to improve social cohesion, Wrocław and Lower Silesia identified culture as a means of overcoming social inequality

Supported by EU Structural Funds, Wrocław’s Local Regeneration Program was focused on a priority area of 1,500 ha in the city centre that corresponded to 5% of Wrocław’s total area, home to almost one-fourth of the population (URBAMECO, April 2009). The most serious challenges described were the massive dilapidation of historic buildings, traffic jams and the lack of integration into the trans-European traffic network, continual neglect of residential and public areas and the former industrial and military sites that need to be transformed and redeveloped.

Focusing on Nadodrze’s neighbourhood, the actions were taken based on the URBACT project, a European exchange and learning programme promoting sustainable urban development and, therefore, through the so called URBAMECO network, a fast rack pilot project launched in different European cities such as the area of Nea Ionia Magnesias (Greece), Lodz (Poland), Constanta (Romania), Tatabanya (Hungary), Gothenburg (Sweden), Arnhem (Netherlands) and Birmingham (United Kingdom), which aim is to foster sustainable integrated regeneration of critical urban areas and fight social exclusion.

The restoration activities started with the linking routes from the Old Town to Nadodrze station: Władysława Łokietka street, św. Macieja square and Bolesława Chrobrego street. Specifically, a renovation of the street surface was made, along with attractive commercial and service facilities that – according to URBAMECO project information – “will remove the burden form the city centre and positively influence the quality of life of the local community”.

Nadodrze 34
Tenement houses restored. Corner at Świętego Wincentego street and Bolesława Chrobrego.

The idea, so, was to turn those places into a natural extension of the Old Market Square zone. But as it happens when huge changes are made, opportunities and threats came out. Among the former one, there was the possibility of establishing a quarter of considerable prestige by initiating a positive impact on neighbouring areas and expanding architectural and urban assets, as well as reducing crime and accumulation of pathogenic environments, removing barriers for disabled people, creating conditions for sport and recreation and, overall, improving living conditions for the inhabitants. Among the latter, the major threat was on the migration of part of residents to areas with higher standard facilities and public spaces, deterioration of the green areas condition as a result of lack of care, the accumulation of marginalisation and social exclusion and the increasing disproportions between the Supported area and other districts in terms of quality of life. No mention to “gentrification” was made, even when several reports informed about that. We will tackle that issue on the next point.

Between the years 2009-2013, over 140,5 million PLN were invested in the area of Nadodrze according to the Foundation House of Peace in Wrocław. More specifically, the renovation consisted in: 8 yards, 61 tenement houses or kamienicas, two main squares, two schools, local police station, neighboudhood’s main park and four other green spaces. It also included the establishment of centres for social support, professional development, non-governmental organisations, ecological education and the Info-point Łokietka 5.

Nadodrze 73
“Foundation House of Peace, Łokietka 5 InfoPunkt Nadodrze” located in Władysława Łokietka street.

Located at Władysława Łokietka 5, the “Foundation House of Peace”, also known as Łokietka 5 InfoPunkt Nadodrze”, serves as an bridge between Nadodrze’s community, local government and Officials from the Municipality, as well as with newcommers. It played a great role informing Nadodrzes’ residents about revitalisation and often launches numerous programmes and debates facilitating co-operation between various actors and citizen groups.

The renovation focused on improving the appearance of public spaces, like front elevations of buildings and “street furniture” (e.g, lamps, barriers, benches, stalls), a uniform system of informational signs. Other actions strengthened the economic field by attracting new or current production services: workshops offering tailor-made clothing or custom-made shoes, art studios with designer goods for flats, souvenirs from Wrocław tourists, establishments for designers, artists; also attracting investors who convert tenement houses into hotels. Gastronomy, culture and entertainment found also its space.

Nadodrze 19
Local shop at the corner of Ludwika Rydygiera street and Wąska

Along with these investments, URBACT project listed comments proposed from inhabitants as a valuable actions to be taken into consideration. For instance, competitions for promotional slogans for the area, contests and festivities, or tasks carried out by students in nearby schools based on the needs of the area.

A great example of inhabitants participation are the street-art murals displayed in specific areas. Franklina Delano Roosevelta street hosted some of the most interesting paintings, which refer to great personalities in recent history, such as Frida Khalo or The Scream, from Edvard Munch. Others display well-known faces like Maria Salomea Skłodowska-Curie. If it would not be because of these nice paintings, this area would remain isolated. Instead, it is easy to step in and find other visitors or even a wedding photo-shooting. But the most extraordinary outcome of displaying these murals has been the interaction and wave of tolerance that former residents have developed with tourists or simply with new inhabitants. It is likely that once you get in one of the courtyards, some locals show you – in polish – the perfect place for a picture. But the most extraordinary outcome of this is how this paintings reflect their daily lives. In fact, some of them are a representation of the current neighbours and sometimes is easy to know who lives where by looking at the mural on the wall.

Nadodrze 8
Street art paintings in a courtyard.

Despite the fact that these are great participatory activities, some critical views suggest that revistalization has not been a sustainable process at all. Maja Zabokrzycka, from the Fundation House of Peace, claims that the process “should have encouraged the inhabitants in participating in a way it might give them a job”. The whole plan should have been organised so that it would primarily be given to residents, facilitating to create some sort of cooperatives in order to take responsibility and renovate their own space.

Nadodrze, the real deal

As the Warsaw Insider reported, Poland has seen the formation of artistic areas. Warsaw’s Praga or Kazimierz in Kraków came before and started to revitalise those decaying areas, although seems that they have lost their enthusiasm on the way. Nadodrze, however, has become the real deal.

Enticed by subsidizing cut-price rents and a local government-led regeneration scheme, it’s become a hub for galleries, NGOs, design studios and other creative practices. In the process, a decaying part of town has been granted a new lease of life.

In particular, more than seventy places have opened in the last five years in this area. Around twenty galleries, more than ten workshops, cafes, several restaurants and craftsman shops, four cultural centers, such as Nadodrzanska Potancowka IV – for inhabitants in all ages – or Senior na Nadodrzu – aimed to be the senior council of the neighbourhood, empower the elderly residents and show them a way to start their own civic initiatives.

This transformation is not complete yet. “There is no magic wand for decades of neglect”, says Alex Webber for the Warsaw Insider. Indeed, years of deprivation are still visible and confronts with the new wave of modernism on the streets. The scars leftover on many facades from the WWII or the fifty years-old man stiring on the mull with a bottle of beer in his rear pocket is a also a current sign of Nadodrze’s way of living.

Nadodrze 45
During an afternoon. View from Słowiańska street.

Severely damaged during the WWII, Nadodrze suffered from poverty and alcoholism in the past war years. But thanks to the important boost during the past decade, the quarter could emerge from that world of depravity. And following Webber’s claim, everything indicates that where there are artists, gentrification will go next.

“The process by which a place, especially part of a city, changes from being a poor area to a richer one, where people from a higher social class live” – Cambridge Dictionary

Indeed, there has been a large number of papers that have studied the process of gentrification in Nadodrze’s neighbourhood. One of them, written by the PhD candidate at the Institute for Environmental Management and Land-Use Planning from the Université libre de Bruxelles, Wojciech Kębłowski, jointly with the MSc in Urban Studies, Bence Kováts and Maëtte Lannuzel called “Revitalization versus gentrification in contemporary urban studies. The case of Nadodrze” stated that the regeneration in Nadodrze has established “solid foundations for gentrification, and therefore “resident displacement”. According to these authors, urban revitalization has both positive and negative effects, because it goes beyond the simple idea of “bringing new life and vitality” to one place. On the one hand, it improves neighbourhoods built environment – rehabilitation or recycling of old decayed constructions. On the other hand, “contrary to discourses depicting this phenomenon as a way of promotion “social mix(ing)’, the ‘old’ inhabitants of low socioeconomic status become an unwanted element in a deal that requires ‘new’, socially and economically superior inhabitants to provide expected return on public/private investment.

In Nadodrze’s case, the result of new openings, cultural investment and attractive initiatives, could have brought a major public and displaced the old one, who was used to live with lower living standards. And in fact, this is the result of revitalisation, which puts strong emphasis on working towards the “aesthetics” and “positive changes in district’s image”, promoting a “Nadodrze’s brand”, instead of prioritising improvement in overall life quality and housing conditions.  Moreover, the mentioned “revitalisation” does not address directly to the neighbourhood’s major socioeconomic problems claimed Kębłowski, such as unemployment, poverty, or low quality of education. Instead, its social aspect relies on ‘soft’ projects and activities co-ordinated by the local social support centre, Info-point Łokietka 5.

Nadodrze 68
Street art in a courtyard.

One could think it is all about branding; an attempt to create Nadodrze’s brand. Certainly, Nadodrze is leading the flag of ‘revitalization’ in Wrocław and even in Poland. Therefore, the whole process has turned into gaining a ‘brand’, which could be used to recruit “new middle-class” people in order to make a more “socially-mixed” neighbourhood rather than to respond to the socio-economic needs of existing residents. In that way, gentrification exists, but according to Zabokrzycka, from Łokietka 5, it is happening “in a quite unusual way”, basically because there is a fast growing new social structure which can take a bigger responsibility for the common space and give good example. It is really visible when looking for places for entrepreneurs – when they try to start a business there or go on the private market -, and the fact that the Municipality is not selling kamienicas.

Kębłowski remarks that the theory of gentrification in Nadodrze will depend on Wrocław’s housing policy, stating that the revitalisation programme undergoes on privatisation of housing, future involvement of real-state investors and its focus not on current inhabitants, but potential residents and users. And the discourse from Officials shows exactly that. Indeed, the town hall, media and other policy-makers referred to these projects in Wrocław as outcomes of “revitalisation”, understanding that this process would bring unquestionable good effects without social costs.

Perhaps it is early to discuss a possible gentrification effect, but according to Kębłowski and Zabokrzycka, it might not be a possible scenario yet, but a genuine threat.

It will be crucial to see Wrocław’s paradigm of urban development once the celebration of Europe’s Capital of Culture year has gone, Nadodrze is focusing the interest of new investors and the city itself is increasing its popularity among international students and companies. 

Nadodrze, today
Nadodrze 61
View during the afternoon in Macondo.

One can feel the contrast between the electrical and heating power plant emitting steam while sitting on a wooden-fabric chair outside a fancy coffee-shop and surrounded by grimy facades. This is Nadodrze nowadays and most of its current services, such as cafés or shops, move in this circle. As an example, Macondo – ul. Pomorska 19 -, half artisan shop, half cosy café, named after One Hundred Years of Solitude, combines magical realism with weekly events, coffee time and a narrow sky-blue stairs which captivates anyone in love with detailed gifts and painted walls. It’s current manager, Julia, explains the beautifulness of this place and recognizes it veils a special charm when the sunset comes and rays of light penetrate through the shop window and touch the pieces of glass hanging on the ceiling. Or Hart Hostel & Art – ul. Rydgiera 25A, a psychedelic hostel in the middle of Nadodrze and featured by containing rooms fully designed by some artists. The inventor and current owner, Izabela Duchnowska, realized three years ago that one way to renovate the image of an old courtyard would be to use culture and art. She named that place Hart Hotel and now it has turned into even a sightseeing. Every room is unique and it has been designed by polish or international artists.

I do really feel like being immersed back in time while jumping out from the tram stop and crossing Plac Bema. Walking down Pomorska street, facing old facades, some restored, some others like burnt and others painted with huge graffiti, coming across a variety of bars, pubs, old buildings that serve as schools, a hidden police station; art galleries and craft-shops in almost every corner veils Nadodrze with a bohemian spirit.

Nadodrze 37
A girl rides a bike in a courtyard near Franklina Delano Roosevelta street. Behind it is displayed a mural with maritime motifs.

From a personal perspective, big efforts have been made to open this area to the society and it seems that even former residents of Nadodrze have learnt how to deal with new inhabitants, accept them, show tolerance and willingness to foster their own area, until now deprecated and under valuated. A new era starts for Nadodrze, although it will be important to look after its unique history and preserve it, before it is too late to get it back

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