Polish Space

by Jodie Baltazar
an earlier version of this article was first published in Proximity Magazine, 2013

As we hauled our suitcases up a dim staircase to our new Polish home—a tiny fifth floor communist-era apartment—each door we passed cracked open, revealing the faces of our new neighbors. These were not friendly faces. They weren’t even curious. The expressions conveyed a sort of blank negativity that I have since come to recognize as the default expression one wears in public here. That was February 1, 2010, my first day in Poland.

Flying over Warsaw I got an altogether different impression. From the sky one can clearly see it’s surrounded by forests, and that a huge part of the city is black with trees and free space (it was winter). There was warmth in that blackness; it invited me in. These first impressions have become iconic: The push of the people and the pull of the land that continuously regulate the borders of my Polish Space.

Space is something. It’s private. It’s public. It opens up for you; it closes in on you. Since coming to Poland, it has been my preoccupation. In early 2011, I started a project called Pixxe, an acronym for the unwieldy phrase: “Projects Involving the Experimental Exploration of the Environment”. Its purpose is to explore and modify public space and the use of land in order to improve the social and ecological environment of the city. Unlike a real estate developer, Pixxe takes an ecological-subsistence approach to environmental transformation and knowledge: How do we change our environments to satisfy (basic) needs, not just our own human needs but the needs of the animals, plants, and soil as well?

In the past two and a half years, Pixxe has revived an abandoned garden plot (“Railroad Garden”), planted wild flowers (“Tiny Meadows”), installed vegetable beds in public places (“Urban Greens”), and composted over 5,500 gallons (20,820 liters) of food waste (“Soil Garden Project”). This year the projects are Studio+Farm, which transforms a garden allotment into an urban farm/art studio; “Kompostowisko”, in which a shitload of Warsaw garbage will be composted; and “Jadalnia Warszawa” (Warsaw Canteen), an exploratory map-making project, done in collaboration with Paulina Jeziorek, to mark sites for wild food, fruit trees, bio-indicators, and traces of unusual human and animal activities. Through these projects, I’ve learned that social practice around food is heavily influenced by cultural notions of space—public and private, city and country—some of which were only marginally familiar to me before.

Public Space / Private Space

Americans know what public space is. It’s the open space we share. It’s for everyone. It’s everywhere. Americans also seem to have a sense of entitlement to it. We feel we have the right to use and change that space.

A Pole once told me dryly, “There is no public space in Poland.” In people’s minds “public” means State, and so public space is State space, a view not unfamiliar to any of us, in any country. Its space is authoritative, regulated, and forbidden. This doesn’t mean people regard sidewalks and parks as forbidding, but that they have little sense of their right to the space. The shared aspect of public space is simply one of its incidental formal qualities: the road must be shared because many cars use it. Public space is private property owned by the State.

There are a couple of reasons why public has such a different meaning here. One is obvious—the remaining traces of fifty years of communism. The State owned everything, public and private; it takes time to adjust to the idea that there is a difference between the two. It once took me an hour to convince someone that the US government does not own public companies. (Although the reverse could not be argued.) She simply couldn’t get over the word public. I have the same problem when, for example, I see signs advertising “Public Catholic Schools”.

Private space, then, is not necessarily related to ownership of property so much as to an authentic, personal space beyond the reach of the State. This view didn’t just arise suddenly with communism but during the long years of foreign occupation (more or less from 1772-1918) when Poland “didn’t exist” and “was wiped off the map.” Poles themselves claim to behave differently in private (real faces) than they do in public (blank faces) though I haven’t really been able to distinguish this difference.

Poland has always existed, perhaps not always as a State or a Country, but certainly as a culture, preserved in people’s homes. I saw an embroidered work hanging in a village café. Two little girls share a secret. It reads: “Don’t tell anyone what happens in the home!”[1] There is a creepy aspect to this kind of privacy because although you may preserve language and cultural traditions, less savory things might also remain hidden. Garage, porch, or yards sales are unknown here. Perhaps they reveal too much about one’s private life and circumstances. Someone told me they’re illegal. More likely, there was simply no accumulation of useless goods, and so no history of having to sell them in order to reduce the clutter.

Not long ago, the people of Warsaw were finally allowed to sit on the grass in a park. Before that, it was against the law. It’s still very rare to see anyone having a picnic in a park. Grilling in public is still forbidden, but there aren’t any tables or shelters or grills anyway. In parks there are numerous restaurants, and usually they’re not the cheap ones.

The lack of engagement with public space, and in particular green space, might also be traced to a paternalistic view of socio-environmental organization, which emphasizes control over participation and protection over creative interaction. The anthropocentrism that dominates the Judeo-Christian / European tradition makes it easy to see public space as gift or duty from the higher beings to the lesser ones—from god to human, nobles to peasants, the State to the people, and humans to nature. Thus parks and gardens, for example, are valued not for their social properties but for their aesthetic ones. They are places to “get away from civilization and enjoy nature.” Even though the nature found there is highly organized and not exactly natural. Only by coincidence are they social sites, a place where people gather.

The communists had some curious ideas about public space. One thing most people remember about a visit to Eastern Europe, regardless of the country, are the rows upon rows of awful apartment buildings, called “bloks”, built from the 1950s to 1970s. Descriptors like awful and ugly are redundant—the word “blok” says it all. They aren’t really any worse than apartments built in other places during that era; it’s more about the lack of diversity and the sheer quantity. The buildings grew squattier and shabbier with each passing decade. Fortunately, by the 1980s the Soviets were bankrupt and built nothing.

These “bloks” have a certain charm to Americans or Western Europeans who harbor romantic ideas of communism, who find charm in all the ugliness. But living in one is really not so charming. The rooms push in on you. Odors of cabbage soup and fish float through the vents that connect the floors, kitchen-to-kitchen, and bath-to-bath. These vents also make it easy for residents to share cockroaches, arguments, and once in a while, laughter. The walls are so impenetrable that trying to hang a picture on them is an exercise of frustration.

The curious thing about these monsters is not the private space within them, but the public space between them. Big space. Useful space. Open space. Play space. Tree space. Common space. Breathing space. Someone told me the communists didn’t expect anyone to use their apartments, and that’s why they were so cramped. People would spend all day at work. They’d eat in cafeterias. They wouldn’t be home much. It didn’t turn out that way. “Skyscrapers reflect the human condition. They do not touch.”[2]

This common space is rarely used today, but it wasn’t always this way. A film from the ‘70s, “Replika” (1975, Kazimierz Bendkowski), uses time-lapse photography from a high angle to depict an entire summer day in the yard of a blok. From morning to night, the blok’s yard is hopping: playgrounds, sandboxes, games, kids playing, people moving about, cleaning, watering things, chatting. Today the yards of the bloks are lifeless seas of cracked asphalt. The playground equipment has been removed. There are warning signs everywhere: BALLS FORBIDDEN and STAY OFF THE GRASS. There are a lot of old people; few children. Nothing moves. Once in a while you might see a kid on his bike or some boys beating each other with sticks. A lot of bloks even remove the benches because they might attract “pijaków” (drunks). 

I’d always wanted to re-shoot the film and compare the difference in the use of the space. Last summer we finally found the blok where “Replika” was made. I got special access to the roof and sat up there all day, watching and filming shadows. There was a little flurry of activity around noon, but for the most part people only entered the yard in order to walk across it. I put the two films side by side and synced them. It’s called “Replika Repliki” (Replica of Replica)[3].

Public Gardening

One of Pixxe’s first projects, “Urban Greens”, was to build two raised vegetable beds in the yard of my own blok. Getting permission from the housing authority was the easy part. More difficult was getting the residents of the building to agree. I finally got permission, a paper with lots of official stamps, to put the boxes in a remote corner.

We started to dig. The yard was soon full of people, but they weren’t there to help. (Despite knocking on over 100 doors in my apartment building and in broken Polish personally inviting every neighbor, only two of them showed up.) There were heated conversations about the location of the boxes and exactly what the permit stipulated. We were temporarily stymied but finally managed to agree on a new location, next to the bench where the old guys hang out, and where the sunlight is conveniently blocked by four giant black poplar trees. 

Next came discussions about how the vegetables would attract rats, hooligans, thieves, garbage, and dogs. Fortunately, there was a counter contingent of residents and friends who rallied. We prevailed. Wojtek, one of the neighbors whose apartment overlooked the boxes said, “Who wouldn’t want the aroma of fresh herbs wafting into his apartment?” Despite seeming a bit tipsy, he drove away and returned with some seeds and tomato plants. One old fellow was an incredibly agile digger. Another fetched water from his apartment.

In the end, none of the things people said would most certainly happen, happened at all. In fact, the opposite happened. The old dudes who sit on the bench from morning to night became Guardians of the Boxes, casting evil eyes on any suspicious character who dared linger too long. There were no rats. There was no vandalism. Very little garbage. The boxes were too tall for even ambitious dogs. In total one kohlrabi, two heads of lettuce, and three marigolds were taken, but since they were free, we can’t really call it stealing. Two high points: sharing kale with an old woman who always wondered what it tasted like and helping a young guy discover his love for lemon balm.

People respected the garden but didn’t really participate in it—they saw it as mine, not theirs. No one offered to help, no one offered advice, but no one asked for anything either. Recently we moved the boxes to my son’s school because soon we’ll be leaving this apartment. In the two graves left behind, I planted Polish wildflowers.

Private Gardening

Sprinkled all over Warsaw are hundreds of amazing little plots of paradise: urban allotment gardens known as działki [JOW-ki]. They follow the European tradition—individual plots grouped together in a large tract of land. But unlike American-style community gardens, the individual plots are private and large (3000-5500 sq.ft.). Each garden is a universe of its own, with a fence, locked gate, and even a little house. Działki are hermetic. How do they work? How do you get one? It’s all a rather mysterious business, which I’m just beginning to figure out.

Działki only appear to be private property. Like most land here, the land on which they sit is still owned by the city or the State. This land was given for free to a union of sorts, which manages the operation: the Polish Association of Gardens or PZD. The PZD is one of the few organizations to emerge from the communist era in tact. It is said to have between one and two million members. In a country of 38 million, that’s 2-5 percent of the population. In 2012, some of the laws governing the działki were found unconstitutional by the courts and at this point their future is uncertain—or who know, maybe it’s just the fate of the PZD that’s in jeopardy.

There are several types of działki: Rodzinny Ogród Działkowy ( Family Garden Allotments) and Pracownyczych Ogród Działkowy (Worker’s Garden Allotments.) I’ve recently heard there was a third kind for retired veterans, though I’ve never seen them. Nowadays they are all just called Family Garden Allotments or simply, działki.

One can be forgiven for thinking działki originated during the communist era, but in fact they predate even the First World War. Actually, they predate the last century. Działki can also be found in abundance in the countryside. In the city, they seem a little bit like gated communities; everything is locked up neat and sweet, fenced in with gates and locks, often supplied with water and electricity and street names like Azalea, Gooseberry, and Zinnia. Some even have mailboxes.

Not so long ago (before 1989) a lot of food was grown on these plots—I’m told people even raised chickens and pigs in the city. This doesn’t mean the działki were bastions of organic agriculture. A friend of mine found some publications from the ‘60s and ‘70s where all advice on how to grow plants starts with which pesticide and artificial fertilizers to apply. Post-communism, the advice is simpler: Put Round-up on everything you don’t want and Miracle-Gro on what you do. Nowadays the dzialki are used primarily for rest and relaxation (picnics, grills), or to grow flowers.

To get a działka is not a straightforward affair. All transactions are undertaken on a person-to-person basis. If you want a one you must find someone willing to sell it. There is no waiting list, no protocol. You will pay money, not for the land but for all the stuff on the land: the plants, the little house, fence, and probably forty years of accumulated junk. There is no standard sale price. In the same allotments, one plot might sell for 800 dollars and the one next to it for 10,000. It is all negotiated between the buyer and the seller. The best way to find a seller is to go asking. The thing is, the gardens are locked—you can’t get in or out without a key. Once you do get in you may find yourself unable to get out. You may find yourself hopping fences. You may find that people want outrageous prices for a działka. You may find that no one has seen the owner for years, or that the owner is old or sick or dead. You may find that nobody knows nothing. Many działka owners are reluctant to sell because they think someday they might be compensated for the land. This may be one of the illegal parts of the law. The result is that it’s hard to get a działka and many of them are fallow.

If you do manage to find and purchase a działka, you are required to join the PZD and are subject to three days of intense instruction: one on flowers, one on fruit trees, and one on legal matters. You are subject to the usual numbing standards for lawn care, which seem to be universal in this manicured world of ours: cut the grass regularly, no tall grasses, no weeds, all yard refuse must be raked up after cutting, no branches must overhang another person’s allotment, and so on.

I avoided all this by acquiring “działki” that were outside the official system. There are thousands of such plots, which were never incorporated and so are not on the books. (Yes, there are actual books.) In some cases, they are completely abandoned. In other cases, they are occupied, but were squatted thirty or forty years ago. Some actually share the grounds of official “działki” but remain unofficial; some are freestanding in groups of ten or twelve. Some have water, some don’t. It’s very difficult to find any information about these marginal plots, so one day I just took one. It was so neglected and forlorn that it seemed to me no one in the world would care what I did to it. And more or less, no one has.

This project was called “Railroad Garden” (2011-2012) and the idea was to simply take and restore the health of an abandoned “działka”. It wasn’t difficult to find one, because in my neighborhood there were many abanandoned plots. The one I took was a former Workers Garden Allotment along the tracks. In this particular spot, more than half the “działki” are severely overgrown. Most have no water. They are a drinker’s paradise. Lately, guys with shopping carts looking for iron have been sweeping through and removing what little fence remains.

I cleaned out thousands of gallons of garbage (90 percent of the waste was beer containers made of metal, glass or plastic). I trimmed the trees (hazelnut, walnut, cherry, pear, apple, plum), fixed the fence, put my own lock on the gate, and for two summers grew vegetables there. The lack of water made this last job very difficult. The work has its rewards: the old plum tree blossomed with flowers for the first time this spring.

Although I envisioned it as a social project in which other people would participate, in the end it turned out to be a more or less solitary activity among other solitary actors—my three fellow gardener-neighbors, all of them old men, and a lot of lonely outcasts who wandered the tracks. 

Here’s a sample:

  • Roman, who brought me a homemade pickle-and-cheese sandwich
  • Lady with Sparkling Eyes, who collects dandelions and nettles along the tracks
  • Bogdan, who burns cables to get to the copper
  • A kid who warns me about drunks
  • Gap-toothed woman, who was looking for a lost mountain man
  • Gentlemanly neighbor, who loves flowers and builds a new crooked bench every year
  • Beekeeper neighbor, silent and can hardly walk, but still looks after his bees
  • Pan Kale, who shared his kale with me
The closed culture of “działki” are not the only reason why many of them are unused and abandoned—the bigger and sadder reason is no one wants a “działka”. The only people you see gardening these days are old people. Younger people have better things to do like work, shop, party, play, drive cars and go on vacation. To a lot of people, having a “działka” means you’re poor or a country bumpkin (same thing), a communist, out-of-step with the times, or old. I’m sort of all of these things so maybe there’s some truth to it. Ironically, at the same time that “działki” are in decline, there’s been a boom in the gardening business, but it’s related to affluence (real or imagined) and its trappings: lawns, lawnmowers, and grills.

City Space / Country Space

Urban food gardening might seem well-established by now, but it remains an awkward and complex idea here in Warsaw. One can trace many attitudes to another socio-spacial divide between urban and rural, attitudes that quickly emerge in discussions about urban agriculture. I’ve encountered the same opinions and worries about growing food in cities so often, I pretty much know exactly what people are going to say. The status quo is as follows. Growing food in cities is: 1) unhealthy, 2) pointless, and 3) embarrassing. I’d like to address each of these issues.

Growing food in cities is unhealthy. The majority of people I’ve met are convinced that food grown in cities will be poisoned by pollution. Someone even said, though not to my face, that I will die if I eat the food from my raised garden beds. Some people are worried about heavy metals in the soil, but most seem to be concerned with pollution from cars and airplanes.

I understand their concern. That’s why we do soil tests, why we spend so much time building raised beds, making compost, growing cover crops, adding organic matter, even buying manure and dirt. Air pollution problems strike me as very exaggerated. Probably because I moved to Warsaw from Los Angeles, which has the most polluted air in America.[4] I lived in Chicago, where every other vacant lot was a former factory or gas station, and New York City, where there weren’t even many vacant lots left.

Warsaw has only two million people in the entire metropolitan area. Twenty-five percent of the city is parks, forests, and green space. Plants grow out of every crack, and many of them indicate a high level of soil fertility. Not so long ago most of Warsaw wasn’t even a city. As recently as 1950 the spot I’m living on right now, less than two miles from the center of town, was farmland and orchards. There are parts of town that were still cabbage fields in 2003. There are even places, such as some of the “działki”, where nothing was ever built. From my point of view, Warsaw is pristine. (Though it’s true that some parts of the city center are full of rubble from the war, when a shocking 85 percent of the city was destroyed.)

I talk to people about how one can heal the soil with compost and green manures, build raised beds, import clean soil, test the soil, build away from roads, wash the food before you eat it, and most importantly— a nice bit of insight from Nance Klehm—to simply accept, as a city dweller, a little bit of pollution with your food just as you accept it into your body with each breath you take. I talk about how food grown commercially uses a lot of pesticides, that the country isn’t as clean as they think. A friend of mine and I are even planning to go through research at the agricultural university in order to compile all the soil tests that they reputedly have done.

Growing food in cities is pointless. One reason I started growing food and even making bread in Los Angeles was because food was so expensive. I remember being at a bakery with my mom, who bought me a loaf of bread. It was great bread, but it cost ten dollars. Ten dollars? That convinced me to learn how to make bread.

When I told my gardening neighbor here I was growing vegetables he scoffed, “What for? I can buy a carrot for a couple of grosze (pennies).” He’s right. Food is cheap. With the exception of Macedonia, Poland has the cheapest food prices in the EU.[5] So there is little cost incentive to grow food. Organic food, however, is still hard to find and expensive. It’s also hard to find variety (kale, greens) and though imports from far away lands get more numerous every year, the prices are as prohibitive as the taste.

There is also not much of a problem with access to fresh fruits and vegetables in the city. There aren’t any “food deserts” as far as I know. One can find fruit and vegetable stands all over the place. Ironically, the problem with access to healthy food seems greatest in the countryside. I spent a week in a small village in Eastern Poland and had to forage in the woods to get something green to eat. In the local store, there was only sausage, beer, vodka, bread, junk food, and a couple of rotting apples and carrots.

There is even pretty good knowledge about how food grows. Unlike the UK and USA, you won’t find many kids in Poland who think carrots grow on trees or who’ve never seen a tomato. I’m told that half the residents of Warsaw moved here from the country—the last thing they want or need to know about is how to grow a cabbage.

Most people here believe that the food is still good, and in comparison to the US, they have a point. Fresh produce tastes a lot better here. It’s still for the most part local (in the summer anyway) and seasonal. If you really ask around, you’ll find there are still some farmers who use organic techniques, even if they don’t have the certification. Industrial agriculture came slowly to Poland because farmers resisted collectivization, and with it industrialization. Even today, Poland has more small farms than anywhere in Europe.[6] But this blind faith in the wholesomeness of the food means that people are often in denial or ignorant about how agriculture has changed, how rapidly it is changing, and that it will worsen if they don’t mobilize. There is little knowledge about the heavy use of pesticides, artificial fertilizers, and monocultures, especially by small farmers, and the disastrous effects they have on the health of the soil and food. Many people have no idea that there are CAFOs in Poland or that the nasty meat producer Smithfield Foods Inc. owns or controls many of their beloved Polish meat brands.[7]

Growing food in cities is embarrassing. The strange logic goes something like this: People who grow food are from the country. People from the country are poor. Thus, people who grow food must be poor. It’s shameful to be poor. Thus growing food is shameful. This is how an American city slicker like me can impersonate a Polish “peasant” just because I have dirty fingernails or carry a shovel. That is until I speak Polish. Then I suddenly become a Ukrainian or Russian peasant, because that’s about all a white person with broken Polish in Warsaw can be.

Another reason why growing food is embarrassing is that it is perceived as old-fashioned. It’s something your parents or grandparents did. In order to understand this, it’s important to understand that for the last twenty-five years Poland has been trying to make up for a half century of what it perceives as lost progress—social, economic, cultural. Many try to distance themselves from its fuddy-duddy past, which means things like conserving resources, riding bikes, growing food, knitting, and sewing.

In the United States fewer and fewer young people are learning how to drive, car ownership is dropping, malls stand empty and abandoned, but here there are more and more cars (doubled in the last 25 years), more and more malls, and more and more consumption. There is already more pollution, obesity, diabetes, and garbage. This tragedy is repeated in many other parts of the world that are in an even earlier stage of the stupid game called Must-Catch-Up.

Growing food in cities somehow manages to ignite all of these worries about health, and value, and shame, but it seems to me to reveal a more fundamental division between the city and country. People don’t want to mix their country with their rock-and-roll. They want farmers (peasants) to be farmers (peasants) and intellectuals (artists) to be intellectuals (artists). If artists grow food or farmers get PhDs, they get discombobulated.

The city is modern; the city is now. The country is antiquated; it is “then.” But the country is also clean and good—happy cows and their keepers in a pre-industrial past. The rural is viewed both as hopelessly nostalgic and as hopelessly backward.

Nobody wants the analogy to be City: Country as Europe: Poland. The appearance of backwardness (poor, rural) becomes the sign that Poland is not European enough. It’s goes like this. You live in a place where your idea of modernity is based on the past success of your rich cousins, and you work hard for twenty-five years to do what they did, to get what they have—to get the roads, and cars, the malls and conveniences, and you finally arrive. “Look!” You show your rich cousins how far you’ve come. But they just look back at you dispassionately and say, “Oh, didn’t you know? Now we’re doing bike paths, green buildings, and recycling.” You can’t win the game of Must-Catch-Up.

I was recently in a meeting with a new group who want to promote urban food gardening in Warsaw. They were talking about the mission and vision of the group and someone said, “to be like Berlin!” People cheered, but it depressed me. Why is the desire to imitate the West still so strong? How can you imitate a place that has completely different social conditions, experiences, and perceptions about space, food and civil society? The imitative impulse gets annoying, but isn’t the trendy arrogance of the West equally annoying? People privilege their own cultures—it’s like a disease you can’t cure yourself of.

Growing food in Warsaw won’t be done for the same reasons it’s done in Berlin or Los Angeles or Todmordon. Maybe here it’s more Space and imaging new ways in which it can be used. It’s about access to and knowledge about local organic food, about learning to accept the country in the city, raising awareness about the realities of industrial agriculture, or just trying new foods. It’s about the social benefits of growing food together and simply appreciating that Warsaw can be a healthy place too, that it has an ecology of its own and we’re part of it.

When Americans leave America they’re called Expats. Once an American always an American: you can never be an immigran­t somewhere else. Yet somehow that’s what I’ve become. I don’t know what’s going on most of the time. I get tired of trying to understand. I’m dependent on others to help me do very simple things. I find solace in the company of other immigrants, none of them American. I never really feel comfortable. (Though I’ve never really felt comfortable anywhere.)

Through Pixxe’s projects, I’m able to gather evidence empirically in order to understand this new environment. By consuming it and letting it consume me, I’m coming to recognize myself in it and it in me.


[1] Nie mów nikomu, co się dzieje w domu!  )Don’t tell anyone what happens in the home!) Translation by author.

[2] Quote by Louise Bourgeois

[3] The film can be viewed online at vimeo.com/user3633666

[4] http://www.stateoftheair.org/2012/city-rankings/most-polluted-cities.html

[5] See: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Comparative_price_levels_for_food,_beverages_and_tobacco

[6] Rosenthal, Elizabeth. Old Ways, New Pain for Farms in Poland, New York Times, April 4, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/04/world/europe/04poland.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[7] http://www.animex.pl/eng/who_we_are/history

This article was first published in Proximity Magazine 011 (2013). This work is part of Lumpen’s PMI Archive series where they reprint works from their sister publications. Proximity Magazine went out of print in 2014.