I Went to Poland. This Was One of the Most Surprising Things I Saw.

by | Jun 21, 2023 | What I'm Seeing and Hearing, What I'm Thinking | 0 comments

A number of people have asked “What was the most surprising thing you saw?” during my nearly four weeks in Central Europe. There were lots of surprises, and perhaps I’ll write about more of them in the weeks ahead, but for today I am writing about Nowa Huta (New Steeltown), the site of the theater pictured here. 

Nowa Huta is about five miles away from Krakow, often called the spiritual capital of Poland. With its university (1355), romantic Wawel castle (even older), elegant boulevards, and charming Kazimierz district (former Jewish neighborhood, now hipster headquarters) it was the home of Poland’s artists and intellectuals. After the Soviets took over in 1948, they felt that the effete Krakovians needed a good dose of working-class life, so they built a big steel mill just outside the city and proceeded to bring peasants in from farms and villages to work in the mills and live in the model community. I expected to see blocks of grim housing projects (much like those, ahem, one finds in the urban areas of a certain capitalist nation), but Nowa Huta was actually quite lovely. The communist planners took a good look at beautiful Krakow and created buildings with Renaissance-style arches grouped around areas of green space suitable for recreation—and grazing animals! (The peasants brought their cows and goats.) Apartments (I didn’t see any interiors, but they are reputed to be pleasant and light-filled) were arranged in appropriately-sized residential clusters, each with its own daycare center, elementary school, playground—and fallout shelter.

The set-up reminded me of Stockholm, where I admired the environmentally wise arrangement of residential areas, shopping, schools, recreational space, and walking/biking paths around transit stations. But life in Nowa Huta was not quite perfect. There was the pollution from the steel mill—and the political and social repression. This theater, Teatr Ludowy, was an example. Actors, playwrights, directors, set designers, etc. who misbehaved were sent to this theater as punishment. Compared to performing in Krakow, this was the sticks. Most of the potential audience members were unsophisticated and even illiterate. The effort at punishment apparently backfired: sending a bunch of free-thinking and even dissident creative types to the same place led to innovation.  Teatr Ludowy became one of the most exciting theaters in Poland. According to one writer, “Every premiere was special, even more: it was a bomb with a nation-wide fuse.” 

The steel mill closed following Poland’s overthrow of Soviet domination (and the end of the Soviet Union) in 1989. The air in Nowa Huta is as clean as the air elsewhere in greater Krakow. Connected to the center of the city with excellent and frequent tram service, Nowa Huta is a highly desirable neighborhood today. It is, to put it simply, gentrifying.