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65 Working Paper

Lódz in the Post-communist Era: In Search of a New Identity

Sep 1, 2006 Joanna Beata Michlic


Unlike other Polish cities such as Gdansk, Kraków and Wroclaw, Lódz is a "young city" that emerged as a modern industrial metropolis in the second half of the nineteenth century. At first under Prussian rule after the partitions of Poland, the city fell to Russia after the Treaty of Vienna (1815). In 1825, Tsar Aleksander I visited the then small town of only 1004 inhabitants to encourage industrial development. This led to the city's golden age in the late nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. Lódz became a mixed city of Poles, Germans, Jews, Russians and also Czechs. As a flourishing center of industry, the city became popularly known as "the Polish Manchester" or "the Promised Land." The unique constellation of textile factories, workers' housing and industrialist palaces and gardens built in various architectural styles still lend it character today. Industrialists of Lódz's gilded age such as Jakub Poznanski, Karol Scheibler and Ludwik Geyer gave the city an enduring personality.

The Second World War brought an abrupt end to the vibrant multicultural life in the city. After the defeat of Poland, the Germans incorporated the city into the Third Reich. Its Jewish population was confined to the infamous Lódz ghetto in the district of Baluty, a Jewish working class district. Only a small number of the large, influential, and diverse Jewish residents of the city would survive the mass murder that ensued.

After World War II Communist Poland promoted Lódz as a modern industrial and socialist city by emphasizing the architecture of bleak shopping centers and apartment blocks such as one dubbed by the locals as "Manhattan." The multicultural, multi-ethnic character of the city's built heritage was ignored and forgotten. Without provenance, the once renowned factories, palaces and villas that survived WWII began to house the various institutions of the communist state. The homogeneity of the city's postwar population of Poles also played an important role in obscuring its multi-ethnic heritage.

Since 1989 Lódz, like many cities in East Central Europe, has begun to research and discover its historical identity. Attempting to "remake" the present and future image of the city, an archeology of the local is bringing a variegated past to light. Key to this project is the idea of Lódz as a classically modern, industrial, and European city. Monuments and art works, architectural renovation, and commemorative practices such as the organization of the annual Festival of Four Cultures (2001-2004) are part of this program.

This paper considers the steps taken by the city authorities and cultural elites to revitalize the built heritage and how these steps manifest themselves in the articulation of the post-communist city space. I question the extent to which this restoration project can be realized in a city that underwent major and irreversible transformations of its local identity during the Second World War and the communist era. What does it mean to recover a built heritage that derived from the mix of four cultures, German, Jewish, Polish, and Russian, in a city that has been Polish for four decades? Can the post-1989 Lódz become once again "the new Promised Land ?"