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Turning to the local

by Krzysztof Żwirski
28.03.2023
Turning to the local Turning to the local
Could the antique-book shop in the old pharmacy on Zwierzyniec be a place as worthy of mention in guidebooks as the nearby Talowski townhouses, or the annual indulgence at Emaus?

Can a Kazimierz metal shop that finds a solution to every problem of troublesome household equipments/deviceses be of similar value to the town as its basilica, shrouded in the glow of history? Could the antique-book shop in the old pharmacy on Zwierzyniec be a place as worthy of mention in guidebooks as the nearby Talowski townhouses, or the annual indulgence at Emaus?

UNESCO’s recommendations on the management of historic cities inspire a new role for gentrified places at a time when anachronistically conceived tourism has long been eating its own tail.

It was a testing moment from which Krakow certainly emerged victorious. In 2013, when the capital of Malopolska was awarded the honoured title of UNESCO City of Literature, at its symbolic and actual “salon” of its – Market Square, more bookshops were closing out of the dozen or so that were located there at its peak. The effective use of the provisions of the resolution on protected industries, granting booksellers the right to reduced rents in city premises, the establishment of the only programme in Poland to support cultural activities in bookshops and arduous work over many years to raise awareness of bookshops as places of culture has had its indirect effects in the form of at least ten new places that have since appeared in Krakow since then.

These include Café NOWA Księgarnia, which has more than filled the void left by Skarbnica in Nowa Huta; the much-appreciated and much-loved Księgarnia Karakter on Tarłowska Street; the Abecadło antiquarian bookshop on Kościuszki Street, mentioned in the headline, which was set up at the initiative of KBF and with the support of the Zwierzyniec District Council; the quarter of antiquarian bookshops on Szpitalna and Św. Jana streets with the oldest antique bookshop in Poland, saved with the support of the City – these are, on the one hand, the results of conservation efforts, but also the effect of a slow, but inevitable reversal of consumer trends and a shift of interest towards the local. And books and bookshops are only a fragment of a wider phenomenon.

The UNESCO Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL), adopted in 2011, points the way forward for cities that have experienced the ambiguous effects of uncontrolled tourism development in recent decades. The way to rebalance and increase the self-awareness of centres such as Barcelona, Edinburgh or Prague could be through intentional and systematic efforts to strengthen the condition of small, artisanal businesses, bookshops, studio cinemas, art galleries and other places that contribute to the identity of cities.

It sounds like a truism, but the lack of systemic, central solutions enabling effective support for places acting most frequently as private entrepreneurs, as well as the insufficient recognition of the importance of the problem by local authorities, have for years significantly impeded initiative in the area of stimulating the development of craft and independent culture as the living heritage and creative DNA of Polish cities.

Paradoxical results were brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the compulsion to stay indoors and the crisis in which virtually the entire service sector found itself overnight, with particularly vulnerable industries important to the cultural heritage of cities. The protective programmes initiated even before the national shield by Krakow, such as the Resilient Culture campaign or the Bookshops Resilient campaign dedicated to bookshops – an important gesture of support for the environment in times of trial, overlapped with a general and observable shift in consumer behaviour towards locality.

Noteworthy examples include the story of a pet shop on Racławicka Street, which was saved thanks to the mobilisation of followers of the popular Make Life Harder profile on Instagram, or the exceptionally active participation of Krakow schools in funding book vouchers for outstanding students in local bookshops.

One of the city’s first steps for rebuilding its authentic character after experiencing the pandemic was the creation of a multifunctional cultural centre in the beautiful 16th-century Potocki Palace, in the heart of the city at the corner of Market Square and Bracka Street. The city’s two leading cultural institutions, the KBF and the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery, have joined forces, offering the best of what they have to offer on the palace’s two floors, with the UNESCO City of Literature programme, fuelled by a variety of external initiatives and created with the key participation of partners, at the forefront.

Krakow faces exceptionally important challenges for its future in terms of protecting and developing this unique resource for the city, which is made up of entrepreneurs in one of the 48 protected professions. It involves, on the one hand, a thorough analysis of the current state, identification of needs and assignment of strategic areas of development in the urban space to particular industries, and, on the other hand, providing conditions for industry education and inter-generational exchange, creation of consumer needs and implementation of a municipal promotional campaign.

It is also about practical and day-to-day challenges, such as supporting iconic coffee shops or restoring studio cinemas in their traditional locations. This requires, on the one hand, a fair and precise definition of the environments that are particularly important for the intangible identity of Krakow, and, on the other hand, a responsible and flexible response to the changing situation, in line with HUL’s key assumption that heritage is the story that happens before our eyes. 

The trans-generational significance of the gesture that such a programme, especially in Poland, cannot be overestimated. The long-lasting infatuation with uncritical capitalism, which fell on the generation that entered adult life in the early 1990s, put people who”missed out” the changes against the economic wall and outside the social bracket. Everything small, handmade, resulting from knowledge and craftsmanship passed on from one generation to the next has lost out overnight to the bulldozer of globalisation.

In recent years it has become clear that the course has changed, the appreciation of authorial, handmade work is growing among the younger generations, and “retro” and “vintage” are no longer just labels denoting a passing fad, but a noticeable turn towards new values. Krakow, a city with such a rich and complex history and a place where the creative potential of its inhabitants is concentrated, is well-placed to play an important role in this turnaround.

Kraków

No, this is not all there is to say about Krakow. Heritage is an open-ended collection – it’s up to us to fill it with meaning!

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