On 20 August, Plovdiv – Bulgaria’s second largest city – was illuminated by a large fire. Hundreds of citizens watched how four beautiful secession-style buildings, part of the popular Tobacco town ensemble, burned for hours, destroying not only significant listed architecture, but also erasing a piece of the city’s identity and collective cultural heritage.
‘Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me’, people say. Indeed, this wasn’t the first time a listed building is quickly destroyed in front of everyone in the city. The only unusual thing about this case were its proportions and the choice of fire instead of bulldozers.
Slow destruction is something common in Bulgaria – protected buildings in prime locations are often left to deteriorate by their owners, until they become dangerous and can legally be demolished and replaced by concrete and glass. However, owners and investors have been more impatient lately and have tested the gaps in local regulations and the powerlessness of institutions. The lack of any legal action has encouraged more of them to damage prominent monuments and structures. When another building in the Tobacco town was demolished earlier this year, local people gathered in front of the bulldozers to save whatever was left. They protested, spoke to the mayor and were promised not only the reconstruction of the building, but also the active protection of other listed architecture through revised legislation.
Such cases are common not only in Bulgaria, but in many parts of Eastern Europe and beyond. It is a troubling situation when cultural heritage is not effectively protected by the institutions and is left in the hands of greedy investors and active citizens. It gets even more dangerous when a large fire in the middle of a city is not enough to light up the spirit of the locals and trigger enough political pressure for change. After the fire on 20 August, there were protests and talks once again. This time they were much smaller in size and charge.
Plovdiv will be European Capital of Culture in 2019. The title was awarded to the city for a number of initiatives including a pledge to revive the old Tobacco town. Today, Plovdiv’s citizens only hope that the Tobacco town survives until 2019. They hope for restored but largely unauthentic versions of a proud industrial past that will serve new functions and become a thriving part of the city once again.