PLOVDIV 2019: The light (tower) at the end of the tunnel

A couple of days ago I returned from a short visit to my beloved hometown Plovdiv or shall I say the 2019 European Capital of Culture (ECC). A title that used to make myself and most Plovdivians rejoice over the proud past and somewhat proud present of our city. A small success that made us dream big about the future of Plovdiv. Unfortunately, today the ECC title prompts rather negative feelings among most locals – those who care about the cultural initiative call it a fiasco [1], while the ones who are not concerned with the upcoming artistic events simply grumble about the associated traffic jams and “unnecessary” expenditures.

So is it a fiasco?

The most diplomatic answer would be – only time would tell. According to a lot of Plovdivians, however, one does not need to wait until the end of the year to label the event a failure.

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Their arguments are numerous, legitimate and hard to ignore. For one thing, the city’s central zone looks like a construction site rather than a cultural, instagrammable or even walkable tourist spot. A number of infrastructure projects are not completed yet and are not expected to be finished by the end of 2019. Many renovation plans that were part of the city’s winning bid have not even been started as of January 2019. In fact, one might argue that the city’s urban environment is in a worse state now than when Plovdiv began its preparation for the event – traffic jams have intensified, working infrastructure has been closed for reconstruction and never reopened, a functioning gallery has been demolished to be replaced by an incomplete concrete frame and a number of listed buildings have been destroyed by arson [2].

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The mentioned large-scale construction projects resonate with the Capital element of the title, but what about the Culture? Could Plovdiv’s cultural offerings disguise its infrastructural failures? Most Plovdivians are skeptical. The city’s winning bid “Together” [3] proposed a number of initiatives that were never taken forward – for example Mahala – a programme for social inclusion through art or Tobacco city – a project for urban revival of a disused historical quarter through culture. Other planned events might be spoilt by the lack suitable venues due to the mentioned incomplete renovation works. Most issues are blamed on corruption in local authorities and namely on the mayor Ivan Totev who allegedly put a lot of political pressure on the organisers and turned the event into an election campaign.

So is there light at the end of the tunnel for Plovdiv 2019?

Quite literally – yes. There is a 30-metre tower glowing with numerous projectors and digital screens that would serve as a scene for the big opening ceremony “We are all colours” this Saturday. And it happens to be located on the side of a tunnel cutting through one of the hills in the city centre. So if you observe the events from the right perspective, the light at the end of the tunnel will be very bright indeed. Or so the local politicians claim. In their view, the city’s cultural programme is set to be a huge success that will silence all negative voices.

Personally, I remain hopeful that Plovdiv 2019 will somewhat benefit the city and its citizens – perhaps the fact that I have been physically removed from the local turmoil in the past two years has protected me from the feeling of disillusion that most Plovdivians currently share. It is clear that a lot of the proposed events, renovation works and projects will not materialize and the city will remain a construction site long after 2019.  It is disappointing that the 2019 ECC initiative will not realise its full potential due to political games and corruption. But it is also true that more cultural events will be held in the city than ever before. The publicity – both good and bad – will undoubtedly attract more people to visit or at least learn about Plovdiv. The city of Plovdiv has much more to offer than the Plovdiv 2019 campaign. And while visitors might experience some poor organisation, they will also get the chance to explore and enjoy our beautiful city in between events. After all, it is up to Plovdivians to engage everyone in the practice of ailyak [4] and savour the good, the bad, the happening and the unhappening 2019 TOGETHER.

[1] Манол Пейков “Пловдив 2019 е пълно фиаско” https://www.mediapool.bg/plovdiv-2019-e-palno-fiasko-news287884.html
[2] Read more about the arson and the following protests here: https://bigcitylittlemonkey.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/tobacco-ashes-and-memories
[3] You can find Plovdiv’s winning application bid here: https://issuu.com/plovdiv2019/docs/plovdiv2019app
[4] You can learn more about the untranslatable word ailyak here: https://www.203challenges.com/how-to-practice-aylyak-in-bulgaria-and-be-happy/ Of course, the best way to understand ailyak would be to practice it.

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Tobacco ashes and memories

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.

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One of the four buildings that burned on 20 August

‘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.

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Protest on 21 August

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.

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Flowers and police lines

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.