Nowa Huta, Kraków's Model Socialist District, Then and Now:
An Interview with Kinga Pozniak
Like most Eastern European countries following the end of the Cold War, Poland has seen its stock fluctuate wildly in the West. To a slew of observers, it either remains an exotic and backward country on par with Russia or has become the celebrated poster child and proof that neoliberal economics and democracy can in fact improve the lives of disenfranchised and downtrodden people. In Poland itself, the debates about the road the country has traveled since 1989 are often informed by similar binaries, including the most corroding of them all: us vs. them. While Poles continue to seek a common response to the People’s Republic era in general, Nowa Huta, the easternmost district of Kraków, actually embodies many of those contradicting narratives. Built in 1949 as a separate town to house workers of the newly built steelworks (in Polish, Nowa Huta means “New Steel Mill”), it was incorporated into Kraków within a couple of years, yet it has always remained on its outskirts, not just physically but imaginatively as well. Canadian anthropologist Kinga Pozniak, in her study Nowa Huta: Generations of Change in a Model Socialist Town (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014), analyzes how the district’s past and present inform the ways in which people create contesting images of themselves and their immediate surroundings in hope of finding a common path into the future. This interview was conducted via email.
—Piotr Florczyk, University of Southern California
Piotr Florczyk: In your book, you reveal that you were born in Poland, then emigrated to Canada with your parents when you were eleven, and that some of your relatives continue to live in Nowa Huta. Yet family ties don’t strike me as the only reason for why you became interested in the district and its complicated pedigree.
Kinga Pozniak: Like many emigrants/immigrants, questions of memory and change are part of my identity. Every visit back to Poland is a confrontation between the Poland I remember as a child and the one I see now. It just so happens that my last childhood memories of Poland are those of the collapse of the socialist government and the beginnings of the transformation in the early 1990s. Before beginning this research, I went to Kraków to get a feel for where to begin. At the time, I expected that I would live in my old childhood home in another part of the city, not in Nowa Huta, and conduct research there. But every time I mentioned the keywords “change” or “transformation” or “memory” in my conversations with people, I kept getting directed to Nowa Huta. I realized that if that’s where everyone thinks I should go, then that’s where I’m going.
The end of communism in Eastern Europe ushered painful yet ultimately successful political, economic, and social reforms. While the region’s countries are varied and distinct, and thus shouldn’t be bagged together they way they have been in the eyes of the West, its people nonetheless prefer to look to the future rather than dwell on the past. In your introduction, you write, “the legacy of socialist institutions, values, and social formations continues to inform present-day politics, economic programs, and people’s lives.” How do you see those things playing out in Poland and in Nowa Huta?
Everything we do is in some way informed by what we have done before. Sometimes we build on the past, and sometimes we deliberately and consciously break with it. But either way, the past is a frame of reference for our actions. In Poland, many political, economic, and social projects are carried out precisely in order to break with the socialist legacy. Changing street names is one very clear-cut example. But even projects that aren’t explicitly about the past still invoke it. For example, the recent reforms to the retirement system invoked debates not only about demographics and finances (for example, how many retirees there will be in a few decades and how much pension they will have), but also about the past. Politicians, the media, and ordinary people debated which groups were given special retirement privileges by the socialist government, and whether these privileges should be taken away in the name of evening out the score. And lastly, economic or social solutions that are in any way associated with “the left” (broadly speaking) are often dismissed and discredited precisely because they are reminiscent of the socialist legacy.
In Nowa Huta, the past is a constant frame of reference precisely because of the district’s history as a former “model socialist town.” For example, when there are layoffs at the steelworks, the subject of the steelworks’ future inevitably brings up its history as the literal and figurative heart of the district. When new revitalization projects are being proposed or carried out, this is always done with reference to what was there before.
The how-and-why of competing historical narratives informs much of your analysis. Dividing Nowa Huta’s residents into three categories—those who “built it literally with their own hands,” their children who came of age in the late ‘70s and played a role in the Solidarity events, and, lastly, those whose memory of socialism is either patchy or non-existent—you analyze their experiences of the district. Do they have anything in common?
Let me say, first of all, that these are not hard-and-fast categories. My intention was to show that people’s identities and sense of what is possible are shaped (at least in part) by the political, economic and social framework in which they live. And this framework changes over time, which is why what was important or possible in the 1970s was different than in the 1950s, and of course it is still different today. So generation is really about people’s location in the matrix of political, economic and social events. It doesn’t mean that all people of the same age will have the same values or beliefs. But I did outline these broad generations to draw the readers’ attention to the fact that people who are differently positioned in relation to historical events will then respond to them differently.
Most of the people with whom I spoke, regardless of their age, work (or have worked) very hard within what they thought was possible given the political, economic and social matrix in which they lived. The builders with whom I spoke really believed in what they were doing: they were rebuilding the country after World War II, and they were building new lives for themselves and their families. Then the people who became part of the Solidarity movement to bring down the socialist government worked very hard to fix what they saw as a broken system. Each successive generation redefines what is possible both for them and for the generations that follow.
Where do they differ the most in their opinions of their district?
Probably in their assessments of the district’s socialist-era history. People who remember the destruction of World War II and who literally built Nowa Huta with their own hands are more likely to appreciate the post-war period as a time of rebuilding. People who took an active part in the Solidarity movement are more likely to be younger: they did not experience the war, but what they experienced instead were the shortages, inefficiencies and corruption of the decades that followed.
In Nowa Huta, the end of the communist era is embodied in stories of victorious anti-communist resistance, on one hand, and the steelworks hemorrhaging workers on the other. Democracy brought both political freedom and staggering unemployment. Many Poles, I would argue, would love to put the ‘90s behind them.
I think people have put the ‘90s behind them in the sense that these major drastic changes (like skyrocketing energy prices or massive layoffs of entire factories) are already done. So that initial shock has waned and what we have is now the new normal. And with every year that passes, there are more and more people who don’t even remember what life was like before 1989. For them, anything that happened since then is not a break from normal, but rather what things have always been like. But I think you are pointing to the fact that the changes of the 1990s created certain phenomena (like unemployment, or the privatization of formerly public spaces and services) that have become part of the new normal. So, in a sense, the reforms of the 1990s set the framework today, although of course there is always the possibility of changing that framework.
What seems particularly painful and unacceptable about the ‘90s to many people in Nowa Huta is the degradation of the socio-cultural network that existed under communism. You write about movie theaters being turned into supermarkets, cultural centers closing, or athletic and recreational opportunities disappearing seemingly overnight. How has that affected the people’s sense of themselves and their surroundings?
People talk about being more isolated than before. The older people with whom I spoke often noted that younger people these days have to work so hard that they have no time for leisure or even for spending time with their extended family. The erosion of recreational and cultural opportunities only magnifies this. But of course that is not true for everyone. People who are interested in seeking out these opportunities can still find them; it’s just that they are more limited than before. People also talked about the “dumbing down” of leisure activities, so that people are not as well rounded as before, both intellectually and athletically. So, for example, instead of joining a theatre group, a person may simply go to the movies. Or instead of playing on a sports team one will simply sit at home and watch sports on TV.
Urbanization and concomitant destruction of the agrarian way of life for some, heavy industrialization, the anti-communist Solidarity movement, and the Catholic faith form the bedrock of many a story of Nowa Huta. Is there another narrative that has gained purchase in recent years?
Just very recently I’m starting to see an emphasis on Nowa Huta as a family-friendly place. New state-of-the-art playgrounds are being constructed, and local organizations hold events and programs targeted at families. This is interesting because when Nowa Huta was first being built it was hailed as the “town of youth,” a good place to grow and raise a family. So in some ways we have come full circle—albeit in a very different political, economic and social context.
Most outsiders and people born-and-bred closer to Kraków’s historical center—and some locals—see Nowa Huta as second- or even third-rate place to live. Why?
Nowa Huta’s place on the map of Kraków has always been complicated. When Nowa Huta was being built, many Kraków residents believed that the decision to locate a huge steel-making complex right on their doorstep was a punishment for their city for having rejected the socialist Polish Workers’ Party in a referendum in 1946. Kraków used to be the seat of Polish kings, and it’s a place that has always been associated with tradition, royalty, and high culture. Heavy industry does not fit well into that narrative. And that is precisely what Nowa Huta brought into Kraków. The majority of Nowa Huta’s first residents were manual labourers who moved from the countryside to find work in the rapidly growing town. Kraków’s townspeople viewed them as uncultured peasants, and that stereotype stuck for decades. More recently, the district has been popularly associated with crime and violence (for example, soccer hooliganism), even though in reality it is no less safe than any other part of Kraków.
Indeed, as Kraków’s largest district, Nowa Huta is slowly but surely becoming a destination for young families and the creative types. While most of its architecture consists of apartment blocks, it also features plenty of greenery and playgrounds. Can you talk about what the district’s socialist planners, who relied on both Soviet and Western urban designs, got right?
Even people who are very critical of Nowa Huta’s socialist legacy often grudgingly admit that its urban layout is very well-planned, and that it was designed to meet the needs of the people who live there. Nowa Huta is built on the “neighbourhood unit” principle, according to which everything that a person needs should be within close walking distance: a school, a daycare, a grocery store, a pharmacy. People who live in Nowa Huta don’t have to get into their cars to go buy milk. In contrast, many new housing developments reflect the interests of developers more than the residents: for example, the amount of green space between buildings might be minimal, because why build a playground if you can build another building and sell more housing units?
I’m just curious: what are your own most and least favorite places in Nowa Huta?
That is a difficult question. There are so many places that I like because they speak to different aspects of Nowa Huta’s identity and history. I have a soft spot for Nowa Huta’s oldest neighbourhoods, built in the socialist realist style, because I think they are very well-designed. I also love all the green space; for example, I spent a lot of time walking around garden plots on the edge of Nowa Huta’s oldest neighbourhoods. I was always blown away by how beautiful they were and how much work the residents put into them.
As for the places I don’t like: I spent a lot of time walking around Nowa Huta at all hours of the day, and I generally felt pretty safe. But sometimes I would come across places that weren’t well lit in the dark, and those are the places where I did not feel comfortable, especially as a woman. One such place was an underground crossing at a major intersection, which was difficult to avoid if I needed to switch streetcars. Mind you, this is not a comment on general safety in Nowa Huta, because it is no less safe than any other part of Kraków. It has more to do with general neglect of public infrastructure in the district, although that is slowly being rectified. Even as I write this, that underpass is being renovated.
It’s not just people in Kraków who harbor negative opinions of Nowa Huta. Most Poles living elsewhere also view it as a communist bastard that should’ve never been built. Is that true?
Nowa Huta’s historical label of “model socialist town” has much to do with that. Many Poles, who have never set foot in Nowa Huta, probably remember this one keyword from their history textbooks, so that is the only association they have.
Given that most Poles are very touchy about how they’re perceived by outsiders, how do residents of Nowa Huta react to how they’re being portrayed by people, who, like many of their neighbors from other parts of Kraków, have never set foot in Nowa Huta?
Given Nowa Huta’s complex history, it is not surprising that its residents are sensitive to how they are perceived and represented by others. In the course of my research, I often heard residents respond to a negative representation of the district by saying: “so-and-so should come here and see for themselves.” And, actually, I met several Nowa Huta residents who went out of their way to show outsiders around the district and explain its history. This generosity always impressed me, because how often does one meet somebody who is willing to spend two hours showing a complete stranger around town?
Parts of your study are dedicated to analyzing how formal education and media coverage influence the residents’ views of Nowa Huta’s past and present. What images and motifs stand out?
The two key narratives that depict Nowa Huta in national media and education are contradictory, reflecting the town’s complex history. The first is the image of Nowa Huta as the model socialist town. The second is the story of Nowa Huta as a bastion of resistance against the socialist government. Both are true, but incomplete on their own.
You also discuss changing street names as a way to not only make a clean break from the past but also to elevate the more positive aspects of it. The district’s Central Square being renamed, despite the locals’ vocal opposition, as the Ronald Reagan Square is a case in point. Although a compromise was eventually reached—the Ronald Reagan Central Square—everybody continues to refer to it by its old name. What is the significance of street-name changing in the grand scheme of rewriting the past?
Language certainly plays a part in shaping how we see the world. Street names are one way of publicly indicating what should be remembered and how. In Poland (and other socialist states) eliminating socialist-era references from public space has been a major project of the country’s post-socialist government. But these acts often ignite controversy. The renaming of Central Square is a good example, because the name itself does not intrinsically have any obvious socialist connotations (unlike the Lenin Steelworks, for example). There will be people who will want to see the name changed, simply because that was the name given to it during the socialist period. There will be people for whom the name is a part of Nowa Huta’s history, for better or for worse, and who want to honor that. And there are people who think “big deal, a name is just a name” and don’t want to bother changing the address on their driver’s license. Some people attach a lot of significance to symbols, and other people do not.
If we zoom out for a second, we’ll see that Nowa Huta wasn’t the only town in Eastern Europe built for practical as much as ideological reasons after World War II. I would imagine that residents of several, say, East German or Hungarian towns, have similarly conflicting thoughts about their hometowns.
Yes, many (if not most) former socialist states have their equivalents of Nowa Huta, and there are certainly many parallels between these towns. One of the local cultural centers is part of an international urban revitalization project called ReNew Town. The premise of that project is that former socialist spaces have much in common in terms of their history and current-day issues, and so the project is made up of residents of former industrial towns across the former Soviet Bloc. It’s very interesting to talk with these people because there are so many parallels between their respective towns, but at the same time there are also differences because every place has its own particularities due to its history, geography, economy, and so on. For example, one thing that strikes me as unique about Nowa Huta is a very strong connection between religion and political resistance to the socialist government—a connection that local churches emphasize to this day.
The place of our birth and upbringing shapes and molds our identity as much as cultural and political forces do. When I first moved to the U.S., in 1994, I was shocked by the lack of communal identity among my peers and the country as a whole. It’s both a blessing and a curse, I’ve found. How do the youngest Nowa Huta residents deal with the legacy of their district while they attempt to find their own ways in life?
Many of the young residents I met have a very strong sense of local identity and a real attachment to their district. Many of today’s young people have parents and grandparents who took part in important local events, and they told me with pride about their families’ contributions to their district. I often heard comments like “my Grandpa built this town,” “my Grandpa was an electrician and wired the clock in Central Square,” or “my Grandma planted trees here.” So what was important to them was the fact that their families literally built Nowa Huta with their own hands. They did not care what political and economic system was in place at the time. One person said to me: “a bricklayer who builds a good wall is a good bricklayer, not a communist.” To me, this means that young Nowa Huta residents are trying to move beyond the politics of the past, and instead focus on the legacy of work and community. Yes, Nowa Huta was built by the socialist government and was meant to be a flagship socialist town, but the people who actually did the building were mostly just normal people who worked very hard to make a good life for themselves and their children. And this legacy of hard work and community involvement is a very positive one, regardless of what political system framed it.
What’s equally fascinating is your suggestion that we view Nowa Huta in the same context as other post-industrial localities not just in Western Europe but the United States as well. Youngstown, Ohio—and, by default, the entire Rust Belt—gets mentioned several times.
It’s important to remember that Nowa Huta is not just a post-socialist town, but also a post-industrial town—and as such it has certain parallels with other postindustrial towns all over the world, not just in East-Central Europe. Of course the parallels should not be overstated, because every place is different, with its own unique history, geography, politics, economy, and so on. But I think that North American readers who are familiar with the trajectories of towns like Detroit, Pittsburgh, or Youngtown will find certain connections with Nowa Huta, although of course they will also find differences. This is because both in Europe and in North America, industry was seen as the cornerstone of modernity and was tied to state- and nation-building projects. In both places, large industrial employers often created various social institutions for workers: people lived, worked, and played together.
Under both the socialist arrangement in East-Central Europe and the Fordist arrangement in North America and Western Europe, industrial work was (at least for some time) a type of work that guaranteed stability, reasonably good wages, and benefits such as health care and housing. And in both places, this arrangement eventually came to an end. The collapse of socialist states across East-Central Europe coincided with another set of changes that were taking place globally: the shift from an industrial society to a postindustrial one and from a Fordist organization of the economy to one that is now variously called “post-Fordist,” “late capitalist,” or “neoliberal.” So as Fordism waned in North America and Western Europe, and socialist governments collapsed across East-Central Europe, industrial towns on both continents were transformed by the same processes: deindustrialization, unemployment, and urban decline. National and municipal governments attempt to combat these negative trends through a variety of strategies. They turn to service, retail, and entertainment industries; they court new investment by creating special economic zones; they pursue revitalization and urban renewal initiatives such as heritage or greening projects.
Such strategies reflect a changed relationship among the state, the economy, and labor—an arrangement that is often termed neoliberalism. So, in a nutshell, these phenomena are not unique to the former socialist part of the world, although of course in Nowa Huta they are inflected by the town’s socialist legacy.
The phenomenon of nostalgia for the communist past seems much more pronounced in the former East Germany than in Poland. Yet there is at least one company in Nowa Huta, called “Crazy Guides,” that drives foreign tourists around in Trabants. While the business is good, I’d guess, most Poles continue to express conflicting views about their country’s communist past and find the idea of glorifying communism distasteful. Will they ever be able to come to terms with it?
I think that for each successive generation, the past will mean something different. I don’t expect to see much “glorification” of communism in Poland anytime soon. And yes, I agree that the “nostalgia industry” is not as well developed in Poland as it is in other former socialist states, and I don’t expect that to change either. But I think that in time people will be able to voice an appreciation for certain aspects of the past without being accused of “nostalgia for communism” or “glorifying communism.” For example, Nowa Huta residents who respect the work that their grandfathers put into building a new town along with all the community infrastructure it offered are not “glorifying communism,” they are simply recognizing value in something that was indeed valuable and worthy of respect.
Your book is dedicated to “those who built, and those who are building, Nowa Huta,” which is very telling, for the district continues to search for its place in Kraków’s municipal plans and the larger, global scheme of things. Where do you see Nowa Huta in twenty, fifty years?
Anthropologists are generally wary of predicting the future, and I’m no exception. But I expect that the trends we are seeing in Nowa Huta right now will continue. At present, the city of Kraków is working on a development plan called “Nowa Huta of the Future” (Nowa Huta Przyszłości). The plan is to build a new science and technology park on the grounds of the steelworks that are no longer being used for steel production. So we are seeing the decline of heavy industry in favour of new “creative” industries like IT or outsourcing (and Kraków is already the outsourcing capital of Poland). These industries will bring new jobs: some of these will be highly paid, but many will probably be part-time, temporary, and not-so-well paid. That is one trend. The other trend that I expect to see continue is that the symbolic boundaries between Nowa Huta and the rest of Kraków will become more and more blurred. There seems to be more investment in Nowa Huta’s infrastructure (things like sidewalks or public parks) and I expect that will continue.
Kinga Pozniak is an anthropologist at Western University in London, Canada. She was born and spent her early childhood in Kraków, Poland, moved to Canada at the age of eleven and has lived there ever since. For the past decade, she has been researching the changes that have taken place in Poland since the collapse of the socialist government in 1989. Based on that research, she has published several articles and a book.
Piotr Florczyk is the author of East & West: Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2016), a collection of essays, Los Angeles Sketchbook (Spuyten Duyvil, 2015), and a chapbook Barefoot (Eyewear, 2015), as well as several volumes of Polish poetry translations, the most recent of which are My People & Other Poems by Wojciech Bonowicz and Building the Barricade by Anna Świrszczyńska, both published by Tavern Books (2016). Raised in Kraków's Nowa Huta district, he moved to the U.S. when he was sixteen. He lives in Los Angeles. http://www.piotrflorczyk.com/