Essay / 21 March 2020

Reading Zagreb: a Walking Tour through the Croatian Capital and its Capital Driven Grimaces

Future is not something that always comes after

Week of the Festival: Zagreb and Split, Croatia

Although complicated in its story, as any other city, I’ve always found Zagreb easy to navigate. It has perfect east-west longitudinal lines aligned in succession from north to south. It has a hill in the north and a river in the south, a railway in the middle and around those natural and man-made phenomena this city lies.

If you were to take a walk that starts on the hill where Zagreb was first established and where its neo-gothic cathedral lies, you will walk across the main square and through the turn-of-the-century downtown, where you will soon bump into the railway tracks that block your way to the south of the city and the cramp city centre into a rather small area. During the Austro-Hungarian empire this railway was supposed to bypass Zagreb all together, but the city of then 18 000 inhabitants negotiated with Budapest and Vienna and finally got its railway in the 1860s. From then on, it grew into the major industrial centre of the region. Zagreb persisted to be an industrial centre until gaining the so-called independence, and the transition to capitalism in the 90’s.

Walking through Zagreb downtown these days, you are walking through an area of the city that is rapidly losing its permanent inhabitants, as it is being overtaken by Airbnb and the like. Zagreb has a growing tourism industry that makes just Airbnb’s annual growth of 30% and long-term renting prices peak with around 11% yearly growth. Not unlike the dictates of the empire, today’s city is very much constrained into the neoliberal imagery of touristification, that is — extractivism. Under the aggressive premise that the city is no more than what is seen through tourists’ eyes, we are witnessing the gradual overturn of land use to fit this narrative and fill financial industry pockets. Every change in the city Masterplan brings us more hotels, but also public space redesigning that cleanses our reality from trees, from the homeless people and any kind of socialising that is not amicable to the view from the hotel room or available for commercialisation.

We are witnessing projects that go by the name of Pedestrian centre of excellence (true story!) where the only thing that those kinds of projects are excellent at is preparing the terrain for displacement and gentrification. The so-called Pedestrian centre of excellence is located on the eastern fringe of downtown Zagreb. This project is one of the preludes for expanding the dense touristified territory towards the east, but it makes for an interesting comparison with interwar period when this part of the city was built.

After the Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbled and the South Slavic peoples saw their long dream of independence come true, the city developed its first independent regulation plan in 1923. This time around, the plan did not have to be approved by any outside hegemon, but it was far more modest in its aims than the one made in 1907 and due to self-imposed constraints, the downtown area was developed towards the east instead of going forward towards the river in the south.

It is quite interesting how this long-awaited independence brought new institutions of national liberation, but kept the old ways of segregating the city. Its eastern development was designed to extract rent and park capital gains that were by this time local, rather than foreign elite. All the while, its northern boulevards built around the same time were adorned with greenery and lavish public spaces that was reserved for the upper classes.

It is also interesting to note that this interwar eastern fringe of downtown Zagreb bore the geography of unprecedented repression that was imposed on the streets of this city from 1941 - 1945 by the so-called Independent State of Croatia, a criminal Nazi puppet regime. This area was dense with institutions of repression, but the repression was then countered with persistent resistance, whose focal points were located in the immediate proximity of the Nazi prisons and alike. This resistance gave Zagreb its proudest name of The Undefeated city. The name is often revoked and used as an umbrella concept for many activities of today’s leftist organising which is quite in line with the feeling that in this play of resistance, defiance, liberations, defeats and deep left-right divisions this city daily lives.

This was the city that in the interwar period — in its working-class slums and quarters, situated south of the railway — held the most vibrant workers organisations and was the site of the biggest Communist party organisation in the pre-WWII Yugoslavia. In the hotbeds of prewar resistance south of the railway, today lies an area whose small parcels and equally capacitated infrastructure became the site, or a magnet for land speculation in the last thirty years, especially in the nineties. The old, socialist Masterplans had no built-in protection against the appetite of the quick profit-makers. That meant that by using available planning procedures, it was possible to transform what were once green neighbourhoods into concrete hellish scenarios.

Representing the City

The making and remaking of Zagreb’s history can be read in its continuous north – south axes. The line that goes from the hill where Zagreb was established through the downtown area, across the railroad, ex-workers slums, across the river all the way to the south end of the city can tell the story of how every system that ruled or governed this territory liked to be culturally represented. From the nineteenth century downtown horseshoe figure that was built in resemblance with Vienna Ringstrasse, across the railroad and towards the new modernist socialist city, nowadays the axes are turned into aplayground for the vanity projects of the neoliberal lords who come in the form of Mayors or even war mongers. At one point, across the river, lies the site of the newest attempt to execute a true neoliberal private-public project called Zagreb Manhattan, that aimed at appropriating over a million square metres of public land in order to build luxury apartments, hotels and office spaces. This newest planning endeavor was to be placed over the grounds of the iconic Zagreb Fair which was built throughout the 50’s and 60’s and was a focal point of Yugoslavia's global role in the Non-aligned movement. It featured both a Soviet as well as an American pavilion and it was often referred to as the meeting point of east and west. Having this in mind, walking down the axes of the city, one can grasp a clear sense of how the Future is not something that always comes after.

Productive and reproductive landscape

In the years after the liberation of 1945, the axes of the city were finally prolongated south of the railroad in order to build a “new city” for 120 000 inhabitants called New Zagreb. This figuratively meant that the needs of the workers city were finally acknowledged by the planning procedure. Even though the regulation plan drawn up in the thirties did envision plans for Zagreb south of the railway and some of the sporadic settlements were built, it was not until the end of WWII that Zagreb made serious leaps towards its southern borders, but also towards providing decent housing for its thousands of workers. Surplus value produced by the city industry that was nationalised and later self-managed was in part used to build this new housing, institutions, schools and kindergartens.

As the factories were self-managed, planning and municipal make of the city was also made to support the self-managed neighbourhood. With its community and cultural centres, schools, kindergartens, consumer facilities, its own planning institutions, the neighbourhoods of Zagreb were somewhat autonomous entities. However, this autonomy proved not to be worth more than the paper it was written on once the state unilaterally decided to privatise the housing stock without any deliberation in the neighbourhoods or among the tenants that now became owners. This has resulted in the reality where Zagreb today has only 2% of its housing stock in public ownership and where, in the whole of Croatia, overcrowding is present in 40% of its households and toxic housing loans and extraction of value via household debt is a common reality.

Privatisation of the societal housing stock was the breaking point that severed the connection between the spaces of production and spaces of reproduction. As housing was privatised, so was the industry that produced it, and the city embarked on yet another era of relentless land speculation of the market economy. The industrial landscape that has provided the surplus value that built most of Zagreb’s housing stock has been turned either into an empty plot awaiting investors or into the financial district. It is a rather bizarre turn of events that the city’s Workers street as it is called, the street that was a gateway for the biggest industrial zone of the city now houses banks. In just thirty years, the landscape that produced thousands and thousands of our housing units now hosts financial institutions that extract value from our reproduction via housing loans and the like.

Erasing the city’s collective memory

Issues of a right to housing that we had enjoyed during socialism, or understanding that public land is a common resource that should be serving our needs instead of those of capital are, in the mainstream discourse, more often then not, regarded as the relic of the past.

However, it is clear just by casually observing this city, that — in the words of James Baldwin — our “History is not the past. It is the present”. This is most vivid in the persistence of destruction and distortion of our collective memory. During the last thirty years our streets and schools changed names, memorials attesting to our revolution were destroyed or neglected as part of the same project that destroyed our factories and privatised our land and pushed us towards the narrative that the market is the only solution of the present. In the last thirty years, the mainstream narrative has been very aggressive in dictating our culture in a way that is totally oblivious of our history, in the hope that we all would just forget that collectivity is not born out of national identity, but out of resistance to the exploitation in our cities.

Deregulating the city

It is quite obvious that the power that turns the public into the private without due process, that steals, that humiliates and reproduces the system in its most brutal form was built on the shoulders of the transition process from socialism to capitalism. This power takes a human form in the mayors of many of our cities and is most personified in the figure of Zagreb’s mayor who has ruled over this city for almost 20 years. On the other hand, he and what his politics represents, have been confronted with vibrant resistance that has shaped the ideas on which we firmly stand today.

Through the iconic fight for Varšavska street, against its privatisation and commercialisation, through connecting this fight with those of the workers in nearby factories and through transferring this knowledge of action into neighbourhoods that fought against the church and/or the big capital, all the way to the tens of thousands of people protesting against the city Masterplan and the Zagreb Manhattan project, a city movement grew and mainstreamed ideas against privatising our land, against the exploitation of our city through accumulation by dispossession, against exploitation of its workers and its tenants.

These movements are dispersed and sometimes fleeting, but all of them have left their mark in this city and some of them have also won. However, under those successes I would count every collectivity that has been created in the last twenty years or so, collectivity that asks for a better life, for real democracy and for a city that welcomes everyone who comes here. Every such collectivity is a success simply because it counters what we have been led to believe for the last thirty or so years — the idea that the individual, the nuclear family, national and ethnic pride are the true nucleus of our society and its cities as we, in this region, were tasked to become the poster children of the failed neoliberal experiment.

So, if you walk through Zagreb of today, don’t be fooled by its mere appearance. You are actually witnessing layers of the city on the edge of the empire with less than 20 000 inhabitants just 160 years ago, the development of a segregated city that placed its workers in the swamp and its upper classes on the hill, only to embark on the markings of the major driving force of prosperity in Yugoslavia and the city that was a global actor in politics and trade in the mid-20th century. This city is now again on the edge of the European Union and it plays its relatively marginal part in applying the neoliberal doctrine on the people inhabiting it. However, some of us who inhabit it still play a much larger role in the making of international disobedient democracy that we create through our movements, collectives, knowledge, innovative institutions and municipal platforms, in the hope of transforming this city once again.

Iva Marčetić was born in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1982. She holds a Masters degree in Architecture and urban planning from the school of Architecture, University of Zagreb. As an architect, she is interested in building networks between activists, planners and grassroots initiatives in an effort to democratise the process of planning and shift the narrative produced in schools, institutions and the practices of architecture and planning that lead to the commercialisation of public space and infrastructures and the gentrification of cities. For years she has also been researching and working on the right to housing issues in terms of research and collective action. She is part of the organisation Right to the City from Zagreb, where she lives and works.

The article was commissioned and edited by Marko Pogačar