I came across this gorgeous promotional video of my hometown Košice, titled somewhat awkwardly, “The City Where Life Is Lived and Enjoyed”:
Makes you want to visit, right? Please do, you’ll love it.
Housing developments: Where life is truly lived
What you won’t see in this or similar promotional videos are places where most of the city’s residents actually live. Whereas the historic downtown is like a playground where residents go relax, have fun, shop, sip coffee in outdoor cafes, party, eat out, go to church, the outlying housing developments is where they live.
Mišo Hudák, Minister of Demagogy aka Executive Director at the nonprofit Východné pobrežie (East Coast), which aims to “seek, renew, create, maintain, improve, and care for the urban character of cities,” told me, “Seventy to 75 percent of the city’s residents live in housing developments.”
Surrounding the city center like satellite cities, Košice’s housing developments (sídlisko, plural sídliská) were built beginning in the 1950’s to accommodate new arrivals from the countryside of the industrializing Slovakia, then part of Czechoslovakia. Particularly the infusion of workers in the East Slovak Metallurgical Works (now U.S. Steel Košice) led to the explosion of housing developments construction.
I grew up in the development called Above the Lake, or The Lake for short, built in the early 1970’s. When I was 18, my family moved to a larger apartment in the 1980’s Housing Development of Košice Government Program, named for the first post-WWII government program proclaimed in the the temporary capital of Czechoslovakia. I never deemed these places as worth visiting for tourists or travelers, just as I wouldn’t dream of visiting the banlieues of Paris or the suburbs of Prague.
The anti-traveler’s paradise
In addition to being a playground, Košice’s historic center is also our display case, containing the best our lovely city has to offer. We take our visitors around the sights, we beam with pride as they ooh and aah at all that beauty, our hearts fill with joy as they take photos or relax with a cold beer in an outdoor cafe.
But, Mišo said, “Downtown is clichés piled upon clichés. A city is about life, not about pictures.”
Other cities are like that: on this trip alone, Paris and Prague have come across like theme parks, hollowed out, hyperreal versions of their true selves. That’s why, Mišo said he’s getting more and more requests for tours of the city’s outlying areas.
No, there are no sights per se or cool hangout spots or historical areas. Or tourists, for that matter. You ‘only’ get to see where people do their grocery shopping, drink their evening beer, or board the bus to go to work; where children play in the streets; where teens hold hands; where you can also sometimes have entire streets to yourself.
In the run-up to and during this year’s Košice 2013 European Capital of Culture events, a revival of sorts has begun in the city’s housing developments. Several heat exchange stations have been converted to cultural centers…
…more and more events take place; art turns the former panel wastelands into open gallery spaces.
So visit the downtown for a while, then get in touch with Mišo and get a guided tour around the parts of Košice where people live and enjoy their lives. After all, it is people who give meaning to urban space, cultivating a city’s spirit. Or, as Mišo said, “Travelers visit a city not because of its buildings but because of its spirit.”
Check out this photo set from an apartment building in Košice, Slovakia.