Text: Anna J. Kutor
For most of the last two centuries, Łódź was synonymous with smoke stacks, intense smog and a thrusting forest of red-brick factories that drew mainly overall-clad workmen and their extended families. But as the giant generator of economic wealth started to lose steam, the city slowly blossomed out of its architectural wasteland to become culturally and economically thriving metropolis full of life and high-tech commerce.
Building a City of Machines
The history of Łódź, summed up in one sentence, would tell of how a small farmer settlement grew into the hub of industrial activity in Poland and how, over the past two decades, the city reinvented itself as a new-age model of forward-thinking economic development. But the colorful history of Łódź deserves a more tuneful telling.
The site of Łódź has been inhabited, more or less, for several thousand years but the first written record dates back to 1332 when the village of Łodzia was given to the bishops of Włocławek. Positioned in the middle of Poland near the crossing of the Odra and Vistula Rivers, the settlement was established on the important Masovia-Silesia trade route, although agricultural activities were main source livelihood for the local provincial community. The town’s municipal privilege was granted by King Wladyslaw Jagiello in 1423 and for the following centuries, this small settlement of around 800 inhabitants lived off of the surrounding farmlands. At the cusp of the 19th century, with the second partition of Poland, the city came under the control of Prussia and it was named Lodsch, but it was soon reunited with its motherland to become part of the Russian-controlled Congress Poland in 1815.
The area’s boom and industrial advance period commenced in 1820 when Rajmund Rembieliński, a progressive city chairman and poet, pinpointed Łódź as a fertile zone to set up the hub of the domestic textile industry. In order to lure experienced entrepreneurs and businessmen from neighboring countries Rembieliński offered the newly-arrived immigrants tax concessions and support to sell their textile products on the Russian market. According to plan, these trade opportunities saw an influx of workers and merchants from all around Europe, including the so-called “Kings of the Cotton and Linen Empires of Łódź”: Karol Scheibler, Ludwig Geyer and Israel Kalmanowicz Poznański. Between 1850 and 1890, the “Golden Age of Łódź”, these wealthy founding fathers of the local textile kingdom built huge factories and residential complexes, which not only employed but housed the vast majority of the city’s burgeoning residents. As a result of the ambitious and ever-expanding linen industry and the abolishing of tax on trade with Russian in 1850, Łódź became one of the most rapidly growing cities in Europe at the time, boasting a telegraphic station, a railway station and the first electric tram to operation on Polish soil. The social fabric of the city also saw major changes, with the population expanding from 16,000 individuals in 1850 to nearly 600,000 by 1914, which created a potpourri of peoples, religions and cultures.
Social and economic conflicts began to brew in the beginning of the 20th century, as writers and political leaders of Poland voiced their concern about prosperous urban magnates’ continuous exploitation of the working class. The polished image of Łódź as a pioneer of modernization and multicultural acceptance was soon replaced by “the bad city” reputation, but this dispute largely faded into the background as Poland, and Europe in its entirety, was swept up by the historical maelstrom of the two World Wars and the subsequent Soviet straightjacket. Prolonged economic crisis and rising war expenditures saw Łódź shrink significantly from its industrial heyday – its multi-ethnic population was annihilated and the money-grubbing cloth mills eventually closed down.
Despite being destined for slow decay, the aging industrial sites and structures where spotted by city officials and a slew of forward-thinking foreign and local investors as vital part of designing Łódź’s post-communist identity and urban regeneration. Combining monumental and cultural preservation with urban renewal and artistic flair, a number of abandoned factories have been given a new lease of life as cultural centres and mix-used commerce and leisure parks.
Examples of this large-scale urban revival can be seen across the city. The four-storey White Factory of Saxony industrialist Ludwik Geyer, a brick-and-stone cotton spinning and weaving mill erected in 1830, received a much-need facelift in the 1950s and became the headquarters of the Central Museum of Textiles in 1960. The museum hosts the International Tapestry Triennale and features a comprehensive selection of industrial textiles and tapestries from across the globe as well as organizing. New life was also breathed into the brick-built spinning mill and neo-Renaissance residential palace of “Cotton King” Karol Scheibler, as it houses Poland’s only Cinematography Museum since 1986. The posh premises survived the wartime period, serving as the Gestapo Chief’s main residence, and the varied architectural styles where left intact, which now serve as a lavish backdrop to the myriad of permanent and temporary exhibits highlighting Poland’s colourful cinematic past. In the vicinity lies Edward Herbst’s neo-Renaissance-style mansion, also known as the Priest’s Mill Residence, and the adjoining greenhouse, Ballroom and maintenance building. In 1976, the Łódź Museum of Art acquired this stylish space and after extended restoration work it was opened to the public in 1990. The conservatory works and the display arrangements in the Herbst Mansion won Poland’s first Europa Nostra medal, awarded for outstanding preservation of cultural heritage by the pan-European Federation for Cultural Heritage.
Making of Manufaktura
Łódź’s largest and a most impressive urban revitalization project is the mammoth Manufaktura culture-entertainment-trade centre. Situated on Ogrodowa Street, the heart of the city’s historic industrial-residential area, the sprawling complex started life as a textile factory and housing estate in 1852, built on the ambitious plans of Jewish merchant Izrael Poznański. At its peak, Poznański’s palace and factory district functioned as a city within a city, integrating the spinning mill with small living quarters that provided accommodation for over 4000 factory workers alongside a church, hospital, school, sporting club, fire department and an assortment of stores. Operations took a downturn with the outbreak of the war, followed by years of economic hardship, diminishing support and rising competition from Asia eventually forced the plant into bankruptcy.
In 1999, French investor and developer Apsys Groupe bought the ramshackle site and set in motion a super-sized renovation scheme. The restoration plans concocted by French architect Jean-Marc Pivot incorporated elements of the original Gothic, Rundbogenstil and Art Nouveau style buildings with streamlined designs and state-of-the-art structural concepts, which were completed in 2006. The Manufaktura complex now boasts an oversized market square with a 300-meter-long fountain, a science museum, modern art centre, skating park, nightclub, conference centre and a retail centre encompassing over two hundred shops and boutiques. Once section of the former five-floor cotton mill is now being converted into a four-star Andel’s Hotel, which will round off the reconstruction venture later this year.
Streets to Remember
Populous. Spirited. Successful. These are the three words most commonly used to describe Piotrkowska Street, Łódź’s premier promenade. Stretching north to south for over four kilometers, this vibrant commercial artery (said to be the longest shopping boulevard in Europe) connects the city’s turbulent history with its flourishing present and future. A stroll down this lively street, filled with countless shops, boutiques, restaurants, pubs, pavement cafes, cultural institutions and entertainment outlets, provides insight into the city’s turbulent history and former grandeur.
Wide and very straight, Piotrkowska Street is lined with ornate palaces and townhouses, the majority of which once gave home to the well-heeled textile lords. Decades-long restoration work on the historic houses has brought back to life the splendor of the street. Standout architectural structures along the thoroughfare includes the former Wilhelm Landau’s Bank House (at number 29), a Baroque and Art Nouveau building now occupied by a bank; the fancy French Neo-Renaissance façade of the building at number 53 which is often referred to as “Under Atlantes House”, as well as detailed Italian Renaissance forefront of Juliusz Heinzl’s former residential quarters that how house the offices of the city and voivodship authorities.
Piotrkowska Street is also freckled with impressive statues and cultural landmarks such as “Tuwim’s Bench”, a bronze sculpture illustrating the prolific Polish poet Julian Tuwim, and “Reymont’s Coffer” portraying Nobel Prize-winning author Władysław Reymont sitting on a suitcase and scribbling in his notebook. Other magnetic monuments include “Rubinstein’s Piano” in front of the building at number 78, where the infamous Polish pianist tickles the bronze keys in return for a small contribution. Near the north end of the street is a gigantic graffiti - completed in 2001 as the largest mural painting of its kind in Poland - showing the city’s coat of arms and its symbolic structures and sites like the Old Town Hall and Tadeusz Kosciuszko’s immortalized figure.
Prosperous Playground for Foreign Capital
With nearly 800,000 inhabitants, Łódź is Poland’s second-largest urban agglomerate and one of its chief investment areas. Its central location (some 120 kilometers southwest of Warsaw), long-standing industrial traditions, well-developed technical infrastructure and the availability of trained personnel are just a few of the attractive qualities that wooed international investors to the city. In 1997, the Decree of the Council of Ministers established the Łódź Special Economic Zone (SEZ) which offers a variety of high-value properties in the province, significant tax reliefs and all-around assistance in the investment process. Within ten years of its existence, the Łódź SEZ has attracted dozens of global brands and multi-national enterprises which invested over 1 billion Euros and have created 10 000 new jobs. International companies that have already opened branches and distribution centres in the area include Gillette, Phillips, Bosch, Fuji and Wrangler.
“As we saw our Central and Eastern European businesses grow, we knew we needed a manufacturing bas here to mainting our ambition for the region. Our operations in Łódź mean we can maintain this momentum and offer a superior service to customers,” explained Dell CEO Michael Dell at the opening of the new state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in early 2008. This new 37,000 square-meter production facility, which in the early phase will produce mainly Latitiude ™ and Inspiration ™ laptops, currently employs 1,200 people. Beyond contributing to the area’s turbo-charged capital growth, the American coorporation also highlights the importance of supporting the local community and minimizing the plant’s environmental impact, thus establishing a range of community project such as donating personal computers and other Dell products to underprivileged school children and planting trees in the city’s vicinity. “We want to be a positive influence beyond our role as an employer in the city. We plan to extend these activities in partnership with our local community and the region as a whole,” Sean Corkery, leader of the Dell Łódź facility and vice president of Dell EMEA manufacturing, told Reuters.
High-Powered Economic Recovery
The massive injection of cash and foreign investment by big-name ventures, staggering EU structural funds (awarded nearly 60 billion euros for 2007-2013) and Poland’s financial stability have all contributed to Łódź’s dramatic turnaround in the new millennium. International rating and consultation agencies have also noted the city’s rapid economic recovery, like Standard & Poor, the world’s leading provider of sovereign credit ratings, which assigned Łódź the highest position amongst Polish cities in 2007. The same year, Forbes magazine ranked the city amongst the most attractive places for industrial investment in the country.
Thanks to Łódź’s economic comeback, young professionals that fled to country to find better job opportunities in Western Europe are returning to find a friendly place that offers newly established employment options, reasonably-priced housing and a multitude of leisure activities. With high hopes for the future, property market continues to boil, still derelict factories are being turned into trendy loft studios, unemployment rates continue to drop and to secure its statues as Poland’s key cultural signpost, the city entered its bid to become the European Capital of Culture in 2016. It looks like Łódź is finally living up to its title as The Promised Land.