By Iza Depczyk & Alex Webber
Warsaw, 1945: having dusted themselves down after six years of Nazi occupation, what remained of the local populace emerged from their hiding holes to find the Germans had done a proficient job of leveling the city. Fortunately, in a rare show of benevolence, Stalin took time to gift Poland some 400 pre-fabricated huts that had earlier been secured from Finland as part of post-war reparations. Some of these cabins went north, others down south. Two-hundred, however, ended up in Warsaw. And so arose Osiedle Fińskich, a collection of wooden chalets designated to serve as the personal quarters for architects recruited to rebuild the capital.
Originally seen as a temporary solution, the homes remain to this day. Their number has dwindled significantly (most recently, 20 were demolished to make way for the German Embassy), and today only 28 remain. In itself, the story isn’t remarkable. What makes it so is the location of Os. Fiń¶kich – bang in central Warsaw. And while the rest of the center chokes with concrete to a symphony of sirens, the Finnish Houses offer an extraordinary distraction from the heavy urban gloom.
Tucked behind Ujazdowskie Park, that this fairytale community exists is one of Warsaw’s biggest surprises. Characterized by its black pitch roofs and blossoming yards, it’s a secret garden that enthralls all who visit. Not that living here is the fairytale it looks: “There’s electricity, cold water and sewerage,” said local inhabitant Elżbieta Funkiewicz, “and that’s about it.” For most residents, heating comes from wood and hot water from the boiler.
Offsetting the hardships is the keen sense of community. Many living here have artistic links, and stories of raucous all-nighters in the 70s and 80s are fondly retold. Of all the dates though, it’s December 8, 1981 that lives longest in the memory. On the first anniversary of John Lennon’s death, Beatles fans marched through this part of Warsaw singing Give Peace a Chance, before placing an ad-libbed sign declaring this hitherto nameless street as ul. Lennona. “Oh yes,” laughs Ms Funkiewicz, “they came here playing their guitars and smoking pot – we didn’t even know what marijuana was at the time, it was a huge shock!” Ten years later, the city officially sanctioned the use of the address ul. Lennona.
But relations between city hall and the local residents are strained – more now than they’ve ever been before. Realizing the area occupied by Os. Fińskich could be sold for big bucks, the future of this magical neighborhood now hangs in the balance. Iza Depczyk takes up the story, sitting down to talk to resident Krzysztof Baumiller.
What’s your story with this area?
Following the war Warsaw was a pile of rubble, so architects were the most sought after people. The Finnish houses were a ‘gift from the Soviet Union’ for all those architects involved in the rebuilding program – so, the people who lived here worked for the Biuro Odbudowy Stolicy (Office for Rebuilding the Capital).
The first guy who lived in this house was Stanisław Jankowski. He was really well known out here. During the war he was sent out from England by the Polish Government-in-Exile and took part in the Uprising under the codename Agaton. He was actually an architect by profession though, and after the war he was hired by the city. My dad was good friends with him, so after Stanisław moved out my father took his place in 1964.
My siblings and I grew up in this house, and you’ll find loads of people living here who were actually born inside them. You know, in the last 30 years no-one from city hall was interested in this development – that’s why they’re in such good shape; because it was left to those living in them to take care of them. All of a sudden city hall has woken up and decided it wants to get rid of them.
Why is that?
One presumes it’s to make money. And the problem is, since the houses were ‘given’ to us they still belong to the city. Sure, they’ve offered us alternative accommodation, but most of us don’t care for that. This is where we were born, grew up and raised our kids. We’ve poured our heart, soul and money into these homes.
What has the city told you?
They say this place is supposed to be a park, according to original plans. But that doesn’t mean they’ll actually build a park – for all I know the city might put a parking lot here. Yet even if it was turned into a park, I think this place has more value, more historic value.
Surely not all residents are so determined to stay?
There’s a lot of people who will accept what the city says because they’re old – they’re tired of dealing with these problems. But actually ask any one of them and they’ll tell you they’re only moving because they feel harassed by the city. For example, lately we keep getting invoices for ‘non-contractual use of public space,’ and receiving a monthly bill for zł.1,800.
But that’s a personal problem. The bigger problem affects everyone: these houses are historic. They’re unique. How often do you see little wooden houses in the middle of a European capital? I read some time ago in the New York Times that when Soho, Greenwich Village and China Town started attracting the rich it pushed the rents through the roof. But the city moved in to help out; they realized once the ‘artists’ started moving out these districts would lose their character. Here though, it’s the complete opposite.
So what are you doing in response?
We’ve started putting info on Facebook (search for Jazdów), and we also organize tours – you know the Night of the Museums? Well we organized Night of the Finnish Houses. People could walk around and look through our windows, etc. The message we wanted – and want – to get across are that these houses aren’t barracks. They’re not a place where drunks and vagrants shelter. These are real homes in which generations have grown up. But, we also want people to realize that if this place goes, we don’t just lose our homes, Warsaw will lose an important historic neighborhood.
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