Connect to share and comment

The end of an era in Warsaw

The government evicts traders from the city's first post-Communist market.

Security guards stand in front of an indoor bazaar in central Warsaw after security guards sprayed tear gas at shopkeepers July 21, 2009. (Peter Andrews/Reuters)

WARSAW — Poland’s wild east capitalism was buried last week amid fumes of tear gas and stone-throwing protesters as security guards and police moved to close down an illegal market of small traders occupying one of the most prestigious sites in the Polish capital.

The bazaar lies at the foot of the Palace of Culture, a Stalinist monstrosity modeled on mythic New York skyscrapers of the 1930s that was presented as a “gift” to the Polish people by their Soviet occupiers.

The initial resentment caused by the building — Warsaw’s tallest — has gradually faded, and the wedding-cake skyscraper has now become the Polish capital’s symbol. Underneath it, the country took its first baby steps towards capitalism in late 1989, just after the formation of the first post-war non-Communist government.

In a swift reaction to the shock therapy of freeing prices from state control, and ending restrictions on trade and business, thousands of Poles started their own businesses, which for most consisted of a folding bed laid out with goods for sale. 

One of the largest such markets sprang up around the Palace of Culture, occupying the space that had once been used by Communist dignitaries to review marching troops during events like May Day celebrations. A lot of the goods were of dubious quality, bootlegs or substandard copies. But for shoppers who had been used to decades of Communist mismanagement and being “served” in shops by surly clerks, the traders offered a welcome cornucopia of goods.

With time, tacky metal booths replaced the folding beds, and the area continued to draw shoppers.

A decade later, Warsaw had changed immeasurably. Shopping centers, big box stores and hypermarkets were beginning to open and Polish shoppers were moving upmarket. The city council decided to shut down the bazaar, but allowed the traders to form an association and build themselves a temporary corrugated metal hall on the site until a permanent location could be found for them.

That was in 1999, and for a decade all attempts to shift the more than 600 traders from their lucrative location proved to be impossible. Politicians were wary of the political power of the traders, and even offered them the chance of building themselves a permanent shopping center in the heart of Warsaw.