The end of an era in Warsaw

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.

When the current mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, came to power in 2006, she backed away from the previous generous offers to the traders, instead offering them alternative locations further from downtown. The city decided that the site would be better suited for a subway station and a new modern art museum — part of an effort to redevelop the area around the Palace of Culture.

At that point, the state's inability to move the traders was seen as a sign of its weakness. Although Polish bureaucracy is fierce, officials often have great difficulty in promptly enforcing administrative decisions. In one case, it took 20 years to expropriate a family house that was blocking the widening of one of Warsaw’s most important roads. In another, the operator of a small, and illegal, kiosk selling lottery tickets held up the construction of Warsaw’s subway because officials were unable to force him to move.

The same thing happened with the trading hall. Despite pressure and blandishments, the stall owners refused to leave.

Finally, the mayor’s patience ran out and she sent security guards and police to evict the traders last week. The stall owners locked themselves inside, and tried to defend the building by spraying security guards with fire hoses and tear gas.

As the confrontation spiraled out of control, gangs of soccer hooligans showed up to support the traders, and to have a bit of fun hurling rocks at the police. They were egged on by right-wingers yelling anti-Semitic slogans.

In the end, police cleared the building, arresting 22 people.

Outside, the traders who had been evicted sat disconsolate, watching the police cordon off the corrugated iron building, known as “the sausage.”

“I’ve been here since the beginning, where am I supposed to go now,” said Wioletta Paseczna, who had a stall selling women’s underwear, wiping away her tears.

Others were angrier. “I’m simply going to be unemployed. The city just doesn’t have decent places for us to move,” complained Dariusz Glos, a heavyset man wearing a black T-shirt who had sold mobile phones inside the bazaar.

Their prospects look fairly bleak. “We talked to them for two-and-a-half years. They didn’t accept our offer. There will be no more talks,” said Gronkiewicz-Waltz.

Robert Kulczycki, who had sold women’s clothing in the bazaar, said he thinks that Poles window shop in the city’s new malls, “but they come to us to buy.”

But judging from the reaction of ordinary Warsaw residents, support for Gronkiewicz-Waltz is overwhelming. It seems the bazaar’s past role as the leading edge of Polish capitalism has now been superseded by modern malls where Poland’s increasingly wealthy people don’t just gaze through the windows, they also shop.

“They finally got rid of that mess. Now we’ll have a decent city center,” muttered an elderly passer-by as he looked at the aftermath of the confrontation.

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