Jay Martin takes us on a walk through a little known corner of Warsaw – uncovering a few fascinating stories – and dispelling a few myths – along the way.
I’d barely got started on my walk around the ‘Finnish houses’ with guide Kacper Nosarzewski, when he tells me the only thing I thought I’d known about them isn’t true. ‘Many people think they were built for the workers building the Palace of Culture and Science. But they weren’t.’
The little clutch of dark wooden houses seem entirely out of place in the heart of gray, concrete Warsaw. I’ve often wondered what their story is, but I haven’t been able to find out much. And now the one thing I had read turns out to be wrong.
Luckily Kacper, a local architectural guide, has a morning to fill me in. He explains that these bungalows, along Jazdów in central Warsaw, were built in 1945 as temporary emergency housing for the architects, engineers and other professionals needed to start planning for the city’s rebuilding. There were other ‘Finnish’ houses built for the Palace workers in other parts of Warsaw, as well as pockets in Gdańsk and Silesia, but these came later – in the 1950s. All of them came prefabricated from Finland – hence the Finnish moniker – but the Jazdów houses specifically were part of Finnish post-war reparations to the USSR. Of the original 200 or so, 28 survive today. ‘Not bad for a temporary measure,’ I comment. ‘In Warsaw, temporary solutions often last the longest,’ Kacper notes.
Despite the low rumble from nearby Trasa Łazienkowska, a multi-lane freeway, there’s almost no traffic along the actual streets here – which include, surprisingly, John Lennon Street (ul. Johna Lennona). Kacper explains that on the first anniversary of Lennon’s death, in 1981, Beatles fans marched down to this then unnamed lane, sang ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and erected a makeshift street sign claiming it in the name of their hero. Ironically, four days later, the government declared martial law. But 10 years later, the fans got their wish, and street got its present-day name.
Walking around the little houses, each with their own leafy garden and distinctive black pitch roof, it’s almost impossible to believe you haven’t left Warsaw altogether. The closest thing I can think of is visiting a skansen, those open air museums that preserve long dead ways of life.
The community here, though, is very much alive and kicking. ‘Living here has its pluses and minuses,’ says Elżbieta Funkiewicz, who moved here in 1971 when she got married. Her husband’s father was an architect, and his family had lived in the house since it was built. ‘On the plus side, we’re right in the centre of the city. On the minus, there’s electricity, cold water and sewerage – and that’s it.’ Her heating comes from wood, and a boiler provides hot water.
One of her neighbours, Jan Fomin, wanders up with his grandson. Jan, an artist, was born in 1947 in the same house he still lives in today. They confirm what Kacper has told me, that these properties aren’t owned privately, but leased from the city. ‘I guess we’re sort of relics of communism, aren’t we?’ Jan says. As I sit on Elżbieta’s porch sipping coffee and listening to her and Jan, I experience the wonderful sense of community here first hand. ‘It’s just like a big family,’ Elżbieta says, ‘a very artistic one – our parents were artistic, we are, and our children are, too.’
They also confirm that these bungalows never housed workers, but planners, architects and such. In another irony, though, Jan tells me that that the city planning professionals who the houses were built for actually had little say in the design of post-war Warsaw, due to the Soviet planning directives they were bound by at the time.
I ask them if they remember the John Lennon gathering. ‘Oh yes, they came here, playing their guitars and smoking pot – we didn’t even know what marijuana was at that time, it was a huge shock!’ they laugh. Jan comments, ‘I think the idea of calling it John Lennon Street was just a joke at the start. But now I live on that street.’
On a serious note, though, Jan and Elżbieta tell me that the soil here is subsiding. ‘It’s the vibrations from the Trasa Łazienkowska – they’re threatening the houses.’ The low rumble from the freeway suddenly seems much more sinister. ‘So this won’t last forever?’ I ask. They shake their heads. Jan comments, ‘one day, maybe all that will be left is what has been written about what was once here.’
‘You know, these days so many people emigrate, to see new things,’ he continues. ‘Yet Warsaw is full of little places like this that so many Varsovians have never even been to – many people don’t even know it’s here.’
We look down at Jan’s grandson – the fourth generation of his family in that house, I observe. ‘You’re right,’ he says. ‘Where could be better?’
Published in the Warsaw Insider, October 2010.