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The city we need but don't deserve

23 of December '22

Maybe not perfect, but still the best we have and worth considering

It is calm, even too calm. No rush, no fuss. Everything is under control, which means that I welcome you all warmly straight from the eye of the pre-Christmas cyclone. So, before the power of pre-Christmas contemplation and anticipation of the first star begins to lift our heads again, today I would like to start a series of urban travels through Polish cities, in which, combining the best qualities of Magda Gessler and Tony Halik, together with you we will visit one particular city, which each time we will look into all the nooks and crannies to get to know it up close. We'll start with a city that is, as they say, "even," so as to already have this category of Polish cities out of the way, while in the long run we'll visit various other cities, those, euphemistically speaking, full of ambitious challenges, as well as those with the so-called great bag of untapped potentials, and also hooking up, hopefully, with cities from the "better not to know" category, so that you no longer have to visit them on your own, thus exposing yourself to an attack of extreme depression and despondency.

So today we start with the best city in Poland, which is of course, as you all probably already suspect, Leszno.

Oooo, and what's that? However, I can see some surprise on your faces. Some of you are probably now pasting this name into Google to see where it even is, or thought it was just some kind of joke of mine. Well, and I am quite serious.

Leszno is a rather small town in Greater Poland, as it has a population of about 63,000. To best characterize the city, however, one would have to list what Leszno is not. Leszno is definitely not a big tourist attraction. In the sense that it is not located by the sea or in the mountains, and does not have a surfeit of Malbork castles or historic salt mines in its area. Leszno is also not an industrial basin, it does not lie snuggled up sucking the tit of a big refinery or a big copper and gold mine, while Elon Musk did not land a rocket filled with money here. In addition, Leszno is also not a cultural landmark on the festival map of Europe or a pilgrimage route. Leszno is also not a satellite of any large city and is not growing at an alarming rate into developer cellulitis. It is also not a logistics hub, has no ports, no huge cargo terminals, no huge airport in the neighborhood, and the New Silk Road does not end there, while I wanted to add at the end that no one particularly famous was born there either, but I just checked that Lewandowski. As Poles judging everything by these absolute criteria of "is it useful for anything" we would still have to consider it a devastating failure for this city, at least four to one.

So, that's that. For all intents and purposes, it would be better to recognize that there is no evidence that a city like Leszno exists, while Mr. Lewandowski is probably confabulating and has false papers. (ERRATA: I was right, however, no one famous was born there, because Lewandowski comes from another Leszno, i.e. a 0:5 defeat) And this would probably even be the best option for this city. For Leszno looks and behaves as if it doesn't need us, i.e. the rest of this illustrious country, for happiness at all. Actually, we need Leszno more than it needs us, we just don't realize it yet, but I'll try to explain it in this text.



Photo: Pawel Mrozek

When I arrived in this city on my way from somewhere to somewhere else, completely by accident, from the very moment I jumped out of the car in my slippers I felt that something here is thickly out of the ordinary, that something here is very different, but I could not capture it in a description. My keen senses of Hundred Years of Planning did not register the expected disturbing signals of expected misery and despair at every turn, which traumatically encoded travel in Poland into my imagination. Instead, there were such countless fleeting little details that every now and then rang quietly with bells somewhere around the corner of a building, behind a tree, in storefronts, on rooftops, on sidewalks. Walking cautiously with my wife, we looked around vigilantly like aliens who had arrived on an alien planet in a cluster of Polishness stars, and walking vigilantly through this urban, as yet undiscovered valley, we expected that immediately from some cave would emerge and attack us with that coarse local folklore, architectural—economic harakiri, typical of this type of small—town planet. Poking around the facades with phasers set to mild curiosity with a certain amount of skepticism, we expected that some freshly paved marketplace with a car—bathing fountain would immediately emerge from around the corner and devour us, or a broad thoroughfare rutting the city through the middle in contempt for man and reason, or though a signboarded favela of garage—shopping pavilions, shrieking in the commanding tone of the basic RAL color palette to "buy everything they give" and "how many percent cheaper than elsewhere." The ambush hung in the air, the ozone could be smelled, and everything was pressed down by the suffocating flood of darkest expectations looming overhead... but there was no thunder. It was quiet and calm. Too calm. Suddenly an image appeared to our eyes that wailed inside me like an alarm siren. Trying not to make any sudden movements, I reached for the phone and checked check checkmate to see if we were still in Poland.

— Angel do you also see what I see? — I said concerned.
— Yes. This is a hangout with only one signboard of a hangout.
— Yhymm. This individual is retarded. Some unidentified mutagen has stopped the development of the signboard flower. Grown specimens of the cantor cluster of stellar polish have inflorescences reaching the size of a dozen or so signboards flashing and enticing their victims with their ledes, and here there is only one, single sign. Maybe the landscape resolution is to blame? (Quick Google research, it was 2018, Leszno didn't yet have a landscape resolution) No, it's not. Something is thickly wrong here. Maybe I'll try to get a sample to test?
— Have you noticed that there are no tourists here? — remarked my wife, when I was already picking at the wound of the sticker on the glass of the exchange shop.
Fact. It was sunny and it was May 3, and there were not many people on the streets and those who were, looked like ordinary locals, busy with ordinary daily life. With the eyes of my imagination I saw the human infernal boil that at that moment probably prevailed in such Krupówki or the market in Kazimierz.
— Exactly. Then why so many cafes and gardens here? Why do all these trees look well cared for? This needs to be investigated.
— I don't like it," she said concerned. Maybe let's slowly and carefully retreat towards the car.

However, it was too late. At the sight of a completely ordinary city, we were carried away by this call of crazy adventure and moved on. Although the sight of an old well-kept market square, surrounded by a full cordon of trees, completely subordinate to pedestrians, which no one had concreted in a flurry of subsidy-revitalization fever, aroused our understandable astonishment, we decided to venture further. At the same time, Leszno did not appear to us at all as an affluent city, and yet we felt that everything was working somehow very smoothly and normally. I was also reminded of my first visit to Stockholm when I was still a teenager, where I remember being surprised to see that most things are old, old storefronts, old escalators, old benches in parks, and nothing is dilapidated. Completely different from Poland, where, either something is shining with newness like a dog something there, or it is currently already in a state of technical agony with one foot in that world. A zero-sum state with no room for shades of gray and evidence of life rolling between one state and another.

In the back of my mind there was some other term that was pertinently trying to get my attention. Could it be that legendary Greater Poland thrift and prevention? I had never seen such a thing in Poland before. I felt as if someone had hit me in the back with a rail. That's how I discovered that this true mythical thriftiness of Greater Poland is not really Poznań Chickens and plus 50% to the ability to cover every surface in the city with advertisements, as Poznań has always tried to convince me; that true thriftiness is not about being able to squeeze the last penny out of a space at the expense of other people, even if it should leave an economic desert, but about being able to manage and take care of what we have at our disposal in a way that is continuous and serves everyone. Shock. Why did we lose this knowledge somewhere in the fervor of getting rich?


Leszno — a good example of the fact that park alleys do not always have to be paved with concrete cubes; a completely traditional surface of compacted earth completely fulfills its role

Photo: Pawel Mrozek

But okay. I won't give up so easily. This is just an old town. There are well-kept old towns in this country, baa, even much more pimped out and dripping with gold, although this is always accompanied by some massive drawback, and it's the tourists most often, as if only for them it's worth having nice nice things in the city. Or the pushy commercialism that assaults you from all sides, or the subjugation of all space to cars. There is always something spoiling the overall picture. In Leszno, however, it was hard to find something like that. Nothing may have been above average, but everything was decent and in constant use. This city was also not touched by any war in addition. By some miracle, there was even a pretty impressive synagogue preserved here, which, considering where it was on the map and what history had swept through these lands, was quite surprising. I felt there was an even bigger mystery behind it.

We decided to walk around a bit and take a look at the settlements built after the war and the more modern ones. There was no end to the amazement. I won't say that everything was perfekt, but what caught my eye was the unusually orderly development of the residential quarters. The new neighborhoods continued in quarters the development delineated in plans back in the 1970s. You don't even know how strangely exotic and un—Polish this looks, when you're used to the sight of our new developers on a daily basis,while 99% of local governments in this country after the fall of communism threw the old plans into the trash in accordance with the maxim: "hulaj dusza, no hell, let the invisible hand of the market design for us urrraa!!!". Here in Leszno, someone seems to have thought more deeply and asked himself whether we really need to reinvent the wheel. As a result, there is continuity in the planning process there, and previously built schools, clinics and similar public services are located near the new housing. Development here is not about whoever has a piece of field somewhere attacking it with a backhoe, it's just that everything moves in a thoughtful regime and everyone accepts it. Ha... I'm talking about new housing, as if it's such an obvious thing for a city of this size. On the star map of Polish cities, cities with the mass of Leszno, which shine with similar brightness, under the same conditions, most often, instead of developing, turn into black holes, sucking all their structures inside and at the same time, on the slow way to their death, radiating their inhabitants outside with Hawking radiation, and such a cycle is the norm. Marasm and lack of future is the rule, but for some reason not here. Something saved Leszno from following this spiral of inevitable decline.

Leszno - Obszary nowych osiedli

Leszno, areas of new settlements

© Google Maps

But coming back to the topic, because it doesn't end there, my eyes got even bigger when I realized that in Leszno the construction of road infrastructure is ahead of this development. That is, the opposite of the rest of the country, where first you build blocks of flats and then think about where to get the rubble with which we will gleefully fertilize the puddles twice a year, or plan a weekly new slalom route through the mudflats like some research Siberian expedition. It's different here, people associate speedway with motorsport, not with the daily commute. Of course, let's not go to any extremes. Leszno is not swelling with new residents especially. After the initial bump during the political transition, the city's population level is now rather stable, but there is still a demand for new housing.

My observations were also confirmed when I started looking for various statistics and rankings. The first place for the best local government made me a little sad, to be honest, because I realized that I had taken that lucky shot and hit the center of the dial right away. This is indeed already it, this is the top of the tops in this country, and to find something even better may be really difficult. On top of that, it's the safest municipality, high in the ranking of happiness of residents and first if you discard much, much larger cities like Warsaw, Wroclaw and Krakow, which traditionally always perform best in this category. On top of that, the aforementioned landscape resolution, and it's quite sensible, which has been in effect since 2019, the introduction of the tempo 30 zone, two and a half times more bike paths in relation to area than the national average. In fact, in what ranking, praising the positive qualities do not look, Leszno is always somewhere there, punching up between much bigger players, and all the time, let's remember, without any obvious, conspicuous basis for such a state of affairs.



Photo: Pawel Mrozek

And at this point I realized that I was looking for the sources of affluence wrong. I was looking for it in material goods, in tourist attractions, in big companies. I was looking forit warped by our national norms, which tell us to look for prosperity in what money brings, in things we can exploit, while Leszno, in its utter honesty, shows us that it's a button, cheap glitz, and the same or even better can be achieved if you have this country's most valuable and at the same time most scarce resource, that is, encompassed residents. When you look at Polish cities wrapped in advertising rags, plowed with highways and parking lots, chopping up greenery as if there were no tomorrow and spilling over the fields like magma during a volcanic eruption, and then turn your head and look at Leszno, which was given modestly, and is doing much better, you realize anew the wisdom contained in the proverb that it is better to lose with the wise than to find with the stupid.

I, I think, get moved terribly easily for any reason. I catch myself just enough to show me urban normality, which is not dying in my hands, but is simply doing well in the simplest way, because no one is trying to ride it or improve it by force.

But Leszno is no accident. And it even rises above the definition of Greater Poland's thrift, which, after all, is in vain in many places in the region in this form. To understand this, it is necessary to look into the history of this city here. And now I will present my path of deduction of how I combined various facts into a whole, and I am curious what do you think?

Leszno is a confluence of many fortunate circumstances, or even in the case of those unfortunate circumstances, an example of how to deal with them. First of all, what should be noted, this city is far from the big urban centers, actually halfway between Wroclaw and Poznan, and that for a small city means one thing. Either you fight back, or all that's left of you is the name of the train station. But let's go back to the past, because I think that's where the answer lies. Leszno, ladies and gentlemen, was an important literary center for centuries, but quite special, because it was associated with Protestantism, which meant it didn't have many alternatives in the Republic. For Poland, it was the religious center of the Protestant part of our nobility, and I think this, to some extent, weighed on the relatively more stable development of this city in later centuries. It was because of cities like Leszno that Poland was said to be a tolerant country during the religious wars sweeping Europe. In Leszno, different faiths lived in harmony, when elsewhere stakes were burned, or there were not so many differences. At the same time, it should be remembered that until the end of the 19th century no cities in the Polish—Lithuanian Commonwealth area were really ethnically Polish, because the population living there usually presented itself as a whole melting pot of nations with the German—speaking and Jewish populations usually dominating. When the religious wars ended, there was a period of stability, then came the partitions, during which, on the one hand, Polishness was discriminated against, but at the same time there was industrialization progressing in the nineteenth century acting as a counterpoint to this repression, as Leszno began to enlist local Polish villagers, but unlike other cities, where classism and antagonisms along national and religious lines quickly began to develop, there was much less friction in Leszno during this crucial period of urban transformation in Europe, due to its history built around tolerance and a multicultural heritage, as well as somewhat smaller cultural differences between the Polish—speaking and German—speaking populations in this part of the former lands of the Polish—Lithuanian Commonwealth. This fostered the smooth assimilation of Poles in Leszno, who organically took over the bourgeois culture and with it the tradition of caring for their town. After independence, those twenty years were just enough for the process begun in the 19th century to consolidate a Polish bourgeois class in Leszno, but not a new bourgeois class but a naturally indigenous one, while preserving the centuries-old continuity of the bourgeoisie itself in Leszno. And this, in my opinion, is the main factor differentiating Leszno from the vast majority of cities in this country, which have been shaken and tossed about, swelled and died, and are today organisms inhabited by people who do not fully understand where they are and what they are doing and what the city is about, or often do not feel that much of a bond with it, or are just looking for one.

And not to be outdone, Leszno is not sacrosanct, as its residents are fond of telling me in their correspondence. It shares, contrary to appearances, quite a lot of purely Polish "hundred years of planning" mentality. Just as elsewhere they mow snow there in December, or pour sometimes unreflective asphalt on frozen soil, and many other piquant laughs, but... well, precisely for some reason I also hear about it more often than in the cities, where the picture of misery and despair is at every turn. This also makes me think that this is perhaps the result of a much more developed and unprecedented bourgeois consciousness for a city of this size. Here I am informed about every little thing, while dozens of even larger cities are passively sleeping while their townhouses in the markets are crumbling, while the synonym and marker of modernity in them is a two-level intersection.

Therefore, I have a huge request to you Leszno. Take it and never lose it... and well, send samples of your genes to PAN, let them freeze and store them. When we need to clone people, once we rebuild this world after its collapse, they'll probably come in handy. And let the rest of the country watch and learn and learn lessons. Maybe sometimes, instead of selling ancestral silver to build some investment power monument or concrete market, in breathless pursuit of a belated magical Bilbao effect that will miraculously change our miserable fate, it's worth considering first how we manage what we already have. Maybe it doesn't really take much. Something as small as taking care and nurturing, instead of chewing up and spending on investment fireworks, and maybe, maybe someday we'll be like Leszno, "even even," meaning relatively healthy and normal. I don't think it's fair to ask for more in this country.


Paweł Mrozek

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