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Tri-Cities. What are the New Bourgeois waiting for?

02 of January '23

Article from A&B issue 05|2022


Seemingly a matter of course from the perspective of the meaning of the whole series of "Multicity", the Tri-City is after all the biggest multicity classic in our country, but has everything already been said about the Baltic metropolis? When we look at the close relationship between Gdynia, Gdansk and Sopot, do we see the true picture? Are we fully aware of the ties that connect them and the barriers that separate them? Well, certainly not.

I've lived in Gdansk, I've written a script for a TV series about Gdynia, I've developed a strategy for Sopot, so it would seem that I have the right competence to sit down for this text.

For years I have loved the Tri-City, I am not original in this, all of Poland knows well that it is a great place. Residents also know how to appreciate the city they live in (consciously, I deliberately use the singular, which can and should somewhat outrage the patriots of Gdansk, Sopot and especially Gdynia). How, then, to approach the task - to create a dense, synthetic monograph of a multicity, but one that will nevertheless surprise the Reader with something? It will show a different picture from the superficial one, discover new perspectives? The path to rediscovery or rather deeper understanding is obvious - the secret lies in history and identity diagnostics. So to the point.

A few years ago, I managed to organize and lead a meeting of the presidential troika during the Open Eyes Economy Summit: from Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot came then Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, Wojciech Szczurek and Jacek Karnowski, respectively. We laughed a little then, during the "Tri-City Talk," together about the fact that this was their first substantive meeting ever. The eloquence of this observation, however, is profound. It shows how much our lives can be managed by history, how much the identities of cities and their communities are shaped by stereotypes and prejudices.

For without any analysis, it can be said that Gdynia is by its very nature placed in a kind of opposition to Gdansk. This is how the city was built: as a born enemy, as a Polish port that was supposed to invalidate the hostile German port. Let's refresh ourselves on this history, for without a full understanding of it we will not create a full-fledged analysis, diagnosis and prognosis. And the latter will make it possible to create something like a sketch of a development strategy giving a chance to optimize it, balance it, raise the bar high with ambition.

Let's start with recent history. In the 1920s, a century ago, Poland regained access to the sea. But without a port. Meanwhile, German-speaking Gdansk, with its seaport, to which goods from all over Poland flowed via the Vistula River and a railroad line, had a practical monopoly on handling Polish exports (imports, too, by the way). Let's remember that in those days there were not hundreds of thousands of trucks on the roads, there was no air cargo industry, there was no Internet, and cable telephone had limited uses as well. In that era, everything went by mail, people wrote paper letters to each other, goods on a macro scale traveled only by water and on rails, and civilization reached where the railroads reached.

Dependence on Gdansk was unacceptable for Poland, so the spectacular decision was made to build Gdynia. Marshal Jozef Pilsudski gave the task to his best men: engineers Tadeusz Wenda and Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski and General Gustaw Orlicz-Dreszer, among others, came to the coast.

Muzeum Emigracji w dawnym budynku Dworca Morskiego w Gdyni, przebudowa proj.: ae fusion Studio

Emigration Museum in the former Marine Station building in Gdynia, reconstruction proj.: ae fusion Studio

photo: Bogna Kociumbas

The construction of Gdynia was a spectacular undertaking on a worldwide scale. In ten years the largest port in the Baltic in terms of handling capacity was built. The most modern city on the planet. A pearl of modernism, aesthetically shocking at the time compared to the rest of Poland - gray, drab and gloomy, poor, backward, post-partition devastated. This Gdynia was the pride of the entire nation, the most fashionable destination of excursions, the object of admiration of delegations arriving from Japan, Great Britain or Italy, among others.

We need to fully realize what Gdynia was to pre-war Poland: an epic effort, a lancer's fantasy and proof that Poland really can. Gdynia became what was best about Poles, Poles and Poland: a worldly, colorful, vibrant, thrilling port city. Here, jazz bands from New York played in clubs, here the whole world, the latest trends and fashions poured into Poland. When it became possible to link the port of Gdynia with Silesia via a coal trunk line, all Polish exports moved to Gdynia and completely drained out of Gdansk.

The two cities looked at each other with a peculiar hatred: until recently, German Gdansk with an undisguised sense of superiority, but expressed from the perspective of a declining former power. Ancient Gdansk was rapidly getting poorer while young Gdynia was growing just as rapidly and getting richer. Gdynia accumulated the energy of all of Poland - ambitious, but historically deeply humiliated, eager to make up as quickly as possible for the years wasted under partition occupation.

Imagine that Gdynia: a super-modern city surrounded on all sides by now-forgotten slums, where tens of thousands of workers were camped out in barracks made of nothing, building the city and the port. The names of these poverty districts themselves have their own poetics: witty Budapest, crazy Mexico City, crowded Beijing, or Wooden Warsaw say something important about those times, illustrating the construction of what is still visible today, namely the construction of the great port and the beautiful center of today's Gdynia.

A construction that was visited year after year by hundreds of thousands of Poles delighted with it. Gdynia was the most effective humbling of Polish hearts. The Wilke Brothers' white flotilla alone carried more than 200,000 tourists a year around the Gdynia harbor in the 1930s! People of the time loved Gdynia, it aroused the highest emotions, by the way, it also turned out to be a spectacular business success, instantly paying off the loans taken for construction and coming out ahead despite the gigantic costs. It's hard to imagine what it was really like back then - almost all Polish exports and imports flowed through Gdynia, hundreds of ships from all over the world came here, transatlantic liners carried literally millions of people migrating from overcrowded Poland to their new Promised Lands in America. It's worth walking around this city with this heightened awareness, after visiting the Emigration, Navy and City of Gdynia museums. It's enough to lift your head, to see the modernist facades, to feel the thrilling atmosphere of those times, the call from the Baltic Sea that carried the whole country at the time, led by Stefan Zeromski, author of "Wind from the Sea", who wrote in Gdynia.

gdyński modernizm - kamienica Albina i Marianny Orłowskich z roku 1936, proj.: Zbigniew Kupiec

Gdynia modernism - Albin and Marianna Orlowski's tenement house from 1936, designed by Zbigniew Kupiec

photo: Przemek Kozłowski

The residents of Gdynia were unbelievably connected with their city before the war, they built it with their own hands, took an active part in the process of its birth, adolescence and rapid maturation. When the war broke out, despite the General Staff's abandonment and renunciation of actual strategic defense, the people of Gdynia were unable to capitulate. They fought fiercely, to the death, for their beloved city, unable to imagine surrendering something so important, just like that, to the butthurt and convinced of their superiority, fascist and racist Germans.

And they fought beautifully, remarkably, with the help not only of Colonel Dabek's army, Admiral Jozef Unrug's indomitable crew of the Hel Peninsula, but also with the help of all the locals, the Kosynierzy of Gdynia and the incredible armored train Kashubian Dragon, which they themselves built from scratch in four days and four nights (verily, Poland can do it!). It's such an incredible story that I wrote a script about it for a TV series, which I hope we'll see on screens on the centennial of Gdynia's obtaining city rights, that is, in four years. The extraordinary people who defended Gdynia and the Polish Coast took the arrogant Germans completely by surprise, inflicting severe losses on them despite the incredible disproportion of forces.

The tension between Gdynia and Danzig, between Germans and Poles, is so great at this point that history chooses the future Tricity as the arena for the outbreak of World War II, which today culminates with its exhibition of the extraordinary building of the World War II Museum in Gdansk (design: Studio Architektoniczne Kwadrat).

bryła i ekspozycja Muzeum II Wojny Światowej dopełniają tożsamość Trójmiasta: miejsca, w którym zaczęła się największa wojna w historii ludzkości, proj.: Studio Architektoniczne Kwadrat

The body and exposition of the World War II Museum complement the identity of the Tri-City: the place where the greatest war in human history began, design: Architectural Studio Kwadrat

photo: Jerzy Pinkas

It is no coincidence that it is here that the famous battleship Schleswig-Holstein shoots, it is here that the defenders of Gdynia and Kepa Oksywska perform heroic deeds, and then Hel defends itself for the longest time of all places in Poland, successfully chasing the Germans away with the fire of the Heliodor Laskowski battery. Heliodor Laskowski, pounding from the unconquerable and invincible to the very end, modern Bofors guns. All this will form the founding myth of the later Tricity, but now, even before we enter the present day, let's step back in time for a moment.


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