An interview with Urszula Dąbrowska, the initiator of the action “To save old houses”.
Behind us are four historical walks as part of the “To the rescue of old houses” project, where you want to draw attention to the need to protect the former historic Białystok. Every time about a hundred people come to hear the stories about the old Białystok times, old buildings and people who once lived in them, and – just – about the history of Białystok! Were you a little surprised by the popularity of your activities?
Well, it surprised a little … Of course I knew that there are lovers of old houses in Białystok. And I hoped that our project would find its way to them, that there would be people who would like to join us in trying to save specific houses in Białystok, seemingly doomed to oblivion. However, the fact is that the reaction of the inhabitants of Białystok is really much greater than we expected in our wildest dreams. But high attendance at walks is one thing, and the other is how much people even know about our activities. There is talk of a project in Białystok. Social media posts reach thousands of people
It’s nice that the reactions are usually very positive, although there are also voices of people who question the need to preserve these old material souvenirs, such as old buildings, wood or brick.
Bialystok. The results of the public consultation “Saving old houses”. There is a prospect of a better future. What will the city do?
But most commentators are yes?
Yes. We hear many voices say that talking about old houses, paying attention to them, is necessary: we have been waiting for such a project, let’s not destroy these houses, they must remain … These houses are associated by residents of Białystok with the duration of our city. They are symbols, memories: this is where I went with my grandmother, I remember it from childhood. These houses build on a generational and historical continuity. People also think that they are just beautiful, that they are unique, that they are such a feature of Białystok that they create the character of the city.
Where did the idea for this project “To the rescue of old houses” come from?
Me and my family live in such an old house, in the city center. We have gone to great lengths to restore such a pre-war house to a good condition, but at the same time to ensure that conditions prevail here today. I honestly admit that I wouldn’t trade our home for anyone else. You just live here comfortably and have a history. But despite living in a historic neighborhood full of such beautiful homes, things are constantly changing. Right next to it, next to the low old buildings, a huge seven-storey block suddenly appears. It doesn’t fit here at all and builds frustration with us, old residents, because suddenly a concrete wall grows 5 meters from the plot boundary and from the last floors the pets flow into the garden. We have the impression that in allowing such a construction, no one has taken into account the former inhabitants, the specificity and history of this place. This is an example from my neighborhood, but there are plenty of such stories in Białystok. This frustrates many people, especially when it turns out that another old house has burned down. It burned itself down. Comments soon appear suggesting it was because it was in attractive investment areas. Suspicion and mistrust are increasing. After every fire, there are many voices on Facebook pages about the history of our city: why don’t we protect these beautiful houses? I thought to myself that I am tired of reading this regret on the internet. I have found allies, the coalition “To the rescue of the old houses” consists of nine organizations: NGOs and informal groups, most of them with great authority. We wanted to do something that would integrate the people who want these buildings to last. We would like to find a way to clearly show our point of view, our social disagreement with what is happening to the historical buildings of the city, to show that we want to talk, consult on this topic, the opportunity to express our own opinion to express.
Bialystok. To save old houses. Historical walks about people and buildings [ZDJĘCIA]
Strength in a group?
Yes, it’s true, the group has more clout. We believe that it is time for the city to enter into a real dialogue and declare what plans it has in terms of urban planning or the protection of old buildings. Of course, these are complicated procedures and any repairs require a lot of money. We know that even in a coalition we wouldn’t have had a chance to cope – both organizationally and financially. We just want to start a discussion, draw attention to the problem and suggest to officials which houses are particularly important for the residents of Białystok.
With the help of willing Białystok residents, you chose 13 old Białystok houses – uninhabited, but belonging to the city. That is, the one where in theory something could happen, something could be organized, renovated and, for example, given to organizations. Residents have been consulted about their ideas for the development of these homes. Now historic walks are behind us. What’s next?
For that, Wiesław Wróbel prepared historical research and Krzysztof Kulesza prepared technical expertise. This is the basis for these conversations: what now? In the case of our project, it is difficult to talk about tangible benefits because we do not have the money to renovate these houses. The idea behind our project is to draw attention to the problem that these historic – some even historic – houses are still standing. And to ensure that they are not destroyed, it is also the task of the city council to take care of the material heritage, which is also the old architecture. We must also be honest that some monuments in the city have been revived with great care and dedication, for example houses in Wiktoria or Mazowiecka. It is good that so many residents of Białystok feel the same way. When we discussed ideas for the development of the former Herbst country house in Skorupy, several dozen people came for consultation. They submitted ideas and then demanded that we not leave this case alone at the social consultation stage and that we should ensure that the court had some protection. This shows that the history is close to many residents who want this place to be preserved. Anyway, thanks to the project, we got to know many enthusiasts who are doing everything they can to make the historic Białystok survive. People told us how sentimental they were for these houses, showed us souvenirs. An elderly gentleman has lamps, chairs, decorations and utensils at home. He has been collecting it for years and would like to show it, exhibit it. The country house Herbst seems to be an excellent place for this. Artists would also like to develop this house, there could be a cafe for people with disabilities, so we decided to submit an application to the municipal budget for the renovation of this building. The organization cannot do it, so he was joined by a resident of Skorup – Piotrek Znaniecki, who is involved in our coalition. We hope that such concrete steps will also lead to the renovation of the mansion.
There were no plans for the 13 houses you selected for the project. Today the situation has changed a bit…
During the project it became clear that there is already a plan for three homes. On Wiktoria 9 there will be a family orphanage at ul. Waryńskiego 7 will provide services – we don’t know more yet. The renovation has already started and in the first days murals from the early 19th and 20th centuries were discovered in the stairwell. The building at ul. Sienkiewicza 26 will in turn be transferred to the Spe Salvi foundation, which among other things helps the homeless. On the other hand, the famous iron house in ul. Mazowiecka, which so many people pay attention to, has been put up for sale. We’ll see what happens to him…
What other activities await us as part of the project?
The last historical walk is behind us. And the next event is on June 4. It will be a projection of Augustis’ photos on the tenement at Sobieskiego 22. We will show about 300 photos, we want them to create a story about Białystok, seen through the eyes of a pre-war photographer. On June 11, we invite you to a dance at the Herbst Manor. We will try to prepare it in such a way as to reflect the values of the yard and the possibilities of the whole property. On June 25, we are planning a culinary picnic at ul. Młynowa 2. The meeting should be multicultural, but mainly focused on the Jewish tradition, because Młynowa was such a Jewish street before the war. The picnic is prepared by Alessia di Donato, a culinary blogger from Białystok, who works closely with the Polin Museum. On July 2, we will prepare the installation of Ewa Chacianowska. The artist in the windows of the tenement at ul. Słonimska 15 will insert photos of former residents. These are lenticular photos that give the illusion of movement. So when we walk under the windows of this tenement, we can get the impression that someone else lives there, that there is some life going on…
I know that many residents of Białystok are waiting for the final of the project – the plebiscite.
We plan to announce it in early October. We encourage all residents of Białystok to vote for those houses that they believe require immediate intervention. We want to make such a ranking, which we then submit to the city. It will – we hope – be such a hint to city planners that the inhabitants of Białystok believe that this house should be protected and rebuilt in the first place, that it is important to them, because without these houses the city will lose its identity and memory.
The project “To save old houses” is to promote the value of the former buildings of Białystok and make the inhabitants of the city aware of its beauty .. it is to involve the inhabitants of Białystok in activities aimed at promoting the old, mainly wooden, city architecture. As a result, the authors of the project want to provide “civil” protection to 13 historic houses in Białystok.
The coalition consists of nine organizations:
- NGO Support Center;
- Dom Foundation; Scientific group of the Student Science Club Mała Architektura of Białystok University of Technology;
- Establishment of the Laboratory of Social Research and Activities “SocLab”;
- Lantern Theater Foundation;
- Białystok subjective, a group of PTTK guides;
- Kronika Białostocka, a fan page that brings together residents of Białystok interested in the city’s history;
- “Widok” Cultural Education Association;
- Arteko Association.