Bratislava We had an interesting set of meetings scheduled at a new enterprise launched during the last year in Bratislava that involved creating cultural and community spaces in an experimental building. After hearing about community centers of various sorts and sizes throughout Slovakia, we were finally going to get to see the urban version on steroids.
The backstory told to us by several of the four founding members and their staff was fascinating. It had begun as an effort to try and take over an old textile mill at the outskirts of town, but that effort had faltered when a big-time developer outbid our heroes with a well-financed plan to build high-end, luxury apartments. Instead, a more realistic search for an equivalent space enlisted the municipal government and after much negotiation and some luck in financing, an abandoned school building connected to a dormitory building was acquired by four partners with a half-million-euro loan to rehab and a 25-year lease from the city.
The progress made in just one year was impressive. There were a wide variety of tenants, the manager told us there were now some seventy rent payers at 6.50 euros per square meter per month for space that averaged about 80 meters. Walking through the building we saw spaces rented by artists, a performance area, a film area, a bakery, photo and print shop, clothing and toy stores, a café, day care center, co-working center, and a kitchen that served lunch inexpensively to the community of 200 to 300 that were in the building at any one time. The dormitory will eventually offer housing for about 80 small units. Much work still needs to be done, but it’s an impressive complex, garnering a lot of interest. For example, their first open house was attended by 7000!
One of our delegation asked the staff how they saw the building creating social change. It turned out to be a surprisingly difficult question for the core team to answer easily. They didn’t want to see themselves and their internal group or “community” as fixed in a landlord-tenant relationship, but the more they talked the more it seemed they were caught in a box between the four partners and the burden of paying off the bank loans, and their hopes that the building would be successful and supported by the community. One woman was the sole voice for social change when she spoke of creating models and access for affordable housing. Most of the rest, whose hearts were pure as goal and intentions lofty, were focused on the role of the building for the community of tenants, rather than the role of the community around the building.
I was reminded of advice I had gotten almost a decade ago now about having to make the decision about what was important, “bricks-and-sticks” or power and people. They have an interesting operation, and the principal partner told me about a network of similar projects, and I had visited one building in an old armory not long ago in Hamburg, Germany that seemed very similar, but there’s a tension in the goals and objectives when one gets to the bottom line. Social change is not just a building. Common space is important, but it doesn’t equal change, and is a long way from building power.