Take a walk on Łódź side: a city neighbourhood defies the past and points to the future
From being bruised, broken and largely bankrupt at the turn of millennium, the city of Łódź has performed a U-turn of such dexterous agility that few saw it coming – even the locals.
“The Łódź that I remember growing up,” says Marcin, one of the chiseled, whiskered regulars at the Brush barber shop and cocktail bar, “had collapsed in on itself: both physically and mentally – now look at this.” This, he signals with a dramatic sweep of his arm, is the wider complex in which Brush is found: OFF Piotrkowska Center, an edgy collection of bars, businesses, restaurants and stores that has been consistently cited as one of the principle reasons that Łódź has been reborn as a crucible of cool.
In fact, such has been the fanfare surrounding OFF Piotrkowska Center, that CNN argued its case this November for being the hippest neighbourhood in the whole of Europe. Visiting, you understand why. In a city celebrated for its radical street art, thriving underground scene and venerated film school, OFF has come to embody everything daring and dynamic about the town and its people.
“Our mission was to restore life to this old post-industrial space,” says Kamil Wasiak, the PR spokesman for OFF Piotrkowska Center. “This old factory has been a silent witness to our city’s wonderful past, and while it was undeveloped and allowed to deteriorate for a number of years, OFF Piotrkowska Center has come to tell the story of how a degraded quarter that people once avoided became one of the most valuable plots of land in the city – it’s become symbolic of how something can work in this town, and at the core of this success lies Łódź’s greatest asset: brilliant people who can translate their passions into action.”
Reflective of the city’s wider fortunes, the Ramisch factory compound in which OFF is to be found was built in 1889 to serve as a cotton weaving plant which was then primarily concerned with the manufacture of handkerchiefs. Starting with a modest workforce of eight people, the firm – like the city itself – boomed. By 1924, approximately 1,000 people were employed at the Ramisch factory, and the factory was rapidly expanded to cover a footprint of 1.3 hectares.
World War II brought an end to the omnipotent industrial dynasties that had hitherto dominated Łódź, and while the communist regime that followed was to blame for a litany of ills, the state continued to generously support the city, thereby maintaining its reputation as a manufacturing hub. But bad news was around the corner. The fall of the Iron Curtain, and the wild transition into a free market economy, pulled the plug on a city largely dependent on government subsidies and favours. For five years the Ramisch factory admirably ploughed on, before finally succumbing to reality and shutting for good in 1994. It was by no means alone. Łódź became an avatar for the dystopian vision, a city of wrecked, empty factories and mass unemployment.
There were flashes of respite for the Ramisch factory. Inspired by Britain’s rave scene, a club called New Alcatraz was launched and revolutionized Poland’s techno scene over the course of its brief 90s life. Further, a cult football pub was opened by former Widzew player Zbigniew Karolak (it exists to this day, albeit somewhat incongruously given its hip, on-trend neighbours). For locals though, the area became best known as China Town, a rundown area bristling with cheap Vietnamese food cabins hawking food of unverified origin. With its flocks of pigeons, lakes of urine and piles of trash, the Ramisch had become a by-word for post-industrial decline.
This changed in 2011 when Off Piotrkowska Center was launched, in-filling greasy, empty units with upcoming businesses and independent projects. “Step by step,” says Kamil, “the new owner of the property, OPG Property Professionals, began introducing new tenants which can best be described as ‘creative industries’. This course of action was in line with the city’s policy and slowly the factory began filling with new businesses: artists, designers, architects, musicians and intriguing restaurants settled here. It became a colourful bohemia contained in one place.”
As things stand, you can feel the creativity crackle in the air: they’re all here, from upcoming design brands to riotous clubs and experimental food concepts. “The careful selection of tenants has been the foundation on which our success has been built,” says Kamil. “When recruiting tenants we had only one prerequisite: that they’d bring something new to the table. That they would be creative and offer something unique – something you wouldn’t find in any old chain store. On top of that, we based our place-making strategy on a rich event repertoire, worked out collectively with the tenants, and this allowed us to breathe new life into this complex by encouraging urban art, offbeat business ideas and, most importantly, people.”
These tactics have paid dividends. Defined by its raw energy, OFF Piotrkowska Center has become big news, fast, and its influence clearly noticeable in a variety of similar urban projects that have since cropped up around the country. “I think the people of Łódź didn’t believe in their city prior to OFF,” says Kamil, “they couldn’t see its potential. Nowadays though, people are proud to proclaim that ‘I’m from Łódź’. The city authorities have been fantastic in the work that they’ve done, but undoubtedly the change in the public’s perception of Łódź was sparked by OFF Piotrkowska Center – here, you see the city in its truest sense.”
This, you soon realize, is not superfluous marketing spin. With approximately 20 percent of footfall attributed to those living outside Łódź, OFF Piotrkowska Center has become the calling card of the city: a place of free thinking and open-minded ideas. One moment, you’re drinking a fancy cocktail from an Edison bulb in Brush, the next, dazed and lost in the unhinged pandemonium of Dom nightclub. And that’s usually having earlier filled your shopping bags with locally produced ceramics or urban streetwear from rising Łódź brands such as Pan Tu Nie Stał. This is not the Łódź you may remember from the past, but it most certainly is the Łódź of the future.
OFF Piotrkowska Center
ul. Piotrkowska 138/140 (Łódź), offpiotrkowska.com