Monday, April 07, 2008

Comparative Cityscape

So I went to Stockholm, right? I've been there a lot, I really like the city, and am starting to feel like I can navigate it - the center, at least, without a map.

One of those little places I've recommended to people with great success is the Science Fiction Bookshop on Västerlanggatan (the main shopping street going through the Old Town). Stopped by it on this trip to check out their English-language selection, and... well, let's just say - I had a moneyz, but I spended it. :(

Also have been spending inordinate amounts of weekend time in Tallinn. Odd how it doesn't really feel like home any more, even though I've spent three quarters of my life there. Mind you, in the six years since I've been a Tartu vaim it's changed considerably - and more rapidly in the last couple of years, when I've had very little cause to actually go there for any length of time. (Since I got a washing machine in my new apartment, I haven't been back to my dad's place as often, heh.)

There are a lot of things that differ between Tallinn and Tartu; I find it odd that the capital's roads are in remarkably worse shape than Tartu's, which in themselves are nothing to write home about. Sure, Tartu is far more walkable - to the point of its beleaguered public transport being written off by all but those layers of the population most challenged by mobility; I know people who regularly walk from across the river to Sepa, which by Tartu standards is the ass-end of nowhere. And yes, Tallinn has far nicer buses. But it's not like Tartu doesn't have a lot of cars; and the capital is supposed to have more cash for public works like road resurfacing. Have they spent their budget for years to come on the Tartu maantee renovation? Is it all going into the widening of Pirita tee so the rich Viimsians can get to work quicker in the morning? Who the hell knows.

Another Tallinn thing that I don't really see in Tartu is gentrification; new and capitally renovated buildings in the middle of Soviet prefab blocks. Some of these have a genuine point, like the building in Kopli that was built to house a phone switching station. The large equipment halls with their tall ceilings are bound to lend themselves nicely to original split-level open-plan apartments, and the fact that this really is an old Soviet industrial construction, sold off by a disinterested Elion to imaginative developers, lends it an air of curious authenticity.

But then there are the new monoliths at the edges of the old bedroom communities. These baffle me. I can almost comprehend the beauty of top-floor apartments at the summit of Lasnamäe - they get views of the sea - but that only applies to a small percentage of the new households. At the height of the real estate bubble, the cost of a newly-built apartment was not significantly higher than one in a Soviet tower block, but given the choice, who would willingly move to Lasnamäe? I was born and raised there - and I couldn't wait to get out.

Real estate is naturally all about location, but in Tartu there aren't that many unpleasant neighborhoods. I've lived at the far edge of Tammelinn, from where it took 40 minutes to get into the center of town by bus (and five minutes by car, of course), but it was still a very pleasant neighborhood - a few locally-designed late-Soviet apartment buildings in the middle of a sprawl of single-family homes on their own little plots of land. I've seen some remarkably odd placements while apartment-hunting two years ago, like the blocks at the far edge of Võru and Ringtee, behind the bus depot, but for the most part it's a few buildings dropped in the middle of a naturally developed small-town district. Tartu has two main Soviet-style enclaves - the massive Annelinn and the decrepid Hiinalinn/Shanghai (so named because its prefabs are of the most basic and ugly variety, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a shantytown) - but they're not being developed. Yes, people are renovating their own apartments in these buildings, but new ones are not inserted among them, as they are in Tallinn. The closest thing is the new building at the corner of Jaama and Raatuse - close to Shanghai - and it is being advertised as heavily discounted, with the biggest apartments losing a whole million kroons off their sticker price. Still, Raatuse street is slowly filling up with fancy shops and boutiques, thanks to the fact that you have to walk up this street to get to the Illusion nightclub. That house is actually one of the better efforts I've seen in modern construction - custom-designed to fit into the irregular, sloped landscape. But most of the new developments are either self-contained enclaves by major arteries, or dropped into neighborhoods that have been there for at least a century. It makes a difference. Tartu is all about atmosphere.

Tallinners seem more obsessed with image, though. I've accused Riga of this, but now I notice it more and more in Tallinn: people investing most of their resource into outwardly visible trappings of success. Taking the tram to the bus station, I was startled to see flash cars like BMW X5s parked next to the crumbling prefabs of Majaka. The owner of my old rented apartment drove an X5 - but he actually lived in a beautiful, large house outside the city; he'd obviously spent money on a home for his family first, and got a fancy car once that was done. (He's also remarkably un-flashy in person, despite running a very successful business.)

I have to wonder what will happen to Tallinn now that the real estate market has regained some semblance of sanity. Another friend just bought a beautiful apartment in Kadriorg; this time last year, the same money would have barely stretched to a hovel in the further reaches of Lasnamäe. The no man's land on the banks of the Laagna freeway will continue to be built up commercially, because the demand is there; but residentially, will this new phase of Soviet urban planning survive?


Kristopher said...

How are the bookstores (English language) in the other Nordic cities compared to Tallinn and Tartu? Is it at least close?

Are there any architectural virtues to Hiinalinn? Meaning, would anyone have anything against a squeaky new building plunked down there? There was some kind of plan to raze the district completely and start afresh.

It is close to both the centre and the future Estonian National Museum at Raadi, so it should benefit somehow.

antyx said...

The big Rahva Raamat has a semi-decent choice now, I suppose; in Tartu, the closest thing is the Apollo in the new Kaubamaja, which is inadequate. There is supposed to be a Rahva Raamat in the new Tasku mall though. Here's hoping.

Stockholm's ready selection of English bookstores has diminished rapidly in the last few years; Ahlens City used to have a gigantic book section, which has now shrunk and moved to the basement. I tend to check out the Pocket Shop in Sergels Torg these days, for non-SF/F stuff. The SF Bokhandeln in Vasterlanggatan 0wns j00. The good thing about Sthlm though is that there are English books in every Pocket Shop outlet all over town - not a lot of them, but probably the new bestsellers.

Helsinki, inasmuch as I can remember, had a couple of very good locations in the big downtown Stockmann and the university bookstore just next door. Then again, I haven't been to Helsinki in ages.

I'd kill for a branch of Waterstone's closer to home, though...

Hiinalinn, in my opinion, has absolutely no redeeming features except for a sort of light spelunking, a curiosity for a special industrial atmosphere. Kind of the same experience that tourists to Chernobyl are after. Mind you, I'm not entirely averse to that sort of entertainment, but that's a topic for an entirely different post.

As far as I'm concerned, let the bulldozers come.


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