Gentrifiction in a City and Culture: Eternal Tourists in Their Own City

A conversation between cultural critics and the residents of the station neighbourhood Jurijus Dobriakovas and Vytautas Michelkevičius about gentrification at Vilnius station neighbourhood, culture and underground.

0 berlynas Kreuzbergas

In September 2015 we were drinking beer in a bar in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighbourhood, which had undergone the process of gentrification, when suddenly a couple of tourists from the USA “dressed as if they belong to the environment” asked us to take a picture of them conveying the atmosphere of the former artists’ neighbourhood. Unfortunately, not only they, but the entire neighbourhood looks like a mere show with expensive bars and restaurants, while the dynamic life continues to roll in full swing already elsewhere.

Vytautas Michelkevičius: At first, let’s agree on several concepts and their use. What makes you worried, thinking about this location (Jamaika hostel and bar, situated in the outskirts of Halė Market in Vilnius station neighbourhood) and what keywords would you use to express it?

Jurij Dobriakov: First of all, I’m worried about the fact that certain things, which I always used to perceive as natural (like going to the market to buy some goods) are becoming something essentially different — let’s call this an attribute of exclusive consumption. Young creators, whose numbers are rapidly increasing in this neighbourhood, find these things not as a daily necessity, but an element of status and image. Thus, the life at Vilnius station neighbourhood, like in other similar areas of the city undergoing “gentrification” process , is shifting towards that external side, that is, creating an image of the public “me” as an environmentally conscious, creative and harmless “rebel”. While the actual social, cultural, etc. problems are practically left behind. How about you?

VM: I, writing a text for the publication of Vilnius Street Art festival, realised, that the concept of the district/rayon, indoctrinated during the Soviet era is alien and does not represent the contemporary reality, because, first of all, it was indoctrinated by foreign power structures (although etymologically derived from French, it has a negative echo of the forced reformations of the USSR, which destroyed the traditional self-government and neighbourhood structures, e.g. in the Interwar Ukraine). Secondly, since I was born and raised here, and continue to live here (with a break between 1993 and 2005), I think that the concept of neighbourhood is much closer to us, since it also has a social connotation.

Going to shop to a market is also the issue of generations. My parents used to shop at Halė Market since 1980 and, after they moved, continue this tradition at Kalvarijos Market, thus I also grew up with a habit to go to the market, which experienced a moment of decline in 2000-2010.

The advocates of gentrification (a process which is officially referred to as buying real estate for low prices and increasing them (in neighbourhoods that gradually become fashionable), which drives the old residents and businesses out) claim that it solves social/cultural issues by pushing them to the outskirts of the city, thus making them invisible for the guests, developing a better image of the city for the tourists, as well as a safer and more comfortable neighbourhood for its residents. I’m interested, what cultural/social problems would you name here? Also, say since when do you live here and what changed most during that time.

JD: It is truly interesting, that this station neighbourhood is something completely different from the so called “bedroom” neighbourhoods, where I used to live in Klaipėda and for some time in Vilnius as well. This part of the city belongs to everyone — the locals, the tenants, residents of other neighbourhoods and suburbs of Vilnius, as well as tourists. Thus, it’s quite difficult to differentiate, who’s local and who’s a newcomer. The new neighbourhoods and catchments built during the Soviet era are different, there are almost no „aliens“. This makes gentrification almost impossible, because there is no cultural activity.

I have been living in the neighbourhood of the station/the Gate of Dawn (beyond the city wall) since approximately 2007 with short breaks. The most significant cultural and social issues, to my mind, are caused by certain miscommunication between the old residents and the newcomers — tenants or buyers of new apartments, restyling them according to modern standards. Of course, the old residents leaving this neighbourhood take away their stagnation and insularity, which are often very common (e.g. the inner courtyard of the building where I live and which is very close to the Gate of Dawn, looks very much like a ghetto or village inside the city), however, the new residents bring some of their snobbery and completely different prices from rent and real estate to goods and services.

1 parduotuve Nemunas 1989

 The “Egg” square on the intersection of Pylimo/Šv. Stepono/Raugyklos streets in 1989.

VM: Discussions about the “locals” or “from the perspective of the locals” in the context of gentrification is one of the strategies, which most often would end up in sadness — the new (and often the richer) residents drive away the old ones (locals). There is no secret that the “new ones” can be divided into several types too. Some of the new residents move to the station neighbourhood “for fashion”, others — “for the romantic feelings for the old city”, because the heart of the old town has long been unaffordable for ordinary citizens. Nevertheless, I would like to remind of the historical and official title of this part of the old town — Rūdininkai — the Sharp End Suburb [1]. The Sharp comes from the visual image of this part of the neighbourhood with an intersection of two straight lines coming out of Rūdininkai Gate and the Gate of Dawn, and continuing towards important historical suburban roads.

In the late 19th–early 20th c. the new neighbourhood, which created an atmosphere of modernism and a metropolitan city, developed in the tangle of the streets coming from the Railway Station (Vilhelmo Šopeno, later Kauno, Sodų and Gėlių). Go, take a walk looking upwards and you will see the unique buildings, decorated with accessories of historicism, eclecticism and Art Nuveau (Jugendstil) and then the building on Kaunas str 2 will take you at least to Riga or Warsaw, or perhaps even to Berlin of those days. Its volume and height makes it probably the only example of that period in Vilnius and also it was the first residential building with an elevator of that time. The so called house of Chaja Kremer was designed by a particularly productive architect and construction engineer Anton Filipovic-Dubovnik.

In truth, the first gentrificator of the neighbourhood was the merchant Wilhelm Szopen. In the 19th century he purchased large parcels of land around the Railway Station and later donated one parcel to the city. Today it is the area with Šopeno street. By the way, he also had his own brewery, which was nationalised after the war and renamed into Tauras Brewery .

The most notable features of modern gentrification can be visible on Šv. Stepono street, between Pylimo and Kauno streets. If I remember correctly, during the Soviet era there was only one confectionery (closed a couple of years ago) and perhaps one or two offices. Ten years ago there were several bars (Gramutė, Šypsena). While more than a dozen or twenty of bars, boutiques, cafés, etc. sprouted there during the recent five years alone. From this perspective the street is healing its soviet-made wounds and is returning to the image of 19th century or the Interwar period, when the street was full of shops and bureaus (which can be visible on the shutters that have survived to this day).

I believe that the “current residents” and “those that use the local services” (bars, boutiques, etc.) see the station neighbourhood differently. Their needs differ too: some of them want to enjoy their surroundings, while the others seek to use the fashionable area.

2 parduotuve Nemunas Pylimo 43 1918

The “Egg” square circa 1918 — a news-stand. 

JD: Here I would like to ask you and myself: is the emergence of these small shops, sandwich bars, craft beer bards and similar “small independent initiatives” is a more positive or negative experience for us? On one hand, all this dynamics and variety is fun, but on the other, I sometimes realise how eager we are to get involved into this process, without noticing that our economic situation (not only that of the “poor locals”) sometimes comes at odds with the newly developing pricing standards.

VM: Gentrification is gaining momentum, there are even post-gentrification places like Bukowski bar, which attracts ordinary party people that used to go to places like Savas kampas, etc. This results in a negative effect — I, as a local, feel deprived of my place (like the former cosy bar Visi Šventieji), where I can meet my friends and satisfy my social needs, because this new audience is completely alien to me.

New choices and new values (prices) are driving me to despair, because the service prices rise much faster than income. I keep remembering that not so long ago I could get a beer in a local bar for 2.5 Lt, when everywhere else beer costed 5 or 7 litas. Now instead of that bar on Šopeno street there is the Pirmas dublis restaurant-bistro, owned by Deivydas Praspliauskas — a place where I can treat myself once every two years. I remember speaking of Vilnius to my friends from Riga and Tallinn as a city, which is still affordable (differently from their cities), because there is no place, where I couldn’t go to eat (from snack bars to fancy restaurants). Yet, unfortunately the numbers of luxurious and expensive places are growing and gradually eliminating the fun economic equality of Vilnius.

JD: This is exactly why I sometimes begin to feel like a tourist in my own city. It seems that my Vilnius is splitting in two: the Vilnius than I know very well and the city, which I can barely access.

VM: Yes, I feel like a tourist in my own neighbourhood more and more often, especially after returning from a week’s or month’s journey. But there is a positive side too — you can travel in time and feel the dynamics without leaving your neighbourhood. I keep enjoying the remaining passages between courtyards (the number of which has shrunk twice since I was in school). In truth, due to these rapid changes, I keep missing a place, which you can visit every day or every five years and it still would be the same. Probably the only survivor is the Bix Bar (which keeps sitting there for already 20 years). On the other hand, we can still enjoy Jamaika, where beer still costs 2 euros and there are almost no people.

JD: However, aside from the supply and prices, there is also the issue of authenticity (if it can have at least some meaning): a large part of the fashionable products or services taking over Vilnius are borrowed from other cultures or cultural/social classes — the burgers that everybody love so much used to be fast food at US pull-ups, targeting truck drivers, “organically grown vegetables” most likely speak of the city people’s nostalgia for grandparents’ village homestead or garden, “craft” beer — Lithuanian rustic beer, mixed with the fashion of the British real ale traditions, home-made beer and small American breweries, while the bagels at Halės Bistro are definitely baked not by Jewish bakers of Vilnius. Thus, all these things become peculiar “empty signifiers” — signs referring to an “authentic” tradition, even if they do not and cannot have any connections to it.

VM: Yes, authenticity is an important issue. Although Halės Market can still offer authentic radishes and cucumbers grown in the city’s or suburban gardens straight from old grandmas’ hands and that is only a little share of the entire supply of the market. I think that “authenticity”, particularly in terms of kitchen, is a rather complicated topic in post-soviet territories, where it was destroyed for more than 50 years. Some look for it in the Interwar Lithuania, others — in the culture of noblemen, yet, in my opinion, there is no other choice than take a creative approach and reinvent Vilnius’ kitchen anew. New dishes and beer brands find it very difficult to find their way in countries with older and uninterupted kitchen traditions (e.g. Germany).

Burgers are another thing. They show that we, together with all the large cities in the world, are becoming a part of a global culture, where fashions change in years rather than decades and everything happens at the same time in the entire world. 5-7 years ago Vilnius was penetrated by kebabs, although they did not last long, even if for unknown reasons hundreds of kebab places sprouted all over Lithuania: there were even two of them in my own village with 1 500 residents. What makes it even stranger, is that kebabs in those kiosks used to be made by local boys and girls, instead of immigrants.

But I think let’s stop talking about food and return to cultural changes. Of course, food and drinks symbolise the most notable social changes, but you have also often mentioned the gentrification of the cultural underground. What is that?

3_Pro memoria sv stepono 7

 One of the first steps of gentrification manifest in artists using abandoned spaces — Miraklis environmental theatre together with the band Skylė organised a show Pro Memoria Šv. Stepono 7. Photo by Milda Juknevičiūtė. Authentic video material.

JD: Before shifting to the topic of the underground, I would like to note that the motif of immigration (and integration), which you have just mentioned, is very interesting and significant, particularly keeping in mind the current situation with refugees flooding Europe: do you think they would be able to find their own niche in Vilnius, similar to that in e.g. Berlin or London? How would their arrival affect the gentrification processes in Vilnius? Where would they live?

VM: Immigrants would surely bring more tastes and colours, but the living standards of Vilnius are not high enough to attract them. There were a number of attempts to open foreign catering places (an Italian’s pizzeria, an Indian’s snack bar, a Turk’s kebab place), they didn’t last long.

JD: Talking about the gentrification of the underground, the processes are very much similar to those that take place in the area of services: subcultures with traditions are shrinking or these people simply “grow out” of them, and their place is taken by particular post-subcultural characters, who take certain characteristics of the life style or only appearance of the older subcultures, but do not get involved with any “subcultural ethos”. They see underground as purely a source of inspirations, maybe a certain kind of a “zoo”, a Kunstkamera of old-fashioned, but exotic and intriguing relics.

There are only a few places in Vilnius, which could be related to the underground or certain subcultures, but it seems that they have lost their critical potential and their audience is strongly attenuated by simple peepers, who see the action taking place there as merely a show, rather than the basis of cultural identity. These places are replaced by other pseudo-alternative locations (e.g. the culture bar Kablys — do not confuse it with smaller and unofficial initiatives existing in the very same building), which are seemingly democratic, but keep their barriers of both prices and knowledge of certain fashions.

VM: Although Kablys and its basement keep holding its positions, others move to Kirtimai Culture Centre. In my opinion subculture has become more of a theatrical concept, because understanding one’s identity constantly being pressured by the rapidly changing environment is becoming more and more difficult. Perhaps the best alternative for subculture could be the periods of life: school pupil, university student, young professional, family, etc.

JD: However, this division as if traps you in that life cycle, dictated by the market — you know when and where you have to buy your housing, what’s appropriate to you according to your age, what you have to consume and places that you must visit. There is no space for rebellion against this dictate.

4 street art filosofija-ok

 A completely fresh piece of the street artists (Don’t worry be burger) in Vilnius, ironically advising to be the fashion (a burger) instead of fretting about and looking for eating fashions of the city. This also has a parallel meaning, since the word burgher stands for someone from a big city.

VM: I chose this neighbourhood for its geographic location: I want to be able to walk to my workplace or places of socialisation and experience the city and its changes with my own legs and body. For example, the book Alphavilnius by Valentinas klimašauskas (Kitos knygos print house, 2008) has been my artefact, which helped me to reinvent my intimate relationship with Vilnius. This is where I started recognising places, people, relationships, sometimes even myself, and then it became easier to connect with Vilnius. These books are scarce, e.g. Vilnius Jazz by Ričardas Gavelis, Tūla by Jurgis Kunčinas (although we and these two are decades apart, while Alphavilnius belongs to our generation — or, let’s remember the term invented by Kurt Vonnegut that you and Tomas Čiučelis used — it’s a book of our “karass”). Žvėrynas-Užupis by Jurgis Kunčinas could be regarded as a book of introduction to the atmosphere of the city in stages. It is related to the route of the bus 11, which still exists today. Have you experienced any similar inspirations?

JD: Tūla by Jurgis Kunčinas pushed me to explore Vilnius and try to turn this city and its architecture into my own territory, rather than a container, where I exist. I’ve read this novel exactly ten years ago, when I had just moved to Vilnius. I should say that the image of the city described in that book now mostly exists only in its pages. In truth, the situation with Vilnius described in Alphavilnius seems to be the same, although the book has been written relatively recently. Yet there are still some places — in the station neighbourhood, beyond the railway (in Naujininkai neighbourhood) and other parts of the city — with a certain intangible spirit, which doesn’t give in so easily to the pressure of time. For me one of the greatest pleasures of living in Vilnius is taking a walk in places, which are not included into my functionally-defined routes of daily movement. This works like a counterbalance to my visits to the ordinary and well-known locations (of consumption). The areas that you’ve mentioned are not always safe, but I think that this introduction to the city is necessary. I keep marvelling at people, who live in their city without really knowing it, sometimes without even knowing the neighbourhood they live in. I believe that this partially defines the category of people, who move to a certain neighbourhood solely for fashion.

VM: Yes, I find slow travelling (walking) around the city one of the greatest pleasures too. I rediscovered it after returning to my neighbourhood in 2005. Since then I keep making circles towards various directions, exploring quarters at the same time acknowledging the fact that the majority of them will soon be “recycled” into new residential buildings or shopping malls.

Talking about the changes in the old town and the centre of the city, I remember quite recent times, when Vilnius was like a Bermuda triangle and our generation used to move between Café de Paris, CAC Café and a third point, which depended on individual preferences: Cozy, In Vino, etc. All that ended 5 or 6 years ago. At that time I used to get sick and tired of the same places and faces, and wanted to get out of that vicious circle; luckily, I received a scholarship for an internship in Cologne for 2008-2009. After a year I realised that Vilnius is my city and keep enjoying living here. Of course, I spend several months a year travelling abroad.

Then there was the beginning of socialisation spots on Islandijos street — Piano Man or Gringo (most probably opened by Lithuanian emigrants having returned from England with fresh impressions) — which eventually contributed to the development of the pub culture. While the processes at bars like Dėvėti, etc. already belong to the third or even fourth generation of bar culture.

JD: I wonder why such things (e.g. bars) originate from cultural import rather than local traditions. For example, 5 or 6 years ago rustic beer bars (Šnekutis, Alaus namai, etc.) were quite popular, but did not become a continuous concept, because they were replaced by namely that “third or fourth generation of bar culture”, which imitate Berlin or other metropolitan cities rather than naturally grow out of the local culture. Of course, the different level of quality of such places is an advantage, but I still find it curious, why we mostly tend to consume local products, created according to American, British, German, etc. models and keep losing what is local and unique. Of course, this is one of the conditions of globalisation and growing metropolis, yet I would love to see some different scenarios, which would not be based on the same cultural borrowing (appropriation), like, for example, the local beer bar culture in Czech Republic is unique and cannot be confused with anything else. In other words, travelling to Riga or Tallinn, I would love to see something, which I couldn’t find in Vilnius and vice versa, instead of observing the same processes and consuming very similar products.

VM: But what is “local” for Vilnius? Could we refer to rustic beer as local in this city? As I’ve already mentioned, the local has to be reinvented, because I has been long gone. And, in general, everyone keeps talking about the city culture of the Interwar Kaunas, while the culture of Interwar Vilnius, which was very lively until the beginning of the World War II, lies forgotten, most likely because it was “occupied by Poland”, i.e. not a Lithuanian city.

5 street arteriu poezija

 “Poetry” of the street artists: go on, change and “prettify” the city (gentrification initiators and enthusiasts usually seek for their profitable goals using the arguments of beauty and cleaning), while we remain ourselves

JD: I have another question: in some places abroad the gentrification processes encounter resistance of the (poor) locals, gaining evident physical forms. Older residents of gentrified neighbourhoods protest against newly-established places, which dictate a new price level and at the same time increase the rent prices, etc. Do you think that sooner or later something like that will happen in Lithuania? People sometimes protest against new and non-transparent constructions, but I haven’t seen any cases of active resistance to increasing prices of rent, services or goods, caused by new consumption and lifestyle fashions.

VM: There is almost no “protest culture” in Lithuania, so I can hardly imagine an open protest in the streets. But there are other ways of protesting, e.g. refusing to sell your apartment for even a high price (there were such cases with several private holdings which eventually have made Vilnius bypass angular) or refusing to renovate or improve the neighbourhood in other ways.

JD: Is this protest essentially progressive or, on the contrary, regressive in the long run?

VM: I think that this type of a protest is very well-visible and surely disrupts others.

I keep thinking on what this place will look like in three, five, seven or ten years. How long do you think you will be living here? For me, I think I will stay here for at least 5 years, but probably many more. How will our neighbourhood change? Will it be like Užupis nowadays or…? This is what the mayor has promised, after all. From the architectural perspective, this neighbourhood is truly much more diverse and interesting, perhaps even much more valuable than Užupis. I have talked of its modernisation spirit as well — there is the railway, the airport, the first residential building with an elevator in Vilnius built in 1911 on Kauno street, etc. It seems that after a century of silence, this spirit is becoming alive once more.

JD: It’s difficult to say, I see that the increasing rent prices are beginning to outweigh the advantages of living in the central part of the city and the realistic alternative of changing the place of residence most likely takes further away from the old town and the centre, particularly keeping in mind the possibilities of purchasing housing. I guess that in the long run Vilnius old town or the very same station neighbourhood will be inhabited by those that either managed to buy their apartments on time or those that agree to pay enormous money for temporary rent. Unfortunately, this situation is particularly unfavourable for the representatives of creative professions, living in a permanent situation of uncertainty.

VM: My friend, an artist from Iceland, told me that during her lectures she keeps telling her art students: if you want to avoid gentrification, you have to put all your efforts in trying to purchase the real estate instead of renting it while it’s cheap — this will help you to avoid the negative outcomes of gentrification and instead of being pushed out of the neighbourhood, you will become richer. I remember, only several years ago lofts on Ševčenkos street used to be very cheap and the situation in the station neighbourhood was very similar 3-5 years ago.

JD: And for the conclusion, I’m also curious, which neighbourhoods of Vilnius will become those new neighbourhoods, where this process will be possible and where the young artists will try to assimilate new territories with minimum costs. Of course, this will probably not take very long.

VM: It’s already happening in Naujininkai, just beyond the railway, perhaps also in the lower Šnipiškės and, partially, in Pavilnys.

JD: However, at least for now these processes seem to be undergoing the stage of establishment, rather than the development of new services and improving the quality of the new area.

VM: Yes.


End notes:

[1] The development of the area was influenced by several factors. Firstly, the qualities of the surrounding relief (see the description of the relief), which prevented capital constructions. Another important factor — after the defensive wall of the city was built, the area became a suburb and a part of the city’s fortification system — esplanade — which could not be built over and was used for putting attackers under fire. This border is now marked by the current Pylimo and M. Daukšos streets. Šv. Stepono and Raugyklos streets (the quarters between them were built later) developed during the construction of the wall as one of the major suburban directions and connected Rūdininkai Gate with the Church of St. Stephen, built in the early 17th century. Vilnius city plans of the mid 17th century (by K. Getkantas) and the first half of the 18th c. (by J. G. M. von Fürstenhof) show an irregular, as if accidental network of streets, with homesteads built only near the defensive wall, as well as large and fragmented quarters. In the late 18th–early 19th c. the area seems to be more densely inhabited. In the early 19th century, after the city’s wall was demolished, the suburb showed more rapid tendencies of urban development.

(from the “Regulations of the protection of Vilnius Old Town, the monument of culture U1P of the Republic of Lithuania”, “Rūdininkai – the Sharp End Suburb” — III C old town area. Access on the internet: <>).

[2] You can read more about the neighbourhood in the article The Neighbourhood of the Station by V. Michelkevičius, published in the publication of Vilnius Street Art festival in 2015.