Urban planners know well when a city’s leading industry or market folds the cultural milieu stands in jeopardy as well. When the Detroit auto industry collapsed in July 2009 and GM, Ford, and Chrysler were consequently forced to lay off thousands of their employees, people were left wondering if the city stood at a cultural cross-roads. That year, in a Sports Illustrated article titled “The Courage of Detroit,” a hopeful Mitch Albom explained that Motown truly is a “swallow-hard-and-deal-with-it place”:
Do you think if your main industry sails away to foreign countries, if the tax base of your city dries up, you won’t have crumbling houses and men sleeping on church floors too? Do you think if we become a country that makes nothing, that builds nothing, that only services and outsources, that we will hold our place on the economic totem pole? Detroit may be suffering the worst from this semi-Depression, but we sure didn’t invent it. And we can’t stop it from spreading. We can only do what we do. Survive.
Basically, if you take the fashion out of Milan or the film out of Los Angeles, for example, those cities would likely experience a shocking social and cultural facelift as serious as an economic one.
In any case, there do happen to be more positive examples out there. One European city, Ostrava, in the Czech Republic, has begun to alter its image as a result of the recent decline of its coal mining and processing industry. Mining operations in Ostrava were terminated in the early 1990s, leaving a number of abandoned warehouses, mines, and factories. In hopes of revitalizing these industrial sites while still embracing its heritage, the town is turning many of them into chic cultural hot spots.
For example, the Vitkovice “castle,” a former steel and ironworks plant, is being converted into a new science museum and conference center. Currently visitors can tour the plant and marvel at the Communist-era metal machinery, some of which, according to David Byrne (ever heard of the Talking Heads?), look like aliens or Easter Island statues. Hlubina and Michal Mine, two now-closed mines, will soon begin to host electro-punk, jazz, and classical concerts as well as cultural events and art shows. Tourists will be drawn to these exhibitions not only for their modern appeal but also because they will be “industrial themed,” including “‘day in the life of a miner’ tours of equipment and living quarters.”
In 2002 these localities were declared a National Cultural Monument by the Czech government and were also included in the European Cultural Heritage network in 2008.
It is refreshing to see important cultural conservation and renovation movements such as that ongoing in Ostrava. The “New Vitkovice” project is responsible for “preserving the industrial heritage for next generations” and is also pioneering the revitalization of the town with the construction of “new residential blocks, administrative premises, university, scientific-research and cultural background and leisure time zones.” The New Vitkovice website clearly states the project’s goals:
What does the uniqueness of the project consist in? It connects the old with the new. It materializes the reality of development of Vítkovice together with Ostrava and redeems the promise of future of Ostrava that is positively evaluated by general public…The room for industrial use of the entire area is reduced and conversely, new opportunities for the development of the City of Ostrava are built.
I think this case stands against many preconceived notions about former Soviet strongholds and their current situations. We sometimes forget how recently the Soviet Union fell, and instances such as the 2008 South Ossetia War are in some ways seen as the tremors from this event. Ostrava is one place where memories of the Communist era still linger, and yet they are making great cultural gains in regard to their local, national, and international image. Ostrava is taking a proactive approach towards ensuring their identity is not lost in the mentality of what was or could have been. They have recognized the absolute necessity of revitalizing the industrial heritage they enjoyed only a decade ago, and they are working towards making that heritage a distinctive part of their future albeit with a touch of modernity.