Poland's Capital Warsaw Is No Longer A Tale Of Two Cities

Poland's Capital Warsaw Is No Longer A Tale Of Two Cities

Warsaw's city center is seen from the eastern side of the river Vistulaon. (AFP)

Warsaw:  The Polish capital is a city divided: by a river, by history, by reputation. For years, the right side of the wide Vistula waterway was known for murder and mayhem, while all the power and money went to the left. Not so anymore.

Even the relief of the riverbanks is telling, says Halina Cieszkowska, a 95-year-old former teacher and longtime resident of the working class Praga neighbourhood on the right.

"Warsaw's left bank is on a slope. It's higher up. So they look down on us. And here we are, below," says the energetic great-grandmother.

"Praga was always a worse neighbourhood. Neglected... so Praga had an inferiority complex. Still does. Though maybe to a lesser degree now, because we've been trying to fix things," she tells AFP.

Praga is now safe, with art galleries, innovative hip bars, renovated prewar buildings and a subway line since 2015, which have all helped bridge the gap between the two sides.

Across the river, the left bank boasts the city centre and historic old town, and is not known by any overall name but is sometimes considered by residents on both sides to be Warsaw proper.

Efforts to spruce up Praga began in the 1990s but the city now plans to pump 1.5 billion zloty or $380 million into the sprawling right bank to further revitalise the area.

The upgrades through 2022 include connecting thousands of apartments to central heating, renovating historical sites and investing in social services to undo years of post-war neglect.

'Bermuda Triangle'

During World War II, Nazi German forces flattened 85 per cent of the left bank, but Praga was spared because it had already been occupied by the Soviet Army.

It is in Praga that you can still find exposed redbrick walls, old street-lamps, buildings pockmarked with bullet holes and courtyard shrines with statues of the Virgin Mary.

That authenticity is why Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski shot his wartime film "The Pianist" there.  

But because the neighbourhood was left standing while the rest of the city was reduced to rubble, all the reconstruction funds went to the left bank.

"Things fell into ruins here," says Praga tailor Jerzy Hlasny, a 63-year-old with a bushy moustache who has worked at his shop for four decades.

"Praga was a kind of unwanted child. But things are happening now," he tells AFP, giving as an example heritage buildings renovated with EU money.

The neighbourhood also came to have "a bad reputation. That it's just lowlifes and thieves here", adds Hlasny, who said he himself had been beaten up and still has trouble seeing out of his left eye as a result, after one night refusing to hand over money to two men who entered his shop.

Warsaw Deputy Mayor Michal Olszewski recalls that when he first moved to Warsaw in 1996, he lived in the part of Praga "known as the Bermuda Triangle, where according to legend you didn't come out alive".

The notorious years are long gone. But the lore lingers and many of those born and bred in the district, like Adam Lisiecki from the Praga Museum, are tired of the stereotype.

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