The Battle for the Soul of Warsaw

Helmut Jahn’s Cosmopolitan Twarda 2/4 tower soars over the now destroyed building containing Pardon, To Tu and the Jewish Theatre. Photo by David Labi

Has rampant development conquered a famous square in the Polish capital?

A lot can change in 17 years. Take Plac Grzybowski. This famous square was the melting pot of Warsaw. During the city’s pre-war heyday, Jewish life thrived alongside Russian and Polish. An important trade centre, it was alive in the 19th century with a babble of European tongues. It was a place to meet, trade, live and worship. There’s 19th century All Saints’ Church, which draws crowds of all ages dressed in their Sunday best. And the honey-coloured Nozyk Synagogue—the only synagogue in the capital to survive the Nazis. Nozyk has been central to the community’s rebirth thanks to a charismatic rabbi. It’s almost a shock when you first see Jews of all generations appear en masse. Close by, a small kosher store plies a busy trade, while placards outside do a bilingual job of introducing Judaism.

But all of this has taken a beating. First of all, it was the Jewish Theatre—the only one in the world to regularly perform in Yiddish. Why? Because Warsaw wanted a new skyscraper. The dramatists found themselves locked out of their spiritual home by the owners, real-estate firm Ghelamco. Having reneged on a promise to include Teatr Zydowski in their new gleaming tower—despite a legal obligation—the property giant has swiftly emptied the theatre and surround it with fences.

But the Jewish Theatre is not the only venue that fell to the axe of gentrification. On the other side of the same building lied Pardon, To Tu, one of the city’s most revolutionary music spaces.

Everyone remembers their first visit to Pardon, To Tu. On mine, an Ethiopian jazz star played an analogue synthesizer with vocal accompaniment from a glittery 70-year-old Polish chanteuse. I might be wrong though. Memories are easily muddled in Pardon, a tight space framed by scarlet walls clad with album sleeves and books. You leave with hazy recollections of improvised jazz jams and avant-garde blues. “When we opened in 2011,” says owner Daniel Radtke, “I wanted to show people a different side to music—not the stuff they can hear every day on the radio.” As he languidly puffs on a cigarette, Daniel’s eyes tell the story of a thousand late nights. “Privately, I have to ask if the area needs another building like that. To me, it just feels that all the changes are being made for the benefit of the sort of people who never worry about money.”

Gentrification here was perhaps ignited by the square’s redevelopment. An overgrown park was reinvented in 2010 as a shining plaza filled with water features, benches, granite and greenery. At the time I thought replacing trees with concrete was half mad. But the style and sensitivity with which it was done has breathed life into the square, while maintaining the sense of a secret garden.

More changes followed: global architect Helmut Jahn added an epic residential tower soaring 40 storeys into the air. Unlike many of Warsaw’s recent architectural blunders, this one feels classic and considered rather than a maniacal ego trip. But it’s not just the skyline Jahn shook up. Ground-floor units include a ceviche bar, an upmarket winery and a “chocolate boutique”. To think that back in my day retail opportunities were limited to industrial cleaning products and used washing machine parts.

Orchestre les Mangelepa play the old Pardon, To Tu—look out for the venue’s new incarnation coming soon

A few such stores survive, namely on Kamienica Brenkina, a small parade below a faithfully restored three-storey tenement. Passing pedestrians can browse displays of mops, spanners and other household hardware, a throwback to a time when small family businesses ruled the district. But who needs such items now? Not the new breed of locals, anyway. Find them across the square, where new cafés and restaurants have squeezed out the old.

Charlotte, an upmarket boulangerie, is a case in point. Despite the elaborate inkings and piercings of the staff, the clientele are not hipsters. Instead, this is where Warsaw’s new money gathers: airhead models and hotshot lawyers who wear red trousers at the weekend. Outside, sports cars and jeeps stand higgledy-piggledy, parked with just a cursory acknowledgment of the outside world.

Splicing this side of Grzybowski in half is Prózna Street, the only street of the Jewish Ghetto that wasn’t flattened by the Nazis. For years it was emblematic of Warsaw’s urban decay; a dank, derelict alley. Walking it at night I’d often pause to soak in the scene. Rotting walls propped up by wooden scaffolding. Deathly quiet, not a soul in sight. You could almost hear the ghosts of the past whispering in the shadows. Yet now Prózna has been rebooted as a street of brash brasseries and bistros proffering premium champagne. It feels elegant; Parisian almost.
But the question many are asking is, has this all been too much, too soon? Will locals be exiled by rising prices? And in the meantime, a once overlooked, grubby part of town has become not just the centre of a tug-of-war between different social groups, but a mandatory stop on the tourist trail. No other neighbourhood packs in so many layers of history in so few square metres: a Catholic bastion next to a Jewish synagogue; Tsarist tenements next to capitalist fortresses and the dreary Commie blocks I once called home. Most of all though, Grzybowski is evidence that the Nazis didn’t succeed—not in eradicating Judaism, and not in eradicating Warsaw. No matter what the future holds, that’s good enough for me.

Pardon, To Tu still runs events in other venues until they find their new home. Follow them here

Author Alex Webber has lived in Warsaw for 16 years, serving since 2011 as the editor-in-chief of the monthly “Warsaw Insider”. His work has been featured in The Guardian” and “The Times”

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