By Ljilja Cvekic
BELGRADE, June 26 (SerbiaToday) – An ambitious plan to revamp Belgrade’s traditional open-air green markets aims to turn the beloved, gritty downtown spots into gleaming public spaces worthy of a Western metropolis – but experts and citizens worry that the modernisation drive could end up tearing at the heart and soul of Serbia’s capital.
The city authorities approved in May a plan to modernize green markets and turn them into dual-purpose spaces: markets in the morning, and squares for cultural events in the evening. The stands will be removed in the afternoon to special hidey holes or underground, the space cleaned and washed to host social and cultural happenings or just quiet rest by the water fountains.
A poll opened until mid-July asks citizens for their opinions and preferences among several projects prepared jointly by the City Markets authorities and Architects Society for three central downtown markets – Kalenic, Palilula and Bajloni.
“City squares are places where the first markets appeared. People used to come in the morning to sell their products and only leave in the evening,” City Markets director Dragan Pusara told Serbia Today. He said the new concept would really revive the nightlife of the “pijaca” – a word that came into Serbian from the Italian word “piazza” – that are now deserted, dark and dirty in the evening.
“Some of the downtown markets have originally been squares and they would just go back to their initial looks and purpose,” Pusara added. The life of the “piazza” would not disappear, just be enriched with cafes and galleries, exhibitions and art performances, theatre plays and concerts.
The very first market in Belgrade opened during the time of Turkish rule in the early 19th century, after many complaints by farmers that Turkish soldiers were forcefully buying off their food cheap to sell it to the city for much higher prices. In 1824, the Belgrade vizier invited respectable Turks and Serbs for a meeting and proposed setting up a market inside the Kalemegdan citadel where farmers would freely come to sell their products -- and banned reselling and middlemen.
Other, smaller markets gradually opened across the city, with time becoming meeting places where people come to hear the latest news, chat, negotiate deals. Even in the late 20th century one could buy a watermelon or tomato during the night, especially in summer, with farmers staying as long as it took to sell all their products, reducing prices in the evening. During the hyperinflation and international sanctions of the 1990’s, markets became the breeding grounds of the real economy, where ordinary people could eke out a living by selling everything from a needle to a vacuum cleaner, from chicken and eggs to dresses and shoes, for far lower prices than in shops.
Of the surviving Belgrade markets, the modest Palilulska Pijaca, squeezed in a corner bellow Tasmajdan park and the headquarters of national television station RTS, is the oldest in the city. Included into city plans in 1903 as a market, it can be found on Belgrade maps from 1910 as “the Palilula square”.
The Bajloni market, at the end of the popular old bohemian Skadarlija street, got its name from Czech entrepreneur Ignjat Bajloni, who in 1880 built a big, modern brewery close to the square where the market was later located. Both markets serve primarily local residents, who tolerate the fecund smells and night-time mess for the sake of freshness, convenience and low prices.
European cities have long ago introduced markets that vanish in the night, Pusara explains.
“Even Zagreb, where people have similar habits, has a market where just few people manage to remove 600 counters in an hour and clean the space.”
Paris and Rome, Frankfurt and New York have small mobile green markets, usually once or twice a week, where traces of a busy marketplace disappear completely in early evening. And although modern urban life has brought many people to big supermarkets and shopping malls, the trend is now shifting to healthy and organic food, bringing people to the farms on cities’ outskirts to buy fresh greens and fruit rather than to pick them from the store shelves.
“Markets will not lose their purpose. They represent important places of gathering and we shall preserve the traditional role and uniqueness of each of them,” Pusara said. “A market is not a shopping mall. It is the place where old handicrafts should be promoted, the place where globalization has no access.”
However, Belgraders are suspicious and cautious. They fear their beloved markets will lose their warm atmosphere, products will be more expensive and their favourite vendors will leave, not willing to pay high rents.
“Those who need a square should go to the Republic Square. Those who need a ‘piazzetta’ should go to Italy! A market is a necessity. And it’s not true that people shop more at the big retail chains. To renovate markets, clean them and ensure parking space – yes, but we’re not old Romans to sit on the squares,” wrote a visitor of one of many blogs on the issue.
The recent reconstruction of one of Belgrade’s oldest, biggest and cheapest markets, the listed Hungarian-style Zeleni Venac, is seen by most to have been a failure. Having cost the city some 25 million euros, it became a clean but deserted place, with metal bars around the preserved old buildings, high prices and cold atmosphere.
One ambitious initial idea for the renovation of Kalenic, the most lively and colourful of Belgrade’s markets, is to build “a glass shell” over the market, creating a totally enclosed space of wood and glass. According to the new project, food products will be sold in the open until 3 p.m. in winter and 5 p.m. in summer; warehouses and other shops will be at the first underground level, while another two will serve as a garage.
“Why do we need this? We should better think about how to employ people! We are happy with Kalenic as it is. I’ve been coming here all my life, know the vendors and can buy everything that we once had to make on our own, such as home-made tomato juice or sauerkraut. It’s a waste of money,” said 89-year old Erika Bojovic.
City Markets say it is not a big investment, and, unlike with Zeleni Venac, it will be cost- effective. The idea is also to use profits from Kalenic, that was built in 1926 on ground donated to the city by merchant Vlajko Kalenic, to establish a fund for young talents.
“Belgrade is loosing its soul,” sighed Dragana Bovic, 50. “Beautiful old buildings have been destroyed, small unique shops are disappearing in favour of impersonal shopping malls, casinos are taking over old inns and cinemas, and bars that all look alike everywhere in the world are replacing old cafes full of spirit. And now they want to take our old markets away.”