"Renewal" projects [are] inherently wasteful ways of rebuilding cities, and in comparison with their full costs make pathetic contributions to city values. At present, society is protected from these facts of life because so high a proportion of the costs is visited upon involutary victims and is not officially added in. But the cost is there. Project building as a form of city transfrmation makes no more sense financially than it does socially.
-Jane Jacobs, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961)
They say, they say a cultural revolution is coming to Rijeka.
But is it?
In 2016, Rijeka submitted a bid to the Ministry of Culture and the European Commission and won the title of European Capital of Culture (ECoC) 2020. It's official: this port city dripping in Habsburg-era charm will be Croatia's first community to participate in the program established in 1985. And if you close your eyes and listen really hard, you'll hear the sound of tens -- perhaps hundreds -- of millions of euros from the European Union and Croatia being spent in preparation.
Croatia's third largest city has a rich history dating back to 1281 AD, from the colorful carnival it hosts every year to the period between World Wars when the Rječina river, and barbed wire, divided the city between Yugoslavia and Italy (Memorial Bridge now spans the river). Rijeka used to be a powerhouse of industry with its paper factory, sugar processing, ship yards, oil refineries, torpedo launch ramp, and endless mills, but all what remains of those businesses are gritty, empty buildings begging to be loved. There are so many great candidates for revitalization that it's hard to know where to start, but work has begun.
The New York Times recently published an article on Tito's derelict yacht sitting forlornly in Rijeka's harbor, saying it will be restored for 2020, but I saw no signs of life aboard after crawling through a hole in the fence to get a better view (apparently, work will begin in 2018; stunning interior shots are here). After hours of researching questions for a meeting with a city planner, I learned that for 2020, Rijeka is focusing on community programs and physical renovations of the sugar factory and a few other old buildings in bad shape.
During my three weeks in Rijeka, I became curious about the ECoC program. Why had I never heard of it? Is it because I'm not a European? Or because it's a worthwhile program that doesn't get the attention it deserves? Perhaps it's because the program is what Jane Jacobs referred to as "cataclysmic money", or large infusions of investment by the government and institutions that fail to trickle down and truly effect change like gradual investment would. I asked locals about the program and I inquired about ECoC projects at the tourist office, and judging by their vague responses, Rijeka's 2020 plans aren't something on the local radar. I even went so far as to reach out to three people at the city government, only to have one propose a meeting time only to stand me up (because why limit ghosting to the dating world?). I can only hope that the people in charge of the program are better stewards of large sums of money than they are at public relations.
It's unclear if ECoC's "cataclysmic money" will truly benefit Rijeka, but there have been success stories from former European Capitals of Culture, like Liverpool. Barring glaring inefficiencies that come with massive spending programs like this, I think that overall, 2020 will be a good year for Rijeka and the investment will be the perfect starting point for the city to evolve for the better.
Perhaps Rijeka's 2020 vision isn't so 20/70 after all.
After the paper factory, Rijeka's fish market had to be my favorite city experience. Although Rijeka's fishermen have sold their goods at this seaside location since the mid-1800s, this elegant building was designed by architect Carlo Pergoli and completed in 1916. Venetian sculptor Urban Bottasso decorated pillars and stonework with delightful sea creatures, and it's best to view these details and market action from the second level. Outside the fish market is a sea of stalls packed with gorgeous, fresh produce, and the neighboring twin market pavilions of steel latticed construction and glass are equally delightful (although the interiors have been updated and are a bit dull).
Rijeka is well-endowed with beautiful architecture, especially towering, ornate apartment buildings from Austro-Hungarian times.
A city suffocated by cars
As much as I wanted to enjoy Rijeka and its magnificent, historical treasures, it was difficult to do so with all of its cars. Maybe it was the rainy weather that increased drivership, maybe it was decades of poor planning, but exploring the city on foot was an unpleasant ordeal. Every day I walked out of my downtown apartment my senses were assaulted by a thick fog of car exhaust and a steady stream of speeding, honking vehicles. Where is the pedestrian love in this city? Beautiful old buildings were surrounded by too much pavement, bike lanes were unheard of. For my conversation with the city employee, I had prepared questions about what changes, if any, were being made to the physical layout of the city for 2020, although I already sensed that making the city pedestrian- and bike-friendly was not a priority.