Inside Warsaw’s tower blocks lies a secret green world that awaits exploration…
Text & Photos by Joanna Szpak Ostachowska
(for a gallery of Joanna’s work, click here)
Grochów, Powiśle, Bielany: all districts heavily pockmarked with towering, concrete blocks. To me, they’ve long brought to mind elderly residents and long, stretching corridors in-filled with lush greenery and plant-life. On the walls, hand-written signs warn people about keeping anything in these hallways, but it’s a rule seemingly waived in the case of plants: here, they are everywhere, along with napkins, tablecloths and pictures often stacked or placed between them. And, of course, there’s the ever-present water bottle, utilized by neighbors to act as an impromptu watering can. Simultaneously, the corridors blur the line between public and private space: they are an additional reality; a makeshift garden; an extension of home.
These are not just little plants purchased as part of some modern trend, but living exhibits that are both splendid and old: spider plants, ferns, weeping figs and jade plants. This is the real #urbanjungle…
Retro-style plants are right now the rage, but the ones in these blocks are not part of a fad. Forget about Instagram and Facebook, there’s more to these plants than likes and reach. They are not a new discovery and they are not a fleeting fashion: for decades they’ve been cared for by our grandmothers and aunts.
I’ve lived in Grochów for years, and for years I’ve seen the same plants over and over from the corner of my eye. Actually, they’re a familiar sight in the majority of flats that I’ve visited over time. But where once I passed them with a sense of indifference, today I understand their grand, lavish beauty.
Built during the Communist era, the residential blocks of the PRL period have accidentally given us much room to maneuver: long corridors lead to wide windows, creating a space that demands decoration. Without such, we are left with a scene that’s bleak and depressing. On occasions, I wonder if this is a Polish phenomenon; or perhaps one unique to Central and Eastern Europe? Can one ‘claim’ a public area so freely elsewhere?
Now, when friends buzz me into their apartments, the first thing I hear are tip-offs and suggestions: “Check the 30-year-old lemon tree that Pani Dorotka has on the seventh floor,” or, “Visit Pan Stasio’s jungle on floor No. 9: he can’t walk anymore, so just sits out in the corridor along with his plants.”
“I just plant something with my neighbor once in a while,” I heard another time, “because everyone feels better when they look at something green.” And yes, everyone does feel better when looking at something green. In concrete blocks as well… Or maybe especially there.
Joanna Szpak Ostachowska is a photographer, journalist and educational skills trainer. “What interests me the most, in reality and photography, is the ordinary and everyday. I’m not looking for big topics,” she says, “instead I go off-road to find things that exist somewhere on the other side. Discovering microworlds is what I enjoy.”