For a quarter of a century, Sofia, Bulgaria has been my bench-scale urban laboratory of sorts, a city like any other but more compact and with an accelerated pace of change. Sofia has served me as a lens through which to view dynamics of my native New York and other cities in which I spend time and work — cities diverse in size, histories, and issues facing them, from sprawling, dense Istanbul to tiny, prosperous Luxembourg.
A Shift Away From the Urban Core
In the years since the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Sofia has passed through a century’s worth of change. Migration from villages and towns led to a near trebling of its population. In the initial decade after “the changes,” former apartments and single-car garage spaces in Sofia’s downtown became incubators of small businesses and even smaller shops, cafes and bars Later, enterprises that grew migrated to new, purpose-built agglomerations outside of the urban core. Simultaneously, a new middle class moved to villas, apartment buildings, and gated “communities” at the urban periphery. Sofia’s Soviet-era high-rise concrete panel residential neighborhoods took on new life and developed their own entertainment and retail functions. Giant shopping malls sucked retail activity and pedestrian flows off of downtown streets. Motor vehicle and public transportation traffic shifted from converging on the urban core to traversing it. Amongst the results: For a number of years, Sofia’s Jugendstil- and Bauhaus-inspired downtown took on a derelict and depopulated look, becoming the seeming province of the older and the less successful by day and exuberant lower-end bar goers by night.
Street Fairs and Smiles
This summer, I’ve noticed surprising hints of change. Downtown parks are newly landscaped and planted. Street events generic to European and American cities — concerts, street fairs, and dance — now occur. Tourist guides lead groups of foreigner through streets whose history they have barely begun to scratch. And, recent political protests have had the spill-over effect of attracting evening strollers to downtown streets.
The photo above was taken in the garden of Sofia’s “Ivan Vazov” National Theater, following a dance event for children. I know neither the names of the two dancers nor of their ensemble, but their smiles and confidence seem to auger well for the future tone of downtown Sofia — but, then again, in Sofia, one is never quite sure!