Archive

Sofia

Mural, warehouse, Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. FujiX100 w/1.4x tele converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Mural, warehouse, Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. FujiX100 w/1.4x tele converter. Click on image to enlarge.

I have no nostalgia for the 1960’s. I was not a hippy. I liked jazz and R&B; indeed, white rock music seemed to work counter to my biorhythms. I was into the labor, civil rights, and antiwar movements and couldn’t comprehend psychedelica.  I looked and felt ridiculous in bell-bottomed,”hip-hugger” trousers and “love-beads,” and — alas! — I didn’t “ball” at Woodstock.  The rise of graffiti in the 1970’s also left me cold.  For many of us native to the “inner city,” the proliferation of graffiti was an added degradation and a upsetting sign of social atomization and the break-up of consensus, an aggressive imposition without consent onto the visual fields of the many by the out-sized and aggressive egos of a few, and a notice of abandonment by those outsized-ly enfranchised, economically and politically, and at a safe remove from urban grit.

Nevertheless, I smile at the murals portrayed in the photos above and below, two among several that have appeared recently in the working-class quarter of Poduyane in Sofia, Bulgaria.  The murals add a touch of brightness, whimsicality, and edge — I just hope that they were done with the participation and consent of neighborhood residents!*  Not least, the murals pose at least one iconographic improvement:  A few years ago, the only apartment-block-height “artwork” adorning building exteriors in Poduyane and the neighboring quarter of Hadji Dimitar were giant banners silk-screened with the smug, scowling face of the pint-sized leader of Ataka, Bulgaria’s  disturbingly popular antisemitic, anti-Gypsy, anti-Muslim, neo-fascist political party. Give me psychedelica any day!

* If any of you who happen upon this site know something about who did the murals and/or how they were conceived, approved, implemented, and received, please get in touch.

Mural, apartment block, Podyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. FujiX100 w/1.4x wide-angle converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Mural, apartment block, Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. FujiX100 w/1.4x wide-angle converter. Click on image to enlarge.

A Long-Vanished Nightspot: A patch of pavement, a corrugated metal fence, and a rundown cottage on a main thoroughfare in Sofia, Bulgaria –  the likely location of a nightclub once owned and run by  Keva, a legendary Romani (Gypsy) vocalist in the years preceding the Second World War.  In its day, Cafe Keva was a popular gathering-place for Sofia residents of diverse ethnicities and walks of life.  Fuji X100, 2014. Click on image to enlarge.

The probable site of a 1930s nightspot, Cafe Keva, owned and run by a popular Romani singer of the time, Sofia, Bularia, 2014. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

A Tentative Return

After a six-month hiatus, I’ve decided to reactivate this site, in part due to the encouragement of a small circle of readers in New York, Luxembourg, Vienna, Sofia, and Istanbul.  We’ll see how it goes…

A Long-Vanished Nightspot

A patch of pavement, a graffiti covered corrugated metal fence, and a rundown cottage from a past age on a main thoroughfare in Sofia, Bulgaria – the likely location of a nightclub once owned and run by Keva, a legendary Romani (Gypsy) vocalist in the years between the two world wars. In its day, Cafe Keva was a popular gathering-place for Sofia residents of diverse ethnicity and walks of life.

The prosaic stretch of sidewalk portrayed in the photo above is one of many subtle, non-monumental reminders of the presence, history, labor, and  social and cultural contributions of the Roma (Gypsy) population of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.  Over the past century, processes of nation-forming and of economic change, coupled with social and spatial segregation, have solidified and sustained the marginalization Roma.  In parallel, the official historiography and anti-minority sentiments of Bulgaria’s self-styled mono-ethnic society and the pretensions of its post-communist monied classes have booted Roma out of their rightful places in urban consciousness and mainstream memory.

Monuments Spatial Rather Than Physical

As mentioned in a previous post, a decade ago, at the behest of an obscure US congressional commission, I conducted an extensive survey of architectural monuments across present-day Bulgaria germain to the histories, lives, and identities of a number of “minority” religious and ethnic groups, Roma amongst them.  Output included databases, background monographs, and a shortlist of sites worthy of conservation or restoration.

My recommendations for sites relevant to Roma history focused as much on spatiality as on edifices.  For Sofia, my recommendations included a program of markers, urban walks, and print- and/or computer-based mapping that would identify relevant locations but also chart the progressive displacement of Roma from the interactivity of Sofia’s urban core to the isolation and apartheid of its urban – and, along with it, social and economic – periphery.  I now debate implementing the project on my own.  (Note: Some years previously, I had begun to map the outward displacement of the Jewish population of Sofia during the late-19th and early-twentieth centuries. Indeed, in the aftermath the selection of Sofia as the capital of newly-independent Bulgaria nearly a century and a half ago, neither Gypsies nor Jews were considered welcome in the city’s redeveloped, self-consciously “European”-style inner core and were exiled to its furthest-most reaches.)

Afterword …

A test for Sofiotes: Anyone who’d like to hazard a guess as to the exact location of the patch of sidewalk in the photo above is welcome to post a comment, as is anyone who would like to share more about Cafe Keva or any other markers of Romani life in Sofia, past or present.  I should mention that the location portrayed above was pointed out to me years ago by Dimitar “Mitko” Georgiev, a resident of the Roma quarter of “Fakulteto”  whose family has lived in Sofia for generations.  If the location of Cafe Keva as portrayed in the photo is correct, he gets the credit; if it is wrong, I’ll take the blame.

Lateral view of abandoned early-20th-century mineral bath pavilion, Ovche Kupel quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014.  Canon G10 pocket camera.  Click on image to enlarge.

Lateral view of an abandoned early-20th-century mineral bath pavilion, Ovcha Kupel quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. Canon G10 pocket camera. Click on image to enlarge.

Ovcha Kupel, a suburb at the very edge of Sofia, Bulgaria.  For centuries, natural mineral water springs made Ovcha Kupel an ideal place for the washing of sheep prior to shearing — and thus its name in Bulgarian.  It the late-19th and early-20th centuries, as Bulgarian’s self-consciously attempted to adopt a central-European rather than “oriental” identity, Ovcha Kupel became a spa location and later, as until today, a center for rehabilitation medicine.  The old spa pavilion at Ovcha Kupel is derelict and crumbling, an irony as Sofia attempts to market itself as a “European Capital of Culture.”  But — and please don’t spread the word too far! — one of “my” places in Sofia is a walled-in plazh (“beach”) adjacent to Ovcha Kupel’s rehabilitation hospital.  Behind the wall of the plazh: mineral water showers (five plastic spigots actually), a mineral-water-filled pool big enough for a score of people to paddle and wade in, a “beach” of raked sand somewhat admixed with sin-bleached cigarette-butts and paper scraps, and a shaded lunch counter offering quite passable salads and delightfully cold beer.  New York’s Hamptons, the French and Turkish rivieras, and the island archipelagos of Greece are fine for those who can afford them.  For now, I settle for Ovcha Kupel.

Photographic Footnote

The photo above was taken with a Canon G10, a camera that I’ve relegated to the shelf but still occasionally blow the dust off of and take for a walk.  I still like the color palette that RAW files from the G10 renders but the poor dynamic range of the camera’s tiny sensor cameras can be seen in the blown-out sunlit areas at the right of the photo, which I’ve either enhanced or compromised further through a couple of quick attempts at remedial adjustment in Lightroom.

Church of St. James the Martyr, Poduyane Quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, late-1990s. (Toyo field camera, 6x9cm back, 55mm Rodenstock lens, b/w negative, scan of print). Click on image to enlarge.

Church of St. James the Martyr, Poduyane Quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, late-1990s. Note the concrete panel block apartment house in the background, a late-Soviet-era solution to urban housing shortages and a parallel to the red-brick “projects” that rose to pockmark US urban landscapes during the 1940s-1960s.  (Toyo field camera, 6x9cm back, 55mm Rodenstock lens, b/w negative film (probably 400ASA), scan of print). Click on image to enlarge.

The photo above shows a curiously Italianate-looking church in Poduyane, a suburb of Sofia, Bulgaria, annexed to the city late in the 19th century.

A Careless Assumption

When I took the photo, fifteen or so years ago, I  assumed that the church dated from the turn of the nineteenth century to the twentieth, a time when the newly-formed nation-state of Bulgaria was inventing “national styles” of its own.  It was not until last winter that I returned to the church to take a closer look.  My initial assumption turned out to be far from correct.  According to a  dedicatory plaque in the vestibule of the church, the edifice was built in the 1950s on the site of a church of the same name  that had been destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.  The plaque in the present-day church, however, neglected to say why the site had been bombed or by whom.  During the 1930s and up to 1944, when it switched sides following occupation by the Soviet Union, Bulgaria had been an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany.  The country gave the Nazis access to its gold reserves and  an overland route through which to solidify the occupation of Greece and, with it, an opening to the Mediterranean — this in return for support of Bulgaria’s irredentist land-grabs at the expenses of Greece, Romania, and that part of Yugoslavia that is now Macedonia. For good measure, Bulgaria also glibly adopted German “racial” policies and passed and enforced a “Law for the Protection of the Nation” that was even more stringent than the Nazi’s own anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws.

A Careless Bombardment

Poduyane, as the etymology of its name suggests, is a high, plateau-like area.  Tracks leading from Sofia’s main rail-head eastward towards Thrace and on to Istanbul beyond have, since the rise of the railroad, traced the borderline between Poduyane and Sofia proper. My assumption is that one or more planes tasked with destroying the rail-head released their bombs moments too soon, flattening the original Church of St. James the Martyr and its surroundings in the process.  But, as shown above, my assumptions are, as often as not, equally off-target.

Photographic Footnote: A Once-Strong Back

Years ago, when my back was stronger and time seemed more plentiful, I regularly took to the streets with a metal tripod slung over one shoulder and a heavy bag containing field camera, lenses, and roll-film backs over the other. The photo above was taken with such a rig on a freezing mid-winter Sunday.  Technical limitations of my field camera, together with the effects of the cold on my un-gloved fingertips, led me to adjust the camera less rigorously than I might have done otherwise … thus the oval-shaped “yaw” distortion deforming the crow’s nest atop the church’s bell-tower.

DSCF0021

Two views of a courtyard set between 1930s apartment houses, Sofia, Bulgaria, August, 2014.  The photo above was taken through the partially open sliding glass windows of a small balcony; the one below from the open window of a stairwell.  In Sofia, courtyards reveal life as it is lived.  Kitchens, bathrooms, and smaller bedrooms look out over courtyards. Courtyard balconies are stuffed with buckets, mops, winter provisions, and laundry, or are fitted with windows and converted into extra kitchen space.  Courtyard trees soar upward in search of light, and, at ground level, vegetation and detritus intertwine and moulder.

Photographic footnote

The two photos in this post are amongst the first I’ve taken with Fuji’s newly released 1.4x tele-adapter mounted on my X100 digital camera.  The adapter converters the angle of view of the camera’s fixed lens from 35mm “full-frame-equivalent” to 50mm — from moderate wide-angle to normal perspective, thus.

(With thanks to physicist and thinker, athlete and adventurer, Boyan Penkov for delivering the converter to me in Sofia.)

DSCF0102

Late-19th-century "çarșı"-style row house, Pirotska St., Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. (Fuji x100). Click on image to enlarge.

Late-19th-century “çarșı”-style row house, Pirotska St., Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. Note the neo-classical decorative elements and prim domesticity of the curtained windows on the second story and the presence of an Apteka (pharmacy) on the ground floor. (Fuji x100). Click on image to enlarge.

After the founding of an independent Bulgarian kingdom in the aftermath the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, the city of Sofia was chosen as the capital of the new nation-state.  The choice of Sofia comprises a tale unto itself.  True to the nation-state model, from day-one newly independent Bulgaria was giddy with dreams of expansion, northward, westward, and southward (to the east, expansion was blocked by the waters the Black Sea).  Sofia, located near Bulgaria’s western border, would be at the country’s epicenter if Bulgaria would succeed in realizing its revanchist “manifest destiny” by expanding westward to the Lake Ohrid and annexing all of Macedonia.

At the time, Sofia had not fully recovered from a heavy earthquake and ensuing epidemics during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.  The city boasted the palatial residence of the former Ottoman governor — soon to be re-purposed as the palace of a monarch recruited from a family of minor German “nobility”– and a main thoroughfare paved with ocher-colored bricks imported from abroad.  For the rest, however, Sofia’s streets were warrens of winding lanes centered around Friday mosques, neighborhood mesjids for daily prayer, churches, wells and fountains.

The first step in creating a self-styled European capital was to sweep away the old Ottoman neighborhood structure and cut a street plan in the western model.  The adopted plan combined a rectilinear street grid with a circular ring road and curving boulevards ala Hausmann’s plan for Paris.  The next step was true to the model of mono-ethnic nation state that Bulgaria was striving to become: “ethnic cleansing.  Gypsies and Jews, the latter comprising a full one-third of Sofia’s population of 10,000 at the time, were forcibly expelled from the city center; Jews to the newly cut parallel streets of  Üç Bunar (“Three Wells)” to the west of downtown Sofia, and Gypsies further outward to the far bank of the Vladaya river, one of several seasonally flooding streams that together formed a moat surrounding the city.

Amongst the new grid of streets cut from Sofia’s main north-south boulevard through the old Ottoman quarter of Sungur and out to Üç Bunar was Pirot, today Pirotska.  The downtown end of Pirotska eventually was lined with European-style apartment houses.  At the Üç Bunar end of Pirotska an older form of architecture still dominates: Two-to-three-story row-houses built in çarʂı (Turkish for “arcade” and “market”) style, with commercial space for shops and craftsmen’s ateliers on the ground floors and family dwellings on the floor(s) above.  Such çarʂı dwellings contributed to the re-shaping of Sofia by spatially integrating the functions of residential streets and  market quarters.  By doing so, they contributed to a culture of urban street life and the emergence of an urban middle- and lower-middle-class and paths to class mobility, both essential elements of democratic nation-building, an imperfect process in Bulgaria to this very day.