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.
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.
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.)
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.
Seventeen years ago, I joined Georgi “Johnny” Penkov (Bulgarian acoustical scientist, filmmaker, and locally renowned pundit and humorist) in a project that we abandoned on its second day. Our goal was to photograph people who worked, lived, and felt at home in the midst of seeming chaos. I write “seeming,” because some environments that at first glance appear chaotic are actually elegantly and systematically mapped and navigated by those who create and live their lives therein. Indeed, that which is random and illogical to one person to another might be ready-to-hand and brightly illuminated, whether by intent or the personal logic of individual psychopathology.
Johnny and I were well qualified for the project. Johnny has a life-long propensity for balancing his innate engineer-like precision by including in his surroundings a continuously refreshed assortment of chaotic acquaintances. As to me: although I am skilled at generating crystal-clear work output, I am equally adept at generating chaos in my wake. (On a less whimsical note, I am also a long-time student of the intentionality of thought and behavior as forces in shaping urban agglomerations, infrastructural systems, and the amassing and application of personal and collective knowledge).
Samples of the output of Johnny’s and my barely-begun project are posted herein: A single snapshot of a disordered worktable at a Bulgarian acoustical engineering institute (see below) and a portrait (above) of the late Bulgarian cinema cameraman Dimo Kolarov at home playing his beloved accordion. Dimo’s apartment was as neat as a pin but some of its walls were ever-changing collages of newspaper clippings, photographs, and reproductions of art works torn from magazines and books, each pasted next to and atop one another in no immediately perceivable order. Sadly, the day after we visited him, Dimo fell victim to a stroke and slipped into a coma from which he never emerged. He died several days later. Out of respect for Dimo, Johnny and I stopped the project.
Biproduct: The symmetry of friendship
Some weeks ago, Bulgarian documentary filmmaker Svetoslav Draganov asked me for copy of my portrait of Dimo. Braving my way through my own chaos, I located a small print amidst my disordered stacks of photos, negatives, and transparencies. Together with the photo, I found others that I’d taken the same day but had forgot about in the intervening years. In the photos (below), Johnny and Dimo, colleagues and friends for decades, are talking intently, each slipping into poses and gestures mirroring those of the other. A physical manifestation of friendship, shared experience, and mutual regard; or simply an elegant, symmetrical embodiment of coincidence?
Photographic footnotes: Chaotic lighting …
How did I light the scenes portrays? Simple: Soft ambient daylight shining through translucent window curtains augmented by a motley assortment of borrowed non-photographic lamps and spotlights, each arbitrarily placed but purposefully aimed ceiling-wards.
And a worthwhile upcoming exhibition
For two weeks beginning January 16th, the Goethe Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria will host an exhibition by photographer Simon “Moni” Varsano, a brilliant and charismatic photographer with the ability to draw out his subjects and capture the movement of theater and dance. After the collapse of communism in Bulgaria, some of photographers, like others, attempted to make capital out of promoting themselves to western embassies and foundations using spurious, self-spun tales of past suppression and dissidence. Moni, however, never flaunted his own truly courageous deeds but simply continued photographing, producing memorable work and conjuring delicate, medium-format quality out of a beat-up 35mm Pentax, whatever film stock was to be had, and his mastery of ambient light and exposure. Later, when many photographers in Sofia competed in a stereotypically Balkan fashion to promote themselves as “the best,” Moni confidently and openly shared his knowledge and encouraged others, this writer included, in improving their work and fulfilling their potentials. I have much to thank him for, thus, and wish him success with the upcoming exhibition. Visitors to Sofia are also advised to visit the Gradska Galleriya to see the current retrospective of beautifully printed bold photographic portraits by the technically masterful Bulgarian duo Bogdanov and Misirkov.
Two informal portraits taken late one winter afternoon a decade and a half ago with an old Rolleiflex Tessar 75mm f3.5. For years after photographing in and around the outdoor “Women’s Market” in Sofia, Bulgaria, I found it difficult to photograph faces in Western Europe and even in my native New York. Faces in the latter locations appeared less marked by life and labor and more by fashion and pose. When looking at these two portraits anew after many years, I remembered phrase from a poem by the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, something about “faces carved as if by plows.” A quick browse through the bookshelves and I tracked the words down to his passionate poem about the Virgin Mary and the faces and eyes of women, “The Faces of Our Women” (“Kadιnlarιmιzιn Yüzleri”).
The photos also reminded me of three photographers. The first is Austin, Texas based professional photographer and prolific writer and weblogger, Kirk Tuck, whose kind comments about the photo below in the course of an email exchange a year or so ago led to my relaunching Bubkes.Org.
The second is Pieter Vandermeer, a rough and tumble Rotterdam-based professional who, in the midst of his continuous flow of assignments, was the official photographer of the Rotterdam Film Festival in its initial years. Piet had learned photography in the Navy and not, like most Dutch photographers, at an art academy. Piet had the courage and integrity to look subjects (and clients!) in the eyes, engage them, and enable them to be themselves. Even when photographing people “on the street,” he would invariably track them down and present them with a print of their portrait, a confirmation of their and his person-hood. Piet’s approach was part of what prompts me every now and then to blow the dust off one my Rolleiflexes and set them to work. With a Rollei, I can lock eyes with a subject and, at the same time, compose, focus, and shoot. Because I am tall, the ability to use the Rollei at waist or chest level rather than eye level keeps me from looking down on subjects, literally and figuratively.
The third photographer is Elena Nenkova, a very fine Bulgarian studio and music event photographer who, back in the 1990’s, was also a printer of custom photographic enlargements. Many of the older photos I occasionally post on this site are scans of prints she made from my negatives. Thus, they are her work as well as mine and incorporate her vision, care, and excellence.
Due to the length of this posting, I’ll invert the usual order and begin, rather than end, with a somewhat dry “footnote” on photographic technique; some reflections on the content of the photo — the Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria — follow thereafter …
The Virtues of Slow Lenses
A good number of photographic sites I skim through on the internet betray an out-sized preoccupation with the virtues of fast, wide aperture lenses and their ability to create narrow planes of focus and patterns of background blur. As a counter to such, the photo above shows the virtues of slow, narrow-aperture lenses, in this case the 75mm Tessar f3.5, the built-in lens in a second-hand twin-lens Rolleiflex that I bought used more than three decades ago. The Tessar is one of the simplest designed and lightest weight lenses ever produced but when used properly it is second to none in sharpness, detail, and contrast. The Tessar’s 75mm focal length is a tad wider than 80mm, the usual “normal” focal length on 6x6cm medium-format film cameras. This 5mm difference enables the Tessar to deliver slightly wider coverage when used up-close, an advantage in environmental portraiture. The extra 5mm also provides a tad more depth of field and a slight exaggeration in perspective. The depth of field provided by the Tessar’s maximum aperture of f3.5 reduces the likeliness of focusing errors and keeps background details recognizable. In the photo above, thus, the main subject is in crisp focus while his wares and female colleague and the pedestrian traffic and architectural features of the market street behind him are sufficiently out of focus so as not to detract from the main subject but still clear enough to provide meaning and context.
Now, on to the subject at hand: the urban dynamics and historical tales the photo reveals …
The Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria
The Women’s Market — located on broad curved street, following the course of a one-time riverbed, just west of the present-day center of Sofia, Bulgaria — has a history that stretches back to the centuries when what is now Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. Following Bulgaria’s independence from Ottoman rule in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, the Women’s Market was Sofia’s main retail produce outlet. Nearly a century later, during the final years of the communist period, the Women’s Market provided a buffer of private enterprise and a reliable source of seasonal produce. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the Women’s Market remained a chief source of fresh fruit and vegetables in a city in which old distribution systems had collapsed and new ones had not yet formed. Over the last decade, however, the Market has been in a state of decline. Supermarkets and shopping malls have taken root throughout Sofia, tastes have changed, and those of the city’s inhabitants with disposable cash and pretensions to mobility have moved from the urban core to the urban periphery taking their purchasing power with them.
In recent years, a large percentage of the Women’s Market’s street stalls have been removed by the municipality. At the moment, new modern multistory stall complexes wishfully described as being built for “tourists” and “artists” are under construction. What they will look like upon completion and the exact functions they will serve is anyone’s guess. What remains for now are rows of small enclosed kiosks selling local cheese, cured meats, and fish, plus scores of open fruit and vegetable stands under large brightly painted utilitarian canopies. Each stand is manned by vendors, some morose and silent, others vigorously or halfheartedly hawking their wares.
The endurance of the 19th century
In a lifetime of working in and observing cities in many places throughout the world, I’ve noticed that late-nineteenth century neighborhoods are amongst the last to be regenerated. This is due in part to the resilient endurance of their economic and social functions during the twentieth century and into the early-twenty-first. In such neighborhoods, cheap rents and high vacancy rates in storefront occupancy enabled the provision of inexpensive goods to those whose budgets constricted their choices.
The same interstice of factors offers opportunities for marginal entrepreneurship and a shot at mobility to those who might otherwise fall outside of the economy. The low profit-margins inherent to such entrepreneurship, however, can also make for dubious goods and equally dubious practices. Thus, shopping in the Women’s Market calls for a taste for sharp-tongued banter and a quick eye ever on the lookout for rigged scales and for good looking produce on display but underweight and damaged goods placed in one’s shopping bag. Still, where else can one buy, for example, persimmons or grapes, albeit on the last legs of their shelf-lives, for a third of the price of elsewhere and serviceable tomatoes for even far less?
Layers of unwarranted blame
There is a fine ethnic division of work and functions at the Women’s Market. Meat, cheese, and fish kiosks and stands offering wild herbs and mushrooms are run by ethnic Bulgarians. Fruit and vegetable stands and peripatetic bootleg cigarette operations are run by Roma (Gypsies). Storefronts in adjacent streets include honey and bee keeping supply stores run by Bulgarians and rows of “Arab” shops — halal butchers, spice stores, barbers, and low-cost international telephone services — run by and catering to increasing numbers of legal and illegal immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. Many Bulgarians, their weak self esteem shakily bolstered by contempt for “others,” blame the shoddier commercial practices of this wonderfully vibrant marginal neighborhood on the presence and “inferiority” of such outsiders.
Several years ago, I attended an open town meeting on the future of the Women’s Market and its surroundings. The meeting degenerated into hysterical, racist tirades against the presence and practices of Roma stand-holders and market laborers, this despite their being hardworking people trying to extract a semblance of a living from admittedly marginal trade and low-value added labor. Banish the Gypsies, the sense of the meeting implied, keep the neighborhood “white” and Christian, and the market area with magically become upscale and all will be well. Not a thought was given to viewing the attempts at entrepreneurship on the part of Roma as social and economic assets to be incubated, this whether out of commitment to equal opportunity or to the insights of developmental economists such as Albert O. Hirschman. The neighborhood’s “Arabs” were denounced with equal rage.
Bulgarians complain that Roma do not work, but when Roma do work and commence to gain economic stability, the majority population reacts vengefully. Rage and blame have deep roots at the Women’s Market. On a symbolic level, blame even muddies the market’s name. During the communist period, the market had been renamed after Georgi Kirkov, an early Bulgarian left-wing trade unionist who died soon after the First World War. Following the collapse of Soviet-bloc communism, Kirkov’s name was expunged and Kirkov himself anachronistically assigned a share of blame for the mistakes and misdeeds of a neo-Stalist regime that came to power almost three decades after his death. Today, only a unkempt bust of Kirkov remains, mounted on graffiti-daubed pedestal in a small triangular park in which idle market day-laborers, elderly Roma mostly, congregate to smoke cigarettes, drink cheap alcohol from half-pint bottles, and while away the hours.
Festering blame that has never been resolved
There is another level of blame and contempt, however, that festers under the surface of debates pertaining to the Market. During the Second World War, the Bulgarian army rounded-up and deported to their death 18,000 Jews from Macedonia and northeastern Greece, areas ceded to Bulgaria by Nazi Germany in reward for favorable trade terms and a lion’s share of Bulgaria’s gold reserves. At the same time, within the boundaries of the Kingdom of Bulgaria proper, 50,000+ Jews were socially and economically disenfranchised and legally robbed of their real and movable property. Tens of thousands of Jews were deported from Sofia to the countryside; the younger and fitter male deportees were sent to work as slave laborers on road crews and the rest were left to fend for themselves without means of support in isolated villages. As a boon to ethnic Bulgarians living in Sofia, the deportation freed up hundreds of businesses (most of them marginal), thousands of dwellings in a city short of housing stock, and tens of thousands of places in the workforce.
From the post-war period on, Bulgarians called the seizure of Jewish property and the deportation of Jews from Sofia “The Saving of the Jews,” giving a self-congratulatory spin to the large percentage of Jews in Bulgaria that came through the war alive, something that can be more accurately ascribed to Bulgaria’s being knocked out of the war by the Soviet Union in mid-1944. The reaction of more than 90% of the Jews in the Bulgaria to such a “saving,” was clear enough: emigrate en masse, mostly to Israel, not long after the war ended. Prior to the war, Sofia’s Jews had formed the bulk of the residents of the market quarter. Their deportation and post-war emigration created a vacuum in the midst of the city’s center and led to discontinuities and dislocations from which the streets surrounding the Women’s Market have yet to recover.
Rag-sellers, “çıfıtcı,” and voting with my wallet
Today, in a country almost without Jews, Jews remain an obsession for many Bulgarians and a target of their hostility and condescension. This especially holds true for populist agitators and amongst Bulgarians with higher incomes and social standing, whether real or self-ascribed. In such circles, Jews are blamed for communism and for capitalism and for imagined secret cabals that subvert Bulgaria and steer the world. The poisonous, fraudulent “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” remains a best-seller at outdoor book stalls in Sofia, as do conspiracy theory books involving Israel’s Mossad. Walls are daubed with antisemitic (and anti-Roma and anti-Turkish) slogans, the work of bands of neo-fascist football (soccer) supporters. Few social gatherings of upper-income or self-styledly cultured Bulgarians are complete without the telling of “yevreiski vitsovi” (“Jewish jokes”) — jokes about Jews rather than by them, usually with story lines about rich but stupid Jews outsmarting themselves in avaricious schemes.
In truth, prior to the Second World War, most Jews in Bulgaria were marginal shopkeepers and low-income craftsmen, laborers, and peddlers. Like today’s Roma, Jews were blamed for the inherent defects of the economic niches in which they labored and the social niches in which they lived. Early in the twentieth century, many Sofia Jews were old-clothes and rag vendors, literally, thus, members of the “lumpenproletariat.” To this day, in Bulgaria, Jews — be they doctors, scholars, merchants, or ordinary folks like this writer — are contemptuously referred to as “chifuti,” a Bulgarian-language bastardization of the Turkish term “çıfıtcı” or old-clothes- and rag-seller. Personally, as someone who has worked for others since my 13th year, and whose roots are in a world not dissimilar to the that of the Women’s Market, I am quite willing to wear the label of “çıfıtcı“with pride. For this reason, when in Sofia, I happily continue to do my shopping in and around the Women’s Market and loyally patronize its Roma vendors … this regardless of any and all bruised and overripe fruit or real or imagined thumbs on scales! As to antisemitic, anti-Roma , anti-worker “cultured” Bulgarians, as we used to say in the Yiddish-English patois of my native Lower East Side of Manhattan: “Geh’n’d’r’ert!” (“Sink into the ground”). After years of listening to their racist hatefulness and class-condescension of , I’m always available to lend a helpful push.
Wednesday evening I attended the premiere of two films in Sofia, Bulgaria, timed to honor the 80th birthday of Georgi “Johnny” Penkov — acoustical scientist, film sound man, humorist and raconteur, and, more recently, documentary film maker in his own right.
“My ‘Mahalla'” and a “Filibeli” guitarist
The first film was one Johnny shot, edited, and produced solo: “My Mahalla,” a characteristically humorous and touching, commentary-free sketch of details, rhythms, and sounds in the street in which he has lived his entire life (Mahalla being Turkish and colloquial Bulgarian for neighborhood). The second film was one in which Johnny had served as sound man: “One Rainy Day,” an emotional and delicately shot portrait of the brilliant, energetic, but, in recent years, reclusive, Bulgarian guitarist Ognian Videv, an autodidact and eternal “Filibeli” (after the Turkish word for a denizen of the city of Filibe — Plovidiv as it is now called — in Bulgarian Thrace).
“Tvortsi” and polymaths
The premiere drew an older audience of past-generation Bulgarian “tvortsi” (“creatives,” as they were called during the communist period). Some had been self-indulgent hacks and pretend former- dissidents in days gone by, contemptuous of ordinary people who work but incapable of working themselves. Others, however — like Johnny, Ognian, and the great Bulgarian-Jewish comic and dramatic actor Itzko Finzi (whose photo I unfortunately neglected to take) — were and remain hardworking, productive, world-class talents. They are also people from whom I learned much. It was Johnny, for example, who taught me that being a polymath is a specialization as worthy as any other (!) and who gave me the courage to continue on the path towards becoming one. Not least, Johnny also honed my search for humor and insight in the small details.
In the days when many attending the premiere were far younger, hats were de rigeur for Soviet bloc “creatives” and were worn by some as a signature sign of their talents and by others as surrogates for real personae of their own. Thus, five hats, each representative of people in the first category, are featured in the accompanying photos.
Photographic footnote: A confession of photographic laziness …
It was either laziness — or preoccupation with conversation with dancing, conversation, and decent wine at the reception following the screening — but the photos posted herein represent some uncharacteristic cutting of corners on my part.
First, my photo of Johnny is blurred and with no recognizable plane of focus. Johnny would quite likely excuse this by saying that this actually makes the photo more accurate, life itself being blurred and with no recognizable focus! Second, instead of falling prey to my usual foible of thinking that the most complicated solution is the most worthy, I took an embarrassing post-processing short cut. Rather than converting my RAW files to b/w in Lightroom and carefully manipulating color sliders to achieve the look I desired, I converted them from RAW to monochrome JPEGS in-camera, using the raw conversion feature of the X100’s firmware. The results, by the way, were far better than I had expected, especially considering that the files were shot at ISO1600. All that was needed was some slight shifting of brightness, contrast, etc. in Lightroom, plus a tad of added clarity and a drop of vignetting, the latter to draw the eye to the main subjects. Luminance noise was — to borrow an adjective from internet photography pontificators — not unpleasantly “film-like.”
The image above shows the view from the desk I have been using during my stays in Sofia, Bulgaria over the last seventeen years. For nearly two decades, the view has barely changed. The building on the far left received a coat of yellow paint some years ago, a window was cut into the roof of the building at the foreground and a birch tree that stood to the building’s left was felled during a storm. However, the sensation I experience each time I glance out the window has remained constant — a feeling of floating above the city encased in a my own private bubble.
Even banal views belie tales of change. The above panorama of sky, roof tiles, distant trees, and the upper floors of Bauhaus-influenced facades may have remained fixed but life on the streets three stories below has gone through upheavals. Competing political regimes and severe economic crisis have come and gone, Sofia’s population has increased 2.5x, a new generation of Sofia residents has been born and grown to near-adulthood, and the bulk of the economic and social lives of the city have moved out of the center to new areas at the urban periphery.
Seventy years ago, some of the rooftops in this very view were aflame during wartime aerial bombardments of Sofia. (Bulgaria, not to forget, was an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany and was fire-bombed by the British and Americans in reprisal, a matter cynically relegated to amnesia during both the Soviet- and post-Soviet eras).
During the years that the view above has been mine to enjoy, the building in the foreground has gone through several incarnations, all reflective of changes in the city at large. Soon after the denouement of the Communist period, during a time of unregulated gangster-capitalism, the building housed the offices of Bulgaria’s first GSM mobile telecommunications provider, initially owned by a succession of Russian and Israeli investors backed by dubious sources of capital. Not long after, during a period of foreign largesse and a cargo-cult of NGO boondoggles, the building housed the Bulgarian representation of the United Nations Development Program. Thereafter, the building remained vacant for some years until, this past month, it was refurbished to house private law offices.
Just as the view from my desk in Sofia points to stories of external changes, it also reveals changes in the viewer. Over the years that I have used the desk, I’ve been in and out of Sofia as a mid-life Fulbright research scholar and photographer, a convalescent and physical therapy patient following a severe accident, a field worker for a US government project documenting aspects of the cultural heritage of ethnic and religious minorities, and a consultant to various companies and institutions in Western and Central Europe. These last few months, I’ve been in Sofia for time-consuming dental work, itself a revealing tale of sugar-laden, post-war American diet, prohibitively priced US dentistry, inadequate Western and Eastern European dentistry in the 1970s and 80s, past accidents, and poor luck at the roulette table of genetics. I hope to be able to leave Sofia by mid-month — when I do, the memory of the view from my desk will travel with me.
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!