Ben Sixsmith

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. He has written for Quillette, Areo, The Catholic Herald, The American Conservative and Arc Digital on a variety of topics including literature and politics.

October 7, 2019

“Every day I enter my city with great duties,” wrote the Polish poet and child of the town of Tarnowskie Gòry, Boleslaw Lubosz, “I know that only here I can find Heaven and Earth.”

I came to Tarnowskie Góry, in Upper Silesia, back in 2013, knowing almost nothing of Poland and absolutely nothing of the town. What would it be like? How could I live there? Would there be reliable Wi-Fi? “There is our new bus station!” my new boss cheerfully announced as we drove through the centre. This came as a relief. How bad can a place be if it has a new bus station?

I soon realised that Tarnowskie Góry was not bad at all. In fact, over the last six years of living here I have come to love it. This is partly with the slow-cooked subjectivity with which most of us love our homes. Could I convince somebody of the charms of the old communist-era estate I used to live on? Probably not, but I liked it because I was there.

What I also love about my town, though, is its character: the way the Polish reserve melts into Polish warmth once an acquaitance has been made, the shady parks, the murky pubs, the cluttered old antique shops. It has taught me, a native of Bath, about localism in a large-scale world.

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How communities lost their soul

By Nicholas Boys Smith

The post-communist and increasingly post-industrial world forced Polish towns and cities to sink or swim. In some places, layers of dirt have accumulated on grand old buildings; employment has dried up and streets have emptied. People are leaving their hometowns in search of distant wealth.

Tarnowskie Góry might have lost the income that mining equipment, lead and zinc brought in but its economy has diversified. Many people commute to larger cities in the Katowice Urban Area; new businesses have emerged and thrived. In 2017, a nearby silver mine gained UNESCO heritage status and tourism became a larger industry. The town has swelled, as the fields I walked through in my first years have become dense with housing. (This seems rather sad as I veer around new fencing but one day, no doubt, I shall want a house as well.)

This is great news, but prosperity, even on a modest scale, brings new problems. Economic progress enables the homogenisation of urban spaces as multi-nationals, chains and developers move in, vulture-like. I have wondered if the distinctive character of Tarnowskie Góry can survive the town’s success.

This might sound like privileged NIMBYism but locals were concerned about it even before I moved here. In a book of personal reflections, Krzystof Mazik, owner of the much-loved local bar “Galeria Inny Śląsk”, where little has changed in 25 years except the coffee machine and the art exhibitions, writes of how following Poland’s entrance into the EU, “behind marble facades…representatives of the most serious banks and insurance companies sat in former meat and vegetable shops.” The commercialisation of the town centre, Mazik writes, meant that “after dusk even a lame dog did not go out onto the streets”.

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Can Europe learn from communism?

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Globally, men and women have been struggling to find a place for local character and human scale amid modernity. Localism is a term that has nostalgic connotations, conjuring up images of traditional communities which, for all their charms, are hard to recreate: rural hideaways, farmers’ markets and fêtes. In practice, localism can be an elite exercise. Wealthy citizens can isolate themselves from society with local produce, services and cultural establishments that are prohibitively expensive for the common man.

In a recent BBC article on the controversy surrounding McDonald’s decision to open its first restaurant in the county, for example, we are told:

The picturesque county of Rutland boasts a Michelin-star restaurant, dozens of gourmet eateries and regular farmers’ markets – but what it doesn’t have is anywhere to pick up a Big Mac.

Now, in fairness, I am no expert on the restaurant scene in Rutland, but people who want quick, affordable meals are hardly going to frequent gourmet eateries. At the very least, there has to be something between a Big Mac and a medium-rare steak. For localism to be at all scalable it must have broad appeal.

Here is a small example: there is an independent coffee shop on the market square of Tarnowskie Góry, Cafe Silesia, that is so popular it seems to have cornered a market that might have filled a tedious Starbucks. Its magic lies in having good, cheap coffee: not Don Pablo Columbian Supremo infused with almonds, cinnamon and turmeric for twice the average hourly wage but tasty coffee, made quickly, which most people could afford. It is characterful, but also accessible.

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Since our silver mine earned UNESCO heritage status, local shops have benefited from a lively trade in “I ❤️ TG” shirts and accessories, with the red heart of the classic “I ❤️ NY” brand replaced with hearts in TG’s traditional colours, black and yellow. At the annual town festival, in September, one could see dozens of people in such shirts, swarming around ice cream stands and fairground rides like honeybees.

This may strike people as kitschy, and to some extent it is, but in a post-modern world identity inevitably entails some level of knowingness. In-group solidarity is fostered through a cheerful absurdism, which acknowledges our smallness in the face of the grand metropolises of Poland, Europe and the world that we see through television and the Internet — but also embraces that smallness as a proud alternative. It might not be New York City, but it is ours.

Few engines of international homogenisation have been as powerful as social media, through which we find the same music, the same movies, the same fashions, the same opinions and the same desires, all wrapped up in the superficial glamour of the high status. Social media can be channelled for local purposes, though. In Tarnowskie Góry, for example, we have a Facebook community page which has a good sixth of the town’s men and women as members — a page which publishes beautiful drone footage of the region, and a page which publishes old images of the town throughout the decades. People can be connected to the past, connected in the present and connected for the future — not deeply, perhaps, but it is something at least.

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Advertising and social media, as obnoxious as they can be, have also given local businesses the chance to band together to raise their profile. Independent cafés, restaurants and bars barely have money to open their doors, let alone enough for a marketing department, but the organisation Tarnowskie Gòry Smakuja, or Tarnowskie Góry tastes, has emerged to promote the little bistros and backstreet pubs that might otherwise have escaped people’s attention.

Of course, coffee shops, t-shirts and Facebook pages are the venues and accoutrements of community and not community itself. None of them would be at all valuable if people did not meet, talk, laugh, share, work and love. Still, the sense of home that cradles our relationships depends on the refreshment of tradition — new experiences mingling with old memories. “The book of events,” as the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote, “is always open in the middle.”

In the lovely city park there is an old pavilion. When I came to Tarnowskie Góry I wondered why no one seemed to use it except for groups of teenagers on skateboards and bikes. Now it seems that every weekend there are film screenings, open-air theatre productions, charity events or picnics. And the kids still come to meet there, as they always should. Nothing will survive without them, after all.