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Milk Bars: the Polish face of gentrification?

This redesigned and reopened milk bar in Warsaw preserves some of its Soviet-era aesthetic qualities but fails to preserve the milk bar’s crucial social function

Milk bars in Poland are a unique institution. Started in the times of ‘real socialism’, they provided healthy, nourishing food for workers and intelligentsia alike. They made a characteristic street frontage in densely inhabited, central areas of socialist cities, serving as social centre of urban working class life though they were also often mocked in film comedies as unhygienic and with a brusque personnel. However, in 2011, a milk bar came to exemplify the problems of the contemporary neoliberal city, when Warsaw’s Bar Prasowy (so-called because placed in the area of press headquarters, with journalists coming for lunch) suddenly closed down due to the previous proprietors’ financial problems. In times when any city space is appropriated for strictly commercial use, in Warsaw, today the most important financial centre between Frankfurt and Beijing, such places are wilfully destroyed and reappropriated.

Placed in the heart of Warsaw in the Stalinist monumental district of MDM Prasowy it was, towards its end, rather abandoned and popular only among poor local pensioners. In close proximity, since the 2000s, young people started gathering in the nearby Saviour Square, known later as ‘Hipster Square’. Yet when the district mayor heralded turning the Prasowy site into another expensive restaurant, this abandoned place attracted the attention of young leftist activists from Warsaw’s tenants’ rights movement and the local food cooperative. For several days in December 2011 they illegally occupied the space, cooking meals and selling them for symbolic prices to the regulars. This urban guerilla action attracted both the police and media.

All this publicity meant the mayor had to stage a competition for the new milk-bar proprietors, where perceived similarity to Prasowy’s old character rather than money was to be the deciding factor. The winning proprietor retained the old menu, but the bar itself had to undergo a significant makeover. Together with interior designers Sojka & Wojciechowski, they intended to preserve as many architectural references to the old design as possible. Red and white marquees are a nod to the old Prasowy logo at the front. The neglected old place has been transformed with snow-white tiles, neat tables over which red Bauhaus-like lamps hang, and modern plastic chairs, in greatest possible contrast to the previous classroom wooden chairs. The floor tiles, following the general ‘medical’ style, wear Malevichian black crosses. The cashier and self-service window remain as they were and you still hear the ‘Dumplings once!’ shout like in the good old days. Yet most key was the black plastic rubber-clad wall with attached white rubber lettering, in the style of socialist era typography. Although Polish milk bars were and still are state-subsidised, just like Italian formica ‘caffs’ in the UK Prasowy has become a chief example of Modernist middle-class nostalgia.


The bar’s walls, covered in white lettering, are no longer purely functional but rather a nostalgic reference to the milk bars of yesteryear

Here this typography is not used for purely informative purposes, but as decoration, outlining the shapes of Warsaw’s recently demolished Modernist buildings, like the Chemistry Pavilion or the first supermarket in Poland, Super Sam, now replaced by huge, luxurious shopping malls. The new Prasowy has its newspaper, designed in a socialist nostalgic way, informing on events around the place, addressing children (there’s a children playing corner) and the elderly alike. Yet if the latter made up most of the clientele before the renovation, now they’re heavily outnumbered.

If milk bars were a necessity during the years of post-war reconstruction and consumer goods shortages, so they are today, a handy, cheap alternative to the rising prices of an increasingly business-oriented city. As the new owner largely kept the cheap prices, it’s hard to accuse Prasowy of wilful gentrification. But as it became a cause celebre, it attracted a public who’d never cast an eye on it before – Warsaw’s affluent bohemian-bourgeoisie. As the whole place became more neat, clean and visibly ‘designed’, they were obviously attracted. So did the political battle that happened there merely make it ‘hot’, a banal example of radical chic or trinketisation? Prasowy poses the question of a possibility of positive Modernist nostalgia. Claims that the redesigned Prasowy is deterring its old clientele seem to dubiously suggest that the working class only can feel comfortable in squalor but something certainly does appear to deter the poor. Conditioned to accept that the new and shiny in the new reality was not meant for them, they don’t feel their renovated bar is theirs. Even if Warsaw has a lot of activism seeking to mobilise and include seniors, with a rich programme in Prasowy itself, it can be only an icing over the deeper processes happening since the ’90s. As a result, our cities remain socially divided, with different social groups not interacting any more, with less and less chance for a meeting in the city agora.

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