Its fun to see how different cities reshape their ghettos and industrial towns. One thing is constant though, its always the artistic types who populate these areas and even make it cool.
Its not that the artists saw the potential of the location though. They were poor. There are few artists who actually get rich and successful in their livetimes (Dutch masters a notable exception), especially rarer now when artistic patronage and commissions are not as common.
Usually these artistic types (its a horrible catch-all phrase but the most descriptive one I can think of) move to such areas out of their own volition – its the only place they can afford. Grünneløkke in Oslo was a rough town and therefore cheap, Haga was an industrial estate and again cheap, Christiania was an abandoned military base and hence free 😉
Unlike the Oslo, Copenhagen or Gothenburg example however the artists in Vilnius did not choose to move to Uzupis.
Uzupis was once the ugly sister of the beautiful old town next door and was teeming with all sort of moral depravity. Well, not really, usually just misfortunes of birth (poor family, down on luck etc). But this is Lithuania we are talking about, a country with strong religious foundations. Prostitutes, the less and drug users lived on those streets, if there was a place to avoid in Vilnius, it was Uzupis. The decline of Uzupis occurred due to the fate that befell its inhabitants in the last century. Vilnius before 1939 was 45 % Jewish, and one of the majority Jewish neighbourhoods was Uzupis. The holocaust killed the majority of the inhabitants and the Soviet regime further destroyed the graveyard of the remaining locals driving even more off the area. Depopulated and neglected by the occupying forces Uzupis feel into a state of disrepair. The place was so neglected there was no running water nor electricity. It therefore became free and cheap to move in, and those on society’s fringes would hence choose to make a home there.
Located in the east side of the river, the name Uzupis literally translates as other side of the river).
Things changed after Lithuania gained independence in 1990, perhaps not entirely planned. One of the acts of the newly independent country in its first year was to strengthen the national identity of the people after years of occupation. To that end, the national art institute was reconstituted as the Vilnius Academy of Arts and had its campus situated across the river from Uzupis, with one set of campus buildings located within Uzupis. The presence of the University drew arts students to live in the surrounding area and so more and more college arts students settled in Uzupis. This prompted more residents to follow, and business to be set up there.
A watering holes in this slum area was well known for its welcoming attitude to artists – since the owners were themselves artists.
One night in 1997 while sharing a pint and obviously drunk, a few residents decided to have some fun and fulfill their ambition of being politicians, so they declared themselves a republic with a president, foreign minister and a standing army of 11 men.
They even launched their own state flag. A white background and a palm with a blue circle in the middle. The hole in the hand represented the fact that artists didn’t know how to look after money, so what ever coins fall into their hands rapidly fall out too.
Not that the Lithuanian government took them too seriously, their independence day was April 1st.
A few months after their independence declaration, the Uzupis government decided to meet in parliament again to decide on a draft constitution for their microstate. Fueled by the imaginative power of beer, their 41 point constitution though is a democratic masterpiece (wink wink).
1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnele, and the River Vilnele has the right to flow by everyone.
2. Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.
3. Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
4. Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
5. Everyone has the right to be unique.
6. Everyone has the right to love.
7. Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.
8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.
9. Everyone has the right to idle.
10. Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.
11. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.
12. A dog has the right to be a dog.
13. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of nee.
14. Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.
15. Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.
16. Everyone has the right to be happy.
17. Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
18. Everyone has the right to be silent.
19. Everyone has the right to have faith.
20. No one has the right to violence.
21. Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.
22. No one has the right to have a design on eternity.
23. Everyone has the right to understand.
24. Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
25. Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.
26. Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
27. Everyone shall remember their name.
28. Everyone may share what they possess.
29. No one can share what they do not possess.
30. Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.
31. Everyone may be independent.
32. Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
33. Everyone has the right to cry.
34. Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.
35. No one has the right to make another person guilty.
36. Everyone has the right to be individual.
37. Everyone has the right to have no rights.
38. Everyone has the right to not to be afraid.
(39. Do not defeat.
(40. Do not fight back.
(41. Do not surrender.
But their constitution became world famous, everyone wanted to see it and take a picture of it.
The artist colony continued to grow too, with two new arts centres inaugurated in 2003. This drew even more artists to the laidback town.
As more people shared in the joke and more and more artists joined, the postcode went from avoided to desirable and the price to live in Uzupis skyrocketed. In a short span of time, Uzupis became home to the middle class. Quite a departure from other reinvented slums.
While there are cafes and restaurants in this area, the district still retains its charm because it is a true districts with living breathing inhabitants more than just a collection of tourist trap shops. Many cafes did business to locals and not tourist and the prices were expensive not so much for the tourists but because the staple guests – locals, had the thickness in their wallet to pay for such items.
By 2002, barely a decade after the Independence of Vilnius, Uzupis had reinvented itself and shed its negative public image. The residents decided to erect a statue of an angel at the main square. The artists in charge was about to miss his deadline and did the most audacious thing – he erected an egg statue stating – from this egg, and angel will be born. It actually worked, people loved it and he was given public support for the delay of his angel statue.
This “country” is awesome in its hilariousness!
ON THE MAP