From Slums to Skyscrappers, Vilnius’ path to Progress

I wondered where this was going. Our guide made us take a bus to a slum just 10 minutes outside the old town of Vilnius. Perhaps slum is not the right word, but it sure felt like a neglected district to me. Wooden houses, water located outside the house drawn from a communal well.

Were we still in the 21st century? Because this was certainly not the present, let alone the future.

The scene soon changed however. It was clear that at the end of the street, in a distance were modern skyscrapers. I just didn’t expect to reach it in 5 minutes.

A small road was all that separated the slum from the modern city. Here our guide paused.

He raised the photograph in his hand and began, “it usually take 15 years after a change of institution for a new country to declare it has arrived. The same happened here. We declared independence in 1990 and this shiny new district was completed in 2005.”

He beamed as he took the two aerial pictures closer to us. It was a side by side comparison of the Šnipiškės district north of the old town and Neris River between 1990 and 2005. The former was lush with green forest the latter had development and new buildings. It was clear he was proud of how far his country had come.

The skyscrapers are not white elephants though but a far symbol of growth, the between 2000 and 2008, the economy of Lithuania grew a 77% and as of today major international firms including Microsoft, IBM, Barclays, Siemens and Philip Morris have set up offices in the country. And the country is certainly banking on increasing the number of international firms and foreign direct investment into the country as a way to improve its economy.

“I liked the old ones the nature is so much more beautiful,” said a member of the group from Western Europe

“Yes me too,” another Western European tourist added.

The large group of Erasmus exchange students (an EU based exchange programme for university students across the EU), mostly from Western Europe nodded in agreement.

The smile from the guide’s face barely cracked, his eyes however lost their shine. He had heard this before, and he clearly didn’t agree. To his credit, he was extremely professional and moved the tour on to the next stop, without breaking out of his guide role. We were on an alternative tour of Vilnius, to see places we would not have otherwise seen. And this leg of the tour moved from the old wooden shacks five minutes away to shiny skyscrapers.

This was Vilnius’ new business district. Until recently it was just a small village north of the Neris River with nothing much to is. Now construction was ongoing all round the city. Now it has the brightest night lights in the city.

Even though I enjoyed walking through the old town, I found myself agreeing with the tour guide.

This growth is something to be proud of, these buildings and the logos on them indicate that businesses want to be located in the region and that also means more higher paying white collar jobs for the many educated youngsters int he country. Their lives are undergoing actual improvement, and a much needed one to stem the brain drain from Lithuania.

But that short exchange revealed a mindset gap between different parts of Europe and the EU, it was the difference between people from developed economies and those from developing economies.

There is much for Vilnius to be proud of despite the protestations of the Western European travelers. The ability to critisise a city as lacking a soul, or too packed with skyscrapers is a luxury of development. Its not wrong to make such criticism but it should be made with the appreciation of context.

When a country is making its way forward and trying to improve the lives of its people the shiny skyscrapers of London, New York, Frankfurt and Paris represent the future they want to have. Tall, futuristic buildings represent progress. Remember just 10 years ago, things were very different for Lithuania.

But is this a blind spot for people from developed countries, especially when we mourn the lost charm of a developing country. It’s culture and people are being eaten up by business and capitalism we decry. We see cities in Southeast Asia or Africa or Eastern Europe develop and we say that it is becoming like any and every other Western city. It’s almost as if we deplore the fact that their lives are improving for our own selfish desire for experiencing the exotic.

There is a middle way perhaps, renovating the interiors and maintaining the facade of the city to keep its unique character. But even this sort of thinking, of focusing on preserving culture is something that only emerges after a people have gone through much rapid growth and development. And why should they, when the buildings of old would be too small to then house the growing number of companies that might want to set up offices in their city and thereby simply drive up the cost of business?

It’s not just business though, many sectors are being developed in Lithuania. The Soviet heritage bequeathed a world class physics an laser manufacturing system to Lithuania. Other science and technology sectors are being rapidly developed, this is not a country of cleaners and housekeepers. The path to progress hasn’t been a smooth one, the city faces a net increase of young people every year leading to a net decrease and the greying of other parts of the country. The highly educated youth population can take advantage of their EU citizenship to move out of Lithuania to work and make a better living for themselves.

I’ll take improving people’s lives over maintaining the charm any day.

ON THE MAP

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