History of the Present: Belgrade

Belgradians have endured bombings, sanctions, flood, and political tumult — and that’s just in the last two decades. Now can they survive global real estate?

This is the third article in an ongoing series, “History of the Present: Cities in Transition.”

25 May Sports Center, Belgrade
25 May Sports Center (1973), designed by Ivan Antić, on the Danube River. [Michael Scheer]

Žaklina Gligorijević meets us at a point where the city disappears. A ribbon of jogging path runs past a Brutalist pavilion boasting a triangular cantilever with views over the wide Danube and beyond, to the enduringly untenanted forest on the opposite bank. It could be a thousand years ago or this afternoon. The timeless spectacle has a way of calling to mind that this land has been contested since it was first settled, by Celts, Romans, Huns, Goths, Byzantines, Avars, Slavs, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Ottomans, Hapsburgs, Fascists, and Communists. Lately, by tribes of foreign investors. The restaurant on the pavilion’s ground floor is called Panta Rei — all things change — an aphorism attributed to the man who also said you can’t step into the same river twice.

As the former director of Belgrade’s urban planning institute, Gligorijević knows that truth as well as she knows her city. She leads us east along the waterfront, past battered 1980s residential towers, cheery pennants of laundry fluttering from their terraces, in the direction of the candy-striped smokestack of a decommissioned and now ruined power plant. An iron trestle bridge hovers in the air, cut off from the embankment where we stand by thick brush and the ruins of a collapsed ramp: a scene from the underground imagination of the post-industrial sublime. Our approach is blocked by orange mesh fencing and a much-weathered billboard, in English: Marina Dorćol, New Riverfront Coming Up Soon.

Arranging her face in one of those stoic/ironic expressions that are the special defenses of so many of the world’s much put-upon peoples, Žaklina explains that the sign has stood there for a decade, ever since the power station was sold to an Israeli developer. Inspired by guerrilla theater groups that held performances among the ruins, Gligorijević tried to reclaim the power station and transform it into a public event space, a test case for “urban recycling,” but the city rebuffed her proposal. For now, in this space that is neither commercial, nor cultural, nor industrial, another marina has already sprung into existence. A motley collection of river craft — cruising, fishing, or houseboat class — tie up at the inlet, in the power station’s shadow. The shore is cluttered with huts and tarp shelters filled with spare engine parts and tackle.

Marina Dorćol, Belgrade
First power plant in Serbia (1893), now decommissioned; Marina Dorćol, Belgrade. [Photo by the authors]

Lower Dorćol, Belgrade
Residential towers along Dunavski Kej, Lower Dorćol, Belgrade. [Photo by the authors]

This stretch of riverfront, isolated from downtown by an overgrown band of rail track, feels marginal in every sense. Yet it is being shaped by the same power struggles that are transforming other areas of the city, as Belgrade’s million-plus residents try to figure out where they belong in the new global order. Modern Yugoslavia was formed out of the ashes of World War II, its six republics united by the (mostly benevolent) dictator Josip Broz Tito in a political alliance that peacefully opposed the Eastern and Western Blocs. For a generation or two, Belgrade was one of Europe’s great cities, the same size as Brussels or Prague yet more dynamic than either; the capital of a multi-ethnic, polyglot, rapidly industrialized nation of 22 million that stretched from the Slovenian Alps to the mountains of Macedonia, along more than two thousand kilometers of stunning Adriatic coastline. The Non-Aligned Movement was founded here, in 1961, and eventually grew to include half the world. Belgrade’s avenues were named after Tito’s buddies, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Yugoslavs lived at the crossroads of the world, and they had it all — beaches, mountains, rock festivals, Olympiads, grandmaster chess matches — as they waited out the end of the Cold War.

Serbians are once again adjusting to an uneasy position on the fluid frontiers of Europe’s borderlands and ideologies.

In the 1980s, Tito’s death and the rise of nationalists like Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević exposed deep divisions in a country that had never fully healed the wounds of empire and occupation. Slovenia’s secession in 1991 kicked off a decade that Serbs are still trying to forget, even as they constantly revisit its lessons. There were the brutal wars with Croatia and Bosnia, the genocide Serbs perpetrated at Srebrenica. The hyperinflation that peaked at more than 300 million percent monthly, when you could write a check in the morning for a thousand times your life savings and hope to cover it by the end of the day. The stolen elections and street protests that repeatedly shut down Belgrade. Then the final war in Kosovo, and the NATO bombing. Đorđe Balašević, the beloved dissident songwriter, named an entire album after the decade, which is mostly remembered for the line, Well, fuck you, Nineties. When the last republic finally seceded in 2006, Belgrade was reduced to the capital of a small, landlocked, mainly agricultural state, a third the size of the former Yugoslavia. Its people — mostly Serbs, but with significant Hungarian and Roma minorities — are once again adjusting to an uneasy position on the fluid frontiers of Europe’s borderlands and ideologies.

Palilula, Belgrade, architecture
Architectural diversity in Palilula, Belgrade. [Jelena Mijić/Belgrade Raw]

Who Builds the City?

Today the corporations and oligarchs vying for land and influence are as likely to be from Dubai, Israel, China, or the United States as the more traditional Balkan powerbrokers — Russia, Turkey, and the former Central Powers of Europe. But shifting geopolitics do not change the essential dynamics between national autonomy and foreign influence that have shaped the city since the Berlin Congress of 1878 officially declared it the capital of the first modern, independent Serbian state. Now a new generation of urban activists raises the perennial question, Ko Gradi Grad? Who builds the city? Will it be a corrupt alliance of organized crime bosses, authoritarian bureaucrats, and foreign developers? Or a laissez-faire horde of individual builders, acting outside the formal housing market? Or coalitions of organized communities working with local experts and officials under a stable set of laws?

Today the corporations and oligarchs vying for land and influence are as likely to be from Dubai, Israel, China, or the United States as the more traditional Balkan powerbrokers.

No one has the answer to the question, in part because power to build the city is complicated by murky legacies and inheritances. Communist Yugoslavia died intestate, and laws regulating property rights, zoning, and the fate of government industries and infrastructures are caught in a perpetual fog of renegotiation. Serbia must find a way to navigate the belated shift from socialism to hypercapitalism while also recovering from international sanctions that crippled the state during the Milošević era. What goes by the soft-sounding name of “Serbia’s Transition” hides a sharper-edged reality. Each new building, official or spontaneous, each rooftop addition, each act of preservation or appropriation is part of an argument about who builds the city, one small move in a series of diagonal power plays whose meaning is not always clear.

Thanks to its delayed re-entry into the world economy, Serbia had one major advantage: an opportunity to reject economic policies that have caused harm elsewhere, to defy the neoliberal consensus in Washington and Berlin. But many Serbians doubt their government’s ability to chart an independent course for the common good. And a catch-up mentality has penetrated into everyday life. Foreign banks have rushed to fill the void left by the collapse of state institutions, enticing people who have no experience with consumer credit to take out car loans and open credit cards. Corporate American neologisms like “team-building,” “entrepreneur,” “goals,” and “marketing” have entered the language, supplanting the elegant BBC English and American hippie idioms still heard among older generations. Upscale bars and restaurants mimic the design sensibility of Paris, Barcelona, and hipster New York, often surpassing the originals, but also revealing the younger sibling’s desire to measure up. Belgradians pride themselves on looking good in the judgmental eye of some imagined foreign dignitary (although lately there have been a lot of real dignitaries too).

Geozavod, Belgrade
Renovated lounge inside the Belgrade Cooperative building (1905), also known as Geozavod or the Geological Institute. The building is now occupied by the Dubai firm Eagle Hills, developer of the Belgrade Waterfront. [Jovan Marković]

Chasing after European Union membership, the Serbian government finds itself under paternalistic inspection from Brussels, urged to liberalize its economy, reduce corruption, combat organized crime, and restore property to the Orthodox Church and other organizations suppressed under Communism; all while enforcing the rights of workers and minorities, reducing carbon emissions, and supporting E.U. sanctions against Russia. Balancing these demands would be a daunting task for any country, but especially for Serbia, where the economy is still in recession, per capita annual income is less than 6,000 dollars, school participation is declining, and unemployment tops 20 percent. The emigration of young professionals makes things worse. For the first time since the 18th century (when many Serbs left their Ottoman-occupied homelands for military careers and land grants in Hapsburg territory), the Serbian diaspora accounts for almost half of the total population of Serbs.

Half the buildings were destroyed in World War II. This has produced a streetscape where traditional and modern styles mix as easily as anywhere in the world.

Belgrade hides these tensions well from the casual visitor. With Gligorijević, we walk inland through the heart of Dorćol, once the center of Ottoman Belgrade and still one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, architecturally and socioeconomically. By some accounts, Belgrade has been razed and rebuilt more than 40 times. Half the buildings were destroyed in World War II, during either the German invasion, subsequent Allied bombing raids, or the Nazis’ scorched-earth retreat. In Dorćol this has produced a streetscape where traditional and modern styles mix as easily as anywhere in the world. Hapsburg-style stone houses and converted single-family homes stand alongside mid-size public housing of the 1960s and large towers from the 1970s. On Cara Dušana, the Hausmannesque boulevard that divides upper and lower Dorćol, graffiti-covered trams creak past outdoor markets, automotive shops, churches, and schools. Strahinjića Bana, one block south, is a parallel universe, a strip of fancy bars and restaurants on the ground floors of elegant apartment buildings. A few blocks east, hilly, cobbled Skadarlija street preserves a fossil imprint of the city’s folk-singing, fedora-wearing, pre-war boem café culture.

An imposing fortress rises at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, overlooking the great Pannonian Plain. Most cities turn their Roman ruins into tourist attractions. Belgradians live in theirs. The fortress at Kalemegdan Park has changed hands so many times that there is no cause for piety. It’s been destroyed, rebuilt, modified, and today it hosts everything from lazy weekday tennis matches to Iron Maiden concerts. A rundown zoo occupies the lower levels of the fortress, where the stone walls serve as animal cages. The higher levels are rented out to patio restaurants. Surely this is the only city in the world where it is normal to sit on the edge of a Byzantine wall, drinking beer and listening to live music, while a tiger paces the ruins directly beneath you.

Zeleni Venac, Belgrade
Zeleni Venac, Belgrade. [Nemanja Knežević/Belgrade Raw]

Dorćol, Belgrade, rooftop addition
Informal rooftop addition in Dorćol, Belgrade. [Photo by the authors]

Zemun skyline, with the towers of New Belgrade behind, and central Belgrade across the river. [Flickr/Commons]

Velike Stepenice, Belgrade
The velike stepenice (grand stairs) connect central Belgrade with the Sava waterfront. [Photo by the authors]

A syncopated visual rhythm is the signature of many Belgrade neighborhoods and municipalities. On the hills across the river, the Zemun district blends Mediterranean terracotta roofs, Austro-Hungarian churches, and the iconic late modernist curves of architect Dragiša Brašovan. Dalmatinska street in central Belgrade alternates mixed-use buildings with converted villas and crumbling workers’ dwellings from the early 20th century. It’s not unusual to find pre-war apartment buildings with art-deco details, later modified by a socialist-themed relief, sited next to new condos advertising the thrill of the first-person singular: “my apartment, my park, my city”; and then to be surprised by the interruption of a large, English-style botanical garden.

For Gligorijević, this diversity of architectural idioms is what gives the city its character; “its essence,” she says. The perfectionist Le Corbusier’s haunting barb about Belgrade, “the ugliest city in the most beautiful place,” is not for her. Since its days as a medieval trading post, Belgrade has imagined itself a cosmopolitan city. Even under dictatorship, Yugoslavia’s status in the Non-Aligned Movement encouraged student and expert exchanges with China, India, and the Middle East. American music and films reached Yugoslav audiences at a time when they were forbidden behind the Iron Curtain.

A postmodern city that predates the concept of the postmodern, Belgrade contains fragments of so many other urbanities that it can never quite be said to exist as itself.

Today, despite the creeping presence of ubiquitous global chains, this cosmopolitanism can still be inhaled, in concentrated form, in venues such as the World Traveller Club, a hidden speakeasy and café in the basement of what appears, in every other respect, a normal office building. The place is a relic from the Communist era, when unlicensed, informal gathering spots flourished in literal and metaphorical undergrounds. Its name has less to do with actual travel than with the idea of voyage. The walls are crowded with old maps, photographs, and religious icons, as the music shifts from jazz, to punk, to old Serbian ballads; and the rooms have more repurposed sewing machines, leather couches, and worn textiles than a curiosity shop. The club evokes an aspirational “elsewhereness” of which it has now, by its very continued existence, become a part: a holdover from the old Belgrade, before the 1990s wars, before the advent of bottle-service clubs with call girls catering to German and Russian businessmen, before profitability became the substitute for quality and the currency of survival.

An architect friend describes the city as “something from a dream. A West and East axis encountering a Classical and Modern axis.” And, like a dream, the city can feel insubstantial. At certain intersections and angles, you can see from Istanbul to Paris, by way of Vienna and Utopia. Belgrade is a city of moods and allusions; it nourishes the imagination more than the physical needs of its citizens. A postmodern city that predates the concept of the postmodern, Belgrade contains fragments of so many other urbanities that it can never quite be said to exist as itself.

Bezistan Plaza
“A West and East axis encountering a Classical and Modern axis.” Bezistan Plaza, central Belgrade. [Photo by the authors]

The Rise of Investor Urbanism

Names of other cities often turn up in discussions of Belgrade’s future direction, as if the city were itself a traveler. These days, the analogy everyone wants to draw is to Manhattan, which seems far-fetched but the sentiment is real. Controversially, a Dubai development firm, Eagle Hills, plans to develop a 90 hectare site along the Sava River into a complex of luxury condos, complete with a Freedom Tower skyscraper. “Belgrade’s Manhattan,” says Milutin Folić, the City Architect, explaining the government’s vision for the recently approved Belgrade Waterfront, or Beograd Na Vodi. Should it succeed, the project will remake the city more profoundly than anything since World War II.

Until now, that distinction has belonged to New Belgrade, the residential tower-garden district across the river from the Dubai-Manhattan site. New Belgrade is the largest of the city’s 17 municipalities, a Radiant City planned by Tito’s government in the late 1940s on a flood plain behind a former Nazi concentration camp at the old city’s trade fair. Built out in the 1950s and ’60s, New Belgrade houses more than 200,000 people in 72 superblocks, the outcome of an ambitious statist modernism, designed as a paean to the progressive living standards enshrined by the Congress of International Modern Architecture’s Athens Charter, a one-size-fits-all prescription for maximizing utility and the good life.

New Belgrade
Blok 23, New Belgrade. [Photo by Jonathan Davis]

A 1962 plan of New Belgrade.

Belgrade Waterfront map
Postwar map showing the relation of New Belgrade (Novi Beograd) to the city center. Modified by Places to show the site of the Belgrade Waterfront development.

Like that earlier project, Beograd Na Vodi is the product of a top-down, central planning process that expresses the prevailing ideology of the day. The current government — economically liberal, socially conservative, proudly nationalist — is building an architectural monument to the new Serbia. The development speaks the unofficial (but no less influential) global language of what architecture theorist Dubravka Sekulić terms “investor urbanism.” The rendering depicts a gleaming white capitalist utopia, a “live-work-play” space — in developer group parlance — for an elite managerial class. As planned, the Belgrade Waterfront will pack 1.6 million square meters of office and residential space into a 2 square kilometer site, crowned by a 220 meter office tower. Less than 1 percent of the square footage has been designated for public services like schools and clinics. The population density would be nearly twice that of New Belgrade, which is already highest in the country.

Should it succeed, the Belgrade Waterfront project will remake the city more profoundly than anything since World War II.

“The government wanted the world’s best teams and did not want a competition,” Folić explains, passing over one of the major points of contention with local architects. He ticks off the international firms consulted by the government or the developer: “RTKL did the draft master plan before it was presented here, and the team they had on board was maybe the world’s best. RTKL as the head, Arcadis engineering from Holland for the riverbank and flood prevention, SWA from Los Angeles for the public spaces, COWI from Denmark for the traffic.” Again, he says, “the world’s best teams were united for this project,” with the breathless excitement of a fantasy football fan boasting about his roster. “The center tower is being done by SOM, from Chicago!” Throughout our interview, Folić adroitly represents the values the government wants to project: technocratic, responsibly elitist, supply-side and foreign-investor focused, tourist-friendly.

Folić is not a man of the people, even if some of his ideas might ultimately redound to their benefit. Refuting the rumor that The Great War Island, one of Belgrade’s largest green spaces, will be sold off to a casino developer, he says that he’d like it to become a bird sanctuary. Then he adds, with an oddly charming lack of diplomacy, that “it will be only for the tourists to go there, people in the West who are already more sick of civilization.” His impolitic frankness, delivered with humor, makes it difficult to dislike him, even as he radiates the serenity of a true believer in Hausmannized urban planning.

Sava river bank, Belgrade
Site of the Belgrade Waterfront development along the Sava River. [Photo by the authors]

He is especially keen to show us his “team’s” new book of standards, a quixotic albeit potentially remunerative effort to catalog, clean up, and license the chaotic assortment of kiosks, utility wires, light poles and benches that typify Belgrade’s streetscape. Young for his position, tall, with brilliant blue eyes and perfect white teeth, a water-polo player and swimmer, Folić has the right look for Belgrade’s latest reboot. The sleeves of his French-cut blue Oxford are rolled up, and an extra button is open at the top. He enthuses about the time he spent as a high school exchange student in Lawrence, Kansas, and discusses his background in the private sector. His office in the old Beaux Arts City Hall feels airy and casual. He shoves a pile of sketches to one end of the long wooden table to make room for us and, unlike a more hardened public official, delays his next meeting to defend the utility of the Waterfront project.

For the project to make sense, Belgrade has to be imagined as a ruin, a shell, a city in need of saving — perhaps from the desires of its own citizens.

His best argument is that Belgrade is facing a state of emergency. “The city, as you can see, is quite devastated. You probably see it more, coming from abroad.” We want to reassure him that his city is fine, it’s not in ruins. It’s better off than Detroit or Philadelphia, Buffalo or Cleveland. Sure, there’s graffiti, but that’s also true of Rome. Local produce and meat is cheap and abundant in the outdoor markets, which is more than we can say for America’s urban ghettos. But it’s clear that for the Waterfront project to make sense, Belgrade has to be imagined as a ruin, a shell, a city in need of saving — perhaps from the desires of its own citizens.

Na Vodi branding is everywhere in the city. Stanchions flying light blue banners advertising “Belgrade Waterfront” (in English) line the path along the Sava River and creep up Karađorđević Boulevard to the former Geological Institute, a gorgeous Viennese confection that the city has leased indefinitely to Eagle Hills. Towering over the nearby train station is a billboard that displays the Waterfront rendering. The disjunction in scale and materials, this large digital blowup above the neoclassical stone entrance of the station, unintentionally mimics the disproportionate size and incongruous look of the actual project relative to its surroundings.

Belgrade train station
Billboard and train station. [Photo by the authors]

Belgrade Waterfront model
Model of the Waterfront project, displayed by the developer Eagle Hills at the Geological Institute. [Nikola Marković]

The rendering itself contains some revealing slips. For one thing, the city portrayed is not Belgrade. While the topography is accurate, the impossibly white structures bear no relation to any existing buildings. New Belgrade, which should be visible as a line of high-rise towers on the opposite bank, has been almost entirely edited out. The perspective also allows the developer to show nothing of old Belgrade or the Savamala neighborhood that borders the site. These omissions would be noticeable to any visually literate Belgradian. You have go to the Eagle Hills website, however, to see that the CGI rendering has an uncanny resemblance to the firm’s proposed Centenary City project in Abuja, Nigeria.

The most common reaction is that the project will never be built, certainly not as planned, but that someone, somehow will get rich from it.

Such cookie-cutter shoddiness fuels the suspicions of Belgradians, whose cynicism has been honed over many years. The most common reaction among taxi drivers, waiters, shopkeepers, and even some architecture students, is that the project will never be built, certainly not as planned, but that someone, somehow will get rich from it. Others see a cargo cult of too-late capitalism. No development can reverse the laws of supply and demand, and it’s not clear how an indigenous luxury class will magically appear once the last German kitchen has been installed in the last waterfront apartment. Spain’s notorious Seseña, a ghost city development similarly branded as “the Manhattan of Madrid,” remains a cautionary tale of what happens when luxury development outpaces average incomes. Belgrade already bears the scars of internationally-financed development fiascos, like the partially demolished Serbian National Bank skeleton looming over the Zeleni Venac market. Another open wound is the empty foundation that greets pedestrians at the foot of Knez Mihailova, the city’s central promenade and commercial high street.

Public cynicism is a mirror image of government boosterism, and both are responses to the city’s failure to attract responsible international investment before the collapse of the global real estate bubble in 2008. Without saying it exactly, Folić conveys a belief that previous administrations were over-scrupulous. “We’re helping out foreign investors, the big investors, to go through the administration process,” he volunteers. “We can give this feeling to them that we are actually on their side. That this administration isn’t standing here to make their job more difficult. We want to help them out. We want to see the city in the next couple years booming in the right way!”

Sava River
Sava River, just south of Gazela Bridge, part of the development site. [Jelena Mijić/Belgrade Raw]

Belgrade Waterfront project
Model apartment staged with a rendering of the Belgrade Waterfront. [Jelena Mijić/Belgrade Raw]

And yet Serbia’s only remaining asset, at this point, is its land, and trading it away to foreign owners could prove to be a costly mistake. Among the more engaged core of Belgrade’s architects, urbanists, and civic activists, the Na Vodi project generates anxiety and frustration. Belgrade’s Academy of Architects, a fairly conservative group, denounced the design as something that “can be seen around the world — there’s no identity here.” Former City Architect Đorđe Bobić has said that “Belgrade will be left to peer shyly from behind a bunch of senseless, aggressively scattered skyscrapers.”

The old guard is especially rankled that no Serbia-based architects were invited to participate in the planning or the design, as this is a country that formerly prided itself on its engineering and architecture programs. Many Belgrade-trained architects, like other specialized professionals, have expatriated, either for political reasons during the 1990s or for economic ones after that. The rosters of international firms are studded with emigré Serbs in junior partner roles. Back home, the middle-aged architects who hold positions of nominal power are forced to look for work abroad, while the younger generation, starved for opportunities, is rapidly deprofessionalizing.

For urbanists and planners like Žaklina Gligorijević, the concerns run more to the practical: how will luxury apartments for 17,000 people help a city that desperately needs sustainably designed affordable housing for a growing population of deskilled workers, university graduates lacking job prospects, and residents displaced by the record Danube floods of 2013? How will this massive construction project affect the lives of the people in its shadow? And what happens to the rest of the city?

Along the Sava River, just north of Brankov Bridge, part of the development site. [Photo by the authors]

The Unlikely Radical and the Reggaeton Band

There’s also a foreboding sense that irregularities in the project’s commissioning announce a shift to Russian or Chinese style authoritarian urbanism. In order to smooth the way for Eagle Hills, the national government overrode Belgrade’s zoning code and, in the process, obviated a recently completed master plan. This past spring, Parliament passed a turbo-boosted eminent domain statute that permits the government to seize personal property and turn it over to private interests of supposedly greater economic benefit to the state.

Iva Čukić, one of the lead organizers of opposition to the Belgrade Waterfront, recounts stories of police harassment, surveillance, and smear tactics that are straight out of the counter-protest playbook from Zuccotti Park to Red Square. Naturally, the intimidation tactics have only strengthened the activists’ belief in the justice of their cause. If the government feels so threatened by a small group of demonstrators, perhaps it really has something to hide.

With her Barcelona stylishness and professional demeanor, Čukić profiles as an unlikely radical, and the story of her radicalization points to the ways that Serbian society is failing its youngest and brightest. She spent her early childhood in Iraq and Peru, the daughter of Yugoslav engineers loaned out to strengthen diplomatic ties. Her family returned home in 1991, as the country was breaking apart. Later, she studied architecture at the University of Belgrade, alongside Folić, the future City Architect, and she was lucky enough to get a position with a successful local firm. But she felt disrespected at that job, so she quit, and soon she fell into precarious and part-time work that introduced her to Belgrade’s various collectives of highly educated and underemployed people, all scarred by power, all trying to create some kind of non-hierarchical, non-abusive social structure. 1

Mural depicting various cultural touchstones and activist causes at the Cultural Center REX, in Dorćol, Belgrade. [Photo by the authors]

The dead zones of Belgrade present opportunities for the people to exercise their right to the city, by claiming the space for their immediate enjoyment.

For someone who missed Belgrade’s greatest years, Čukić is remarkably dedicated to reviving its public spaces and traditions. Her run-ins with the government began when she tried to save the city’s movie theaters and cinema clubs, which were privatized in a single day and then mostly shuttered. State-owned assets in Serbia are sold at firesale prices to foreign investors who take the tax break and leave the site undeveloped while waiting for a boom that never materializes (thanks in no small part to their incentivized passivity). With the stroke of a pen, Belgrade was transformed from a city with a cinema scene that rivaled Paris to a cultural wasteland with a smattering of multiplexes. To call attention to this misuse of a formerly public resource, Čukić’s group, the Ministry of Space, staged occupations of the cinemas, modeled on successful squat actions in Berlin and Barcelona. Like the Occupy movement, the Ministry of Space deploys situationist tactics and the urban theories of Henri Lefebvre to justify its appropriation of privatized spaces through creative action. Čukić believes the dead zones of Belgrade present opportunities for the people to exercise their right to the city, by claiming the space for their immediate enjoyment, and that the easiest way to make visible this public right is to put bodies in space and set them to work creatively. The Ministry’s tactics, a heady mix of design, performance art, carnival, and community outreach, have often worked best when reinvesting a space with a cultural function.

Opposition to the Waterfront project requires activism on a different scale, but the protestors remains faithful to their Merry Prankster approach. They’ve formed a Facebook group, Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd, an untranslatable pun that urges a collective “we” not to give away (Damo) or drown (Davimo) the city. When the project was up for approval, the activists paraded in front of Parliament with a giant papier-maché duck — “duck” being the Belgrade slang term for a cover-up or fraud (a transposition of the English hunting term “blind”) and, in this case, a neat allusion to the project’s siting in one of the city’s riskiest flood zones.

Activists opposed to the Belgrade Waterfront project spread the word by driving a giant duck past the Parliament. [Andrija Stojanović]

Iva Čukić (lower right, with whistle) at a September protest organized by Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd. Signs read, Whose city? Our city! [Nemanja Knežević]

As Čukić observes, “participatory public planning doesn’t exist” in Belgrade, at least not in any formalized sense. There is, however, a strong tradition of effective street protest, from the worker movements of pre-socialist Yugoslavia to the grassroots alliances that brought down the Milošević regime in 2000. Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd attempts to draw on political and civic energy that has been mostly dormant since the assassination of the popularly elected, reformist prime minister Zoran Đinđić in 2003, and especially since the economic shocks of 2008. The protestors are adapting revolutionary political rhetoric to issues of urban planning and design, and that makes the government nervous. Even if the activists fail to stop the Waterfront project, as now seems likely, they may yet succeed in building the foundation for a more responsive and responsible urbanism.

Even if the activists fail to stop the Waterfront project, they may yet succeed in building the foundation for a more responsive and responsible urbanism.

Despite their radical styles and actions, the Ministry of Space and its offshoots, including Ko Gradi Grad?, are engaged in a civil society reform movement. Their demands are straightforward: that citizens have a stake in shaping the future of their city, and that the government apply a set of laws equally to everyone, including itself. Like other regions of southern Europe, and like many post-Communist countries, Serbia has a well-documented history of corruption, patronage networks, and parallel or “deep” state structures. The question of who builds the city may seem innocent enough, but the activists’ demand for transparency represents a threat to entrenched ways of doing business. In Belgrade’s current atmosphere, where illegal and “off the books” building is rampant, from the lowest levels of society to the highest, the city offers an ironic spectacle: Building without architects and planning without planners, while the professionals turn their energies to growing communities that might one day want their services.

Mikser Festival, Savamala, Belgrade. [Luka Knežević Strika]

A more entrepreneurial model of community development is emerging at Mikser House, which shares a plaza with Eagle Hills’s gilded headquarters. The buildings are ten meters distant and yet metaphorical worlds apart. Mikser is emerging as the cultural center of the Savamala neighborhood, a formerly seedy area of low-story houses, warehouses, and workshops with a docklandish feel, recently the subject of trend pieces in the European press hailing it as one of the “coolest neighborhoods in Europe,” a “new Kreuzberg,” and the hub of Belgrade’s creative economy.

Ivan envisions the Mikser project as a form of improvisational culture-jamming and counter-programming. He compares it to a reality television show or living theater experiment.

Mikser operates as a club, a restaurant, an artisan market, and a cultural nerve center, hosting documentary screenings and international conferences on urban design and architecture. The ambitious and polymorphous project is the brainchild of Maja Lalić, an architect with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, and her husband Ivan, a playwright and theater producer who founded the EXIT music festival in the northern city of Novi Sad. As we arrive, a Dutch Antillean reggaeton band is playing behind a Serbian frontman who sings, in English, “We don’t know how happy we are.” It’s an uplifting refrain, if a bit bright-sided for a city where most people are worried about finding decent work. The young crowd — more organically beautiful than the Dolce Vita types who run the party scene on Strahinjića Bana and the riverfront party barges — is feeling its way into the music, lining up at the bar, hanging out in the lobby where t-shirts and CDs are sold. The scene is familiar from the converted warehouses of Williamsburg and a hundred other post-industrial American venues, which makes all the hype about Savamala seem like, well, hype. But what codes as hipster posturing or creative class marketing in American eyes may function differently here in Belgrade, closer to its counterculture roots.

“Design is a statement,” Ivan says. “You design your day, your marriage. Mikser is diversity by design.” Old enough to have experienced both the frustrations of work in the Communist Culture Industry and the horrors of the Balkan Wars, Ivan envisions the Mikser project as a form of improvisational culture-jamming and counter-programming. He compares it to a reality television show or living theater experiment. For Americans, who often forget the fevered post-9/11 atmosphere and the build-up to the Iraq War, it is hard to comprehend the media-driven mass hypnosis of the Milošević years, when nationalist propaganda dominated the official channels of culture, including the arts. In a country where “turbo-folk” was the soundtrack for genocidal Serbian paramilitary groups, a dose of Reggaeton signifies something more than canned Caribbean bliss. After a period of greater media independence in the early oughts, recently there has been a regression toward old forms of thought control. Željko Mitrović, the owner of Serbia’s largest media conglomerate, Pink Media, has put his support behind the Neo-Nationalist government, and he recently bought out Belgrade’s oldest independent and anti-regime radio and television station, B92.

Mikser House showroom. [Flickr/Commons]

The Lalićs aim to build Mikser into the headquarters of a viable alternative media network by playing within the rules of the new market system. Ivan is happy to use the avant-garde techniques he learned in Yugoslav theater while strenuously rejecting the avant garde label. “When you pronounce the word avant garde, you glance at the story of being alternative or underground or opposite to mainstream,” he says. “But we pretend to be mainstream, to fight for a better mainstream.” At Mikser’s outdoor café, Miles Davis plays loudly in the background. Ivan is wearing dark glasses, juggling meetings on his cellphone, taking time out to greet guests, looking every bit the part of host and entrepreneur that he wants to be.

He is also, as he likes to say, his own man, an independent operator, comfortable criticizing not only the government but also activists like the Ministry of Space, who regard him as a sellout for working with city planners. “We are educated here in dualities,” Ivan explains. “You are either Partisan or Chetnik, Novi Sad or Belgrade, Red Star or Partizan. We grew up under West and East, [believing that] in order to achieve something you should fight against somebody.” He proceeds to criticize a tendency he sees among certain opposition activists, to be nostalgic for enemies:

During the ’90s, for instance, we had Slobodan Milošević and we had the NGO sector, which was the other Serbia. These were two ghettos, and the intellectual ghetto enjoyed that Milošević existed because he gave them their raison d’etre. Nowadays we are being entrepreneurs. I don’t care about ideological favorites. (Of course I care if something is bad.) But I want to build something. We have business plans, we employ people, we do marketing. I employ 50 people. You have some enclaves from the indie culture scene who don’t think the way I think. They’d like to preserve [Savamala], but we openly admit that we’re entrepreneurs and we don’t see what’s wrong with that, especially if we give money back to the culture.

There’s no doubting the Lalićs’ commitment to the neighborhood, their solidarity with its residents, or the tremendous effort they put into Mikser. And yet, their centrist philosophy, to American ears, sounds uncomfortably like Richard Florida’s “Creative Class” theories for urban renewal, which offer no real remedy for rising urban inequality or for the negative effects of gentrification. Mikser seems to be following a script that will produce an “alternative” cultural space compatible with the office park hypercapitalism about to mushroom on its doorstep, just as New York’s Lower East Side became a playground for Wall Street bankers and San Francisco’s Mission District the high-end cafeteria of the tech industry. Can Savamala be a native engine of Serbian economic growth that brings ever greater wealth to its residents? Or will the neighborhood become just another tourist zone in a city center economically cleansed of actual citizens?

Jazz Bašta, Savamala, Belgrade
Jazz Bašta restaurant in an old stone building, Savamala, Belgrade. [Photo by the authors]

Mikser was briefly shut down by a police raid last winter, after the Lalićs were quoted in the media asking critical questions about the Na Vodi project. Meanwhile, city officials are rumored to have taken ownership stakes in some of Savamala’s glitzier bars and may be angling for their own piece of this golden goose. For now, the Lalićs continue to counterprogram within the rules of the game. They’ve invited Folić to community forums to discuss the neighborhood impacts of the Na Vodi construction and to give residents a chance to put their concerns before the government. The Lalićs have also produced a series of oral histories with Savamala residents.

Ultimately, their patient pragmatism may turn out to be its own kind of idealism. Like their friend, Žaklina Gligorijević, they belong to a generation that grew up with strong images of the West as a symbol of individual human flourishing, and they remain faithful to a certain Euro-American ideal of urbanity, of the city as a place for unconstrained self-fashioning. Their faith abides, despite having lived through the mailed fist of NATO bombing and even after those ideals now seem threatened at their source.

Arriving at Mikser from the hyper-gentrified, post-middle-class cities of the United States, we feel like visitors from a sad future.

The phrase “Manhattan of Belgrade,” used favorably by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić in presenting the Na Vodi project to Parliament, was actually coined by Gligorijević in opposition to the proposal, when she was director of the urban planning commission. In the rail tracks along the river, near the emerging cultural zone of Savamala, she saw the potential for a transformation similar to the renovation of New York’s High Line: low impact, high value, community driven. While a retrofit program like that might ultimately have served Belgrade better than what it’s getting, we didn’t have the heart to tell her that it now takes the income of a Dubai sheik to afford to live in the Manhattan neighborhoods “revitalized” by the High Line.

New York’s example shows that even cities that have strong traditions of responsible governance and rule of law haven’t figured out how to preserve a balance between small business owners, local populations, and artists, on one hand, and voracious rentiers on the other. Arriving at Mikser from the hyper-gentrified, post-middle-class cities of the United States, we feel like visitors from a sad future. The Lalics’ persistence, however, is a reminder that Belgrade specializes in preserving such fragments of urbanities lost. To the collection of Vienna, Paris, Istanbul, and the Ville Radieuse, we can now add the vibrant punk Manhattan of the Lower East Side in the 1980s and Williamsburg in the early 1990s. If history is any guide, these traces will be visible in Belgrade long after they have disappeared from the original.

Installation at the cultural space Nova Iskra, Savamala, Belgrade. [Peter Bihr]

Informal Belgrade

Away from the ongoing cultural struggle and the anxieties occasioned by the Waterfront project, ordinary life goes on as best it can. A gorgeously clear Sunday sees families heading out to bicycle, sunbathe, or cheer on youth soccer at Ada Ciganlija, a 600 hectare forested park and outdoor recreation zone that stretches out into the Sava. In Zemun, on the Danube, they stroll along the river promenade, or cruise in small boats in the wake of the large party-barges. All across the city, numerous small bakeries are packed with clientele. Dejan, our taxi driver, explains that this is a recent boom. Since disposable incomes are meager but people still like to go out on the town — u život, literally “in life” — they buy a small pastry for 120 dinars (about $1.10) as an excuse to socialize. It gives the illusion of a normal urban life, at a cheap price. If you don’t see your friend for a couple of weeks, the joke is that he’s saving up to buy a new pair of pants. It’s either the bakery or the pants.

These stark economies at the level of food and clothing also apply when it comes to shelter. Many Serbians find it easier to build their own illegal house or rooftop addition, buying wood and concrete on the black market, than to go through the formal housing market, with its commissions, taxes, and legal costs. Labor and time are abundant, but money is scarce. In fact, the predominant form of new construction since the late 1990s is the illegal or informal house, located in unplanned settlements on Belgrade’s periphery or tucked into pockets of the urban fabric. We spot one cluster of informal houses in the relatively posh neighborhood of Senjak, in the leftover space between four wealthier homes, but to see the largest informal settlements, you have to go to the outskirts.

Konjarnik, Belgrade
Konjarnik neighborhood, on the outskirts of Belgrade. [Saša Trifunović/Belgrade Raw]

Belgrade bus
Belgrade bus. [Mane Radmanović/Belgrade Raw]

The bus on Route 26 is a diesel hand-me-down from some wealthier metropolis elsewhere in Europe. It picks up a crowd by the National Theater, near the grand equestrian statue of Mihailo Obrenović, the 19th century autocrat who presides ironically over Republic Square. This is where teenagers meet, “at the horse,” before going out to the clubs. Today a man with long white hair plays opera arias on a musical saw. The bus winds its way south through the city, adding students, old women returning from the Kalenić market, occasional young men in suits. At the city’s old southern boundary, highrises that look like Battlestar Galactica give way to smaller homes and narrow suburban streets. The route continues past the new boundary at the E75 beltway, before depositing the remaining passengers on a four-lane road lined with kiosks, street food joints, and outdoor cafés with astroturf patios. On the other side, next to some dumpsters, a narrow, winding road leads up into Padina.

Imagine southern New Jersey made by people whose collective idea of the built environment is an ancestral Bosnian village crossed with The Sopranos.

As recently as fifteen years ago, Padina, i.e. “the slope,” was a nameless farming hamlet on a hill. Now it has mushroomed into one of Belgrade’s largest informal or “wild” settlements, home to an estimated 15,000 people, mainly Bosnian Serbs displaced by war. It’s a little startling, then, that the first people we see are schoolgirls in head scarves, chatting in Arabic. “The Libyan embassy is close by,” explains our guide, Ivan Kucina. “They might have built a staff residence … the land is still fairly cheap.” Kucina is a fast-talking, calm-eyed architecture professor who teaches in both Belgrade and Germany. For a few years he’s been visiting the area with his students, although he confesses he still gets lost in the maze of streets, some no more than dirt paths wide enough for a single car. He researches the rise of informal housing in Serbia, which, at least in Padina’s case, does not resemble Mumbai’s slums or Rio’s favelas so much as it does American suburban sprawl. Imagine southern New Jersey made by people whose collective idea of the built environment is an ancestral Bosnian village crossed with The Sopranos.

One of the first houses we see is an enormous four-story villa, painted white and camouflage green, with two hexagonal towers capped by vaguely Byzantine faceted domes that resemble two pith helmets. The roof is made of ersatz terracotta Tuscan tile, fairly ubiquitous in Belgrade settlements. Long, thick portico terraces look out onto a weedy field with a rusty hand-operated cement-mixer and a pile of wooden planks. A wall of concrete blocks shields the two lower stories from view. It seems a knockoff of the older, wealthier villas of Belgrade’s Dedinje neighborhood, where the famously private residents hide in mansions surrounded by walls thick enough to withstand a siege. As we trudge uphill, dodging a speeding Mercedes sedan, a Range Rover, and a more modest Japanese SUV, it’s clear that we’ve entered a zone where traditional status symbols need to be reassessed, or maybe resituated.

Padina, Belgrade
Informal buildings in Padina. [Photo by the authors]

Padina, Belgrade
Padina. [Photo by the authors]

To be sure, not everyone in Padina lives in a villa or drives an expensive, late-model car. The settlement is a chaotic, cross-class mixture of the aspirational, the nostalgic, the paranoid, the kitschy, and the downright depressing. Residents are just as likely to live in a two-story, squat brick house with a steeply pitched roof, or a DIY disaster with a mis-measured exterior staircase and dwarf-sized door. We see chalets, cottages, ranch houses. Some properties have plum or pear orchards, others have plastic lawn furniture and kiddie pools. Roofs are armored with glass shards and caltrops, and everyone seems to have a large or a loud dog. (Alsatians are popular.) Most houses exist in a semi-permanent state of renovation. What the inhabitants do at home is work on building their home: a paradise of bricoleurs. It’s not all residential, though. In “central” Padina, we find a cheery “shop n’ go” kiosk — English in the original — and a private college advertising management courses. There is an actual municipal office and a couple allotments of government housing estates for refugees, as well as temporary housing for “internally displaced people,” including those who lost their homes during the massive Danube floods of 2013.

The settlement is a chaotic, cross-class mixture of the aspirational, the nostalgic, the paranoid, the kitschy, and the downright depressing.

This is the gray market of urban development, not the black. What began as an illegal building boom, with electricity spliced from the nearest pylon, and with no access to city services, has now achieved quasi-legitimacy. Streets still lack names and signs, but many houses have numbers. Mail is delivered, garbage is collected regularly by local private contractors. The city has granted post-hoc amnesty to informal settlements, often in exchange for the nominal payment of back taxes, or acceptance of unpopular projects like Padina’s migrant housing. Still, there are no public spaces, no playgrounds or sports facilities of any kind, sparse foot traffic. On this day, the only visible evidence of play is a toy doghouse in the middle of an empty field. The children have built their own informal addition to it, with a tarp, plastic bottles, rocks, and scavenged fiberboards.

Kucina smiles at the doghouse, which seems to confirm his beliefs about humanity’s unstoppable drive to build. He maintains that Padina’s inhabitants are engaged in a brave new socio-political praxis: “[They] hijack the whole process of delivery of the architecture. It’s a completely new process, the process of full democracy. Maybe not the best product or the highest quality … but many would say this is actually the fulfillment of the right to the city.” Kucina speaks with the rough, ascetic accents of a man who has been put through a re-education camp or a Buddhist retreat. He changes the subject when we ask about a formally designed, ecologically sustainable demonstration house in Padina that was awarded a prize for “critical architecture” from the Belgrade Architecture Institute: “For me, just the visual appearance doesn’t mean anything. I’m not that kind of architect anymore. I got into this kind of relational architecture and I cannot draw back to the object.” While this studied non-judgmental stance makes it hard to talk to him about aesthetics, it also means he’s alert to the potential dangers of corporations and architects appropriating informality as a cool new version of the decorated shed.

Toy doghouse with informal additions, Padina. [Photo by the authors]

Unlike Rem Koolhaas, who, on a 2003 visit to Belgrade, suggested that its architects should “capitalize on [the city’s] pre-eminent capacity for lowering urban standards and offer this knowledge as a service to places that have higher standards than necessary,” Kucina asserts that the role of the architect is not to formalize or “capitalize” informality, but rather to mediate, within informal communities, between the two spheres. He discusses the recent book Belgrade: Formal/Informal, whose contributors include his colleague Milica Topalović. “Informality needs formality because it’s parasiting itself off the system,” he argues. Indeed, informal structures and styles are often a consequence of formal laws and policies. For instance, in Padina, black-market cement is easy to come by, but building permits require navigating unfriendly bureaucracies. Additional stories of a building are taxable, but a roof is not, so you see structures with an upper floor made of roofing material.

The role of the architect is not to formalize or ‘capitalize’ informality, but rather to mediate, within informal communities, between the two spheres.

If Padina is the apotheosis of laissez faire informal development (its name doesn’t even appear on Google Maps), the even larger informal settlement of Kaluđerica, population 80,000, represents “the high renaissance model,” as Topalović calls it. Though not yet an official Belgrade municipality, Kaluđerica has managed to lay the groundwork for legitimacy. An ad-hoc municipal council resolves disputes within the community and promotes a shared sense of history, reflected in pamphlets, graphic novels, and song collections published by the Stealth architecture collective, a collaboration among Serbian, Croatian, and Dutch urbanists. Nebojša Milikić, a Kaluđerica resident and program director of the Cultural Center REX in Belgrade, says the differences between informal settlements can be traced to the prevailing ethos at the time of their founding. Kaluđerica dates to the 1960s, when New Belgrade’s construction workers needed somewhere to live while building the housing of the future. There was a sense of solidarity among the residents, in the spirit of an anarcho-socialist collective. Later settlements like Padina embody the displacement and wartime trauma of the refugees, and the each-man-for-himself era that marked the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

Milikić’s insight reflects the popular habit of contrasting “old Belgrade” manners and attitudes — that is, Belgrade before Milošević — with newer ones. Nearly everyone who lived through the transformation has an opinion on the subject. Saša Cvejić, a former sportswriter, with a middleweight boxer’s physique and a resemblance to the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, came to Belgrade when he was 12 from a small village near the Hungarian border, in the late 1950s. His view is representative:

Bygone Belgrade was an intimate city. One soul, really. The relations among people could be described as familial. … There was a relaxed spirit of spontaneity, nonchalance and respect … Our working hours used to be from 6 am to 2 pm, and after that you have time for your life. Now everyone works the Western hours. If everyone became a writer, an architect, a doctor, I’d say great, but instead I fear we’ll become slaves in our own country. Our employers here haven’t learned how to behave like in the West, how to respect their employees. But, hey, they’ve learned how to demand, to give you a small wage, not to pay you, not to register you.

Old Belgrade might not have existed, at least not entirely the way Saša remembers, but it lives now as a city within the city, by force of contrast. The Hotel Majestic, where Saša takes us, via an elegant arcade off Knez Mihailova, is one of its outposts. A portrait of Lenin presides over a very un-Bolshie marble and mirrored interior furnished with mod red velvet armchairs. It’s like tea at The Plaza, if The Plaza were redecorated by a Marxist Wes Anderson. At Kalenić Bistro, another of old Belgrade’s memory palaces, enormous portions of traditional South Serbian fare are served up in a rustic, wood-paneled setting, and the tables throng with local families and veteran journalists.

Knez Mihailova, Belgrade
Arcade off Knez Mihailova, Belgrade’s commerical high street. [Flickr/Commons]

As economic conditions worsen, nostalgia for the unfinished Socialist project is on the rise. For Milikić, old Belgrade is sharing meals with the family of his Kaluđerica landlord. For Dejan, our taxi driver, old Belgrade is a childhood memory of persuading the security guard of an office building to leave the courtyard lights on so he and his friends could play pickup soccer late into the night. For others, old Belgrade comes out on occasions when the Yugoslav Drama Theater offers performances at symbolic prices rivaling those of bakeries, when the lines stretch down and around the block. Old Belgrade is a vision of civil society characterized by abundance and dignity, now seen as imperiled.

Actually, it’s not that far from the popular view of a mid-century urban America defined by its public spaces, large and small. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg has argued that these “third places,” neither work nor home, are where a community recognizes itself as a community, where they rehearse their shared purpose. Nostalgia for these places transcends the socialist-capitalist divide and reflects a yearning for a retrospectively brief period of economic equilibrium when the promise of upward mobility was an essential feature of urban life — as common to the writings of Philip Roth about Newark, or David Simon about Baltimore, as it is to remembrances of Yugoslavia past.

Belgrade city center. [Nemanja Knežević/Belgrade Raw]

Belgrade on the Way to Elsewhere: The Migrants

Amid all the power plays and arguments over Belgrade’s role in the 21st century, a reminder of that future’s radical unpredictability arrives, on foot, at the central train station, just as we’re about to leave. Poorly lit, the station after dark is a hangout for drunks, prostitutes of ambiguous gender, and the homeless. Among them are several groups of earth-toned young men, wearing leather jackets or hooded sweatshirts and ripped jeans. Some carry rucksacks. At first we take them for Roma, but one group is speaking Arabic; another group talks in what we assume to be Albanian but could actually be Pashto or Dari. They congregate on a bench by the only functioning light stanchion, close to the guard house. The patrol cops, with their radios and submachine guns, conspicuously ignore them. One young guy, a bit shorter than the rest, with a bouncy walk, looks to be a courier of some sort. He disappears into the station hall, then emerges at the side entrance, smiling, chatting. Is he dealing drugs in front of the police? A small transistor radio emerges, and some unidentifiable music scratches out. The men tap their feet and check mobile phones.

Then the loudspeaker announces our train, bound for the northern city of Subotica, on the border with Hungary — and, more significantly, the border with the European Union. The courier rises from a squat and whistles, and the disparate groups bound down to the quay, where they all board the same car, isolated from other passengers, under the watchful eyes of the police. Now it’s clear that the courier is a shepherd, a guide for refugees fleeing war in Syria and Iraq and economic migrants from Kosovo and Albania, and others from as far away as North Africa and Central Asia.

On this May evening, they are almost all young men, in their late teens and early twenties, traveling without families. By late summer, however, it will be more common to see women and children and older generations traveling with them. Some arrive on overland routes, via Turkey and Bulgaria; others brave the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Greece and walk through Macedonia to Serbia. Now they are 200 kilometers from a chance to rebuild their peaceable lives, shattered by war, drought, and economic mismanagement.

Syrian migrants in Serbia
Migrants in a park near the Belgrade train station, August 2015. [Stephen Ryan/IFRC]

While they wait for the border train, many of the migrants live in Savamala parks, not far from Mikser House and from the proposed development on the waterfront. A local reporter quotes one of the men: “The city is nice, people are nice, but we do not see our future in Serbia. We’ll sleep in the park, but the next day we will be in Hungary. Step closer to Germany.” And the Serbian authorities are happy to see them on their way.

It’s a sad commentary on conditions in Belgrade that even destitute migrants know better than to stop here and look for work. But that may change: in mid-September, Hungary closed its border with Serbia, driving away outsiders with razor wire, guards, and tear gas. Meanwhile, European officials flail at solutions to the continent’s largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Even the most humane proposals currently on the table would keep migrants detained indefinitely in camps like the ones they fled in Turkey and Jordan.

What will that mean for Belgrade — once again, as it was during the 4th century, a way station in a great movement of peoples? Will migrants shut out of the European Union make this city their ultimate destination? There’s an ironic justice to the idea that the capital of a nation vilified for its mistreatment of an indigenous Muslim minority might reinvigorate itself with the help of tens of thousands of Middle-Eastern and Asian immigrants. Already, cafes on the waterfront have begun posting signs offering tea in Arabic. Perhaps it’s a start toward rebuilding Belgrade yet again, this time as a diverse and open capital city — the kind of city where its kindest and hardest working inhabitants wished they already lived.

About the Series: History of the Present

This is the third article in an ongoing series, “History of the Present: Cities in Transition,” supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and by Elise Jaffe + Jeffrey Brown.

  1. This article was edited after publication to correct the timeline of Iva Čukić’s return to Belgrade, and to avoid mischaracterizing the reason why she left her previous employer.
Marco Roth and Katarina Dudas, “History of the Present: Belgrade,” Places Journal, October 2015. Accessed 29 Sep 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/151005

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