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Kalamaja - The District Changing Tallinn Forever

  • 2015-06-04
  • By Stuart Garlick

TALLINN - It takes an unprepossessing red and white tram to get to the part of Tallinn that has for some years been at the centre of its flourishing creative industries.
Kalamaja was once a working-class district, and if you take a walk through the wide streets you will find wood-panelled houses dating back to Estonia’s first period of independence and before. In a change that will be familiar to anyone who has seen recent developments in parts of London like Shoreditch and Brixton, this area is now becoming gentrified.

“Kalamaja is popular,” argues bar landlord and author James Ramsden, “because it’s the ‘real’ Tallinn, without being overly edgy. I don’t know many locals who frequent the old town, maybe because it’s too fast-paced and commercialised. Something Kalamaja isn’t – yet.” Ramsden, originally from Bradford, Yorkshire, set up Pudel, his bar in Telliskivi Loomelinnak (Telliskivi Creative City, within the Kalamaja area), in order to provide an alternative to the watering-holes dominating Tallinn Old Town, establishing a friendly place serving the finest craft beers.

Ramsden explains, “I wanted a place that didn’t have ridiculous rental prices and wasn’t dependent on the seasonal tourist trade. I was invited to look around the Telliskivi site and liked what I saw. More importantly, I could see that it was a sleeping district, and if I opened a place that had a reason for people to visit, then it could become popular and give courage to other places to pursue my vision for the district. “

Although seasoned Tallinn-watchers will argue that the process has taken place over a much longer period, one of the first significant signs of a change in the way Kalamaja was being viewed was when Telliskivi Loomelinnak began to grow. The creative hub, once a sprawling factory block, began as home to a few small businesses and the F-Hoone bar and restaurant. These days, the office block is filled with everything from graphic design companies to media management enterprises to the people behind the influential Tallinn Music Week festival, also playing host to many of the TMW concerts, and those of the international Jazz Kaar festival.

Helen Sildna, CEO of Tallinn Music Week, explains that civic pride has a lot to do with the growth of a new, cool district in the Estonian capital. “It’s strange to think now, that a decade ago Tallinn, in a way, ended with the railway station. It took some years after we got back our independence when Tallinners started looking at their city with in a new way, as owners and landlords in their own town – so atmosphere and authenticity-loving young people got their eye on the beauty that was hidden beyond the then shabby and run-down houses in Kalamaja.”

Kalamaja-based Scotsman Christopher Pilkington, Master Brewer for the Tallinn-based Pihjala craft beer company, agrees. “Estonia has been formed in so many other people’s images with all the occupations, and finally the youth has found a way that they can create a small part of Estonia in their image. That’s why I think people refer to the spirit of Kalamaja, there really is something in the air.”

His employer’s decision to set up Pihjala “Speakeasy”, a no-frills box bar opposite Tallinn railway station that is building a reputation for having superb beer and atmosphere, was borne not of passion, but of practicality. “Most of us at the brewery live or have lived in Kalamaja, and we often take the trains to work [in the leafy suburb of Nomme], so it seemed perfectly natural - I’ve often headed there to meet friends right after getting off the train on a Friday.”

“The old town is still great for bars, but as a startup we just don’t have the capital to invest in a really high-end place in the old town. Another part of the reason for setting up this place is that many breweries have a ‘tap room’, a small bar connected to their brewery that serves the freshest beers. Since we’re out in Nomme we decided we could either bring our customers to the brewery, or we could bring the brewery to our customers, and we chose the latter. A tap room wouldn’t work, because our most loyal customers are all within range of the Kalamaja area.”

Both Sildna and Pilkington talk of Kalamaja as a place that Tallinn people feel proud of, for historical and cultural reasons. Helene Vetik, who is Creative Director of her own graphic design business in Tallinn, adds that there is a downside to the rush to live in the quaint wooden apartments of Kalamaja - this is partly caused by limited attention from Tallinn City Government towards resolving enduring social problems. “To be quite honest, I’m not the hugest fan of Kalamaja, I like it but I’m not in love with it, just because there are still too many homeless people, drug addicts and alcoholics even on public transportation.”

“I guess the popularity is based on cute architecture and so-called ‘first-arrivers’ who got apartments there because it was too expensive elsewhere. Now the apartments are expensive, but the government hasn’t done anything to seriously help out the homeless and problematic crowd in the area. But, yes, the popularity is based on something romantic and nostalgic the hood represents, and it’s understandable.”

Kalamaja has become in recent years almost synonymous with the Tallinn hipster movement. It has been argued previously that genuine movements, like mods and punks, eventually get appropriated into a kind of aesthetic impression of what they were supposed to be about. For example, there are some young people who see The Sex Pistols and think that wearing a safety pin and a leather jacket makes them punks. Similarly, there are others who think that wearing a suit and riding a Lambretta scooter makes them mods. It would appear that the hipster movement, at least in Tallinn, is going through that kind of phase.

“Hipster culture, per se,” Vetik elaborates, “is a culture developed in the 50’s, especially for Estonians during Soviet times, when people had to listen to American or English music secretly in their garages, organise secret dance parties and would go to jail simply for reading inappropriate literature. They would order secret parcels with vinyls and denim jeans and even steal those from each other.”

“What we experience now is that there are two sorts of people, ones that buy trendy clothes and for that reason look somewhat hipster and another ones that really have this thirst for alternative culture and admiration for the past, and basically that’s why they also look a certain way. So the ones with simply trendy clothes have kind of ruined that hipster word for many. But if I use it in the appropriate way, then yes I guess there’s a lot of interesting hipster places and culture here in Tallinn, and indeed they form businesses, and that’s a good thing.”

We see a similar kind of positive development in Kalamaja to that which has turned the former Bird’s Custard factory into a hive of small-business activity in Digbeth, Birmingham. Some see the hipster phase in Digbeth as being a placeholder before multinational corporations take advantage of the city-centre area’s cheap rental costs; Ramsden says it is also rumoured that major companies such as international banks may be waiting for the correct opportunity to move into Kalamaja, making it a “new financial district”.

Given this prophecy of what might happen to Kalamaja, where will the creators and artisans go? Vetik is positive about the future for her home area. “I’m originally from Lasnamae, which is a so-called Russian ghetto hood, but I love that hood and I hope it’s the future top place in Tallinn. It’s also located near the sea, it’s 10 minutes away from Kadriorg and, oh, it has tons of nice secret crazy bars. Plus the real estate there is very cheap, so where the real estate is cheap, the young people will be able to get homes and therefore form the new interesting areas. I think Kalamaja will be a nice, cleaned-up place in ten years, but probably too expensive for new businesses.” Sildna says, “I hope we can soon move part of our festival also to Lasnamae – Lasnamae really does have its charm as well. Each and every part of the city does.”

Will the power of big finance cause an already-altered area to be transformed beyond recognition? Sildna hopes there will be consideration for what came before. “In general, I do hope that more people and developers will invest money in restoring and shaping up the old amazing architecture we have, some of it still in ruins, rather than constantly trying to steal land for new blocks of flats. I do understand the math behind it, but a selling price and long term value can indeed be different things. And also, places like Telliskivi, EKKM [Contemporary Art Museum Estonia], may at times be looked at only as square-metres and euros in an Excel sheet, yet their value and impact for the whole town is always so much broader.”

What will happen remains to be seen, but all of the people we spoke to are in agreement on something; Kalamaja will be quite different in ten years. Will this cause the young creatives who call the area their base to move on to another up-and-coming district? If progress continues as it is, then probably. Whatever happens to Kalamaja, and however it affects the development of Tallinn, it promises to be interesting to observe.