• 2006-04-05

Cartoon by Jevgenij Cheksters

The development committee of Riga's City Council took civic governance to a new low last week when it decided to rid Livu Square, the Old Town's central valve, of its numerous open-air bars this year. The decision was based on murky logic, which, not unsurprisingly, neither the committee nor the mayor bothered to adequately explain.

Based on the cryptic information disseminated from City Hall, the half-dozen or so bars that attracted throngs of both locals and tourists from April to October are not in harmony with the historic square's appearance. A newly approved development plan for the square calls for all open-air establishments to have similar umbrellas and furniture for an overall feel.
The catch is that the money for the square's facelift has not been allocated, so the project cannot be implemented this year. This would seem to suggest that businesses could at least begin operating this spring as they had planned, but so far the signal from City Hall is that the square will be devoid of watering holes in 2006.

This has to be the single most inept decision for Riga since city officials allowed the glass shopping center 's the so-called Triangular Bastion 's to be erected on the Old Town riverfront (granted, that was done by the previous city government). It is reminiscent of the old proverb about slicing off one's proboscis to spite the entire countenance. In one swoop they closed a major tourist attraction and source of enormous tax revenue 's and offered nothing at all in return.
The reasoning 's aesthetics 's is imbecilic. Since when did the City Council become a protectorate of urban beauty? There are sections of Old Town that resemble the seediest streets of Sarkandaugava (or, for those unfamiliar with the map of Riga, sections of Harlem), yet committee members are more disturbed by a lack of color coordination among the beer umbrellas and building facades on Livu Square. We can only wonder when the last time was that committee members took a stroll around the Old Town's southern end. They would do more for the city if they spent the 100,000 lats on overhauling part of those slums and let Livu Square take care of itself. Besides, the square had an overhaul just two years ago.

And what about the Triangular Bastion? The ugly aquarium on the riverfront causes far more aesthetic damage to the capital. But city officials don't seem to mind 's most likely because tour groups don't bother to cross the river, stand in front of the Radisson and stop for a snapshot of the Old Town. (Council members certainly don't; if they did, the bastion wouldn't be standing where it is right now.)
Everyone knows that Livu Square isn't perfect, but at least it's fun. It's a place to hang out, drink, watch people, and watch people watching people. But now that civic leaders are faced with the menace of a "sex-and-booze image," they seem to subject all their decisions to a sort of puritan revisionism. If something is suggestive of licentiousness and liquor, their inclination is to forbid it. Fun, in other words, has become a four-letter word in Riga.

A message to the City Council: you can't have it all ways. You can't expect to boost the tourism industry, reduce noise, minimize public drunkenness, expurgate the sex business, beautify the downtown area, increase revenues and keep everyone happy at the same time. Latvia's tourism niche has already been determined; it is useless trying to go against the grain. Live with it, modify it, but don't try to change the rules in the middle of the game. Riga isn't Westminster Abbey: tourists aren't going to pay an arm and a leg just to take a glimpse. They'll go elsewhere.