Unraveling the unrivaled mystery of Riga

  • 2002-04-04
  • Tim Ochser

Cities are mysterious places. Think of Baudelaire's Paris. Or Joyce's Dublin. Or Dicken's London. They're both concrete and abstract, beautiful and disturbing, the abyss and the apex of humanity.

I have been living in Riga long enough to become genuinely attached to this most intriguing of cities. One has to see a city in all lights, and all moods, to even begin to become intimate with it.

Riga's more obvious charms fill every guide book and are rightly the pride of every Rigan. The wonderful art nouveau architecture, the picturesque Old Town, the splendid public institutions.

But this is the stuff of tourism as much as it is the paraphernalia of national identity.

What is the real Riga? How could this small but nonetheless cosmopolitan city be best described?

Although a great deal of money has been invested in recent years into renovating and restoring the city's old buildings to their former glory, much of the city is in a chronically dilapidated state. Many of its high-rise suburbs, for example, haphazardly improvized during Soviet times to house the masses, were never especially sightly places to begin with, being designed only for the most functional purposes.

Dark fascination

There are some parts of Riga that are disturbingly, if fascinatingly, rundown. One needs to look no further to find the heart of the city's rapidly flourishing drugs culture - which is, of course, an inescapable part of every town and city in the world.

But the Riga suburbs are no less part of the city and its character than its grandiose center is. The masses of concrete high-rise buildings are not to be dismissed as a tourist guide book would overlook them as "not worth seeing." They simply lack an historic structure, which disconnects them from an abiding sense of cultural context. In other words, they could be part of anywhere.

One of the qualities that is most special about Riga is that nothing is quite what it seems to be. Rigans themselves, for example, can seem unaccountably aloof until you get to know them. Then they become the friendliest people in the world.

The buildings seem to transform with the weather; Riga is gothic enough to blend perfectly with a gloomy gray sky, and yet light enough to complement a bright summer's day. One is never sure how to read the city. It oozes ambiguity.

And yet even within the center itself there is a remarkable degree of degradation. Tallinas Street, Avotu Street, Maskavas Street - these are some of the places where the gutter gloriously exceeds itself. Venture to the far end of Caka Street, and you'll see more than just the spectacle of prostitutes standing on the curbside, courting the headlights of oncoming traffic. There's a genuine menace in the air, which might be said to be the reek of despair.

It might be in the form of a drunk staggering insensibly along the street, or in the shape of someone threateningly asking you for money, or in the case of actually being attacked - which many people are, for no good reason.

There is an abundance of antiquated cafes in the center's more rundown backstreets, whose decor, and possibly whose clientele, has changed little over the last couple of decades. Amazingly, the customers find enough money on a daily basis to play the slot machines and lose, and still get roundly drunk. But you have to ask why these people so faithfully go to places like these. The answer is to be among their own. But it shows up the social divisions that are being played out in the city's neglected quarters.

Let there be light

Ten years in real time is nothing. And yet that's the time Riga has had to undergo a profound socio-economic transformation. Walk around the Old Town and you'll see crowds of well-dressed people, talking into the latest models of mobile phone, ably posing in restaurant windows.

But keep an eye on the bigger picture. For many Rigans, life is a monthly struggle, fought out with a monthly wage of about 100 lats ($160) or less.

Riga has been dynamic in its path through transition so far, but perhaps too much attention is being paid to the superficial and not enough to the essential. Restoring public monuments may be good for tourism and public morale, but decent levels of pay will go much further to ensuring social stability.

Riga is a rapidly evolving city with a bright and prosperous future. In time, the inevitable process of gentrification will help to improve at least some of the center's surrounding areas. But it should also be a concern to politicians that what are now merely suburbs could, in time, become more like ghettos.

It's a shame so little attention is paid to the more unfortunate parts of the city. The unique beauty and charm of Riga lies not only in its Old Town and center, but equally in its sprawling and chaotic suburbs. The English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner said that there was nothing ugly in this world. Only a fool would disagree.