Creating a heart for the concrete jungle

  • 2002-09-19
  • Sara Toth
Long derided as the epitome of high-rise Soviet ugliness, Tallinn's Lasnamae suburb is being rejuvenated by some visionary urban planning. Sara Toth reports.

Its colors alone make the shiny black and orange Klondaik restaurant and nightclub stand out among the gray high-rise apartment buildings that comprise most of Lasnamae. But the new complex with a Vegas-style interior has also attracted the attention of the district's administrators because it stands as proof that a Finnish-inspired plan to bring Lasnamae up to European standards may work.

From the terrace on the club's fourth floor, a view of the sea is possible through gaps in the rows of prefabricated apartment buildings. But the buildings are exactly what the singles club's owners, who are some of the 120,000 residents of Lasnamae, wanted to show guests. And the punters seem to be impressed - since it opened a month ago, the club has drawn about 200 people on weekend nights and about 60 on weeknights.

"Here, you can see all these houses. You can see the real Tallinn, where the teachers and doctors live," said Dmitri Smorodin, Klondaik's director. "In the Old Town you just see churches and colorful buildings. But we are proud of this Tallinn here, where most people live."

Human scale

Vladimir Hazinski, a district development counselor, is also satisfied that the club has opened, because it allowed him to remove a magnetic dot from a map of Lasnamae that hangs in his office in the local administration building. There are still about 50 of these magnets, each representing a future social, commercial, industrial, transportation or residential project. Funds have been secured for most of these schemes, which will be completed by the end of the decade, Hazinski said.

Public-works projects under the plan, which include new roads and other infrastructure, will cost about 1 billion kroons (60 million euros). About one-quarter of this money will come from the European Union. Another 433 million kroons will come from the state. And the rest, about 220 million kroons, will come from the city of Tallinn.

Lasnamae administratores based this development plan on a 2001 study of the district by Finnish engineers and economists. The Finns found that 90 percent of Lasnamae's land area is potentially good for investment. The study also noted obvious conditions that most residents in Lasnamae have long complained about, such as the lack of restaurants, community centers and large retail stores.

"We have small shops in every third house in the cellar," Hazinski said. "These are good for small purchases, but we do not have enough big malls."

By next year Lasnamae will have at least one more supermarket, surrounded by other shops. And in November the remodeled market place will open.

A number of business have also expressed interest in bringing operations to the less-than-lively industrial park north of the airport. During Soviet times, this area was a military plant that employed 6,000 people. Now there are only about 700 people employed there.

The collapse of the Soviet empire also left rows of unfinished foundations for apartment buildings in northern Lasnamae. The city will build two apartment houses on this land and private real-estate companies will finance four others. According to preliminary architectural plans, these new buildings will not be more than five stories high and most will be only three.

"People don't want any more of these tall prefabricated buildings here," Hazinski said.

This will make room for 2,000 more residents during the next three years, according to the district's plan. It also calls for at least one more retirement home.

But five of the dots represent lingering challenges. One of these is a large area of vacant land referred to as Maarjamae, which overlooks the sea. Here there are no running water or gas lines, so the price of a house would cost twice as much as one on the sea cost west of the city. Another challenge to development is a large quarry in the southeastern area of Lasnamae. Also, the Peterburi highway needs renovation, but this can't be done until another thoroughfare can be constructed. The city has currently secured some money for this new road from EU funds, but the project will take several years.

"There are still problems here," Hazinski said. "But I can say that now people are surer that their lives will get better and better. A lot of these people thought about immigrating 10 years ago, maybe to the West or back to Russia because they weren't sure what was going to happen here. But a sign that people are excited about the future is the high number getting an education."

The fun factor

On a recent Friday afternoon some of those young people getting an education in Lasnamae were having lunch after school at the district's Hesburger restaurant.

"There's nothing to do here," said Darja Kornijenko, 16, who commutes to Lasnamae Gymnasium from her home in Tallinn's city center. "Everybody from here goes to the center. And because I live in the center I feel no need to go here for fun. It's not so safe here and my parents worry if I'm here at night."

Maria Yinkovskaya, 16, also a Lasnamae Gymnasium student, said she had noticed a few improvements, but more are needed.

"The nature here is better now," said Yinkovskaya, who lives near Tallinn's airport. "There is less garbage than a couple of years ago. But more parks would be good because there are lots of people and dogs here. And the shops here sell OK food, but they sell low quality clothes. It's like the stuff in Tallinn's central market. We don't like it."

The quality of human relations in Lasnamae is also getting a makeover. With one of Tallinn's highest concentrations of Russian-speakers, the area is in the front line of Estonia's struggle to integrate the two halves of its population.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, a group of Russian and Estonian children made clay pots and sculptures in a small room in the basement of one of the infamous tall apartment buildings. Ludmila Lishtshenko, a former school teacher, began this project at the Almari center in April to integrate children from both ethnic groups and to help children from Russian-speaking families learn Estonian.

"While they are painting and drawing, we just show them what is what in Estonian, and we see how fast they learn," said Kirsti Pikkor, who is helping run the art classes part-time while she finishes her secondary teaching certificate at Tallinn's Pedagogical University. "This is only this group's second lesson, and I can see they already know a little more and feel more free with the language."

Lishtshenko said she was pleased so far with her project, and that many parents were impressed with it.

"I wanted to do this because there is no other place like this that is outside an official, formal school," Lishtshenko said. "Everyone lives here so we need to recognize that we are one big family. We need more places like this where children can go because this place can only accommodate a limited number. Children are important to the future of this community and so it is very important that they integrate and learn both languages."

And hopefully, Klondaik will help bring grownups together. Its decor is a welcome relief from the surrounding drabness. Neutral-colored paintings of Egyptian gods and goddesses hang in the restaurant, which serves European and Caucasian food. There is a wooden dance floor in the center of the formal dining room, whose walls are painted with bright dancing orange flames around a black ceiling. Meanwhile on the club's third and fourth floors, white icebergs lighten up the black walls. There are also two saunas available to rent for 330 kroons per hour.

The customers seem to like it.

"We have only been here for 15 minutes," said Irina Zubovskya, 19, who was having dinner at Klondaik with her boyfriend. "But I think this place is better than most places in Lasnamae. It's comfortable and it has a very nice design."