Former Capitals of Culture: mixed results -

The title of Capital of Culture is coveted. The Bulgarian city of Plovdiv wore it in 2019 and gained popularity. But not all neighborhoods benefited.

Two men push a bicycle

Plovdiv, 2019, Street scene in the Stolipinovo Roma district Photo: Robert B. Fishman/imago

Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Stray dogs and cats search for something to eat in the waste on the wasteland between decaying blocks of flats. In between, children play. On the holey thoroughfare of the Stolipinowo Roma settlement on the outskirts of Plovdiv, men are standing behind mountains of household goods that they want to sell here. Business is bad. The supply of cheap clothes, old washing machines, cleaning supplies and detergents is greater than demand.

In 2019, Bulgaria's second largest city, Plovdiv, became the first in the country to hold the title of European Capital of Culture. The city had its historic center spruced up, the old town from Ottoman times has been renovated, as has the ancient arena and the remains of a Roman chariot racetrack.

The people of Stolipinowo, the largest Roma district in the Balkans, should also benefit from the Capital of Culture programme. A German architect planned a bridge over the river on the edge of the district to connect the residents with the city. “90 percent of Plovdivians have never been to Stolipinovo,” estimated writer and political activist Manol Peykov in 2019. Like many in his hometown, he was delighted with the title of Capital of Culture, but warned against high expectations.

In the meantime, at least the organizer of the Capital of Culture year, the Plovdiv 2019 Foundation, has drawn a positive balance. In the Capital of Culture year, the number of foreign visitors to the city increased by 27 percent. Three times as many guests came from Bulgaria as in 2017. With these alone, companies in the city generated sales of 400 million leva (around 204 million euros) in 2019. In 2019, Plovdiv “put itself on the European cultural map” with 320 projects and around 900 events. The program was also generally well received in the city itself.

getting there the journey by train to Plovdiv in Bulgaria is lengthy: a. 46 hours from Berlin via Vienna, Budapest, Craiova (RO), Vidin and Sofia

cultural capitals The EU has been appointing European Capitals of Culture since 1985. In the beginning there was only one per year, since the accession of the Eastern and Central European countries there have been two each, one from the "old" and one from the "new" member states. In some years, cultural capitals from candidate countries will be added, for example in 2022 Serbia's second largest city Novi Sad. By 2033, the EU has determined the order of the countries that may each have a European Capital of Culture. After 1999 and 2010, it will be Germany's turn again in 2025. Then Chemnitz will bear the coveted title. The cities will be selected on the basis of a cultural program that must have a clear European dimension. It must also encourage the participation and active participation of the city's citizens, communities and various stakeholders. In addition, the program should contribute to the long-term development of the city and its region.

financing The EU pays the Capitals of Culture a subsidy of 1.5 million euros each. The rest must be raised by the cities, countries and states themselves. The budgets of the previous Capitals of Culture vary, depending on their financial strength, from less than ten to almost 100 million euros. Costs that many of them have easily recouped through visitor spending and subsequent third-party investment.

In a survey after the Capital of Culture year, 92 percent of Plovdiv residents stated that they were "proud of their city" and 43.3 percent saw themselves as "citizens of Europe". According to the Plovdiv 2019 Foundation, the number of companies in the creative sector has increased by a quarter and the number of their employees by 16 percent.

Cultural life flourishes

Above all, the creative inner-city district of Kapana is booming. In 2012, the city decided to revive the dilapidated and almost deserted former artisan district on the edge of the city center. She began giving vacant shops in the two- and three-story houses to company founders free of charge for a year. Many renovated themselves, opened pubs, clubs, restaurants, snack bars, designer shops, boutiques or shops for unusual souvenirs. The concept worked. On the weekends the Kapana is full. People come all the way from Sofia to shop, party, relax, listen to music and enjoy the arts. Valizar, for example, opened a bar with his parents and converted the basement into a gallery. He deliberately does not curate many exhibitions. What the artists bring is shown.

In addition to art, music attracts visitors to the Kapana. Right at the entrance to the creative district, Asiya fulfilled her dream: the enthusiastic swing dancer quit her well-paid job as a lawyer in Sofia to open the country's first swing bar here. In the stylish, modern room with lots of wood and steel, her team serves cocktails based on the original recipes from the USA. Asiya organizes the annual swing festival with more than 800 guests, which is now part of the official Capital of Culture program. Every Thursday she invites you to the Swing Dance Night in her bar. "People are often so enthusiastic that they continue to dance on the street," says the founder.

Plowdiv has changed for the better since it was elected European Capital of Culture: "People are renovating and decorating their houses," enthuses the woman with the long dark hair and bright red lips. "Pubs and shops opened everywhere." There are more and more cultural events and the locals have gained enormously in self-confidence. At least the Kapana in Plovdiv fulfills the goals of a European Capital of Culture: citizen participation, democratization, self-empowerment and networking of European cultural areas.

Boost for civil society

Since 1985, the European Commission has awarded cities and now also regions the title of “European Capital of Culture” for one year at a time. The initiative aims to show the “richness and diversity of cultures in Europe”. In addition, the "we" feeling in the EU should be strengthened and the development of cities should be supported. In 2025, Chemnitz will be the European Capital of Culture for Germany. Magdeburg, Hanover, Hildesheim and Nuremberg failed in the final selection last year.

The cities put a lot of money into their application letters, the so-called bid books. They hope that the title will boost their image, attract international attention and attract tourists who will bring in income. In Liverpool, Linz, the Ruhr area and many other cities and regions, the calculation worked out.

The European initiative has also paid off for Plovdiv, says Marina Tscholakova, a PR consultant for cultural projects and a freelancer at the German-Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce. The cultural workers are more self-confident today. They were no longer easily swayed by the cumbersome politics in the country and in the region. The gap between politics and committed citizens has narrowed, and interest in civic engagement has grown. The networking of the local cultural scene with activists in other European countries also helped. Interest in cultural events has also increased, and unlike in the past, concerts and other events quickly sell out. Marina Tscholakowa is involved in a citizens' initiative for the construction of the long-planned opera house in Plovdiv.

Roma remain excluded

But the momentum of the cultural capital has by no means spread everywhere. Living conditions in the Roma district of Stolipinowo have hardly changed. People still live there in decaying apartment blocks from the early 1970s, some of them without windows. The waste water runs out of a drainpipe into the basement, where it builds up and stinking. "Broken, everything is broken," scolds one of the residents in broken German. Like many here, he worked on construction sites in the Ruhr area for a while. No one cares about the houses, even though they belong to the city.

Most Bulgarian Roma see themselves as part of the Turkish minority in the country. They speak their own Turkish dialect and mainly watch Turkish television.

Marina Tscholakova sees the failures of the city and the marginalization of the Roma. Many in Plovdiv want nothing to do with the "gypsies". Your citizens' initiative, like other projects, tries to give "impulses" for the integration of the minority. "A lot happened, but not with the expected success". A lot of things fail because of the lack of education. Many Roma children do not go to school.

Many parents marry off their daughters at the age of 13, 14 or 15. There are many reasons: a lack of insight into the benefits of education, bullying and discrimination at school or teachers who devalue and disadvantage Roma children, authoritarian structures in families. "In order to understand yourself as a subject, you need self-critical thinking, and that requires education," says Cholakova. In the case of the Roma minority, this process will take "generations". A Capital of Culture year can do little to change that.

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