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Lasnamäe - the final frontier?

Built into a sprawling concrete panel house area in the 1960s to house masses of imported Soviet workers, Lasnamäe has become a synonym for various social, political and architectural problems. Yet there has been steady work to dismantle the stereotypes and activists are trying to engage the locals in communal activities and dispel the district's gloomy image.

A few years ago, a friend came to visit me from Lasnamäe in Kalamaja - the former being the byword of lawlessness and violent crime and the latter already gaining momentum as a hipster haven. Having reached my humble abode, she expressed shock at the number of homeless people and plain weirdos around the central train station, the gateway between Kalamaja and the city center, and said she has never felt as scared in Lasnamäe.

A few years ago, the capital’s architect Endrik Mänd warned that time is running out for the aging, Soviet-era apartment blocks in the Lasnamäe, Mustamäe and Õismäe districts, since they were hastily built and are becoming uninhabitable in a relatively short period of time. The area of Lasnamäe is 27.41 square kilometers, roughly divided into residential and industrial regions, and with a total number of residents standing at 118,271 in February 2014, it is by far the largest district of the capital.

Saying that in Estonia, Lasnamäe is seen as depressive and dangerous is like saying the sky is seen as blue. The stereotypes abound and even as recently as in 2007 - although Mati Unt’s original novel Autumn Ball (Sügisball) took place in Mustamäe, Veiko Õunpuu made the artistic choice of moving the action of his film adaptation to Lasnamäe, mixing eras and aesthetics, apparently to take the expression of ultimate angst to a symbolic level without delving into the realities of the place in the mid-noughties.

Looking at cities across the globe, these monotonous, anonymous apartment blocks are not unique, neither in terms of the unimaginative and often poor quality architecture, but also the areas as sources of social tensions. The fact that the majority of Lasnamäe’s residents are Russian-speaking has caused friction for decades. For example, in the fervor of the Singing Revolution in the 1980s, one of the five immensely popular patriotic songs, widely circulated, called on people to “stop Lasnamäe!”, equating the district with the threat to national survival.

A stigma still persists, even if the nationalistic rhetoric has become milder over the years. Due to a lack of a strong Russian political party, Edgar Savisaar’s Center Party has become their rallying point and since non-citizens are able to vote in local elections, Lasnamäe has, over time, become identified as Savisaar’s turf, where his support base is strong among the elderly Russian-speaking residents. In the last local elections in October 2013, Savisaar hauled in a record 39,932 votes in Lasnamäe’s electoral district.

However, in recent years, young activists, urbanists and architects have been engaging the urban and social landscape of Estonia, including the concomitant Soviet heritage. The Estonian exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012 focused on Linnahall - once a spectacular concert hall and now an increasingly derelict ghost structure at the seaside. In 2013, the Tallinn Architecture Biennale looked at ways of recycling Socialism and the Estonian Urbanists’ Review recently published a special issue on Post-Socialist cities.

Now the Estonian Urban Lab, a competence center for urban thought and action that has engaged Tallinn’s neighborhood associations with their project Urban Idea in the past, is reaching out to Lasnamäe. While the districts of panel houses were built according to the fantasies of Soviet urbanists, aiming to limit personal space to the bed and organize everything else communally, the ideas failed particularly in the social sphere and these districts are now usually seen as passive and lacking of community spirit. So inspiring activism there is an ambitious undertaking, Teele Pehk from the Estonian Urban Lab admitted, telling News ERR that Lasnaidee (Lasna Idea) grew out of the Urban Idea, which mostly dealt with greener and older districts with an established community spirit.

The Lansaidee team has a partner, NPO Kontakt, specializing in integration, and the Urban Lab has already woven a network of contacts to take the idea further. This network includes local co-op heads, entrepreneurs (the studio Vita Pictura), actors, journalists, artists and architects, young activists. Not all of them even live in Lasnamäe but they all love the place and have their hearts set on making the residents more active. These include both Estonians as well as Russians and the Lasnaidee team is more in the role of an enabler.

Maria Derlõš, one of the main engines behind Lasnaidee and a patriot of the region, contests the notion of the panel houses as monotonous and says the stereotypes are usually held by people who rarely visit Lasnamäe themselves. “Looking from afar, it all seems monotonous and homogeneous, but when you zoom in, it is exciting to see how each courtyard is a separate world, how the balconies are decorated, which plants and plans are used in courtyards,” Derlõš said.

The main aim of the project is to inspire Lasnamäe’s residents to take a greater interest in their living environment. Two major issues are the empty wastelands dotting the region and nurturing community life in the courtyards - flanked by buildings, they form a natural stage in need of a show, Pehk said. In reality, the locals do care about their living environment but are unsure how to effect a change and tend to wait for someone to come in and make things happen, Derlõš added.

Work on the project has shown that Lasnamäe’s concerns are related to everyday issues: unemployment, lack of bike lanes to the city center, parking, and lack of cafés and restaurants, Pehk said.

This lack of entertainment has been addressed by the team that runs the Katusekino (Rooftop Cinema) on top of the Viru Shopping Center in the heart of Tallinn. Tallinn City Government recently greenlighted a drive-in movie theater in the parking lot of Lasnamäe Centrum. The first screening was held on June 12 and the cinema will stay open until September 7, with screenings beginning at 23:00.

Whereas Katusekino’s risk involves the rarely predictable weather, a drive-in cinema in Lasnamäe leaves the audience protected from the elements but is still uncharted territory in a way.

Aivar Laan, the brains and soul behind Katusekino, told ERR News that the project was launched in co-operation with local Russians, who are fluent in Estonian, and are patriots of Lasnamäe, so there were no problems setting up the cinema.

With this demographic gradually gaining attention next to the “Savisaar crowd," a gaping hole in the leisure department has become apparent. “The nearest places for entertainment are in the city center, and the cinema recently opened in Viimsi is also far away,” Laan said.

He echoed Pehk’s sentiment that there is an emerging community spirit in Lasnamäe, a certain mentality that is difficult to put into words.

While the Russian-speaking twenty-somethings largely share tastes with their Estonian peers, the program of the drive-in cinema takes their nationality into account and this is why 30-40 percent of the program features new Russians films. “This is an integration project, after all, we want to talk to them in their own language,” Laan said.

A tangible change is taking place in the perception of Lasnamäe, which is now seen as a little wild and dangerous, but also very exciting place, Derlõš said. Other residents of Tallinn are increasingly taking an interest in Lasnamäe, as the hugely popular urban walk in Lasnamäe, organized by the Urban Lab, demonstrated - “they want to see what kind of an animal Lasnamäe is,” she said.

April saw a TEDx conference on Lasnamäe in Russian and more events are yet to come - while the urban installations festival LIFT11 saw one installation overlooking a Lasnamäe motorway in 2011, the region will be taken over by several temporary artworks by Estonian and Finnish artists in the fall with the Grand Lasnamäe Urban Art Event. Derlõš sees some potential in Lasnamäe as a tourist destination, particularly for people who are venturing outside the Old Town and Kalamaja to seek new thrills and there is a heightened interest in socialist heritage.

When it comes to visions of the future, Derlõš hopes there will be more varied entertainment for the young, instead of just churning out one shopping mall after another. Developing community spirit, which makes it is perfectly natural to borrow sugar from neighbors in a huge panel house, will most likely rely on the model of the co-op, not the neighborhood association, which are prevalent elsewhere in Tallinn.

“However, the essence is still similar - the independence and self-awareness of people in deciding and having a say in local issues,” Derlõš said.

There is plenty of cause for optimism - various workshops of the Lasnaidee team led a picnic a few weeks ago at the strategically located Kivila Park, where they attracted the attention of young mothers and people returning from the Priisle market. The initial idea of merely announcing the time and location and showing up with some tables and nibbles morphed into a full-on event with volunteers organizing origami workshops and discussions on integration, children break dancing and the city architect introducing plans for the future. “It mushroomed by itself and that gave the Lasnamäe picnic a really nice and friendly atmosphere,” Pehk said.

Or put more bluntly in the words of Autumn Ball’s protagonist, writer Mati: “In every one of these damn boxes there is someone who just wants to be loved.“

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