Monday, April 7, 2014

The Several Hearts of Šiauliai City

Šiauliai is an industrial town and has been for a long time.  And like the industrial cities of the American Heartland—I’m thinking of Ohio, specifically—it is losing population and trying to rebrand itself as a tourist destination.  That’s why almost every Šiauliai factory has a museum celebrating the chocolates, or bicycles, or widgets that are made on site or nearby.

Šiauliai also is a commercial city, and much of the retail trade is conducted in shopping malls outside the city center.  The largest and most popular mall is the Akropolis on the outskirts of the city, which features a 3-X Maxima grocery, an ice skating rink, and a bowling alley—all under one roof.  We tend to shop at another mall, called Šiaulių Miesto, because it’s only a few blocks from our flat.  Our street, Vilniaus gatvė, is closed to vehicular traffic, which marks it as the commercial center of the city.  The retail trade here was not brisk over the winter months, but it seems to be picking up with the warmer weather.

A historian might argue that the civic heart of the city is to be found at the square outside the cathedral and city hall, where parades and civic celebrations are held, though others might insist that the heart of the city is a few blocks east of that, near an ancient cemetery and on the shores of a big lake, Talkšos ež, where people congregate on sunny days.  Some of the guidebooks—the ones that stress civic art—maintain that this district is the real center of Šiauliai.  My favorite Lithuanian sculptor, Stanislovas Kuzma, designed and built “The Archer,” a gilded lad who stands atop an 18-meter high plinth in the middle of Sundial Square  (see top photo, above).  The municipal government seems to favor the golden boy, for he also appears on many of the city’s manhole covers (see second photo, above).  Not far from the archer and sundial is a gigantic piece called the Iron Fox (see third photo, above), the work of Vilius Puronas, which was erected in 2009 as an answer to the Iron Wolf that stars in the legend of the founding of Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. 

Problem is, commercial life is completely lacking in the quarter of town devoted to civic life; they probably liked it that way back in the days of the U.S.S.R.  In fact, the lake shore is about to undergo a transformation, as it is the object of a joint redevelopment project financed by the government of Lithuania and the European Union.  It isn’t clear from the signage what kind of redevelopment they're planning, but one hopes that the aim will be to generate retail trade, though one fears that it might come at the expense of Vilniaus gatvė, and that it won’t be of a scale sufficient to undercut the attraction of the shopping malls.  Through the rumor mill we hear that a boat is being built that will be fitted out as a restaurant and floated on Talkšos ež.  Whether that has anything to do with the redevelopment project, we don’t know, but we’re hoping the maiden voyage of the boat/restaurant will take place during our watch.

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