Beauty and Comfort of New Sidewalks

The beginning of Fall in Tula was marked by rain, cold and … massive repairs of sidewalks.  The city was changing old asphalt for new sidewalk tiles and doing it swiftly and with a lot of determination.  Numerous crews worked on various streets removing the old pavement completely, literally to the ground.  The city’s view expressed by various officials in the press was that putting new tile would improve comfort and safety (in rain and snow) of walking and even refine the city aesthetically.  An excellent idea, indeed, it would probably be even better if done gradually.  But in the center of the city the pavement has been removed on both sides of streets simultaneously making the process of walking if not impossible than certainly not comfortable for several weeks.

Hearing some people (especially women who wear high hills everyday) complain about impassible sidewalks made me side with the city’s administration.  I mean, we want comfort and safety but we can’t change our preferences in shoes for several weeks!  One can wear rubber boots, or better not walk altogether but drive, or, alternatively, use the road part of the street for walking (exactly what some were doing!)  But seriously, I think the city has done a good job and crews, working on both sides of the street, were able to finish their work earlier.  I have to admit, that this realization comes after the completion of the work, though.  

Here is a street with asphalt removed.

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Same street, now with new tiles.

Tiled sidewalks do look much better now.  They do improve appearance of streets.  What is more important, they now have ramps.  Some of new pavements still have some minor defects but those could be, and hopefully will be, quickly eliminated.  Especially, since the tiles are produced at the Braer factory, a building materials manufacturer that has been opened in Tula region recently.

Gone with the asphalt were various dissimilar kiosks that used to sell cigarettes, soda, bread and other small goods, and old bus stops.

In their place – new bus stops.  Transparent and adorned with Tula's coat of arms decals.

   

Old Wooden Houses

Despite the changes in Tula’s canvas throughout the last century and more recently, there still exist whole areas in the heart of the city that have preserved their appearance almost completely.  There are several streets in the center of the city that are almost totally comprised of old wooden town houses.  Sergei Gusev, a historian of Tula whose books I have mentioned in my earlier posts, writes that in pre-revolutionary times these quarters have been favored by the city’s professionals such as lawyers and doctors.  To this day many of these houses still stand unaltered.  And although some look unpopulated, some have been restored by new owners and others are neighbors to an occasional office or a big apartment complex constructed recently, an atmosphere of an old city remains here.

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An old water pump.

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A reflection of a new building constructed across the street.

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Old gardens are in bloom every Spring here.

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Tula Landscape: Unplanned Eclecticism

It has been a very long time since my last post to this journal! During this time spring has finally arrived, although belatedly this year. It snowed and then rained for several days making the sidewalks basically impassible. Then the snow started to melt away really quickly leaving rivers and lakes on city’s streets.

One day I was waiting for a bus that was late so it gave me more time for observation. It was really a fine day, water was running down streets, glistening in the spring sun, cleaning crews were trying to pick up the remaining piles of dirty snow, their special snow-picking machines looking like huge grasshoppers; cars, mostly muddy, were stuck in traffic, small taxi buses were speeding up and quickly stopping to unload their passengers; unhurried trolley buses were slowly floating through the morning streets and streetcars were trilling sharply to the cars that blocked the rails. And the canvas for this optimistic chaos was the similarly busy character of the city’s landscape, mainly its planning and architecture.

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I already mentioned in one of the earlier posts that walking in Tula reminds me of archeology, or, to be more precise, of those cross-sections that are often used to illustrate archeological excavations. There you often see several levels of landscape, on top of each other, several time periods compressed in one spot. This is the feeling I often get being in Tula where pre-revolutionary wooden houses, apartments built in Khrushchev’s era, some shapeless creations developed recently and construction sites all coexist on one block. Undoubtedly, similar combinations exist in urban landscapes everywhere in the world but here centuries, styles, colors, and details not only converge but often collapse into each other creating an effect of stylistic disorder.

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A block of pre-revolutionary buildings on the left faces a newly developed shopping mall and an apartment complex on the right.
In the background is a nine story residential building typical of later Soviet years.

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A modern high-rise towers over an apartment house built in the 1950s (on the right).  Across the street is a construction site of a hotel and old merchant rows.

A certain disharmony in the city’s look is rooted in the fact that in Russia historical changes often brought different directions in urban aesthetics and, as a result, dissimilar approaches to architectural design. During the twentieth century alone the landscape of the city changed several times, first, with the destruction of many churches and cathedrals, then with the development of the city’s center and of course with the development of new housing. For example, several old streets in the center of Tula which housed rows of merchant stalls have been annihilated in the 1970s in order to clear the space for Lenin’s plaza and the building for the city’s and the region’s administration. Whole areas have been cleared to make way for one of Tula’s large avenues – Krasnoarmeisky (The Red Army) prospekt. (To be fair – annihilation of old wooden houses started before the Soviet times and is more of a historical, rather than political, event. In Moscow, for example, small wooden houses were giving way to bigger, multistoried apartment buildings in the first decade of the 20th century, to the dismay of some people. Marina Tsvetaeva, a poet native to Moscow, among others, was lamenting Moscow’s changing nature.)

When I was writing about Moscow in the 20th century I noticed that governmental position towards urban development has always two sides – it must address the strategy of new city development while dealing with the old, already existing architectural “funds”. I believed that the balance between these two segments is always an indicator of the state policies in general. Of course, any city’s development always has its opponents and proponents, but mostly it is a sign of progress (or at least a historical progression.) Unfortunately, in Soviet times ideology or the pure need for housing often prevailed over the harmony of architectural integration. And if Stalin’s position on urban development combined the beauty and the comfort (with the emphasis on the beauty, I believe), then Khrushchev’s approach to urban aesthetics was based on the utilitarian approach to the city’s development in general and architectural design per se. Similar “utilitarianism” happened in more recent history when economic opportunities in urban development, scarce budgets, greed or bad taste did not leave any place for beauty in architectural design.

As a result, today in Tula we see two to three story apartment buildings built in the 1940s and 1950s, five story khrushchevkas built in the sixties and seventies out of construction blocks, their better brick variants built in the seventies and eighties, nine story complexes, built either of blocks or brick, square boxes of new offices developed in the last decade, new apartment complexes – orange and yellow brick facades, often with towers on roofs.

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An old building in the center used to be a regular apartment house, according to Alexander Lepekhin, a historian.  It has been rebuilt in the beginning of the 20th century to incorporate some elements of gothic style.  Now its neighbors are an apartment house constructed in the 1980s, a high-rise built recently (on the right) …

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…and a smaller wooden town house that somehow survived.

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Church of Alexander Nevsky has been completed in 1886 and has been restored in recent years.  Unfortunately, the orange brick of the apartment building in the background is in true dissonance with the cathedral's design.  Hopefully, mirror panels of an office building on the right would be more subdued, when the building is completed.

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An arch of an apartment house built in the early 1950s gives way to a typical five story residential khrushchevka.

Interestingly, such eclecticism in design and city planning is often amplified by a certain cultural or, probably, historic inconsistency. It is sometimes strange to see advertising or logos of modern companies on old buildings that house them.

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Town house of Grechikhin, a Tula's famous merchant, has been built in 1912.  Now it houses offices and stores.

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This often ornate collection has, thankfully, several pleasant features: there still exist old prerevolutionary buildings, structures erected in the fifties (I’ll talk about them later) and, at least in the development of the center that I see now, there clearly exist a tendency for a new architectural thought which tries to harmonize the new developments with the historical areas of the city’s center. Whether and to what degree it is successful is another story, but at least there is an attempt (and I guess it must be the part of both the developer and the city’s administration) to preserve the city’s cultural heritage.

Spring Snowstorm

The last weekend’s snowstorm affected Eastern Europe and Western Russia. It set records and was often called “unprecedented” in the news. To Tula, like to many other cities and towns in Europe, Ukraine, Belorussia and Russia the storm brought blizzard conditions, gusty winds and a lot of snow.
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The city felt quieter, calmer with fewer cars out.
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Because this particular storm was big and mainly because it happened to pass us in the last week of March, it sparked a lot of witty remarks about the weather in general and this year’s never-ending winter in particular. Jokes such as “It’s 53rd of February”, or “Happy New Year”, or “The National Weather Service’s special offer: Survive three months of winter, get one month free” (kp.ru) quickly proliferated on the Internet making the weather not only tolerable but even enjoyable.
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The storm made the city look better under the clean cover of the sparkling snow.
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Special, spring-like blue of the sky, spiky shadows that trees throw on the ground and the brightness of the snow offset the imperfections of the big industrial town.
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P.S.

As a postscript to the previous entry – new containers for the sand appeared on Tula’s central streets. I have to say that they look nice, modern and, what is probably more important, utilitarian. And although small piles of sand on street corners look more picturesque, these yellow containers are definitely an improvement.
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March. Ice is Everywhere and Spring is in the Air.

The transition of February to March in Tula is not the most exciting period. It can be boring and gloomy, with grey thaw, overwhelming news about flu epidemics, and news reports on what food has bigger amount of vitamins needed in order to overcome the pre-Spring depression. On these days, it is rather difficult to find any poetics in patches of black ice on sidewalks, dirty snow with sooty-looking spots and polka dots of dog poop, buses enveloped in clouds of wet freezing snow and exhaust or thawed patches revealing disheveled brown grass and last Fall’s leaves.

But the first days of the Spring can also be sunny and frosty. Then the icy sidewalks begin to sparkle, and walking becomes almost pleasant.
Ice road

It usually snows here a lot, not necessarily every day, but repeatedly. When it snows, it can continue for several days so eventually snow accumulates and turns into ice. Street cleaners, both municipal as well as private businesses try to clear snow and then later split the thick coat of ice on the sidewalks. Also, sand is used to make the sidewalks less slippery. Every morning a big truck with sand comes and a worker puts several buckets of sand on corners of avenues to be used later in the day by the street cleaners.

Eventually, the ice comes off, but nevertheless, walking may still be rather difficult and tricky, the key is to lean forward slightly and making careful steps try not to fall. (However, you see a lot of women of all ages walking freely on icy sidewalks in high hills.) The ice on the streets is a perennial trait of a town in Central Russia in the winter. I remember this problem from my childhood; in fact for us, children, it was one of the exciting things in the winter – we would slide on the most glassy patches and even go skating on some of the icy streets. I’ve recently read in the book of history of Tula (written by a local historian S. Gusev) that skating on the city’s central street was popular among citizens in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Amazingly, streets themselves – the road parts – are absolutely free of ice. I see it as a very big improvement, as I remember how sometimes it used to be difficult to drive. Now it looks like two seasons magically placed together – wintery sidewalks and summer-like roads; walking on the icy sidewalk makes you wish you were a car!

Another interesting winter trait is icicles.
Old House Icicles in Tula

On warmer days the sun melts the snow on the roofs and icicles appear.
Apartment Building Icicles in Tula, Russia

They are removed (broken off) by crews of municipal workers on cherry-pickers. Newer co-op buildings usually hire professional climbers to do the job.
Cleaning Snow off the Roof

But on sunny days you look past signs on buildings that say “Danger: Icicles Falling”, stop and look up and see glittering spikes (usually you just swear under your breath and dock as icicles do fall on people, despite the city’s continuous efforts to take them off of the roofs.)

It’s the beginning of March and it’s been snowing today yet again. But the spring is in the air. The workers have been trimming trees’ branches on city’s streets during past two weeks.

Trimming the Trees in Tula, Russia

I guess this is done in order to maintain the trees healthy. This work has to be done before April, when the tree sap begins to flow. Neatly collected piles of cut branches wait to be picked up.
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Trees look ugly now, their long braches turned to bare stomps. But we all know that soon, even before we get tired of this seemingly never-ending winter, new green leaves will appear.
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Old Russian City

Tula is an old Russian city. In fact, it is believed to be one year older than Moscow but as sometimes happens with historical timing, the date can be disputed. Tula first mentioned in the Nikon’s Chronicles written in the 16th century in relation to a battle that happened in 1146.

Did Tula exist before this date or did a scribe place it into an earlier (or later) historical context? We don’t know for sure and it surely does not matter. I’m only mentioning it to illustrate that Tula is an old city and that growing up in Tula as a child you get the year “1146” instilled into your mind as a fact. This makes you really proud – your native city is older than Moscow (founded in 1147) and at the same time unwisely ignorant – as you go on living never questioning the validity of this historical date and repeating to everyone you meet that “you come from Tula, the city that is one year older that Moscow.”

Kremlin (fortress) in Tula
Kremlin in Tula

It is interesting to see how often and carelessly we use clichés. Ask anybody whose childhood was spent in the late years of the Soviet Union to describe “New York” in one phrase and they will most certainly use a phrase from a very famous and loved by many Soviet movie “The Diamond Hand” – “New York is a city of contrasts”. Similarly with Tula – when you think of it or ask somebody to describe it this is what you get: Tula is a city famous for:
1. Firearms production (Tula became the center of firearms production in Russia in the beginning of the 18th century)
2. Samovars (vessels used to boil water for tea)
3. Honey cakes called prianiki
4. “The significance of Tula is of the essence for the Soviet republic” a quote from works by very loquacious Lenin (leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917), and
5. Yet again, the perennial issue of Tula being older than Moscow.

Famous Tula samovar (teapot) and prianik (honey cakes)
Tula Samovar and Pryanik

This is what comes to mind first when you think of Tula. And all of it is true. But strangely enough, you don’t think of your city as a place where you went to school, waited on the streets for buses and street cars in cold winter mornings, strolled with your friends through streets drenched in sweet smell of blossoming cherry and apple trees in the spring; or any other such seemingly trivial activities. Nothing, it seems, at least at the first instinct, outweighs the firearms factories, teapots, honey pastries, Lenin’s phrase (adapted from its original version by his communist followers), and the questionable superiority of Tula over Moscow in your mind!

It is true, from a small mention in ancient Chronicles, Tula has grown into a large industrial city of almost half a million people. True, its history is great. True, that the city has a reputation of one of the esteemed old Russian arms production cities, and certainly true that Tula’s prianiki are very tasty and its samovars are exceptionally good to sit around and are very often true pieces of art. But why, I wonder, is the collective so often takes over the personal in the subconscious?

Tula street

Like many other such places all over Russia Tula combines two principal traits: that of an old big provincial town and that of a former Soviet city. I form this opinion based on Tula’s history and architecture solely, but some of the people would say that this is true about the mores, as well. I agree with the claim of Tula’ s provinciality (although relative in our age of globalization), but view it as a charming quality that in its best should be cherished and preserved.

Tula - Old Russian City

There still exist a number of old historically important buildings in Tula. There is the Kremlin in the very heart of the city, beautiful churches and cathedrals, houses bearing traces of historically important meetings or famous people. But what makes the city even more interesting, if not unique, is the coexistence of several historical (architectural) levels. Today, blocks of wooden town houses dating from the beginning of the 20th century and probably earlier share ground with Soviet apartment buildings and wedges of newly developed high-rises and town houses developments. This creates an ornate mix and walking through the city you always feel like an anthropologist digging through slices of “cultural landscapes”.