Remembrance of things not quite yet past

When I moved from London to Warsaw, back in 1999, I turned up with a couple of cases, nowhere to live, no job and knowing hardly anyone in the city. I can’t go into the reasons why I took the decision to move here, because that’s a whole other story…

Although I’d visited the city as a tourist a couple of times before, I obviously had no notion of what it was like living here. My first impression, upon getting off the coach at West Station, was of a very rundown place, with decaying bus shelters and a rather alarming station building that you didn’t feel safe hanging around in for any length of time. Oddly enough, this is one rare example of public transport infrastructure in the city that hasn’t been extensively renovated since then. Plans were announced several years ago to demolish it all and replace it with a shiny new building, but this project is still waiting to get off the ground, with the main stumbling block being the lack of available financing. So, while work on a new train station is now well underway next door, the eyesore that is the coach station stubbornly persists, sticking out like a particularly ugly thumb amidst all the state-of-the-art office buildings that now surround the site.

I soon discovered, though, that my first impression hadn’t given me the full picture of my newly-adopted city. In fact, I’d arrived shortly before the opening of its first multiplex – Multikino in Ursynów. The district itself had mostly been built in the 1970s and 80s, with wide roads and tall residential blocks rising out of abundant greenery, the kind of Corbusian wet-dream of many urban planners back then turned into reality – and one of the more successful examples. Ursynów also benefited greatly from the completion of the first stretch of the Warsaw Metro in 1995, which ran through the district. High-rise estates in my native country, though, had long since earned an awful reputation as inhuman, shoddily-built pockets of social and economic deprivation – certainly not places you would choose to take a shortcut through late at night. And yet, Ursynów seemed pleasant, prosperous and safe, if only a bit boring – especially in terms of nightlife and other entertainment, all of which helped give rise to its nickname: ‘Warsaw’s bedroom’. Multikino Ursynów, however, was set to change all that. It offered the latest in design and comfort, as well as a few restaurants and the StarLight Café – a large American-style diner decorated with murals of Audrey Hepburn, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix and the Blues Brothers. Within its extensively glazed exterior, cocktails and tacos were endlessly served to its upwardly-mobile clientele as they watched Premier League or NBA games on huge plasma screens.

But that was then, and this is now. A few months ago I happened to be passing by the complex and was struck by how shabby it now looked. Paint was peeling off the sign above the entrance, while the outer walls were lined with faded old film posters. I had to take a look inside the foyer, which was equally desolate and depressing – instead of it being thronged with cinema-goers buying popcorn and tickets, there was not a soul in sight. I had an even bigger shock when I checked out the StarLight Café next door. It had closed down, apparently abruptly in 2019, and any hopes of an immediate replacement seem to have been killed off by the pandemic. Perhaps, as young consumers increasingly opted to go out in hipper districts, such as Praga or the city centre, Ursynów had simply reverted to its original profile as a dormitory district. The cinema itself is also likely to have fallen victim to the boom in TV streaming services. Why go to the pictures if you can watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters at home for the price of a large Coke at the multiplex?

It came as little surprise then when the news broke the other day that the whole complex and its site had been sold to a residential developer and is now living on borrowed time until its demolition and replacement with another estate. The reason given by the owner for making this deal was that it could make more money from selling the property than the operating revenue it could generate over several years. Obviously, the times and the city have changed a great deal since the turn of the millennium. Multikino was then Warsaw’s future and West Coach Station was its past. Both are still standing, but not for much longer. And so, I’m likely to be making a nostalgic visit to both in the short time they still have left.