an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

The Legend of the Kalamaja Flatfish (Continued)


If you think that the Legend of the Kalamaja Flatfish is only that – a tale – then you haven’t fully grasped your fish anatomy. All you need to do is pull out your Tallinn map once again and you will see that Vana-Kalamaja (Old Kalamaja) is the only complete north-south street in the neighborhood. On our flatfish, it serves to divide the head from the body. It marks the location of the curved gill cover or, to revert to fish talk, the operculum.

The straight path traced by Põhja (North Avenue) and then Soo (Fen Street) before it finally merges with Tööstuse (Industry Street) marks the location of the flathfish’s lateral line and is the only complete east-west street in the neighborhood – even if it changes its name several times and is mainly one-way headed west. In turn, the remains of our flatfish’s crushed spine start on Niine (Bast Street) before skipping over to Tööstuse which runs mostly one way across the neighborhood eastwards. Sadly, the Kalamaja Flatfish’s pectoral fin is only a stub – you will find it at Kalju Kirik (Rock Cliff Church) which happens to be missing its steeple. Looks like Olev never got a chance to build it …

Let’s go ahead now and take a closer look inside the Kalamaja Flatfish from its brains – North Tallinn’s double-hemisphered administrative buildings on Niine and Kotzebue (a street named after Baltic-German explorer Otto von Kotzebue) – all the way to its industrial back end which can be found beyond Volta (Volt Street) and Kalamaja Kalmistupark (Kalamaja Cemetery Park). As we dissect our flatfish, we will see that Kalamaja has all the essential organs it would need to function and survive on its own. Indeed, the neighborhood’s resemblance to a small, self-contained Estonian town is one of the reasons why I chose to live here.

At first, Kalamaja’s center – or its heart – might seem to be a little hard to find. You just need to be able to look beyond mere surface appearances. What would be its main hub – the intersection of Vana Kalamaja and Kotzebue – is now just a rather ugly looking parking lot. Re-imagine it as a village square and then everything starts falling into place. Around the square you will see a school, library, museum, pharmacy, hairdresser, sauna, one of the neighborhood’s two theaters, a store selling socks (all that remains of the former sock factory that was once down the street), and a funky and rather minimalist stationery store. Personally, I’m looking forward to the day when city planners complete their conversion of Vana-Kalamaja into a largely pedestrianized street as it means that Kalamaja’s heart will finally become the people-friendly central public space (agora) that it was always meant to be. While this “square” still serves this purpose on Kalamaja Days, having a beating heart for only two days out of the year is just not enough.

If you look carefully, you should also be able to find the belly of the beast without too much trouble. It is centered around the block formed by Graniidi (Granite Street), Vabriku (Factory Street), Salme (a street named after a character in Estonia’s national epic, Kalevipoeg), and Kalevi (a street named after the epic’s hero). This block is unlike any other block in this neighborhood made mainly out of wood. The stomach’s buildings are made instead from stone – although not always of granite. First to catch your eye is the Tsarist-era Kalamaja põhikool (Kalamaja School) building. Nearby is an impressive Tsarist-era apartment house built perhaps to house the school’s instructors, government inspectors, and even some lieutenants of industry. Further along Graniidi, you will find a series of impressive stone building set back from the street which would have been fit for the captains of industry, showing the locals who was in charge. In other words, this is where the products produced by Kalamaja’s residents were digested. These days, the block is also home to the Salme Kultuurikeskus (Salme Cultural Center) whose 1965 Soviet-era construction resembles a giant gray growth. Fortunately, the gardens around it provide a bit of color – as long as you don’t plan to visit in winter.

Moving beyond Kalamaja’s heart and belly, you’ll find that the neighborhood pretty much has everything else that you might need: a large and beautiful park (once an Estonian cemetery later bulldozed by the Soviet military when they wanted to build something that they never got around to building); several places of worship; a pawnbrokers; two shops for beekeepers; an awesome 1930s wood-fired sauna; a budget hotel plus a more upscale one as well as a youth hostel; an Estonian design shop; one of Europe’s most beautiful museums (the Estonian Maritime Museum at the Sea Plane Harbor); as well as Tallinn’s best market (Balti Jaama Turg or BJT). Of course, no hipster ‘hood would be complete without a couple of micro-breweries and more bakeries, cafes, clubs, bars, and restaurants than you can shake a stick at. In other words, there is more than enough here to keep the lifeblood of our neighborhood flowing. Kalamaja has you covered from cradle to grave thanks to its various nursery schools as well as its tombstone carver. And Majatohter (House Doctor) always stands ready to help you with your wooden home and whatever ails it.

Kalamaja’s residential flesh and bones runs roughly up until Volta on the south side of Tööstuse and to the Kalamaja Kalmistus Park on its north side. Beyond Volta are the neighborhood’s various industrial brownfields – home to the fish’s various secondary digestive, excretive, reproductive, and other unspecified organs. While some small-scale industrial production still takes place in Kalamaja – including the making of the world-renowned Estonia Pianos, most of Kalamaja’s industry is long gone and several of these old factories are now slowly being converted into high-end flats. Immune to commercial development, Estonia’s main Naval Base is housed where the fish’s tail fin used to be – but we already covered all that along with the location of the fish’s dorsal, anal, and pelvic fins in the original legend.

When someone from the U.S. asked me how large Kalamaja was to engender such a loyal following, my guess was somewhere around 35 square blocks. One of the complications for coming up with an exact measurement is that many of Kalamaja’s blocks aren’t exactly square although most are roughly rectangular. There are also several triangles and an odd pentagon or two thrown in for good measure. In my mind, a city block – not counting back alleys or driveways – is usually something that you can drive around in a car or some other vehicle. Please note that several of Kalamaja’s blocks are large enough that they have at least one – sometimes more – short cuts across them. These paths are accessible to pedestrians and cyclists who know these hidden byways.

Today, Kalamaja feels like a mass of contradictions. One moment it seems as if it is being overdeveloped as so many of its lots are under construction and so many of its old buildings are undergoing renovation. Sometimes it seems like all of Tallinn wants to move here. Fortunately, new building must follow the “Kalamaja Code” which means that they should be no more than four stories high and must be in harmony with the older wooden buildings around them — even if the architects’ concept of “harmony” sometimes seems to be rather flexibly defined …. And yet at other times when I walk around the neighborhood, all I notice are the vacant just waiting to be developed … although wouldn’t it be nice if more of them would be turned into parks?

Another reason why I like living Kalamaja is that so many of its long-term residents are proud to live here and so have developed an unusual esprit de corps. I mean, how many neighborhoods do you know of that have not one but two different coloring books devoted to them? Of course, I keep both coloring books on my kitchen table next to a box of Caran d’Ache colored pencils to entertain my guests. And in addition to the two other recent books about Kalamaja (Jaak Juske’s Kalamaja aja lood about its history and Bianka Soe’s compilation Õhus on Kalamaja about its people – both of which are on my kitchen bookshelf), Kalamaja has also served as the inspiration for artwork from postcards to posters. I keep a framed poster-map of Kalamaja designed by Katja & Julia of Masina Studio in a place of honor.

My hope for Kalamaja is that it will remain quirky despite all of its ongoing developments. I’m counting on the arrival of the Estonian Art School – along with its legion of art school students – to do the trick when it moves into the neighborhood this fall and takes up residence in the former Suva Sock Factory on Kotzebue. Although I must confess that I still worry about the future – especially when I see another one of Kalamaja’s green spaces being paved over to make room for more parking places for more and more cars. And yet in the end, Kalamaja still remains a very livable place. Ironically, that’s the very reason that more and more people seem to want to move here.

So next time you come visit Kalamaja – or even if you decide you want to move here, please tread gently as you explore the body of the Giant Kalamaja Flatfish. And remember to do whatever you can to help keep the place quirky!


The technical answer to the question about Kalamaja’s physical size is 2.1 square kilometers – or about 80% of a square mile – or 72% of the size of the City of London. Kalamaja’s population is probably around 11,000 after having grown by 25% or so over the last five years. And it will continue growing even more as new developments appear ….

Image: Oh, and if you like the Kalamaja map you see above, please go ahead and buy the poster or postcard version from Julia or Katja at Masina Studio. And if you need graphic design help, you may want to consider them for the job. Just don’t forget to tell them that flatfish sent you!

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