an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Kalamaja’s Hipster DMZ: Telliskivi Creative City


Imagine Telliskivi (The Brick) as a kind of hipster DMZ on the wrong side of every train track. Although an official part of Kalamaja, just take out a Tallinn city map and you will see that the Brick resembles a flatfish’s pelvic fin (read the Legend of the Kalamaja Flatfish) thrust into the underbelly of neighboring Pelgulinn. As a result, our Pelgullinna neighbors often like to claim the Brick as their own. And yet, as a hipster DMZ (de-militarized zone), the Brick has become a place where Kalamaja’s and Pelgulinna’s hipsters can meet in peace – together with their friends from across Tallinn and Estonia – as well as with other like-minded people from around the world. In the interests of furthering this cross-border hipster cooperation, the Telliskivi Society NGO even mentions both Kalamaja and Pelgulinn as its twin home.

Keep looking at that Tallinn map of yours and you’ll see that the Mysterious Telliskivi Triangle is outlined by three sets of train tracks – one set joins it to Kalamaja while the other two officially separate it from Pelgulinn as well as from Kelmiküla due to some creative redistricting. The reason for this peculiar set up is that the Brick used to be home to a top-secret Soviet factory making transformers and other mysterious electronic apparati which were then hauled out of town by locomotive in the middle of the night and routed by train all across the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Kalinin Factory may not have been a “legal” part of Tallinn or occupied Soviet Estonia. Often, such secret factories were the official territory of the All-Soviet Ministry in Moscow which controlled their production. For most Estonians, Telliskivi would have been a no-go zone as a result – they wouldn’t have been allowed to cross over onto the wrong side of any of these three tracks. Fortunately, the former factory gates have now been opened wide and these tracks – these three wrongs – have ended up making a very hipster-friendly right.

These days, the post-Soviet Brick likes to style itself as a city within a city by using the surname of Loomelinnak (Creative City). Perhaps one day – like Vilnius’ Užupis – the Brick will even try to turn time full circle and declare itself to be its own republic, independent from Tallinn and the rest of Estonia.  If not, then at least there are various momentous events just over the temporal horizon to keep everyone entertained. Next year, the Brick will celebrate its 10th anniversary as it marks ten full years since the Black Nights Film Festival NGO (better known as PÖFF) moved in. PÖFF’s worthy goal is to bring some flickering film light to the first dark days of Estonia’s long winter. More on winter later.

Another early adapter was Tallinn’s Flea Market – which means that Saturday is a good day to visit the Brick. As you wander around the old factory grounds looking for that retro-Soviet item you never even knew you needed among all the many stalls of used clothes, make sure to check out the Brick’s interesting murals. Everyone loves the one of EvL’s portrait of Endel the hipster known as Dance of Death with Endel or Endel with a Selfie-Stick. My other favorite is the 3-D Lendorav (flying squirrel) made mostly from old auto and machine parts. When we – the creative collective where I work – were crowdfunding our new Poetics of Endangered Species: Estonia project on the Hooandja platform (headquartered at the Brick), we chose the lendorav as our poster boy – as our Rocky. And so, like a lonely Bullwinkle, I spent an afternoon traversing the Brick posting images of our flying squirrel – an activity I hadn’t done since I ran my college’s weekly film series. Fortunately, Boris and Natasha were long gone so I was even able to post our little lendorav right under the Brick’s big one.

There definitely is a bit of a college campus – or at least of a post-industrial campus – feel to the Brick. The most interesting part of the Brick is the part that you don’t usually get to see – such as the many creative organizations in residence like PÖFF and Hooandja. In addition to various other NGOs, the Brick is also home to several Estonian start-ups. You may want to check out their slick website for even more information if you haven’t already done so. Their Story of Telliskivi Creative City is worth a read: in addition to providing the city’s vision of itself, it also represents the smoothest English-language ad copy I’ve ever seen in Estonia. My favorite part of their website is their interactive map – although I’m sad to see that they’ve given each one of the Kalinin Factory’s old buildings new numbers. I much prefer the secret Soviet building designations such as F-Hoone (Building F).

By using the digital map – or by engaging in some good old-fashioned analog exploration on foot, you’ll find that the Brick is also home to various interesting shops – including some pop-ups. You can get your bike fixed at Jooks (I do and BTW they also make a nice cup of coffee). You can visit Puänt Bookstore (I’ve been known to buy the occasional book there). And you can also browse the Brick’s various design shops (I’m just wired that way). Or if clothes are more your thing, then you can check out the many different fashion shops (popular with some of my friends). Almost all of these shops are indie shops – or as the Brick now likes to brand them in order to give itself some more wiggle room – they are “shops with an indie view.” After all, even Muhu Pagarikoda (Muhu Bakery) – which got its mainland start at the Brick – is now becoming a fast-growing Estonian chain. Me, I still dream of Orissaare leib ….

When the weather is as nice as it has been this summer, then the Brick is also a great place to hang out – especially if going out drinking with your friends is your idea of a fun evening (sorry, but drinking is not my thing). Pudel Baar (Bottle Bar) – Tallinn’s first craft beer bar – is a British-owned mecca for both locals and visitors. Its former craft beer-only crowd is now “in transition” after Pudel branched out to appeal to both the prosecco and cocktail set. And, of course, there are various other places where you can find something to drink on a nice Baltic evening. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to catch one of the Brick’s many interesting concerts – or other events from its annual street food festival to its jazz series – at one of its venues. If not, do go looking for its various art galleries and exhibits — some of which are out in the open. During winter, however, the Brick’s vast outdoor factory yards become a bit of a ghost town as everything moves indoors where it is warm.

If you’re more of a foodie than anything else, then you might find that you don’t end up visiting the Brick as often as your friends (that’s my case). The Brick just doesn’t live up to its own potential when it comes to serving tasty food. These days, the brightest star in the Brick’s culinary constellation is La Muu. They are the only ones who make anything – in their case, ice-cream – which would survive the scorching competition of a London-level food scene. If you’re looking for something savory to eat, then your fall back plan should probably include F-Hoone (the Brick’s first eatery which opened its doors back in 2010) or maybe just getting a bite from the Bueno Gourmet food truck which you can eat over at Pudel’s.

Part of the problem with the Brick’s food scene may be caused the long Estonian winter which effectively turns most of this former Soviet factory into a seasonal hang out. The Brick’s energy level is vastly different in February than it is in August. The other part of the problem may be that there simply aren’t enough Estonians to keep all the huge open spaces filled in winter. Even in London where the winters are mild, my favorite street food markets like Street Feast end up moving indoors, covering and winterizing their spaces, or even closing down for the season. And again, even in London with its population more than six times the size of Estonia’s, the crowd numbers aren’t always there and so the focus is on Fridays and Saturdays – with some Sundays and Thursdays thrown in for good measure. Of course, if the Brick were to improve the quality of its food and transform itself into a real foodie destination, then it might be easier for everyone to get through those long Estonian winters ….

You’ll find the Brick at 60A Telliskivi (Brick Street). The no. 1 or 2 Kopli trams will get you there. Although if food is your thing, then you might want to grab something somewhere else first …. Fortunately, there’s always room for La Muu ice cream!


Image: Nestor Ljutjuk’s poster for our successful Poetics of Endangered Species: Estonia crowdfunding campaign. You can read more about this book project on the Ukrainian Cultural Center website. You should be able to order your own copy of this beautiful book from Labora starting in mid-September 2018.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: