Whenever I get on a Tallinn trolleybus, the lyrics of Viktor Tsoi’s wonderful song “Троллейбус –Trolleybus” run through my head no matter which direction I’m heading: И каждый с надеждой глядит в потолок/ Троллейбуса, который идет на восток. (And everyone looks up with hope at the ceiling / Of the trolleybus, which is headed east.)
Of course, as only a literal handful of cities in the United States – Seattle, San Francisco, Dayton (Go Ohio!), Boston, and Philadelphia – still have trolleybuses (electric buses powered by overhead wires), they somehow feel like a means of public transportation that you might only encounter out east – or in that area sometimes known as Eastern Europe. After all, trolleybuses were a mandatory part of any Soviet urban plan – including those for an expanding post-occupation Tallinn.
And so, each time I head out to Mustamäe (Black Hill), I get on a trolleybus, look up at the ceiling, and then head west – or south-west to be more exact. Why head to Mustamäe at all – many of my Estonian friends will ask? Good question. As I no longer know anyone who lives out there, I’m still working on a complete answer …. For now, I guess I would say that I go to Mustamäe because it is there – and because it is big. If Tallinn were to be broken up into its constituent parts so that Mustamäe would become a city unto itself, then it would be the third largest in Estonia. And, of course, my other reason for going to Mustamäe is because I can get there on a trolleybus. The journey is always half the adventure.
If you visit the Tallinn Tourist Information Center, you’ll find nice little brochures about some of the city’s neighborhoods such as the one devoted to Kalamaja with the catch phrase “trendy & bohemian” or the one about Rocca al Mare & Nõmme which is pitched as being “lively & traditional.” While Mustamäe does get a brief footnote at the end of the second brochure’s much longer description of Nõmme, the catch phrase for Mustamäe would probably be something along the lines of “sleepy & soviet.” Sleepy, because it was designed as a bedroom community for Tallinn. And soviet, because the vast majority of its panel apartment buildings went up in the 1960s and 1970s.
Mustamäe’s name of Black Hill, however, is much older. “Dirty” – the alternate translation for the Estonian word “must” – is definitely not in play. After all, Mustamäe was once the Beverly Hills of Tallinn’s former Baltic-German aristocracy who built their summer estates out in these pine-forested hills between Tallinn’s two main fresh-water lakes – Ülemiste (Upper) and Harku (from the German name Hark which shares similar roots to the verb to hark). While these estates are long gone, you can still see the impressive moated remains of one manor’s gardens if you go to Lowenrüh Park in neighboring Kristiine just across the border. In other words, someone had already figured out that the Black Hill was prime real estate long before the Red Army ever got here.
The Soviets, however, pretty much built modern-day Mustamäe, one pre-fabricated concrete panel at a time. Some of the local planners must have had some respect for the forest as you will find that many of these huge paneled monsters are built around groves or copses. Unlike most Soviet “micro-regions,” Mustamäe at least feels as if it has not been entirely cut off from nature – something which is a definite plus. And thanks to its various parks and to the adjoining tracts of surviving forest, this means that Mustamäe still feels somehow “green.” And now, modern day Estonian urban designers – channeling that Nordic aesthetic – have figured out how to make these old Soviet apartment blocks somewhat more appealing by adding the right swath of colored paint – or even some additional weather-proof panels on top of the old Soviet concrete ones. While not yet quite eye-pleasing, at least most of these old buildings are no longer the eye-sores they once were.
As an American, however, the one thing I’ll never be able to understand is the Mustamäe street system – perhaps because it was not designed for private cars but for pedestrians commuting by trolleybus or regular bus. Each large grouping of giant panel buildings will often share just one street name – more of a “neighborhood name” than anything else. That street name will then be used for every through street and dead end in the neighborhood. And so, you could very well find yourself one day at the corner of Silli and Silli.
I happen to know this because I once went to Silli to check out Hoovi Häng (Courtyard Hangout) – an event designed to highlight the life within Mustamäe’s vast courtyards and to prove that Mustamäe can also be cool. Kudos to the four young women of the MTÜ Must Mägi (Black Hills NGO) who came up with the idea: their Hoovi Häng resembled a large U.S. block party and so it did its job. It also got me thinking that there must be other things fermenting and bubbling away just under Mustamäe’s surface. As it happens, I’d recently made another recent trek out to Mustamäe to check out a new bakery named Crustum which – as this Latin word for bread implies – makes some of the crustiest new sourdough bread in town.
On another recent visit to check out the local market (see A Tale of Two Tallinn Markets), I noticed that Mustamäe’s hipsters appear to be taking over the old bus and trolleybus stop kiosks of their parents. These kiosks now boast names such as Shaurma Fusion and are trying to channel the latest international food trends including Asian bubble waffles. I’ll need to go back out to Mustamäe again soon on a tasting expedition …. In other words, it looks like it won’t be long before Umami Restaurant – opened by the good people from Leib – will not be the only destination restaurant out in Mustamäe. Finally, the days will soon be gone when the best you could hope for was to head over to the nice Georgian restaurant Pirosmani on the Nõmme side of Üliõpilaste tee (University Student Street) and then look out on the culinary wasteland that was 1990s Mustamäe.
If you want to go and check out Mustamäe for yourself, then the best way to get there – of course – is by trolleybus. That’s what Tallinn’s urban planners intended when they opened the first trolleybus lines out to the neighborhood back in 1965. Tallinn used to boast nine trolleybus lines – nine lives – but it’s now down to just four. Fortunately, all the surviving lines go to Mustamäe – even if one of the lines tries to throw you off by claiming that its final destination is Keskuse. You will find Tallinn’s cutting-edge University of Technology – where they are busy working on new technological wonders including electric cars and their batteries – at the end of the trolleybus lines. Hopefully, some of the 12,000+ students taking classes out at the university campus will help accelerate Mustamäe’s coming food revolution.
If you happen to be in Central Tallinn – or to the east of the Old Town – then head to either the Kaubamaja stop or the Estonian Theater stop across from the Solaris Center to catch the no. 1 or the no. 3 trolleybus out to Mustamäe (the no. 2 line is MIA). If you happen to be in North Tallinn – or on the west side of Old Town – then head to the stop in front of Balti Jaam (the Baltic Train Station) where you can catch the no. 4 (the one whose destination reads Keskuse) or the no. 5 trolleybus. All four trolleybuses will spend most of their journey crossing the neighborhood of Kristiine which lies between downtown and their final destination of Mustamäe.
The difference between these four survivors is their route: the no. 1 and the no. 5 trolleybuses go up Mustamäe tee (Black Hill Road) – past the Trolleybus Depot at Paldiski mantee (Baltic Port Highway) – while the no. 2 and the no. 4 go up Sõpruse tee (Friendship Road). While all four trolleybuses will weave their way around the narrower downtown streets, they just love the two long straightaways designed specifically for them. You will get a real feel for the trolleybus’ rhythm as they travel – slowing at corners and at wire switches in order to make smooth transitions and avoid dewirements – and then speeding up whenever they have straight lines to follow. These days, most of Tallinn’s trolleybuses are newer Solaris units made in Poland. You might, however, still see an old Czech Škoda behemoth plying the streets from time to time. Fortunately, dewirements – which meant that the driver had to get out of the bus to reconnect it to the overhead wires – are a rarity these days unlike in Soviet times when they were a fairly regular occurrence.
Don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to my future trolleybus rides out to Mustamäe as I continue to explore whatever else this vast neighborhood might have to offer. And when I head back home, I even get to ride on Tsoi’s mythical trolleybus headed east – or at least north-east. You’ll find me looking up with hope at the ceiling.
Image: Yes, that black square was intentionally left black. I call it “Black Hill” and it represents both a nod to Mustamäe as well as my homage to Kazimir Malevich’s painting “Black Square.” It also stands for the fact that Mustamäe remains largely a terra incognita for me and so I’ll need to go back to find its colors.