an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Choosing Kalamaja


Rarely a week goes by without someone wanting me to know that “Kopli is the new Kalamaja” or “Pelgulinn is the next Kalamaja” or “X neighborhood is Tallinn’s future Kalamaja.” I usually just nod noncommittally and keep quiet until the conversation moves on to another topic. For me, such propositions just don’t make any sense as it would imply that I live in the old, previous, or some other past version of Kalamaja. As it happens, I live in today’s Kalamaja. And tomorrow, this very same Kalamaja where I am now – and only this Kalamaja – will become the new Kalamaja, the next Kalamaja, the future Kalamaja. As for Kopli – to use it as my sample neighborhood X, it should focus on becoming the new Kopli, the next Kopli, the future Kopli. Change, after all, is our only constant. It’s what we do with this change that ultimately matters.

Yes, Kalamaja is unique. But so are Kopli and Pelgulinn and just about every other Tallinn neighborhood you might choose to live in or visit. And, yes, Kalamaja may be special – at least to me and to many of the people who live here. After all, most of us living in Kalamaja these days seem to have ended up here by choice rather than by accident – especially after the various out migrations of the late 20th Century when large number of its Soviet-era residents moved away in search of bigger or at least better housing.

Once I finally decided that the time had come to buy an apartment in Tallinn, I got on my motorcycle (her name was Mariah, short from Black Mariah, inspired by the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton”) and set off to explore Tallinn from my underground base in central Tõnismägi (OK – it was just an underground parking lot). My goal was to visit each and every one of Tallinn’s many neighborhoods – and travel not only along the main roads that I already knew but also wind my way down as many back streets as possible. I imagined myself as a kind of local London cabbie, working to develop my Tallinn version of “the Knowledge.” In any case, I started off in Kadriorg – the beautiful residential district where I first lived – and then slowly worked my way clockwise around the city.

As I didn’t want to live in a house or live too far away from Tallinn’s center, I soon scratched the lovely districts of Pirita and Nõmme off my list. And having had my visual fill of soul-numbing Soviet architecture while living and travelling around Russia for close to nine years, I dropped several of Tallinn’s 20th Century bedroom communities from my list – especially as I wanted to live in a building that had been well built. And so, my choice of potential neighborhoods gradually kept shrinking until I focused on Tallinn’s pre-World War II districts in my long-held belief that older really is better. Tallinn’s beautiful Old Town, however, never factored into my final equation – although it was the source of my original real estate inspiration – as it has been redesigned more for tourists than for residents over the last few decades. And while I do love boulders, rocks, and stones just as much as any Estonian, I also need some trees to go with them.

After what seemed like weeks of wending my way through all of Tallinn’s neighborhoods, I found myself in Kalamaja where one of my first Estonian friends lived. I knew right away that I’d finally come to the right place. Kalamaja has often been described as a “town within a town” or a “town within a city.” And, yes, its lovely wooden houses do make it look like a small Estonian town hugging the shores of the Baltic Sea. As a result, Kalamaja tends to attract Estonian transplants from the countryside searching for something on a much more familiar scale. And its proximity to the sea, its many trees, and its dominant wooden architecture also seem to make it a popular place with Estonia’s islanders – especially those from Saaremaa and Hiiumaa – who don’t want to stray too far from the water.

Another element contributing to Kalamaja’s town-like feel is that it is self-contained – it has very definite boundaries and borders which look something like a giant flatfish. When you go visit most of Tallinn’s other neighborhoods, you’re never quite sure where one ends and the next one begins. In Kalamaja, however, everything is clear. Kalamaja’s north-eastern border is the Baltic Sea and its weather-beaten shore is home to several of Tallinn’s small harbors: Kalasadam (Fish Harbor), Lennusadam (Sea Plane Harbor), and the recently re-opened Noblessner as well as the currently dormant piers at Linnahall (Town Hall). Kalamaja is only minutes away from Tallinn’s main harbor and ferry terminal just down the coast. Kalamaja’s south-eastern border is formed by Tallinn’s Old Town and the city’s main train station, Balti Jaam (Baltic Train Station). Kalamaja’s south-western limits are a no man’s land of railway switching yards, cleanly cutting it off from neighboring Pelgulinn. At its north-west tail end, Kalamaja becomes an industrial brownfield of old factories, seldom used railway lines, and the only Estonian Naval Base at Miinisadam (Sea Mine Harbor).

To sum things up, Kalamaja’s setting is pretty hard to beat as it meets all three elements of that old U.S. real estate maxim: location, location, location. Kalamaja’s location is right outside of Tallinn’s fascinating Old Town, which calls out for continuous exploration. Kalamaja’s location is right alongside busy Balti Jaam – the main train station into and out of town which will get you to most major Estonian towns as well as St. Petersburg and Moscow. The train station is also home to the city’s secondary bus terminal if you’re headed to one of Tallinn’s outlying suburbs. Kalamaja’s location is just steps away from Tallinn’s main ferry terminal if you want to visit Helsinki, Stockholm, or places beyond. Or, if you want to explore Tallinn’s wonderful islands of Aegna or Naissaar, you don’t even need to leave the neighborhood to catch your boat. In terms of public transportation, the number one tram will take you through downtown and then out to Kadriorg’s lovely parks while the number two tram will get you to Stockmann’s, Tallinn’s Central Market, or the city’s long-distance bus terminal after passing Viru Center and the Rotermann Quarter downtown. A quick switch from either tram at the Hobujaam (Horse Station) stop will put you on the number four tram headed to Tallinn’s airport. And then there are the number three and seventy-three busses which will take you into central Tallinn if you’re headed to other locations ranging from the Solaris Center to the Estonia Concert Hall. When headed in the other direction, these trams and buses will take you further into the North Tallinn District to visit other neighborhoods in transformation from Pelguranna to Kopli. And these days, as a kind of added icing on the cake, Kalamaja is now home to Tallinn’s best market: BJT.

Once Kalamaja’s various inter-connections hit me, I brought my motorcycle Mariah to a sudden stop. I knew I’d finally found the right Tallinn location for my future flat. If I would have taken another approach – other than my usual long and meandering one – I might have arrived in Kalamaja even sooner. After all, my good friend was already living here. And then, of course, I’ve always had this recurring dream of coming back to Estonia to work as a volunteer at Tallinn’s amazing Ukrainian Cultural Center (UKK) where I helped set up the first handmade paper mill in the Baltics since the last one vanished in the early 1900s. The UKK, it just so happens, is located at Laboratooriumi 22 on the inside stretch of one of Old Town Tallinn’s best-preserved sections of the city wall which forms Kalamaja’s south-east border. Sometimes the most obvious things – the ones right in front of your face – are the most difficult ones to see. Anyways, as Kalamaja was still a bit edgy and iffy back then – and you didn’t want to stay put in one place for too long, I restarted my motorcycle and we set off to explore the neighborhood in greater detail, looking for the right place to live.  And, eventually, I found it. But that’s another tale.

If you should happen to walk down Kopli Street in today’s Kalamaja, you might spot a huge poster with a photo of a young, beautiful, and long-legged Estonian woman sitting on top of a ladder and looking upwards wistfully. Guess some developers still think that sex sells even when you’re out to troll a neighborhood using a photo of someone who looks nothing at all like a local. After all, the accompanying ad copy reads: “Kas Kalamaja on sinu lagi?” – “Is Kalamaja your ceiling, your limit, the sum total of your ambitions?” My honest answer to that question would be: “On küll.” – “Well, actually, it is.”


Image: The surviving nose art off the fairing of my second motorcycle named Maxine. Maxine was named after an obscure song (“Maxine”) sung by an almost forgotten post-punk band called The Photos. Maxine herself – painted by Dan Roan – is inspired by Siouxsie, the leader of those punk legends known as The Banshees. My first motorcycle, incidentally, was named Exene after the lead singer of the classic LA punk band X.


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