an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

That Kalamaja Air


Outside my bedroom window, I can watch a new building going up. Well, technically it’s in the process of going down as they’re still working on the foundation …. Be that as it may, this new construction site became the inspiration for my most recent walk around the four streets that surround my home. All told, I counted eight new buildings on my block that have welcomed additional residents to Kalamaja since I bought my fish flat. This new building will become number nine. Some of my friends and neighbors will point to this and say: “See! Kalamaja is being overdeveloped!” And recently, a few of my friends and colleagues living elsewhere in Tallinn have told me that they wouldn’t want to live in my neighborhood because it is being “over built.” Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think that things are quite as simple as they seem ….

After all, the correct answer to the legendary question – “Is Tallinn ready yet?” – asked each year by the Old Man of Ülemiste (Ülemiste vanake) is always “No, there is much work to be done.” Should someone ever answer “yes,” then the Old Man will open the gates of his lake-home and flood Tallinn – and then Kalamaja would be washed away along with it. For those who prefer more contemporary literary references, then there is William S. Burroughs’ simple line: “when you stop growing, you start dying.” It’s a basic law of nature – it’s the yin and yang of life. And when it comes to development, it translates as “build or abandon.” In other words, Kalamaja’s continuing growth means that the neighborhood is very much alive – and will remain alive into the future. Change is the only constant.

Bianka Soe’s wonderful book Kalamaja is in the Air – or literally In the Air is Kalamaja (Ōhus on Kalamaja) if you want to preserve the word order of the original Estonian – recognizes the tremendous changes that have taken place in the neighborhood over the last ten or so years. Taking a bold step, the book embraces these transformations while also celebrating Kalamaja’s past – especially the people and the places – who made the neighborhood what it is today. Rather than pursuing a single narrative, Bianka compiled oral histories, interviews, stories, biographies, recipes, poems, and articles – more than 60 different texts by almost as many different voices – to tell Kalamaja’s story. The books is part collective memoir and part group diary – and yet it also feels like a neighborhood scrapbook. In other words, Bianka put together a lovely collage or beautiful mosaic in her creative attempt to trap that elusive Kalamaja air. Helping the book capture the neighborhood’s spirit are scores of wonderful photos by Annika Metsla as well as dozens of whimsical illustrations – plus a cool map – by Triin Valvas. Together they give the book a kind of double vision that helps capture both Kalamajas – the real one as well as the imaginary one. As the book describes itself, it provides “a thought-provoking tour through Kalamaja’s spacetime.”

Kalamaja is in the Air also functions as a guide-book – introducing you to the neighborhood’s cafés and hangouts. The book also serves as a portrait gallery framing the outward appearance and inner thoughts of its well-known residents while introducing you to others who were previously unknown. The printed volume also captures the charm of Kalamaja’s lovely wooden buildings as it explores the neighborhood’s industrial past as a working-class enclave. The tome also tackles such questions as why counter-culture Kalamaja later became a magnet for Tallinn’s hipsters and foodies as it traces the evolution from one reality to another. Along the way, some texts even attempt to predict what the future might bring. So, while this work tries to capture a moment in the life of this ever-changing neighborhood, it also hopes to understand its many different and co-existing layers. And it succeeds.

It succeeds because Kalamaja is in the Air is both a labor of love and a collaborative neighborhood project. The original publication of this “community book” (kogukonnaraamat) was crowd-funded via the Hooandja platform thanks to the help of 280 individuals – not counting local government support and commercial sponsors. Presented on Kalamaja Days 2018 – the neighborhood’s annual celebration of itself – the book gained even more readers and supporters. Since they first appeared in print, Annika’s impressive photos of Kalamaja have been displayed in multiple locations from the Baltic Train Station (Balti Jaam) to Telliskivi Creative City as well as in outdoor exhibits on various neighborhood streets. Moonika Maidre’s design – the wonderful way in which she put the texts together with the photos and illustrations – helped earn the book a place of honor in Design Week’s central exhibit as an example of the very best that Estonia has to offer. Kalamaja is in the Air is the kind of book that should be in the home of every Kalamaja resident or neighborhood fan. If you don’t already own a copy, you can pick one up at a number of different popular hangouts including La Muu’s ice cream parlor, Kalamaja Pagarikoda’s original bakery, or the quirky Puänt Bookstore in Telliskivi. In other words, even the book’s ongoing distribution is a neighborhood project.

Yes, Kalamaja is full of contradictions – many of which are wonderfully captured in the book. At one in the same time, the neighborhood feels both overdeveloped and yet strangely underdeveloped. But just walk around anywhere else in central Tallinn today and you’ll see new construction going on everywhere. Those who live outside of Kalamaja and single out its development as a reason for not wanting to move here might just be suffering from a case of “sour grapes” as described in Aesop’s fable of “The Fox and the Grapes.” As it happens, that same walk around the block also revealed the upside of development. In addition to the eight new buildings, another eight buildings have been dramatically improved – fully renovated or remodeled – since I moved into my flat. Truth be told, it has been wonderful to watch these old wooden buildings come back to life after receiving something more than just a new coat of paint. Of the fourteen buildings that remain pretty much the same way that they were when I moved in, another eight – including mine – were already in pretty good shape. That leaves just six old buildings which still need serious make-overs. I have a feeling that their time will also come – and that this new attention will help bring the entire block back to its “original look.”

And therein lies the rub. Back when my block was first developed in the late 1800s and subdivided into lots, the original plan probably called for more than the 32 – or soon to be 33 – buildings that you can find here now. After all, the reason it was possible to build eight new buildings on my block is that Kalamaja suffered heavily during the Soviet punishment bombing of Tallinn on March 9, 1944. Wood burns far too easily. And so, about a third of my block went up in flames as did other parts of the neighborhood. As it happens, much of the new development taking place now is focused on building new buildings where old ones used to be – or where they were intended to be. So, is this overdevelopment – or is it simply the completion of Kalamaja’s original 100-year-old development plan? In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if two more buildings were to appear on my block – one of them replacing the L-shaped row of horrendous Soviet-era garages (I can see them out my living room window) and the other replacing two rows of ugly Soviet-era storage sheds (found elsewhere on my block). To be honest, I would prefer to look out at a new Estonian building rather than at any Soviet-vintage architectural growth. Put together, that would then bring the new total number of buildings on my block to 35, an ever-shifting balance between old and new.

Incidentally, Estonian has no specific word for building. Instead everyone uses the word maja to refer to both houses and buildings. As houses in English usually refer to private homes, I’ve referred to Kalamaja’s majad as buildings even if they often resemble houses. To clarify, the new buildings that I’ve been talking about are not huge concrete skyscrapers but small-scale wooden buildings which are usually between two and four stories high. They resemble a very large American house with the important distinction that they’re divided into separate apartments inside. With an average of four apartments per floor – two in the front and two in the back – a wooden Kalamaja building (new or old) can house anywhere between four to twelve families. Sometimes even more will fit depending on whether the building has any extensions upwards (attics) or outwards (wings). Fortunately, most of Kalamaja’s new constructions are modeled – at least in theory – on its old ones with the goal that everything will one day come to form a single new whole. In other words, development has not been as disruptive as it might have been.

In any case, it isn’t the construction of new buildings that bothers me about Kalamaja’s ongoing development – even though the loss of the empty lot out back means that the huge head-sized hedgehog who once lived there will have gone in search of a new home. The thing that saddens me the most is that more and more buildings are converting their gardens and yards into parking lots for their cars. Ah, if only more people would walk or ride bicycles or take public transportation rather than embrace the cult of the car …. But every time the loss of one of these small green spaces gets me down, I look around to remind myself of all the ways that Kalamaja is still the same – from the laundry drying on the line to the blue-black-white Estonian flags that go up in front of every building on holidays. This is the Kalamaja that I recognize as home, regardless of all its constant changes. To sum things up, Bianka and her friends are right: the task facing all of us who live in the neighborhood today is to help keep Kalamaja in the air.


Image Above: My Kalamaja is in the Air tote bag as designed by Triin Valvas.

Image Below: The cover of my Kalamaja is in the Air book as illustrated by Triin Valvas.


Kalamaja Air

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: