There wasn’t much reason for anyone to venture into Savamala’s neglected streets only a few years ago.
Once an affluent neighborhood stretching along the riverfront of Serbia’s capital Belgrade, Savamala had fallen into disrepair during the last century, its grand mansions blackened by fumes of trucks thundering past its crumbling facades.
But in the last few years, the area’s derelict splendor started attracting a new generation of artists.
They converted abandoned buildings and warehouses into art galleries, and adorned their walls with colorful street art.
This cultural revolution began with the opening of KC Grad, an independent art center founded by Savamala native Ljudmila Stratimirovic six years ago.
“We were looking for place that was not popular, far away from fancy bars,” she says. “No one was even passing through these streets then, only heavy traffic. But we were so enthusiastic about our idea, and from the first day it started to gather a lot of nice audience,” Stratimirovic adds.
The momentum started by KC Grad was quickly followed by the opening of Mikser House, now arguably Belgrade’s hippest venue located in a former storage depot.
Its cavernous space displays fashion and design by artists from across the Balkans, and last year it hosted 600 events, from theater and music performances to food and wine festivals.
“When we came here there was nothing, we found here abandoned warehouses, abandoned houses even, courtyards, everything was shabby, filthy,” says Ivan Lalic who co-founded Mikser House with his wife Maja.
“That was three years ago, and since then more than fifty galleries clubs and restaurants have opens in the area” he adds.
This influx of new energy is evident in the stream of polished urbanites filling a row of trendy riverside restaurants, housed in what used to be derelict warehouses, on a recent sunny afternoon.
But Savamala’s new status as Belgrade’s cultural heartbeat is perhaps most evident at night, when scores of young people fill its every corner on their way to numerous art openings, gigs and clubs.
Ivan Lalic estimates that Mikser House alone attracted 60,000 visitors during its annual festival this year, something he thinks could help the area turn its reputation as a creative quarter into practical gains.
“We see here now, openly speaking, culture even as an economic tool to develop the neighborhood and employ some people, to actually present a new way of promoting the city,” he says.
And it’s not just artist who are attracted to Savamala’s crumbling charm. The neighborhood is home to Nova Iskra, a sleek and modern co-working space for startups which sprang up from an abandoned building three years ago.
“Savamala at that time was literally one of the worst parts of Belgrade, nobody found a reason to settle here to start their own business here,” says Marko Radenkovic, founder and general manager of Nova Iskra. “But you could see that in this big devastated area there was a big potential, that you could start working here,” he explains.
Young and affordable
At $1,500 Savamala’s price per square meter hovers just beneath the city center average, and entrepreneurs working at Nova Iskra say that affordability wasn’t a guiding factor in deciding to set up a base there.
“I think it’s more of it being the right environment for young people, young entrepreneurs why you should choose Savamala,” says Andrej Luneski, head of Arbor Labs, R&D branch of UK software company Arbor Education, which operates out of Nova Iskra.
“The fact that it’s close to the river, the fact that it’s close to the center you have many nice apartments in the area that young people, young entrepreneurs can rent, I think it’s the best place to be located as a young startup at the moment in Belgrade,” he adds.
However, not everyone feels included in the neighborhood’s upbeat comeback. Dotted on the walls are Savamala’s ghost people, whimsical figures painted by artists Tijana Tripkovic and Barbara Dimic to represent the area’s original residents.
“It was something that was a result of us interviewing people around Savamala, the people that had no voice, that were neglected by this part of town entirely,” says Tripkovic who co-founded the Krishka design studio alongside Dimic. “The old people, the fishermen, they were just living here but not actually involved in this part of town and society,” she adds.
The artists say that many Savamala natives had felt overwhelmed by the swooping pace of change, and frustrated that despite of renewed focus on the district, their daily needs - for cleaner air, better connection to the river - weren’t being met.
Each mural tackles a different issue – pollution is represented by a figure wearing a gas mask with sharp red stripes piercing its lungs. An endangered panda symbolizes Savamala’s overlooked inhabitants, who after having learned to exist half-forgotten by the rest of the city, don’t quite know how to cope with the area’s resurgence.
However, locals don’t necessarily object to changes brought by newcomers says Barbara Dimic, but they need to be included and consulted about what’s going on in their area: “I don’t think they’re against this new content, I think they just need to be listened,” she says.
With Savamala’s momentum not showing any signs of stopping, it’s this confluence of old and new that gives it a unique spirit.