For the last few weeks of the summer, Torontoist has been investigating ideas that we could benefit from pillaging from others. Two weeks ago, we looked at Madrid’s integration of public libraries and public transit, as well as their insistence on keeping a more humane schedule for workers. Last week, we examined Amsterdam’s method of accommodating—and legitimizing—different modes of transportation within their small city grid. This week, in our final installment, we look at Vilinius’s moves towards memorializing freedom, fun, and quirkiness.
Vilnius, Lithuania, isn’t on many travellers’ radars, which is a real shame. This city, which is every bit as charming and quaint as Amsterdam and can be just as high-end as Yorkville, is a unique blend of east and west. The scratchy, grey Soviet toilet paper and low currency conversion ratios ($1CAD = 2.25Lt) remind you of this city’s very recent Soviet past. Although Lithuania declared independence in 1918, effectively ousting the Russians from occupied territories, the country was essentially stolen by the Soviets in 1944 as the USSR expanded. The period of Soviet occupation between 1944 and 1990 was marked with continuous guerrilla warfare as freedom fighters called Partisans fought the Soviet military from secret hideouts in the forests. This is a country of proud, independent people who never bowed to decades of severe oppression. Vilnius’s atmosphere is one that celebrates freedom, with a joyful embrace of art, music, and fun, which Toronto could definitely learn a lot from.
Yes, we have BuskerFest. We have Nuit Blanche. We have plenty of street art and a vibrant arts community. But what Toronto seriously lacks is any commitment to art, to quirkiness, to commemorating weirdness in any lasting way. When we do come up with a way to art-ify the city that won’t just be scrubbed off, we tend to feel the need for some kind of corporate sponsorship to justify its existence. Such is not the case in Vilnius. This city’s citizens create lasting monuments to absurdity, freedom, and wild ideas.
The Legend of Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa had never, in his lifetime, been to Lithuania. He had no Lithuanian roots, never once sang a song that mentioned Lithuania. Yet Saulius Paukstys, the president of the Frank Zappa Fan Club, got enough public support to create a lasting monument to the legendary rocker in 1995. The incongruously stoic-looking bust, created by Konstantinas Bogdanas (better known for his renderings of people like Lenin), rests on a tall metal pole next to, of all places, the Belgian Embassy. (Zappa also has no ties at all to Belgium.) Surrounded by colourful murals and a whole lot of grey concrete, tourist signage points the way to “Frankui Zapai,” encouraging visitors to stop and say hi to the Great Weird One.
This statue, however, is no longer the world’s only monument to Zappa—in May 2008, Vilnius presented a replica to Zappa’s hometown of Baltimore. According to The Guardian, “Vilnius’s mayor, Juozas Imbrasas, said he approved heartily of the project. ‘I hope that replication of the original statue of Frank Zappa in Vilnius and bringing it to Baltimore will perpetuate the memory of one of the greatest artists of the [20th] century.'”
Uzupis: A Declaration of Independence
Uzupis is the closest thing Vilnius has to Kensington Market. Renowned as the city’s artists’ area, the district is accessed by two bridges, each covered in locks that have been clipped in place by couples and are engraved with their initials. While Kensington’s street culture and sense of community is by all measures superior to Uzupis’s, there is a similar feeling of being in a designated creative space. But Uzupis has taken designating creative space one step further by declaring itself a free republic in 1997. While the exact outcome of this declaration isn’t total separation from the rest of Vilinius, the citizens of Uzupis ostensibly abide by their own constitution. While this document is tongue-in-cheek, contradictory, and completely absurd at times, what is remarkable about it is that it’s posted in three different languages (English, Russian, and Lithuanian) on highly-polished metal plaques that are permanently affixed to a wall on Paupio Gatve.
Toronto needs to adopt a similar courage in expressing its own identity, unapologetically, in a manner that requires consensus and conviction. We put up addendums to street signs that let people know that they are in the “art and design district” or the “fashion district,” but beyond these kinds of tokens, Toronto is loath to make up its mind about what those designations really stand for, and is even more reluctant to create, at a municipal level, any sort of monument to what those labels might actually mean to us.
Photos by Roxanne Bielskis.