Days of Michałów and Szmulowizna is a cyclical 1-2 days event organised by the Praga Resident’s Association Michałów (PSM), a non-profit local organisation established in 2008 by a group of neighbours. The initiative is one of many undertakings of the association, and is mainly devoted to the integration of the local community and the promotion of local small entrepreneurship. At the same time it aims at a broader presentation of the area, as an interesting part of the district of Praga Północ.
The event has been organised for five years in the last week of September in the local park, as well as in places located in the nearest surrounding – cafés, schools, local firms which participate in the programme. The first 2-3 events were co-financed by the City of Warsaw, which considered the initiative to be a valuable contribution to local social integration and promotion of the area. The financial support has however been suspended, and the association currently carries most costs of the event. The participation of third parties in financing and organisation has an important impact on the quality of the event reflected by the number of participants – inhabitants and entrepreneurs, promotion, type of activities offered. As a representative of the PSM association claims:
“One time, when the district authorities were more engaged in the initiative, they offered us to make use of their own infrastructure – a stage for example where music bands could perform, or a large banner saying: Days of Michałów. The interest in the event was much bigger, normally we have approximately 150 people taking part, there were a lot more then.”
The programme of the event differs from year to year. Conventionally there is an educational part – seminars organised devoted to the history of the area, there is also a focus on artistic performance and another on the presentation of local folklore, products and services. The cooperation with entrepreneurs gives them opportunity to present their offer. This is particularly important in a low-income area, difficult for economic performance. ‘Days of Michałów’ are however in the first place an occasion to integrate the local community, therefore many activities (playing games, telling stories, garage sales) are specifically of this character.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
‘Days of Michałów’ is a place-based and group-based initiative aimed at social cohesion, local social integration and the strengthening of local social capital in one of the most neglected parts of Warsaw. Its target audience are the inhabitants, who are diverse with respect to socio-economic status (income level and education), age and origin (natives for generations and newcomers). Therefore it is an example of approaching, recognising and exploiting socio-economic and demographic diversity par excellence. At the same time the project also aims at increasing the economic performance of local entrepreneurs. As the representative of the association PSM states:
“The local authorities do not care about the integration of the inhabitants of this area, there is poor cooperation between local entrepreneurs, no organisation that would establish a network or promote them. The entrepreneurs are completely dispersed and lonely against the local official, even when negotiating the level of rent.”
The purpose of the event is to develop self-confidence and place-awareness of the local community, support the competiveness of local entrepreneurs and establish local networks. It also aims to create social encounter of diverse members of the community, as H. Lefebvre argues, by satisfying their ‘need for creative activity (…), of the need for information, symbolism, the imaginary and play’ (compare: Lefebvre et al., 1996, p. 147).
Main factors influencing success or failure
The initiative described is one of many projects implemented by the association PSM, which has become popular among the local community due to its effectiveness in solving local problems. The project is successful since:
– it is organised by a group of neighbours, who, owing to their determination, experience and consistency have won trust and engagement of the inhabitants and local entrepreneurs;
– it has a cyclical character;
– every episode introduces new ideas, which keeps the participants interested;
– it has a very local nature, which allows to engage most inhabitants, notwithstanding their social background.
At the same time there are distinct limits to the organisation of this and other such initiatives, due to the diversity of local inhabitants – a high share of homeless people and those in lowest income groups who occupy tenement flats, against inhabitants with higher income, who own apartments in new private or older cooperative buildings. The first group are mostly excluded from any such integration attempts. The representative of PSM explains:
“The source of conflict in the district of Praga Północ is on the one hand the outflow of the so called middle class, on the other 13 thousand old, pre-war tenement flats, requiring complete renovation. There is a process of inhabiting these old buildings with population of lowest income groups, therefore the more affluent residents create closed communities (within gated housing estates), turning their back to the rest. This causes complete disintegration which is difficult to return to health. Our initiative is just like touching the tip of the iceberg.”
A distinct failure factor of the initiative which sets limits to its financing and scale is the poor cooperation with district authorities, and a minor interest of the City in general. As the representative of PSM explains in the roundtable discussions:
“Although such events are in line with the objectives set by the Strategy of Warsaw of 2005, the Social Strategy of 2008, and other operational programmes, the actual policy of the City does not often include financing and supporting social action, organised and inspired by local communities”.
The Days of Michałów is a non-profit initiative directed at local integration though, practically, restricted to those groups of inhabitants who are interested in it. The social and spatial spread of the initiative would require the engagement of local authorities – directly, in supporting the organisation and promotion of the event, and indirectly, by introducing complex policies solving the problem of socio-spatial segregation. New arrangements are expected within the ‘Integrated Programme of Urban Renewal’, which conceptualises the process as a simultaneously physical (infrastructural) and social regeneration. The programme is to be implemented in selected areas in Warsaw, where the district of Praga Północ plays a crucial role.
 The association has also established a basis for cooperation with the local authorities – being a group of aware and active inhabitants, with high expert competencies in many fields related to urban development (urban planning, law, economy, architecture).