Savamala is situated on the southern bank of the River Sava and was, in the 19th century, one of the first Belgrade city quarters to be erected outside the Kalemegdan fortress in the manner of a European city. The name of the quarter is ambiguous and refers to the multi-cultural history of Belgrade: It is composed of the river’s name, Sava, and the Turkish word Mahale, which means neighbourhood or city quarter. In Serbian, Savamala translates as “Little Sava”.
Savamala is only half a mile from Belgrade´s city center. It has a colorful history as port and center of trade and commerce and was once the most modern and urbane quarter of the city. Today, Savamala shows a rich heritage of valuable historical buildings from the 19th and early 20th century and a few relics from the Ottoman Empire. Many historical buildings were lost in the Second World War when Belgrade, in 1941 and 1944, suffered under air raids – first by the German and later by allied forces.
Savamala also hosts major city infrastructure, including the nearby main train station, the bus terminal and two of the city’s main bridges, connecting the city center to New Belgrade over the River Sava. After radical political changes in Serbia at the beginning of 2000, Savamala is economically underdeveloped and socially disadvantaged, and has a reputation as a home to outcasts, prostitution, and criminality. Many buildings are vacated and in a state of dilapidation. The former Sava port is used as a cemetery for abandoned hulks. Karadjodjeva Street, in days gone by one of Belgrade´s most glamorous streets, serves as a main traffic artery, used by heavy trucks –a constant source of noise and pollution– on route to the Danube port and destinations across the River Danube. The reasons for the poor condition in which Savamala is found reach back into the era of socialist regime of Yugoslavia (SFRJ), when the quarter was disregarded as the legacy of feudal and capitalist eras.
Suffering from systematic neglect, Savamala became dilapidated, while on the other side of the River Sava New Belgrade was built – the biggest and most prestigious of all urban developments in the former-Yugoslavia. In consequence, in Savamala testimonies to socialist avant-garde architecture are only rarely found.
In 2010 more than ten years after the Balkan wars of the 1990 have ended, the sad state of Savamala has hardly improved. However, the city authorities and private investors are aware of the untapped potential of Savamala. The post-war experience, however, shows that a combination of weak public authorities and influential tycoons would leave very little room for socially and culturally sustainable development in Savamala. But perhaps, the times of crises are times of opportunity, too. Liberated from the economic and bureaucratic restraints of a prospering real estate market, Savamala offered ideal conditions to put alternative forms and approaches of city quarter development to the test. The prospect of a future “creative quarter” of Belgrade as a business and tourist attraction exits the imagination of planners and decision-makers alike. Cultural Initiatives such as the Cultural Center Grad (KC GRAD) opened in 2009, Mikser Festival and Mikser House in 2012, G12Hub, the Design Incubator Nova Iskra, the Goethe-Insitut project in 2013 Urban Incubator: Belgrade are forerunners of this development. In 2014, run by the Serbian government, a radical urban change faces Savamala, as Belgrade Waterfront project lands its headquarters in the neighborhood and starts clearing and preparing the area for the erection of its Dubai inspired vision of the future city development.
<Here is what UK’s “The Guardian” writes about Savamala>
“The ground zero of Belgrade cool is Savamala, a district which slopes down to the river Sava and into Belgrade Waterfront’s site. As well as its hip bars and all-night partying, it became known for its street art, especially along a sidestreet called Mostarska. A block away on busy Karadjordjeva Street, next to the Hotel Bristol – where royalty and Rockefellers once stayed – is one of Serbia’s architectural masterpieces, a heavy 1907 art nouveau block designed by Nikola Nestorović and Andra Stevanović, known as Geozavod because it once housed the Institute of Geophysics. Not so long ago, it was so blackened by pollution that it was hardly visible. But in summer 2014 it re-emerged, impeccably restored and surrounded by blue Belgrade Waterfront banners. Now it is the BW Gallery, and houses the mother of marketing suites.“ – The Guardian, Thursday 10 December 2015 (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/dec/10/belgrade-waterfront-gulf-petrodollars-exclusive-waterside-development)
“But the trajectory of the area’s revival is set to grind to a halt with the arrival of Belgrade Waterfront, a €3.5bn (£2.5bn) project between the Serbian government and the Emirati property developers Eagle Hills. The majority of Savamala’s lower reaches are to make way for offices, luxury flats and a 140,000 sq m shopping mall, the biggest in the Balkans – a little slice of Dubai, basically, that will chafe incongruously against the area’s soot-stained, art nouveau houses and light industrial buildings.
In eastern Europe, the term “gentrification” still carries regenerative connotations, and can be a force for relative good. But there are multiple models of gentrification, and what’s happening in Belgrade isn’t a natural process of improving urban districts. It’s a state-driven model of what you might call “top-down” or “hyper” gentrification – and one that’s arguably more sinister than anything happening in Hackney or Williamsburg.
Frequently described as “megalomanic” by people that I spoke to, there’s a great deal of contempt for the project. Despite being built on state-owned land (in contravention of local laws), and requiring that Belgrade’s urban plan be redrawn to suit the developer’s demands, the city’s populace have been excluded at every step. There was no public consultation process and no transparency. The only dialogue has been one-way PR spiel. And at a price of roughly €3,000, a single square foot of Waterfront residential property costs between seven and 12 times the typical Serbian monthly salary.
The project is so widely unpopular that it has been the focal point of numerous organised protests. But the battle being fought for Savamala isn’t simply a class struggle, it’s a conflict of values.
The movement Ne da(vi)mo Beograd (a pun that loosely translates as “We won’t let Belgrade d(r)own”) organises street protests against Belgrade Waterfront. They carry yellow ducks and rally behind a gigantic oversized duck the size of a car (https://www.facebook.com/nedavimobeograd/)” – The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/dec/10/belgrade-top-down-gentrification-worse-than-cereal-cafe