Homes built for miners and industrial workers in the 19th and 20th centuries are a distinctive feature of cities in Upper Silesia.
“Familoks,” many of which are today rundown and in crime-ridden neighborhoods, are two- or three-story red-brick structures with red or green window frames and ledges that mining and industrial companies built for their workers.
The workers put sheds, or “chlewiki,” in the yards of the familoks to keep chickens, rabbits, pigs and goats — colloquially named “Silesian cows.”
The tradition of painting most window frames and ledges red didn’t come from Silesians loving red. Extraction companies used red paint in their mines so “by coincidence” it also appeared in Silesians’ homes.
Each familok complex was different, both in the design of its buildings as well as in its over-all layout. It depended on their location and the needs and resources of the companies that built them.
Some familok districts were actually cities within cities. They contained large square complexes with yards in the middle set on paved streets and their own church. An example is the familoks in the Nikiszowiec area.
Other familok districts included both single-family homes and multistory buildings standing in rows.
That patern can be seen in Lipiny and Nowy Bytom-Kaufhaus.
Mines and foundries built familoks for workers coming to Upper Silesia from all over Poland to take jobs in the booming mining and heavy-industry sectors.
Every sizable Silesian city has them, including Katowice’s Nikisz, Zaleze and Bogucice districts, Chorzow’s Old Chorzow and Batory districts, Bytom’s Bobrek district, Ruda Slaska’s Nowy Bytom district and Zabrze’s Biskupice district. They are also in Myslowice, Swietochlowice and Siemianowice Slaskie.
The government has designated many of them as historical monuments. That, unfortunately, doesn’t always mean they are being kept in good shape.
A pearl of Upper Silesian familok architecture can be found in the Katowice district of Nikiszowiec.
The architects ” brothers Emil and Georg Zillmann of Charlottenburg, Germany ” borrowed from the Renaissance architecture of Florence, with its arcades and galleries.
The four-sided buildings surround yards where ? not so long ago ? residents baked bread in large ovens and kept hens and pigs in chlewiki.
Each building is different, though, because of different ornamentation.
Arches resembling decorative gates connect adjoining buildings. All the streets in the complex meet in a main square with a neo-Baroque church.
The complex was so tastefully designed and built that it has an international reputation.
Although in an architectural-design sense familoks are treasures, in a building-preservation sense and a sociological sense many have become disasters.
In the past, familoks were thriving, colorful working-class settlements.
Many residents came from villages. They brought country habits with them, such as growing vegetables or keeping farm animals in the yard. So familok life became a cross between country and town.
The residents also transferred their village values to their new working-class culture ‘ hard work, respect for family, piety. They were simple people with an inherent morality and attachment to basic values.
Now many familoks are home to the troubled ‘ poverty-stricken pensioners, the unemployed, wayward youth.
Many mines and foundries were unable to compete in the open-market, profit-driven system that replaced communism. That led to mass layoffs of the workers living in familoks. Most left.
Although some jobs remain, many young people don’t want them, especially jobs in the mines, which are difficult and risky. So many of the familok youths are unfocused, drifting, living on welfare.
Thus, familok developments have changed from thriving communities with a soul, where residents led a hardy but simple life determined by the rhythm of mine or factory work, to soulless, crime-ridden ghettos.
“In the old days a neighbor would come to your flat without knocking,” said Janina Smolorz, who lives in a Nikisz familok. “She would just sit on the stool and chat. Children played in the yard, and when they got hungry, they were given some bread with lard. Snow-white crochet curtains used to flutter in the red window frames.”
Former Nowy Bytom miner Francek Gorzelik recalled in his Silesian dialect that “when I worked in a mine, it was a different world. The work was hard, but we had everything. The mine cared about us.”
The Silesian dialect, which some people regard as a separate language, is still widely used in familoks.
Thus, the best way to get a feel for the character of the developments is both to look and to listen.
Nowadays, familoks are dangerous, not only for visitors but also for residents themselves, especially older ones, many of whom say they are afraid to go out after dark. Residents say they are scared not only of apartment and car burglaries but even assault at the hands of neighbors.
The criminals are mostly young toughs who live in the familoks. They have no jobs and rarely look for them. Their basic daytime activity is sitting on a bench in a yard and drinking.
Silesian social-service agencies exacerbate the problem by putting some of the city’s poorest families in familoks after they have been evicted from other places. Although being poor doesn’t necessarily equate with being troubled, many of these families are troubled.
Sitting at the window of his familok in Nikisz Mieczysław, Pytlok said he doesn’t recommend walking around the area, especially in the evenings.
The development has become “a hideous place,” he said, pointing to a car with its rear window smashed.
“The police don’t really appear here,” he said. “The best you can do is to say nothing so you don’t make yourself unpopular with the neighbors.” Then he addded dispiritedly: “There’s no use talking about it.”
In contrast to the days when familoks were a symbol of community, of people working together, of having a common outlook on life, today they are a symbol of poverty, the decline of the working class and hopelessness.
They are decaying in terms of both their physical structure and their humanity. And the fact that most are in degraded industrial areas far from city centers means their chance of being redeveloped is slim ‘ at least for now.
Upper Silesians can hope that some day many familok areas will be revitalized, as happened in industrial areas in Germany?s Ruhr Valley.
In fact, a few cities are starting the process, begin to renovate individual familoks or even entire districts, such as Nowy Bytom-Kaufhaus.
Because revitalization is costly and takes time, planners appear to have recommended for now areas that are both of special architectural and cultural value and that offer good development potential.
They include familoks that the government has designated historic landmarks, such as Nikiszowiec and Nowy Bytom.
Recently, the Silesian Marshal’s Office came up with the idea of a European Route of Industrial Heritage that would help spotlight familoks and thus perhaps help spark their revitalization.
The route would be a regional automobile-based tourist trail. It would point out to visitors key places connected with Silesia’s industrial heritage.
One of the program’s goals would be preserving the industrial pearls of the region, such as Nikiszowiec, whose past architectural splendor is supposed to be restored soon.
As a way of helping to revitalize Nikiszowiec, Katowice officials are trying to get it on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s list of world cultural heritage spots.
If financing can be found ” a big ‘if? ” Upper Silesia can retain many of its familok architectural treasures.
It would be naïve to think that all can be preserved. In fact, many have already been leveled. But some of the most valuable could be saved for future generations.
Revitalization of communities can’t be achieved just with bricks-and-mortar restoration. Familoks are not just about structures but also about their human inhabitants as well.
So revitalization needs to be done holistically, including recreating an economic base that will provide the jobs people need to thrive.