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The Perishing Tobacco City

Perceptible scent of tobacco, a unique spirit and inspiring stories are some of the features of the charismatic Tobacco City. Situated at the heart of Plovdiv—one of the oldest cities in the world—, the Tobacco City fascinates with the ruins of its prosperous past. Built by a local investor as a production site for the Bulgarian Tobacco Industry, the Tobacco City played an important role in delineating the city’s image by the beginning of the 20th Century. Its four-to-five-storey massive warehouses occupy the nucleus of the city and represent not only the rich history of tobacco production but also the specific architectural image of Plovdiv. Although the area is perceived as an autonomous urban entity, each of the edifices contain a clear individual expression. Amidst the variety of their architectural elements, the ornamented facades are perhaps the most impressive features of the warehouses. Some of these facades are vertically treated, implementing curious, at times even eerie details with an almost postmodern scent, while others stand out with luxuriously adorned and elegant surfaces.

But beside the architectural value of the warehouses, the Tobacco City is relevant for witnessing important historical moments in industrial production, e.g. the transition from hand to mechanical tobacco handling in Bulgaria. In 1903, the hand cutting of tobacco was mechanized for the first time in these warehouses, introducing the modern tobacco processing in the country. In fact, the quality of cigarettes lies in the specific method of production—a precise technology relying on a unique blend, the recipe of which was not known by many. It was the mechanization process that contributed to the production of unprecedented quantities of cigarettes. According to the writer Mary Neuberger, in 1918 tobacco made up almost eighty percent of Bulgaria’s export earnings, receiving the moniker of ‘Bulgarian gold’. During the 1960s, the country became the world’s biggest exporter of cigarettes. The claim that tobacco is inextricably bound to the fate of the nation is therefore strongly imprinted in the urban fabric. Unfortunately, although the warehouses have been recognised as cultural heritage, they stand in precarious conditions. The buildings are all privately owned, which is one of the reasons that explains its current state. The recent unexpected destruction of one of the most beautiful warehouses triggered the outrageous response from the citizens of Plovdiv. By organizing a human chain, they attempted to stop the demolition, a gesture that revealed the deep appreciation and significance of this part of the city for its inhabitants. As a consequence, this shocking initiative was halted, but a substantial part of the building including its facade and interior frescoes was gone.

In the course of time, some warehouses did have a similar fate while others have been restored and re-appropriated. However, restoration methods are such that the place is inevitably losing its identity and spirit. Having different aims, both demolition and restoration seem to eradicate the place not only in its materiality, but also spiritually. Therefore, a different strategy needs to be implemented to preserve the area—perhaps the restoration process should be approached much more carefully so that it does not wipe away the unique character and historical traces of the past.

As a whole, the Tobacco City is now abandoned and a large number of its warehouses survive in dilapidating conditions, but there is still hope for the rebirth of the place. Plovdiv will be European Capital of Culture in 2019 and the Tobacco City is seen as a major urban area to take into account for the transformation strategy of the city. In fact, there are many events dedicated to the vanishing memories of the warehouses that intend to trigger public discussion and attention, aiming to preserve the history and spirit of the place.

I hope a sensible strategy is going to be set up. Otherwise 150 years of story is about to end. The writer Dimitar Dimov has perpetuated the place in his eminent novel Tobacco—one of the most widely read novels in Bulgaria. If no action is taken soon, we will have to remember the Tobacco City only through the films and novels that were inspired by its glorious past.

–All images courtesy of Anton Kerezov