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Chapter Seven

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So this is how it is, fancy stained glass next to cow shit. – from the film Ida

On April 15, 2010, an op-ed by Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk, appeared in The New York Times concerning the mysterious plane crash in Russia’s Katyn forest that killed the Polish president and a number of the country’s military and political leaders. That they were on their way to the site of a Soviet massacre of Polish officers during WWII is a terrible irony. Her closing lines about the lingering ghosts of Polish history are quite another:

I am sick of building our common identity around funeral marches and failed uprisings. I dream of Poland becoming a modern society that is defined not by the crippling nature of history, but by our individual achievements, a sense of our own self-worth and ideas for the future.

At the time, I was dealing with a fortress of resistance in Wrocław. My objective: ushering in the future by aiming to catapult a badly deteriorating 13th-century ghost-infested guard tower into the 21st-century. Leading the resistance, of all people, was my Landlord, also a highly regarded Polish writer, whose illusions of self-worth ultimately required mortally crippling my lofty ambitions. One would have naturally concluded that we shared the same sense of purpose, when she chose me as her tenant, on the presumed merits of my artistic vision for her most rare and precious real estate acquisition.

Was there a fear of a stampede of illegal immigrant Mexican rapists and bad hombres?

For me, Tokarczuk’s harsh commentary about her country could not have possibly been more distressingly accurate. Six days before the publication of her New York Times op-ed, I received an eviction notice from my Landlord. This baffled me because her only legal justification for this action depended on the verdict of a court case, which had just commenced, that she had filed against me a few months earlier. The reason for the lawsuit was to collect back rents that for several months I had stopped paying. My defense was that her endless procrastination to adequately repair the tower’s deteriorating roof was killing my business and that she had failed to live up to her part of the our agreement, let alone, formal demands made of her by the city’s Conservatory of Historical Buildings, to restore not just the roof but make other critical improvements on the exterior of the tower and its adjacent medieval wall.

With no legal teeth to the eviction notice, its timing came across as a deliberate intimidation, particularly since it couldn’t have been a coincidence that I received it on the same day that I hosted an opening reception for an internationally known Mexican artist, Guillermo Roel, who I had invited to Poland. I could only conjecture that her malicious motive was due to the fact that I still made limited use of the building to the best of my ability, despite my claim that its condition rendered it impossible to successfully operate a daily business.

It was equally disturbing that despite extensive promotion of the event, the local mass media ignored it. Meanwhile, I received this from the Mexican ambassador:

The Mexican Ambassador’s letter

One month later, Roel’s works were exhibited at the Mexican Embassy in Berlin.

Wrocław, at that time, was busily promoting itself as “The Meeting Place,” a booming multicultural urban center. One would have thought that the city would’ve embraced the visit from a foreign artist of Roel’s stature. Was there a fear of a stampede of illegal immigrant Mexican rapists and bad hombres?

My former Landlord also proved to be a master at creating a mythology about her own life. Since portraying herself to me – like a typical scammer preying on the empathy of gullible Western men – as a poor Polish woman, she also managed to hide from the public the truth about her monthly source of income. As Olga Tokarczuk revealed in a Radio Free Europe interview, only two months after the publication of her New York Times op-ed, being a well-traveled Polish literary star was not the easiest path to economic security. From the interview:

Radio Free Europe: How well off are Polish writers financially? Is it possible to make a living? Not by writing about vampires and detectives, but by producing quality fiction?

Tokarczuk: I teach a creative writing class at university that contributes to my income. But for over 10 years, I’ve managed to be successful and live off my books. 

Amusingly, according to Wikipedia, Tokarczuk’s most recent book at the time, “Flights,” which was published the year prior to this interview, “is written in the convention of a detective story. Tokarczuk is particularly noted for the mythical tone of her writing.”

From Calvert Journal:

“Flights” [is] a philosophical novel about travel. The original Polish title, “Bieguni,” is the name of an old Russian cult that believed the only way to avoid evil was to be in constant motion. “Bieguni” is also a play on words, as it hints at the Slavic root word biegać, which means to run or escape.

The larger question is, an escape from what? I often wonder whether my former Landlord, who had concocted an elaborate personal mythology for her public persona, has ever by chance sat next to Tokarczuk on a plane when taking one of her many flights during my tenancy, as her property back home fell into critical disrepair.  This was also the moment that many Poles took flight after Poland had joined the EU. Despite criticizing me for the constant turnover of my workers who regularly left Poland, my Landlord did not waste a moment to spread her wings as soon as the income from her new tenant from the West was regularly flowing into her bank account.

A few months prior when she filed the lawsuit, my lawyer wrote a letter to her, on my behalf, demanding a full reimbursement of my investments, both in her property and my business. He argued that her failure to repair the dangerous condition of the tower’s roof was driving my Polish limited liabilities company into bankruptcy. Aside from paying half of one minor patchwork roof repair back in 2005, she had completely ignored a pending catastrophe.

Self-Service (Samoobsługa)

It was in the spring of 2008 that the director of the Conservatory of Historical Buildings formally demanded that my Landlord completely restore the roof. She was also obligated to hire an architect to design a project to construct a new passage, where for many decades an ancient archway had remained cemented shut. The blocked passage was part of a medieval red brick fortification wall that is attached to the tower. It had been the only direct means of access to the tower’s door from the nearby heavily trafficked street of Kraińskiego. Without this access, visitors had to enter from the opposite side of the tower by walking through the neighbor’s parking lot, while passing by large, unappealing, smelly dumpsters.

It was no coincidence that this was the same parking lot where pieces of the roof had come crashing down, endangering cars and people alike. Nevertheless, while she failed to act, I made costly investments on the tower’s interior restoration, which would ultimately be to her financial benefit.

Several months prior to when the lawsuit was filed, a radio interview was conducted by an American/Polish journalist, Lisa Romanienko, who asked me why my Landlord hid her dual identity. One year later, at Roel’s reception, Romanienko confessed to me that she was fired for conducting the interview, which had never been broadcast.  

I conjectured that the reasons for this are several. There was obviously a reason that Baszta’s manager denied that the building was for sale after a real estate agent called me up to inform me otherwise. Nepotism was at the core of how resources and properties often fell into private hands in the wake of the communist era. The situation is analyzed in a 2012 report about Poland by Transparency International – the global coalition against corruption. The report states:

Corruption is increasingly being condemned, however, at the same time acquiescence to nepotism and cronyism is still common. Even more alarmingly, it is often excused by the country’s elite. (Click here for the entirety of the complete study)

Perhaps begging a larger question, I was frequently asked: how was it possible for a private person to own such a historical landmark?


Along with all else that until now has remained unknown, in a purportedly new era of free enterprise and democratic free expression, are the futuristic architectural renderings in the background slide presentation of this page, which in 2010 I commissioned from Wrocław architect Tomasz Szenk. These drawings and those shown in the next chapter, further illustrate a concept that I conveyed to the architect. It was intended to solve a myriad of problems involving the space, the building’s allure and, most of all, its location, which under the circumstances was difficult to find. (More is said about these drawings in Chapter Eight.) Baszta was only a seven-minute walk from the heart of the city center and a stone’s throw from touristic Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island). Even so, there were serious obstacles to its accessibility, caused by the blocked gateway through the medieval fortress wall that is attached to the tower, which had been filled in with bricks many years ago.

The idea I had devised was logical. In 2011, the largest city in western Poland – which had become a magnet for the Polish headquarters of many multinational businesses – won the 2016 European Culture Capital distinction. For this reason alone, the timing could not have seemed more fortuitous. The unique specialization of my professional background seemed to perfectly match this rare opportunity that had fallen into my lap: a unique futuristic revival of a neglected cherished symbol of Wrocław’s medieval origins, during a period of dynamic urban redevelopment. This included the gentrification of the beautiful central city Market Square known as “Rynek” (pronounced: Rih-neck), renovation of the opera house, the train station, the city’s synagogue and Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island). Shortly after I left Poland in 2012, the construction of a new football stadium and Wrocław’s first bona-fide skyscraper were completed.

Reichstag glass dome, Berlin

Great art requires a bold vision

I recognized the potential of Wrocław the first time I visited the city in 1989 when I photographed some of its decayed buildings. After leaving Poland that year, I went to great lengths during travel in Western Europe to display the photographs I had taken capturing the decayed conditions I had found. It was clear to me that Wrocław was in a unique geographical position, situated almost equidistantly between Warsaw to the east, Berlin to the west and Prague down south. Foreign businesspeople began to visualize the city’s enormous potential, which I did as well. Often I wished I were in Poland for this purpose, but it wasn’t my calling. Although my purpose in renting Baszta was to start a business, it was from the perspective of an artist, who had worked or been closely associated with architects for many years. With this remarkable building to explore as my canvas, I reflected upon unique expressions of monumental architecture and their power to lend a city distinction. A few world-renowned examples are the fantasy architecture of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, the Statue of Liberty, the Opera in Sydney and the Eiffel Tower. Often, such monumental undertakings happen to be towers and in recent times a few that have become symbols in urban centers have incorporated dramatic restorations made of glass, the architectural medium that I had worked with for many years. One of them is the glass dome of Berlin’s Reichstag, just three hours away from Wrocław by car. Another obvious example is I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid in Paris.

It only seemed natural to aspire to make the most of this destined once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I was given through a series of seemingly serendipitous circumstances.

Such undertakings cannot be achieved without anticipating enormous resistance to ideas for the future and, in this regard, Poland is not unique. At first The New York Times came out against the Statue of Liberty and even a large majority of the French populace reacted negatively to the Louvre Pyramid. My idea unconsciously served as homage to Pei. A battle I had previously fought in Paris, that was related to Pei’s, kept me inspired to fight, spurred on by an inbred Californian spirit of open-minded optimism, no matter the hurdles I had to overcome.

Cover of Glass Art magazine, 1976

by Wilhelm Buschulte

Having worked during the 1970s and ’80s as an architectural glass artist and as the former editor of a magazine about contemporary glass art, I was fascinated by contemporary architectural applications of glass in historical buildings. Such a phenomenon occurred after World War II in towns surrounding Cologne and Dusseldorf. Enormous stained glass windows, the likes of which had never before been seen, were installed in numerous public buildings. The spirit was the same as what motivated Olga Tokarczuk to express her frustrations: aesthetic modernization was the direct outcome of a will to distance a war-torn country from its dreadfully morbid past. Photographs of these revolutionary stained glass artworks were first shown internationally by virtue of their publication in the magazine that I had later edited. During my first visit to Europe in 1979, I met one of the artists, Wilhelm Buschulte, and I photographed some of his monumental architectural stained glass compositions, which had received little recognition, even in Germany. As a cover of Glass Art magazine shows, the same can be said of Ludwig Schaffrath, who later became famous among glass artists and architects in the US.


Stained glass ceiling, Embassy Suite Hotel, Indianapolis, by Frederick Abrams

Aside from my Eastern European family heritage, including the Polish blood of my father’s father in my veins, it only seemed natural to aspire to make the most of this destined, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was handed to me through a series of seemingly serendipitous circumstances. Still, no matter how often I heard oohs and aahs from those, to whom I personally showed these architectural renderings, I was repeatedly confronted with the same doubts that it would be allowed to alter the look of a historical edifice. To such challenges I repetitively responded:

Such battles were long since fought and won elsewhere in Europe. Poland today is a European Union member and for an unknown city to be recognized by the outer world requires bold thinking.

It seemed senseless that there would be such resistance, since I was the only one who had any ambition or will to do something about a historical landmark that was rotting away. Nor was there much of a choice given that my Landlord was at flight somewhere abroad most of the time and that she had decided to invest all of her energies and resources elsewhere. Being the sole owner of a restaurant, in a redeveloping foreign economy, is one thing. It’s another to be abandoned by my Landlord with the albatross of a disintegrating 13th-century roof hanging around my neck. With several historical buildings being restored, new construction was evident across the city’s landscape. New Western-style shopping malls and corporate brand-name businesses spread like a cancer, while Abrams’ Tower was dying a slow, painful death.

One of the inspectors confessed afterward that she wished she could manage my business to protect me from such people as herself!

Fallen roof tiles in 2007

The building’s porous roof, in dire need of major restoration, became the central battleground as I had to grapple with debilitating bureaucratic practices still unchanged since the darkest days of Communism. As each patchwork roof repair only briefly postponed the inevitable, it became clear that a complete restoration was the only solution. With limited means at my disposal as a tenant, I did my best to assist my absentee Landlord in raising the necessary funds. Inexplicably, in each and every case, she did her best to see that this would never happen.

Various investors I had attracted proposed a partnership with me, yet she managed to find ways to scare them away, one-by-one. The first in line was a Pole, who had lived in New York for 15 years. He flew to Wrocław before restoration commenced in 2005, to formalize our joint-venture-to-be. This was predicated on extending the duration of my five-year lease, which he correctly concluded was not enough time to recoup our investment and begin making profits, especially in a society steeped in an anachronistic bureaucracy. However, she refused to extend it.

Afterward, informed me that he met a restaurant owner who told him that no foreigner would last in the restaurant business in Wrocław for longer than six months. That was the last I ever heard from him, as like my new manager returning home from London, he got back on a plane without saying goodbye. Such shocking abandonments became a pattern among Poles I had come to know, who had lived abroad for many years and harbored hopes of cashing in on their country’s new free enterprise economy, only to become terrifyingly spooked upon visiting their homeland.

Most peculiarly, the only people I introduced to my Landlord, who she ever seemed to take seriously, were ambitious Polish managers I had hired, but who had no money to invest and no stakes in the business. I learned through my workers of private liaisons she had with them.

Unsolicited art exhibition in the stairwell

Banderole and beer inspection

Meanwhile, bureaucratic institutions were targeting my business with one frivolous accusation after the next. Twice, I was fined due to investigations of alleged illegal alcohol sales. Despite any lack of proof beyond contrived circumstantial evidence, there were no avenues for contesting the penalties. One time, inspectors found a few stamps called “banderoles” missing which were glued over the sealed caps of wine bottles. Importers had to apply their own glue to the elongated stamps that came without adhesive. Depending on which glue they chose, the stamps occasionally became detached and fell to the floor. Inspectors found a few missing banderoles that were considered to be sufficient proof that I was illegally smuggling wine across the border to avoid paying tariffs.

During another inspection, it was alleged that water was being somehow mixed into the beer that was served from kegs, an old trick that I was then told was commonplace during the communist era. The inspector said that someone had called them and made this accusation. I couldn’t comprehend how this could be, as I was the proud seller of an award-winning, unpasteurized, Polish beer that was hard to find in Wrocław. Most bars and restaurants sold the same brand-names, while enjoying perks and bribes from the distributors. It seemed that someone wanted to put both my restaurant and a new beer competitor out of business. But who? The director of the media festival? Marcin, the violinist? The inspectors took a sample of beer that was poured from a keg, sealed it and delivered it to a lab. In the end, they found that nothing was wrong with it. In this one instance, they could not come up with an excuse to penalize me. One of the inspectors confessed afterward that she wished she could manage my business to protect me from such people as herself!

I lived in terror of who would next enter the door, when things got so ugly that a neo-Nazi vandalized the tower in my absence. As assaults on my business became another pattern, my Landlord either acted naively or became hostile when I informed her of what was occurring. Her overall attitude left me feeling like I was a tiresome nuisance.

Far removed from my dream of tremendous possibilities when I leased Baszta, my life had become a daily battle of striving to restore and revive an ancient historical treasure, while dealing with nonstop obstacles among the leftovers of the old corrupt communist system. At the same time, many young people began to obtain reasonably well-paid positions with great working conditions, by Polish standards, at the local branches of multinational corporations from Hewlett Packard to Cadbury, Volvo, Toyota, United Parcels, Google and many others that were springing up throughout the city. It was like two different worlds, as foreigners who ran them enjoyed previously unheard of protections and comfort, while going to work in modern offices inside of newly constructed buildings. Most who came to the country during this new era of globalization had no notion of what life was like for most Poles or for pioneer foreigners such as myself, who had no alternative other than depend on the economically struggling locals in numerous ways for daily survival. Consumerism and a greater degree of liberty to express oneself, to congregate and to travel freely, changed the lives of much of the populace. Still, for many older Poles, there was a greater sense of security during the more repressive communist era.

Whereas this dichotomy bred Western perceptions of Poland’s growth through rose colored glasses, from my own experience I found bitter irony in President Obama’s lecturing of Ukrainians on the success of Poland’s free enterprise economy. Passages of a book entitled Culture Shock! Ukraine that was published in 1999, precisely describes the depressing side one might not expect of Poland as an EU member state with a rapidly growing economy that was only of benefit to a small percentage of the population. The words of its American author, Meredith Dalton, struck me right in the gut:

For over seventy years, the Soviet system infected most citizens with the notion that capitalism is about grabbing, cheating, and wheeling and dealing. Some foreign investors avoid types of businesses requiring storefronts, for example restaurants. One prominent European entrepreneur (in the true sense of the word) announced in late 1998 that he was throwing in the towel after seven strong years in Ukraine. Relentless corruption had finally exhausted his patience. Visibility invites the tax inspectorates in search of trumped up fines and bribes. One friend who sells used car parts was fined because the time stamped on his cash register receipts was not adjusted for daylight savings time. Westerners are perceived as wealthy thus money should be no object to them.

Only, Abrams’ Tower had no storefront. With no civic help or any from my Landlord, I searched for every imaginable solution to the festering problem that many first-time visitors could not even find my restaurant. Still, its invisibility from the street in no way hindered civil servants representing the corrupt practices of a post-communist bureaucracy from finding their way inside. Nor did it stop them from acts of intimidation and harassment. Among my greatest fears was losing my alcohol sales licenses – that would be the kiss of death.

 Click here for Chapter Eight: Canceled Future