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Ideas for the Future

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A Tale of a Glass Roof and a Ghost in the Attic

Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance and the gospel of envy. Its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery. (Winston Churchill)

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 along with numerous of the country’s military and political leaders. Ironically they were on their way to the site of a Soviet massacre of Polish officers during WWII. Her commentary concluded with the following:

This is a test.

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.

For me personally, no words could have appeared to be more abhorrently ironic. At that very time I was fighting a fortress of resistance in the Polish city of Wrocław upon aiming to catapult a badly deteriorating 13th century guard tower into the 21st century, my number one adversary none other than my own landlord, who also just so happened to be a highly regarded Polish author. As it has long been said that a ghost lurks inside of Baszta, I came to learn of several ghosts haunting my every move, the newest family member being my landlord, who secretly purchased the tower in December of 2004, the year that Poland became accepted as a European Union member. One would naturally conclude that we were on the same page with the same sense of purpose when I became the chosen tenant on the basis, I was told, of the artistic concept I envisioned for the building. While to this day I am not sure whether she has ever seen the drawings presented here, as I was to learn over time, she harbored a clandestine agenda concerning her own ideas for the future and that I ultimately stood in her way.

As an expression of self worth, six days before Tokarczuk’s New York Times op-ed was published, I received a legally unenforceable eviction from my landlord. It was no coincidence that on that very day I hosted an opening reception for an international Mexican artist who I personally invited to Poland, nor that the event was ignored by the local media. The same could not be said of the Mexican Ambassador in Warsaw, who sent a congratulatory letter

This spooky act of intimidation was remarkable in light of the fact that Wrocław was busy promoting itself as “The Meeting Place,” a purportedly booming multicultural urban center, even more so for at that very time the city was in the running to be awarded the yearly distinction of becoming a European Culture Capital.

What had motivated me to participate in the remarkable growth I had witnessed firsthand since the country’s liberation in 1989 was coming to an unimaginably eerie ending that would eventually force me to leave Poland in the same cloud of secrecy that kept my landlord’s dual identity as a real estate investor under cover. Thanks to complicity of the local media, my landlord, who, most remarkably similarly to Ms. Tokarczuk is known for her mythological writing, successfully created a mythology of her own reality. Since portraying herself the first day that we met as a poor Polish writer, she managed to hide from the public the truth about her only regular source of income during the prior few years: my monthly rent payments. Early that year she sued me half of a year after I informed her that I had become unable to make the full payments while demanding a reimbursement on my investments. The reason was her failure to address the increasingly deteriorating condition of the tower that was strangling my business even despite formal demands made upon her by the city.

The media hush up was so pervasive that after I was asked during an interview why she did not wish for her ownership of Baszta to be known by a no longer operating local English language radio station, the station’s management banished the recording and fired the interviewer. 

Having been asked this question countless times since then, my own conclusions are several, beginning with the peculiar ways I learned on the job that property ownership sometimes changed hands in the wake of the communist era.

Along with all else that was effectively censored in new times of free enterprise and presumably free democratic expression are these futuristic architectural renderings that I  commissioned from a Wrocław architect. They illustrate a concept that I conveyed to him which was intended to solve a myriad of problems pertaining to space, allure and most of all location of a building that while only a short walk from the heart of the city center nevertheless suffered from serious accessibility challenges.

This seemed so perfectly fitting given the fact that the largest city in western Poland, which has become a mecca as the European center for the headquarters of numerous multinational businesses, won the 2016 European Culture Capital title in 2011 along with the sister city of San Sebastian in Spain. The timing could not have seemed more fortuitous as I found myself in a one in a million position to propose a unique futuristic revival of a grossly neglected precious symbol of Wrocław’s medieval origins during a period of dynamic urban redevelopment. This included the gentrification of a beautiful central city market square, renovation of the opera house, train station, synogague, the nearby touristic “Cathedral Island” and completion in 2012 of Wrocław’s first bona fide skyscraper.

The story that I have to tell may say a great deal about why the 2016 European Culture Capital, which calls itself, “The Meeting Place,” remains virtually unknown abroad.

Great art requires a bold vision

I recognized the potential of Wrocław the first time I visited the city in ’89 and photographically documented its decayed buildings. One only needed to look at a map to see its strategic positioning situated virtually equidistant between Berlin to the west, Prague to the south and Warsaw to the east. Often asked why a Californian would have any desire to live there, many foreign businessmen quickly recognized what I did of the city’s enormous potential. Associations with specific cities immediately come to mind when thinking of the fantasy architecture of Antoni Gaudi, the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, to name a few. Often such monumental undertakings happen to be towers and in recent times a few that have become symbols of major urban centers have incorporated dramatic glass structures, which in the past would not have been technically possible. A prominent example is the glass dome of Berlin’s Reichstag, just three hours away by car. Another most obvious case in point is I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid situated before the Louvre in Paris, which at first was met with a negative reaction from 90% of the French populace. My idea somewhat unconsciously represented an homage to Pei, whose battle, which I had read about while living in Paris at that time, kept me fighting on with an inbred Californian spirit of idealistic, open minded optimism.

by Wilhelm Buschulte

Having worked for many years not only as an architectural glass artist but as the former editor of a magazine about contemporary glass art, I was equally fascinated by the contemporary architectural usage of glass in other instances where historical buildings received new facelifts. Such a phenomenon occurred in German towns surrounding Cologne and Dusseldorf after the Second World War. Enormous stained glass windows the likes of which no one had ever seen before were installed in many public buildings in ostensibly the same spirit that motivated Olga Tokarczuk’s expressed frustrations: aesthetic modernization was the direct outcome of a will to distance a war torn country from its dreadful past. A few of the artists responsible for the designs of these glass works became popular among American stained glass artists and architectural circles. During my first visit to Europe in 1979 I met one of them, Wilhelm Buschulte, and I photographed some of his public artworks. (Please click to enlarge the example to the left.)

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

Aside from my architectural glass design background, in my veins was the blood of my grandfather, Myron Abrams, a building contractor of Polish heritage. Hence, it only seemed natural to aspire to make the most of this once in a lifetime destined opportunity that had fallen into my hands through a series of seemingly serendipitous circumstances. However, no matter how often I heard oohs and ahhs from those to whom I privately showed these architectural renderings, I was repeatedly confronted with the same tired objection: I will never be granted permission to tamper with a historical object. In fact, that was how it had been from the beginning of my tenancy, as if putting a single nail into the wall would cause a social calamity. To this I replied:

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

Wrocław architect, Mirosława Przylecki, who restored Baszta after the end of World War II, expressed a similar reaction when shortly before he died I showed to him framed prints of these images on the walls of the tower’s interior.

It seemed senseless in any case that there were any such objections since I was the only one who had any ambition or will to do something about a historical landmark that was rotting to its core. Nor was there much of a choice given that my wanderlust landlord, who was traveling abroad most of the time, had clearly invested all of her energies and resources elsewhere, blindly expecting that I would do all of the dirty work, notwithstanding nonstop emergencies I faced in fighting to keep a restaurant alive under ever more ominous circumstances.

What a fascinating contrast I thought, that I sometimes met young expat Poles visiting their families during brief returns home from life abroad, who saw me as a hero, while xenophobic Poles who had never left were calling me everything from a thief to a smuggler to a pimp. In seemingly perfect sync with the city’s motto: The Meeting Place, my restaurant that served a fusion menu from around the globe was frequently disparaged by locals while paradoxically garnering attention in published tourist guides and major sources of print media from the east coast of the U.S. to London. Meanwhile, with historical buildings being meticulously restored, new construction emerging across the city’s landscape and new western style shopping malls spreading like a cancer, Abrams’ Tower was dying a slow death. The building’s porous roof in dire need of major restoration became the central battleground as I faced debilitating bureaucratic practices still hardly changed since the darkest days of communism. It boggled my mind that no one seemed to recognize cause and effect, that in a capitalist jungle one must earn money in order to pay the bills. The prevailing attitude was that one must even pay the rent from one’s grave after the roof has fallen onto one’s head. From the very beginning there were several incidents of brittle ceramic tiles dangerously crashing to the ground or water pouring through the top floor’s ceiling. As each minor repair only briefly postponed the inevitable, with what limited means at my disposal as a tenant, I did my best to assist my globe trotting landlord to raise the necessary funding for what became clearly imperative: a complete roof replacement.

Unsolicited art exhibition in the stairwell

In several instances various Polish investors proposed a partnership, including one living in New York, who flew to Wrocław to sign an agreement. Like the others, he turned around and ran the other way when the crippling obstacles I faced became apparent, yet my landlord oddly showed no will to accommodate their concerns. Oddly, the only people she ever seemed to take to heart were ambitious young managers I had hired with no stakes in the business, one of them who I was to later discover had his own secret plot to attempt to take it over. Over time it appeared to be conspiratorial that I was being targeted by one frivolous accusation after the next. This included baseless investigations into fictitious illegal alcohol sales.

Banderole and beer inspection

During one tax office control, Customs stamps called “banderoles” were found to have fallen off of a few wine bottles, which surely meant that they had been smuggled across the border without paying tariffs. During another it was alleged that water was being somehow mixed into kegs of beer, whereas I was one of the only bar owners in the city selling award winning unpasteurized Polish brews. It was nothing new to me to learn of rumors that I was everything from a CIA agent to the kingpin of a brothel. I tried to brush it off as an isolated incident when things got so ugly that the tower was attacked by neo-Nazi vandalism. Ultimately, the one most significant person associated with my business was usually traveling somewhere around the world when I needed her the most.

Olga Tokarczuk's press conference at La luz in 2006

From the day we met I attempted to engage my landlord in the business and proposed to her a minority ownership, which she rejected. I offered to provide the entire building to her for a press conference announcing the publication of her latest novel, just as I had once done for Polish artists, film directors and other literary figures, including Olga Tokarczuk. In the summer of 2007, coaxing her to apply for public funding that was allocated to restore historical buildings, I personally introduced her to the vice-president of the Wroclaw City Council, but nothing came of it. He said to me: “Your problem is that you have a medieval building trapped inside of a communist neighborhood.” I was to learn that the old communist spirit spread much farther.

2008 entrance concept by architect Krzysztof Kobielski

In the spring of 2008 during one of my landlord’s infrequent appearances in Wrocław, I managed to convince her to meet with the director of the Department of Historical Buildings. Upon visiting the tower she demanded of my landlord to hire an architect to design a project to restore the roof, the walls and a new passage through the medieval fortification wall attached to the tower where one had once existed. At that time we co-signed a new long term extension of our lease agreement as I agreed to make major new investments on continued interior restoration while she promised to take care of the exterior. Presumably the root problems I had faced during the prior three years would finally be resolved.

The Wrocław Ghetto

During five months of installing a new kitchen, new electrical system and other costly cosmetic improvements, the restaurant remained closed while nevertheless my landlord demanded that I continue to make monthly rent payments. By the time the restaurant reopened, no exterior work had been done. Unbelievably, on the very day that I opened with a brilliantly talented new head chef and a highly ambitious fusion menu, I discovered that the one entrance that existed from the street where the tower is located, which required walking through the neighbor’s parking lot, had been blocked with a heavy metal construction fence. The new entrance which was demanded by the city was intended to alleviate this passage through the neighbor’s property. Instead, I had no entrance from the most nearby street at all because the neighbor was livid that nothing had still been done to repair the roof after tiles had fallen into his parking lot one and a half years earlier. As usual, my landlord was traveling abroad. Her boyfriend who acted as her proxy said that it was not her problem, yet he demanded immediate rent payment. It was this circumstance that caused the court case that I myself had discussed instigating with various lawyers. I did not wish, however, to take my highly respected landlord to court and waste what I was told would be years of time, which was completely unsustainable.

Warsaw Old Town 1944 Uprising Exhibition, 2004

Many times I reflected on the jubilation during my first visit to Poland in the fall of 1989 when the Berlin Wall was torn down, of the big beautiful synagogue being restored across town by Bente Kahan, a Norwegian performing artist, as a major contribution to a revival of Polish Jewish communities that was emerging from Warsaw to Krakow to Wrocław. I had visited the Jewish quarter in Krakow many times and in 2004 photographically documented a memorial outdoor exhibition that was staged in Warsaw in homage to the 1944 Uprising. In 2005 I voluntarily corrected the English text of a book of photography of Wrocław’s Polish cemetery by Andrzej Majewski, the photos exhibited in Wrocław’s City Hall. Yet, unfathomably, what seemed to be surreal, in the year 2008, four years after Poland’s admission to the European Union, right in the heart of “The Meeting Place,” Abrams’ Tower became imprisoned inside of what I came to coin: “The New Wrocław Ghetto”.

Completely unknown to me at the time, what fortuitous timing that the ownership of one of the country’s most widely read daily newspapers glorified my literary star landlord with a 100,000 Polish złoty (around $30,000) award for her latest novel. This alone surely would have been more than enough to cover the costs of restoring the tower’s roof while I was investing about the same in making a second restoration of the tower’s interior. Simultaneously I was negotiating a partnership with one of the most wealthy businessmen in Poland, whose architects proposed making a 350,000 złoty (around $120,000) renovation investment, more money than the paltry sum that my landlord had paid for the tower. My partner to be, who was about to open a new restaurant in the center of Warsaw and who owned a wine import company based in Krakow, intended for Abrams’ Tower to become the source of his wine sales for Lower Silesia, the western region of Poland. After his architects traveled from Warsaw to survey the building and saw that the only half way reasonable passage to the tower’s door had been blocked, he proposed to build a new elegantly designed and brightly illuminated entrance at his own cost. I fought for weeks with my landlord’s boyfriend to obtain copies of her architect’s drawings only to learn that she had fired him before his project was ever completed. By then one more investor had been scared away.

Showing not an iota of appreciation of the investment I had just made, the investors I brought to the table, concern regarding my sense of urgency caused by the neighbor’s blatant act of sabotage, respect for the demands of the Department of Historical Buildings or self respect regarding her own promise to restore the tower’s exterior, my landlord bought an apartment just outside of the city center’s Market Square. 

Unwittingly, I had become embroiled in a war between a writer and an artist over competing senses of self worth and ideas for the future. This confounded me as I had endeavored in every way I could think of to cooperatively combine both our creative forces and resources with a coalition of support from the city and outside investors. 

The labyrinth

Undaunted, as I came to feel entrapped by a profound sense of responsibility to what I had thus far managed to achieve, I masochistically continued to pursue my vision. In vain I tried everything I could think of to somehow keep the business open. With so few people finding the tower’s door, which required discovering remote passages through nearby tenement apartments, I tried posting signs that were quickly vandalized, starting up a catering business that floundered, experimented with using the building just for parties and cultural events or opening only on weekends.

From far away on the other side of the continent things appeared much different when in April of 2011 the London Guardian published an article regarding Abrams’ Tower the first place to visit in all of Poland just two months before I finally had to close it down for good and just as Wrocław was about to be selected the 2016 Culture Capital of Europe.

These architectural renderings capture my imagination of what might have been as a great contribution to the city and to Poland. I dreamed of a transparent glass ceiling which in no way would compromise the building’s historical integrity, conforming precisely to the shape of the badly deteriorating ceramic tile roof that was beyond repair. This would have taken advantage of a potentially stunning panoramic view overlooking nearby Cathedral Island, serving at night as a beacon of light which would have instantly transformed Baszta into a must visit touristic attraction. With a capacity of only around fifty customers, the attic could have added at least thirty more. Further, as light is a central element of my artistic work, I devised a concept to illuminate the exterior walls during the evening with colorful slide show projections. (See the full screen animation of “Future Vision 2”)

However, there is an old Polish saying mostly in English that was learned during the communist era by most Poles, despite the fact that few of them knew but a few words in English, which seems to sum up the destructively pessimistic spirit I faced that Tokarczuk had condemned in her New York Times op-ed piece:

Life is brutal and full of zasadzkas…and sometimes kopas w dupas.

Zasadzka means “trap” or “ambush.” The plural ending in the letter “s” as in English would actually be the letter “i” in Polish: zasadzki. Kopas w dupas means: a kick in the ass.”

Notwithstanding my grand dream and ambition, the court case dragged on from January of 2010 until December of 2011 over the unpaid rent, my ghost landlord never once making an appearance. Another frivolous eviction notice arrived, once again delivered long before the court case had even been decided. This time she had a doozy of a justification, claiming that she was in urgent need to begin restoration and that I was the one standing in the way because my restaurant existed inside of the tower. No end to surrealistic alternative reality, the sales contract my landlord signed in December of 2004, like our original lease agreement signed one month later both stipulated that the tower could only be utilized as a bar/restaurant operation.

The ghost's new apartment

Her idea for the future had became crystal clear when in December of 2009 a new architect she hired showed up unannounced to take measurements. Apparently unaware of my landlord’s ultimate intentions, she subsequently emailed me copies of her project, including the installation of an apartment inside of the attic. There was a fundamental problem in this that was instantly clear, that its only possible access was through the restaurant directly below. Stunned, by email I requested of my landlord, who as usual was traveling, a personal meeting upon her return, but she once again any cooperation at all to even talk was linked to the long overdue rent payments. Making it clear that there was no conceivable possibility of this, I told her that we would sink or swim together, that once again I had encountered an enthusiastically interested investor, yet again it fell on deaf ears. Days later the court papers suing me for back rent arrived in the mail. Tragically, as usual, she refused to heed my warnings.

Over the next two years a long procession of witnesses testified in my behalf who confirmed the dire condition of the roof, blocked access to the tower’s door, badly deteriorated conditions and outright refusal of my landlord to cooperate. Among them was the owner of several highly popular restaurants and bars in the city who was another of my prospective partners, a professional restaurant consultant, a former manager, head chef, head bartender and a few esteemed patrons of the restaurant. They included the former director of the Polish Society of Contemporary Music and a diplomat of the Wrocław German Consulate.

Official court photos of the roof inside the attic

My landlord’s only witness was her personal partner, who also served as her building maintenance man and restaurant economics expert, none of which he had a clue about. Comically, her lawyer argued that the new apartment to be built inside of the attic was just an office and that nothing was wrong with the roof. Her boyfriend did one even better, declaring that I was just making a big fuss over petty late rent penalties while earning fantastic profits. As if living in a mystery novel of her lurid literary imagination, two inspectors of the roof who my lawyer called as witnesses mysteriously disappeared, one of them presumed to be dead. Finally the court appointed another one, at my expense, to assess the building’s condition. The moment I opened the attic’s trap door he said, “I don’t need to see more.”

Eureka! I was be vindicated!

Alas, the trickery was far from over…

There is a particular Polish word associated with communist times that seems most appropriate: kombinować (pronounced: comb-e-no-vach), what Poles describe as an impossible to concisely translate form of conniving for the sake of survival, commonly learned tactics which were imperative to master. My puppeteer landlord seemed to be quite adept. Necessity the mother of invention, two decades into the new capitalist system I was afforded the privilege of on the job training as it amazed many that I had managed to last that long.

While we waited outside of the courtroom to hear the verdict, my landlord’s boyfriend approached me, my translator and lawyer, gleefully shaking our hands. Several Poles had tried to convince me that I would get a fair trial but always in the back of my mind was the nagging worry that as an American up against a famous Polish figure I stood no chance. My heart sunk as it appeared obvious that somehow he already knew the decision. As we were about to enter my lawyer uttered his worry that it all boiled down to one odd sentence in a contract that had twice been amended.

The roof unquestionably required major repair, the judge ruled. Hurray! In the end the truth prevailed….for one split moment.

Then the judge went on and on reciting a long list of all sorts of costs, all my responsibility, she said. Completely numbed, I asked my court translator to confirm what I was hearing. After all was said and done her convoluted reasoning was based on piecing together technicalities in documents, all in legal Polish language, that would be useless to decipher with Google Translator and which were never thoroughly explained to me by several different legal advisers, certainly not as the judge interpreted them.

I knew that my life in Poland was over, but not as quickly as it did. Just three weeks later, four days before Christmas, I returned home to a notice on my door to pay up that was left by a court appointed collector. It must have been assumed all along that Santa Claus was American. From that moment on, hiding like a fugitive on the run, one month later I flew back to Los Angeles, nearly everything I owned over the prior decade and a half of my life left behind. Until I got safely onto the plane it felt as if time had stopped in the crippling past of Polish history.

Invited to make a presentation of my artwork in London one year later, afterward I risked making an unannounced return visit to Wrocław and found the remains of another failed uprising:


Baszta has remained abandoned since Abrams’ Tower closed in the summer of 2011. As the above video demonstrates, it has deteriorated to the point of complete uselessness. In June of last year my former landlord was awarded another 100,000 zł, this time public funding that I had attempted to help her to obtain six years earlier that is specifically designated for full restoration of the tower’s roof that her lawyer argued in court was in no need of repair. As God only knows what sense of self worth this funding will be or has been utilized for, I have most recently discovered that I am by no means alone in my assessments concerning the city’s priorities, preparedness for 2016 or for whom this haunted “The Meeting Place” is intended:

European Capital of Culture 2016: the ghost of defeat? – A View from the European Parliament, January 10, 2014

Wrocław is afraid: an experiment in the European Capital of Culture 2016 – Open Democracy, August 30, 2013


Frederick Abrams, April 2014