Layers of Time in the Urban Landscape – Visions of Socialist Urbanity in Mitrovica

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Layers of Time

in the Urban Landscape

Visions of Socialist

Urbanity in Mitrovica



















Pieter Troch

32 — 33

Map of Mitrovica and surroundings


Thomas Janssens

The Ambiguities of Socialist Mitrovica

Visions of Socialist Urbanity in Mitrovica

Pieter Troch


Urban Palimpsests


Socialist Modernity












Ambiguities in the urban landscape: alternative

The Ambiguities of Socialist Mitrovica







or lost futures?

In a similar fashion, alternative meanings persistently pierce

through the apparent ethno-political division of the urban landscape.

Standing at the divisive central bridge, it is not the barricades

or flags but the typical, socialist housing blocks and the

Partisan monument that catch the eye. Two huge industrial ruins

define the edges of the cityscape. In the north, an iconic smokestack

towers above the valley. A vast dilapidated complex welcomes

visitors that enter the city from the south. Both zones were

part of the Trepča mining, metallurgical, and chemical industry

enterprise, the catalyst behind the radical transformation of the city

throughout the twentieth century.

An insightful study on post-socialist

urban development in the Balkans

is Sonia A. Hirt, Iron Curtains: Gates,

Suburbs and Privatisation of Space in

the Post-Socialist City (Oxford, 2012).

The demise of Trepča after the collapse of Socialist Yugoslavia in

the 1990s deprived the population of Mitrovica of its primary source

of socio-economic prosperity and spatial identity. The overwhelming

majority of the population is either unemployed or precariously

employed. The built heritage of the industrial city is in a state of

decline and overwritten by post-socialist trends of privatisation,

individualistic and piecemeal urban solutions, informal building, and

commercialisation. New but apparently empty apartment buildings

in various styles sprout up at impossible places, advertisement is

everywhere, and there seems to be a coffee bar for every second

inhabitant. The result is a curious overlap of ‘posts’. The post-conflict

reconstruction of the city, characterised by spatial and ethnic

division, intertwines with post-socialist urban transformation and

post-industrial decline. The reconstruction of the central area

around the bridge over the Ibër, in that sense, is not only a material

form of post-conflict reconstruction, but also a representation of

the post-socialist transformation of the city centre into pedestrian

streets with small shops, coffee bars, and monuments depicting

figures from national and religious histories.

Regardless of the superimposition of ‘posts’, residents of

Mitrovica remain strongly attached to the socialist city. They

proudly remember its development under Socialist Yugoslavia,

economic prosperity, and progressive urban character. There is a

sense of nostalgia in this attachment to the place, but it goes beyond

souvenirs, museums, old miners, and the glorification of the

past against an even worse present. The socialist city is so obviously

present in the entire urban fabric that it makes the ongoing

transformations of the city seem as cosmetic and ineffectual as

the duplication of place names. Although not operating and dilapidated,

the industrial sites formally still function and both the


Serbian and Kosovan government lay claim to Trepča as a future

source of prosperity. A large part of the population of Mitrovica

continues to live in houses constructed by Trepča. The education,

healthcare, sports, and cultural facilities that are central to the

urban identity of the city are all associated to socialist urbanity.

Underneath the post-socialist, post-industrial, and post-conflict

city, the socialist industrial town persists in the built environment

and living memory.

My thinking on layered divisions in

divided cities relies on Jon Calame

and Esther Charlesworth, Divided

Cities: Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem,

Mostar and Nicosia (Philadelphia,

2009); Peter Marcuse, ‘The Layered

City’, in: Peter Madson & Richard Plunz

(eds), The Urban Lifeworld (London,

2005), 94114; and Kimberly Elman

Zarecor, ‘Infrastructural Thinking: Urban

Housing in Former Czechoslovakia

from the Stalin Era to EU Accession’,

in: Edward Murphy & Najib B. Hourani

(eds), The Housing Question: Tensions,

Continuities, and Contingencies in the

Modern City (London/New York, 2013),


This book stems from a broader historical project, in which I analyse

the transformation of urban society in Mitrovica under Yugoslav and

Kosovan socialism. My initial idea was to prevent the ethnopoliticisation

of the city from interfering in my historical research.

At first sight, indeed, the physical and nonphysical barriers in present-day

Mitrovica, the individualistic and informal urban solutions,

and the proliferation of commerce and consumption are the negation

of the socialist urban utopia. Urban studies often apply the

metaphor of the palimpsest to evoke the material and immaterial

traces of the past that are still present in the urban landscape. I set

out to dig for the layer of socialist urbanity and remove distortions

caused by superimposed post-conflict and post-socialist transformations.

However, during prolonged stays in the city, I found that a

clear distinction between temporal layers in the urban landscape

actually violates the constant intersections across temporal and

spatial lines of division that I noticed so clearly in the built environment

and in the minds of the city’s inhabitants. The traces of the

socialist transformation of the city are more than passive remains of

hopelessly outmoded visions of the future. They continue to define

post-socialist, post-industrial, and post-conflict configurations in the

city. The purpose of this book is to document the intersections of

layered meanings in the urban landscape.

Socialist Modernity


Like every modernist policy, socialist urban planning created its

own traditional counter image. When the Yugoslav Communists

took power in Mitrovica in the fall of 1944, they encountered a

town that was the antithesis of socialist urban modernity. To the

Yugoslav Communists, the narrow, winding, maze-like character of


introduced daily garbage collection. Municipal authorities also forbade

the common practice of holding livestock in the urban area.

These concepts of cleanliness and order in the public space were

juxtaposed with images of dirtiness, lack of hygiene, mud, and dust

associated with the unregulated Ottoman city and the intrusion of

agriculture and peasant lifestyles in the city.

Massive rural-to-urban migration in the 1950s70s challenged the

prospects of the compact city. The city’s population tripled from

slightly over 16,000 in 1953 to nearly 53,000 in 1981. Migration from

the surrounding rural areas grew exponentially. Whereas the urban

population amounted to 28.5% of the municipality’s population in

1948, its share had grown to 52.4% in 1981. Essentially, this migration

was a direct outcome of the clear delineation of the urban and rural

landscape and the prioritisation of the city as the site of socialist

transformation. So-called peasant-workers moved to the city in

search of work in the public sector, pushed by the huge overemployment

in private agriculture and the marked population growth.

They were also attracted by the high and stable wages in the public

sector industry and various related social benefits (child allowance,

health care, education, housing).

Regarding illegal house construction

in Socialist Yugoslavia, see

Rory Archer, ‘The Moral Economy of

Home Construction in Late Socialist

Yugoslavia’, History and Anthropology

(2017), 14162. The above-mentioned

studies of Socialist Belgrade by Brigitte

Le Normand and Nicole Münnich analyse

wild settlements in the capital.

Urban development could clearly not cope with such a massive

migration. In 1965, there was a demand for over 3,000 house units,

while the municipality and Trepça constructed only 300 flats per

year. Due to under-urbanisation and the lack of access to housing

in social ownership, urban newcomers resorted to the illegal construction

of single-family houses. Although detached houses were

not incompatible with socialist urban planning—Mitrovica’s urban

plan anticipated that 25% of the urban population would live in single-family

houses in the urban periphery—the municipality failed to

develop land for individual house construction and lost control over

the phenomenon. So-called wild house construction arose in the

late 1950s and became massive during the peak of urban migration

in the 1960s. Illegal houses were typically built just outside the narrow

urban area, where land had not been nationalised. The houses

were of low quality and often remained unfinished. The authorities,

however, rarely intervened and entire wild settlements sprang up in

the city’s peripheral belts.

Rather than destroying illegal houses, the municipality attempted

to regulate and focus the phenomenon by designating large peripheral

zones for individual house construction and auctioning


plots for single-family houses in line with municipal requirements.

The development of land for connection to public utilities was

subsidised from a municipal fund, and newly established commercial

banks were authorised to provide credit to private individuals.

However, because of measures by the municipal authorities to give

priority to urban residents with no access to adequate housing

over rural migrants, the pressure of urban migration from the rural

hinterland and the problem of illegal house construction remained

acute. As a result, individual house construction, which was often

informal, dominated the expansion of the city. Between 1965 and

1980, private individuals built around 10,000 detached houses.

At the same time, the construction of houses in social ownership

stalled, rising from 2,409 to 3,953 house units. Individual housing

was concentrated in Tavnik and Bair, the relatively favourable

terrain to the south and southwest of the city centre, ultimately

incorporating the villages of Zhabarë and Šipolje. One smaller zone

for individual house construction was located at the back slope of

Partisan Hill.

The literature on rurbanisation and

urban-rural divisions in East European

cities is extensive. The pioneering

study for Yugoslavia is Andrei Simić,

The Peasant Urbanites: A Study of

Rural-Urban Mobility in Serbia (New

York, 1973).

The periphery challenged urban order and norms, as captured in

the notion of ‘wild settlements’. The informal individual house construction

and horizontal dispersion in the periphery was the counter

image of the orderly residential blocks and compact verticality that

dominated the city centre and defined socialist modernity. The peripheral

areas also remained underdeveloped and poorly connected

to public utilities. In the early 1970s, there was no real road infrastructure,

no spatial planning, limited access to water supply and

sewers, and no garbage collection in Tavnik. As a result, cleanliness

guidelines never applied to the detached house settlements in the

urban periphery. The continuous and uncontrolled migration from

the rural hinterland into the city’s periphery also led to the merger

of urban and rural practices, known as rurbanisation. The periphery

did not develop into an area from where the urban way of living

would expand into the rural hinterland but was subject to rural invasions

that seemed to jeopardise the socialist transformation of

the urban environment. The municipality even abandoned its earlier

principle of strict delineation between rural and urban spaces and

lifestyles and allowed residents on the urban periphery to hold livestock.

Press and public opinion presented the periphery as an area

where urban norms and values were not upheld, which explained

the continuous dirt in the city, the persistence of conservative (including

religious and nationalistic) behaviour, and the rise of criminality

and social profiting.



For a detailed account of the material

and economic collapse of Trepča

from the 1980s onwards, see Michael

Palairet, ‘Trepča, 19652000.’ Report to

Lessons Learned and Analysis Unit to

the EU Pillar of UNMIK in Kosovo (No

place or date of publication).

Socialist cities were above all sites of production-based progress.

As the impetus behind urban transformation, industrial production

permeated the urban fabric. Trepča’s chemical industry site still

dominates the southern part of Mitrovica, stretching over a vast

area east of Bair Hill. The former headquarters of the enterprise and

the lead smelter tower over the north. The lead and zinc mines at

Stanterg are located some ten kilometres east of Mitrovica. Once

the spearheads of progress, these sites have relapsed into places

of industrial ruination that symbolise the despair of the deindustrialising

society. They also suffered badly from destruction, damage,

and armed conflict during the constant state of emergency and

conflict in Kosovo in the 1990s. Finally, they are sources of heavy

pollution and health risks due to flawed waste management, limited

oversight, and infrastructural failure.

The same patterns of industrial decay are evident in the factory settlements

on the periphery of Mitrovica. The miners’ settlements of

Stanterg and Prvi Tunel were labelled peri-urban settlements in socialist

urban planning. They kept strong economic and communal ties

with the city but were obviously not organic parts of the urban area.

Indicatively, it was allowed to hold livestock there. Most of the residents

were rural migrants from the mountainous Bajgora area to the

east of Mitrovica, and they resided in the dormitories, barracks, and

small individual houses. The stalled development of both settlements

indicates the limited prioritisation of these peri-urban settlements

and their inhabitants in socialist urban management. There was broad

dissatisfaction with the perishing housing fund, which stemmed from

the interwar and the immediate post-war years. Stanterg and Prvi

Tunel received only a small share of Trepča’s budget for housing even

though the mines were the basis of the production chain. There were

problems with drinking water, electricity was weak and irregular, and

the food supply was restricted. There was a shortage of schools and

medical care. Due to flawed and irregular public transport and poor

road connections, travelling to Mitrovica was hazardous, and many of

the miners seldom made the trip.

Today, both settlements visibly suffer from deindustrialisation and

war. Thanks to its relative proximity to Mitrovica and the construction

of rows of high-rise residential buildings to replace the interwar


arracks in the late socialist period, Prvi Tunel has retained its

socialist urban façade. However, the high-rise buildings are in a

decaying state, and the workers’ house, the anticipated centre of

communal life under socialism, is in ruins. Stanterg has shaken off

all traces of urbanity. The former centre of the settlement, which

boasted the seats of the mine management and trade union, a library,

cinema, museum, public canteens, dormitories, and shops,

is now ruined and abandoned. Internally displaced persons made

it their shelter. Two high-rise residential buildings from the 1980s

were heavily damaged by warfare. The miners’ colony up the hill

has the atmosphere of a rural mountain community, with small individual

houses and typical miners’ houses from the interwar period.

In all aspects, the city seems far away. In this process of gradual

decline, the ethnic balance in Stanterg and Prvi Tunel underwent

considerable shifts. In 1961, Stanterg had 1,511 inhabitants, of whom

717 were Serbs, 536 Albanians, and 121 Montenegrins. In 1981, the

total population remained stable at 1,479, but the number of Serbs

and Montenegrins dropped to 196 and 11, while the number of

Albanians increased to 1,239. In Prvi Tunel as well, the number of

Serb residents dropped from 679 to 323 and that of Montenegrins

from 378 to 67, while the number of Albanians increased from 313

to 834. Post-war developments have pushed existing trends to the

extreme as the Serb population of Stanterg and Prvi Tunel left and

Albanian migrants from the neighbouring areas moved in.

Zveçan is located some three kilometres north of Mitrovica along

the Ibar, near the lead smelter and enterprise headquarters. The

settlement developed in the interwar period as the residential area

for foreign management and engineers, who lived in English, cottage-style

villas on the gentle slopes above the headquarters and

smelter. Zveçan continued to enjoy a privileged position in socialist

urban development. The urban plan of 1962 envisaged it as a suburb

and constituent part of the city. The basic principles of socialist

urbanity applied in the same way they applied to the urban centre.

In the 1950s, Trepča built villas for engineers and managers and a

modern school in Zveçan. It also built sports facilities and the prestigious

Hotel No. 3, where Tito himself used to stay when visiting

the region. The new workers’ house was an important venue for the

entire city for cultural and social events. In addition, Zveçan had

a favourable location thanks to the limited exposure to pollution

from the smelter, which usually drifted in the valley of the Ibar towards

the city of Mitrovica. In many ways, Zveçan was the counter

image of the unplanned southern periphery of the city. Both had




Lead smelter

and general


Tunel i parë

Prvi Tunel



Ibër — Ibar


Partisan Hill


Ibër — Ibar





Chemical industry






Lushta — Ljušta





Stari Trg

Notation Albanian


Main roads



Thomas Janssens


Comprehensive socialist urbanity


Fragmentary transformations


The industrial city I


Detached house settlements


The industrial city II


Factory settlement I


Factory settlement II


The industrial city III


Factory settlement III

Visions of Socialist Urbanity in Mitrovica

The northern part of the city

The pre-socialist historical centre and Bair

Trepça’s chemical industry site

The urban periphery (Tavnik and Partisan Hill)

Trepča’s general management and lead smelter


Tunel i parë

Trepça’s mining site













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