dreams of a green city

Viljandi drivers in 1927

I RECENTLY SPENT SOME TIME in the island city of Kuressaare. Estonians call these larger settlements cities, or linnad, but really they are towns. In my American mind, a city must have a few skyscrapers to merit the name. In Estonia, you might only consider a handful of such places to be proper cities. But this is neither here nor there. Kuressaare felt well cared for. The streets were clean, the stone walls that run the lengths of the avenues were intact, the central square was ornamented with a nice spurting fountain. It was pretty out there. I was so content in Kuressaare, that I didn’t even think about Viljandi for days on end. Viljandi was forgotten to me. I did grow up by the seaside you know, so this lakeside life takes getting used to. It’s foreign to me. 

Then, as if plucked from a blissful wonderful sleep, the bus took us back over the causeway and by boat to the mainland, through the coastal lowlands to Pärnu, then up through the Soomaa swamps to Viljandi. This remote country town, known for its castle ruins and bagpipes. Viljandi did not feel as well cared for, I must admit, though it is improving, day by day, year by year. The streets are fixed, new traffic schemes are implemented, simple creature comforts arrive. Remember the gray days, only a decade ago, when one had to go to Tartu to see a movie?

There were other odd things in Viljandi. A large box stood aimlessly in a park near my home, encasing a singing disco monument. It had been shuttered in the winter and still stood there. I wondered if I had seen such a thing in Kuressaare, what would I have thought of it? It’s been about six months since this temporary situation regarding the Jaak Joala Monument was decided. What would be the long-term decision though? A few tourists stood in the park photographing the box. Someone even posed in front of it. The box, a site of vandalism, has been under 24 hour surveillance since someone briefly opened it, displaying the singing monument within. All of this was too bizarre to be real. Clearly, I had stumbled into an Ott Sepp-Märt Avandi comedy sketch. If it was comedy, then why hadn’t they emerged from behind the box and started rapping?

At Restoran Ormisson the next morning, someone casually passed a piece of paper to me, seeking money to support the restoration of an old war monument that had once stood at Freedom Square. The price tag was north of €600,000. Unfortunately, I did not have the money. The work done at Freedom Square so far has been good. Few people shed tears when the old Soviet building that used to block the view of the Viljandi Manor was demolished. I had been in the building multiple times, but it was hard to get nostalgic about waiting in line to chat with the Police and Border Guard. It was part of this positive trend, you see, the progress in Viljandi. Things were getting better. Someday people from Kuressaare would come here in awe.

The idea behind the war monument seems to be restoring Viljandi to its prewar glory. It made me wonder why people were so focused on that one moment in time though. Just those years before the war. What had been there in the 1830s? Or back in the 1730s? The 1630s? Why were they focused on restoring the city to that moment and not another point in time? And, if we were going back to the 1930s, could we at least get some of those awesome cars back too? Maybe there was a little money left in the city budget for a Steyr 100 and a Chrysler Imperial I could cruise around town in, listening to some of those jazz rhythms on the radio?

Readjusting to Viljandi life, I found myself drawn again to the Castle Ruins and the paths behind them. One thing I always liked about the old photos of Viljandi, even before the 1920s, is how green the city used to be. The sights of windmills and gardens in town. The photos from the 19th century are incredible, with trees sprouting up among the crowds at the old Song Festival Grounds. Such photos lend themselves to the idea of the Estonians being a forest people, or metsarahvas. This made me wonder, instead of spending all this money (and energy) on building monuments, maybe people could devote themselves simply to making Villjandi a greener city.

This wouldn’t only mean planting more flowers and trees. It wouldn’t only mean beautification projects. It could be a core component of the city’s mission to become a greener city in all modern ways, including reducing pollution, cutting emissions, and securing and maintaining Viljandi’s waterways. Maybe parts of the center should become simple pedestrian streets. Such walking streets and green parks are the best parts of any city, whether it’s Paris, Copenhagen, or Stockholm. Why couldn’t Viljandi join in? What was holding it back? It was a simple question. Why not? It didn’t just have to be a dream, you know. It could really happen.

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