The old capitals of communism are easy to recognize. Broken see-saws and swings without a seat. Grass grows high beneath rusty merry-go-rounds. The legacy of decades of collective neglect is a wasteland for a generation that gets to learn as kids that public space belongs to everybody and thus to no one. The question of property is suspended in thin air. In between state property and private ownership whole cities wait in stalemate.
But in Tirana the see-saws sparkle and the merry-go-rounds whizz without a creak. Even the small amusement park in the centre, in other Balkan cities by definition a ruin from the days of worker's relaxation, is freshly painted. On cool spring nights the ferris wheel rotates gracefully. Six years ago, both sides of the canal that cuts through the city was crammed with slums and shops. The trees were cut for firewood and the water was an open sewer. People walked in the streets because the sidewalks were stuffed with the kiosks of wild capitalism.
Maybe it's no coincidence that it was an artist, a man with an sense for the moral boost that beauty can bring, who returned the city to its inhabitants. Edi Rama, former basketball international and painter, was going nowhere in Paris when the government called him back to duty in 1998. He became minister of culture and then mayor of Tirana. He had the sidewalks cleaned up, swept both sides of the canal and had trees planted, drenched the central Skanderbeg square in hallucinatory blue light and made his claim to fame with the buildings he released from their greyness by having them painted in patterns of wild color. His motto was: Return to Identity. It gives the city a strange innocence. The paranoia of fifty years of communism and the violent cancer of the nineties keep the inhabitants at guard, but still, they are walking around in a city that is ready for a future. Which future, that is anybody's guess. On the road to god knows what, much remains to be done, but on the road they are.
Back in the eighties, Rama was Muka's professor at the art academy. Today the mayor is the honorary president of the Tirana Biennale. The new artists have taken over his mission: the city needs its identity back. Guests of the Biennale have painted buildings, Lego City became an exercise in civilian initiative, the central location last year was an empty parking garage in a shabby neighborhood that is now being opened up with a newly paved road.