‘Kvart’ is a Croatian word that only really lives in Zagreb. ‘Kvart’ means ‘quarter’, 1/4 – as in quartiere, quartier, viertel; in other words, district, neighbourhood, part of town.

‘Susjedstvo’, which is the Croatian word for ‘neighbourhood’, really means ‘vicinity’, and is rarely used in another context than to say that someone lives in the neighbourhood.

For that canadianism, ‘community’ – again, a territorialising word denoting a neighbourhood where everybody knows your name – we have ‘zajednica’ or ‘lokalna zajednica’, but this has shifted in connotation quite strongly to stand for the community hall, of the kind that every mathematically-defined district had in the socialist years, that were about as successful as gathering points for the ‘community’ as town halls are in Melbourne today.

Then there is ‘naselje’ (literally, ‘settlement’), which in many cities became synonymous with post-1950s modernist residential projects: big vertical lumps of apartments. But ‘naselje’ is an architectural term: it has come to mean a group of similarly-shaped large buildings, be they tall or slabby; and ‘susjedstvo’ only exists relationally, in proximity to something. ‘Zajednica’ is about as meaningful a term as ‘regional centre’ is in Australia.

In Rijeka or any smaller cities, you are going to be asked something geographically more precise, but neutral in terms of identity: “What part of town are you from?”

Whichever way you turn it, the only word that combines the two, the geographical delineation and a concordant sense of special identity, is kvart. And kvart is a word so specific to Zagreb that most Croats would consider it a mark of the Zagreb accent. Its common usage (moj kvart (my kvart), dečki iz kvarta (boys from the kvart) has the same implicit, sometimes explicit, territoriality as the americanism ‘hood.

The question (‘What part of town are you from?’) is a geo-locational question, not a question someone will ask you on the street at night, while he’s surrounding you with his gang members. While there may be some faint sense of different parts of town shaping your soul in different ways, Zagreb is the only city in Croatia where people seem to carry their kvart in their hearts as they grow up and old. It has kvart gangs, for sure (with very few exceptions in other towns); people keep their local friends, indeed their groups of friends, quite distinct from their school or university friends; kvarts support their local celebrities, however minor; and celebrities like to underline their provenance, like terroir, from a certain kvart. At the same time, not any part of Zagreb seems to be a kvart. The centre, for example, and the well-off villa suburbs on the mountain sides above the city, are not tied to any identity except prestige, wealth. In Zagreb, a kvart, and this is significant, is a suburb almost by definition; non-city. Kvart is non-universal, local, small, irreducible to its next larger context.

But, to leave the question of semantics aside and get slightly more ontological, I am under the impression that there is no such thing as kvart outside of Zagreb anyway. For what makes a kvart? Geographical separation from its context, certain separation that allows its residents to have their own local health centre, school, supermarket, petrol station, cafes. Other cities in Croatia are either too small, or too densely built, for this to happen.

During this stay in Zagreb, I spent a lot of time walking around these suburbs; specifically, different parts of Trnje, the vast area south of the train line. To my eyes, used to the Mediterranean urban fabric of Rijeka and similar coastal cities, this is an undifferentiated blob: meadows, slabs, skyscrapers, cottages. In many other heads, however, it is a patchwork of very specific kvarts. People would send me to Utrine or Borovje or Vrbik, places which to me all looked identical: as big blocks in undifferentiated green space. Ville Radieuse 1, 2, 4, 17… For the residents, on the other hand, as for architects and architectural historians, each one is different: different project, different architect, different construction era, different architecture.

The photos I took were bad photos – bad in terms of framing, composition, focus – but I was trying not to frame things well. I was trying to catch the very absence of this framing in the urbanism of the places. These places leak, vertically, horizontally. They are not on the human scale (too tall, too vast, too disconnected, too thin in fabric), but humans do live there. And quite happily, it seems. Most spaces were really beautiful, or at least pleasant, perhaps due to the gorgeous weather Zagreb had in those weeks: sunny, warm, shady, airy, green. But all, even the ugly ones, were teeming with people: children playing, adults sitting in cafes, joggers, dog-walkers, couples making out on benches. There were huge playgrounds, there were cafes everywhere, there were enormous and very pleasant green surfaces. It all looked like the most optimistic of Le Corbusier’s illustrations of the city radiant, La ville radieuse.

Most importantly, each one was a kvart. Each one was a genuine urban village, a micro-community (or rather, a macro-community – according to the city census, each one of these places houses between 30 and 60,000 people). Walking through them, I was constantly observed, noticed – as an outsider, as an out-of-towner. The sheer amount of people on the street, people that had to be local because there was nothing super-local in terms of infrastructure (nothing that would draw people in from the outside – no cinemas, no hospitals, no shopping centres, no specialty stores). Each one was the rosiest example of what Canadians would term a ‘community’.

(Please keep in mind, as you look at these photos, that this is not an area on the urban fringe. There are settlements (naselja) on all sides. What you see are not transitional area, between the dense and the empty. The urban fabric of Zagreb continues in more-or-less the same vein in all directions, on an enormous plain, everywhere except in the north of the city, where the mountain Medvednica offers a single natural barrier to sprawl.)

In urban theory, Corbusian urbanism of this kind is so habitually discredited as soulless, alienating and destructive of a ‘real community’ (in the Canadian sense) that we often don’t even see such places as we walk through them. Such theories are generally formed on the basis of low-income housing projects in the UK and the US, occasionally elsewhere, projects such as Cabrini-Green, Pruitt and Igoe, Gropiusstadt, or Broadwater Farm Estate, which all became incubators of social discontent, poverty, and crime, and had to be either demolished, thoroughly remodelled or privatised. However, the ones in Zagreb function exactly as their opposite, the often-mystified ‘urban village’, a place for a local community in the soulless big city: the Greenwich Village of Jane Jacobs, the Fitzroy and Brunswick of modern Melbourne, the Parkdale of Toronto. In urban theory, in order to be an urban village a place needs, at the very least, 19th-century cottages with porches, front and back yards, and no more than two storeys of building height.

But the Zagreb situation offers a proof to the contrary: it is not the dense urban fabric to make an urban village, nor is it low heights. It is the local-level infrastructure (every one of these large buildings had tiny supermarkets, cafes, and the like on the ground floor), and a certain islandness, a sense of separation from the city. To be from a kvart is to not be from the city, to be different from the other parts of the city, to have a non-universal identity.

I never liked the concept of the urban village. It seems provincial, or provincialising. There is an opposing theory, the one that says that to be an urbanite is to be a ‘citizen’, a legally defined subject with civic rights and duties, and at least a step closer to being a cosmopolite. I liked that one much more, it fits in better with the kind of city I find familiar. But the kvarts of Zagreb were built for urban newcomers, previous ruralites, and for the residents of the villages that used to stand on the same ground – the ‘village’ is literally an apt name for them. People were known to keep animals in these apartments. This is not too different from the newcomers that people New York, Melbourne, Toronto; hence, perhaps, the affection usually imbuing the term urban village.

Most importantly for the story, socialism provided these newcomers an upward mobility that public housing projects in the UK and US never had. Today, if not always, these places have a diverse population: intellectuals, manual workers, the unemployed and the housemakers. One thing that gives stability to these communities is the fact that their identity is not class- or income-based. Another is the density: there is enough housing for the young people to move in close to their parents, friends, once they leave home. A huge problem with wealthy enclaves of Victoriana, such as Fitzroy, is that there simply isn’t enough of it to go around.

There is no conclusion to this essay – there is no need for one. I don’t have to like the kvarts of Zagreb to find them fascinating, and I don’t have to like the idea of an urban village to enjoy walking through Trnje, sipping bad coffee every so often from a cafe where everyone seems to know everyone else.

All of the photos were taken on week days, between 4 and 9pm.

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CITIES, travel notes

Ville Radieuse; Croatia.