On the ides of March I decided that the pigeons of Poland are still communists. I saw six pigeons standing in a circle sharing one piece of bread. American capitalist pigeons would have all been trying to make away with the whole piece of bread for themselves. The humans of Poland, however, are definitely not communist any more. Indeed, much of Poland now looks like America. There are enormous indoor shopping centers, like Galleria Lodzki or the new Manufacture, the largest shopping center in Europe, that have many of the same shops as the same sorts of places in Little Rock or any other American city—The Athletes Foot, Levi Store, McDonald’s, KFC, Pretty Girl, and a mixture of European everywhere stores such as Ecco Shoes. There are also big box stores: E. Le Clerk, Carrefour, and Tesco. Walking down ulica Piotrkowska, the main traditional shopping street in Lodz, one sees elegantly dressed women coming out of expensive clothing shops with bags stuffed with the next day’s fashionable attire.
But if one walks two streets over in either direction from Piotrkowska, the world turns grey and shabby. One sees the world that existed before the turn away from communism in 1989, and one suspects that the new capitalist prosperity is merely a veneer. There are very few people in Lodz who can afford to buy anything in the expensive shops on the main street. Most people shop in the numerous second-hand clothing stores where you can buy clothes by weight: one zloty (33 cents) a kilogram. Though there are pockets of apparent wealth in Poland—Warsaw’s prosperity seems general all over the city--, a third of Poles live below normal social standards, making an average of between $500 and $600 a month. Forty percent of children live in poverty, the poorest families having the most children.
There are a lot of very poor people in Lodz, which used to be a textile manufacturing city. When Poland left the Soviet fold, it lost its main customer; and the rest of Europe was already getting its clothes from China. Now Lodz, too, gets its clothes from China. Unemployment is about 20 percent in Lodz, and the social safety net is no longer as dependable as it once was. People in the countryside are especially sorry to find themselves living in a new competitive society.