In the late 18th century the nerve center of Lviv began to shift. Rynok Square which had once been the city’s commercial and cultural heart slowly lost its centrality to city life. The elegant baroque tenement houses that proscribed its boundaries were still just as beautiful as they had ever been, but the merchants and guilds that had called them home for centuries, exercising power from their immaculately adorned halls, could only watch helplessly as Austrian officials began to remake the city into a Habsburg one. Most of the city walls which had ringed the old town, segregating the haves from the have-nots, were torn down. Now the city’s expansion could radiate outward, the limits of Lviv (Lemberg to the Austrians) were seemingly limitless, the barriers to growth both physical and mercantile were disbanded. The city was administratively restructured into five districts. The insular, monopolistic special interests that had held the reins of power for so long were disbanded or fell under Imperial control in just a few years.
The Austrians had a new “enlightened” vision of what Lviv must become. This meant remaking the city in their image. Building projects would now be approved and administered by a centralized bureaucracy. A new center for the city would rise in the area that today is Prospekt Svobody. This area had formerly been used as a city garden and park like green space. Now it would become the chief rival to Rynok Square (Ploscha Rynok), a public space for a growing city, a place for the masses to socialize and speculate, a city that would reflect imperial ambitions. The reach of the Austrian empire would now be extended into the forlorn frontier of Europe.
Promenading the Poltva
The main focal point for Lviv’s makeover was where the Poltva River ran adjacent to the western side of the city walls. In 1776, a scant four years after Austria took control of the city, these walls were torn down. This area was known as the Hetman’s Ramparts, their destruction opened up new possibilities to expand the city. The ensuing rubble was used to fill in a large defensive embankment that had guarded the area near Saints Peter and Paul Garrison (former Jesuit) Church. This new beginning was not without its problems. The backfill used to fill the embankment proved to be highly unstable and prone to collapse. Such a major public thoroughfare demanded safety and stability. With characteristic Teutonic efficiency the Austrians managed to overcome this problem. Smooth, parallel streets were placed along the eastern and western banks of the Poltva. A promenade akin to the glacis in Vienna was constructed. It was given a thoroughly Austrian name, Karl Ludwig Strasse. Lviv was being westernized, as the Austrians attempted to bring order and structure to what they saw as a quasi-Oriental outpost.
A series of arched bridges soon spanned the Poltva and poplar trees were planted to line the promenade. Lviv now had its own mini Ringstrasse, with it would come a sense of belonging to something greater than weary, downtrodden Galicia. This all sounds positively romantic. It is easy to imagine women in long, colorful dresses covered in floral patterns, strolling along the promenade twirling pastel parasols. While they walk arm and arm with their husbands dressed in their Sunday best suits, carrying brass tipped canes and sporting bowler hats. There was much of this, but the truth was also quite literally messy. The Poltva was fetid, teeming with sewage. The smell could be overwhelming and created a less than healthy environment. Commercial businesses in the area were filled with speculators. Loan sharks and confidence men proliferated.
Falling Upward: Lviv Unlike Itself
Both the comforts and vices of modernity were on full display. A new city was born as the center of economic and social gravity moved close to the banks of the Poltva. The promenade became the throbbing heart of what was fast becoming a modern city, one whose population would come to be measured in the hundreds of thousands. In 1871, one side of Karl Ludwig Strasse was renamed Hetmańska, in honor of the Polish Great Crown Hetman Stanislaw Jablonowski, while the other side retained its name. Near the end of the 19th century the Poltva would be covered. It was not so much a river anymore as a culvert. The initial reason for the siting of the city was now hidden by concrete. Nature, in the form of flower beds and several species of trees were added to the urban landscape. In one sense, the promenade was nature made over in man’s image. Grand buildings, such as the Skarbek Theater (Maria Zankovetska Theater) and the Museum of Industry (Museum of Ethnography and Arts and Crafts), were constructed.
Lviv, as the administrative center for the quixotically named Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, was transformed into a showpiece for the Austrian provincial administration. Here was a vision of Habsburg grandeur that happily promoted imperial interests. This was a representation of industriousness with a human face, an imposition of the Habsburgs enlightened self-interest. Here is what the empire did for its citizens, now all they had to do was believe. On a more troubling note, the new center of Lviv could hopefully obscure the dire poverty and endemic hand to mouth subsistence that was the miserable lot for the overriding majority of the province’s citizens. A smoke and mirror substitute for broad prosperity.
Center Staged – Where The Heart Beats Strongest
The destruction of the western side of the Old City Walls and that area’s successful conversion, from ramparts to a public promenade and commercial center, can be seen in the fact that in present day Lviv this is still the city’s heart. It is where locals and tourists intermingle. It is a place where pedestrian and automobile traffic competes most fiercely, thousands jostle each day for urban elbow room. It is a public space where the multitudes come to stroll, while just a stone’s throw away business and commerce carries on. It is the place where Lviv’s major protests have taken place on multiple occasions over the past 25 years, where its citizens have found the courage to confront the Soviet legacy. Prospekt Svobody today, like Karl Ludwig Strasse during the 19th century, is Lviv at its most modern and European, filled with energy and possibility, freedom and dynamism.