LODZ (AFP).- Under a massive glass roof, the ultramodern new train station in Lodz, a central city in Poland, already appears ready to welcome visitors for a 2022 international expo that the former textile capital dreams of hosting.
The station will form the new heart of the rapidly changing city, which gradually lost its lustre after years of grandeur at the end of the 19th-century. Lodz hit hard times after communism fell and dozens of fabric factories closed.
By the early 1990s, more than 20 percent of the population was unemployed and the city began to empty. Last year there were 696,000 residents, down from 854,000 in 1988.
Now Lodz wants to renew itself. It selected "City Re:Invented" as its theme for the Specialised Expo 2022/23, which is like a smaller World Expo that showcases a precise challenge facing humanity.
"At the Expo, we want to talk about how you can breathe new life into post-industrial cities. It's a problem that affects many countries around the world," Lodz mayor Hanna Zdanowska told AFP.
To make its dream come true, Lodz still has to beat Buenos Aires and Minneapolis. Delegates from the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) will choose the winner in Paris on November 15.
To breathe life back into its city centre, Lodz is thinking big. A total of 300 hectares (740 acres) will be revitalised, including buildings, streets and parks.
"It's rare to be able to build a city from scratch. We have that chance," Zdanowska said.
Everything has been rethought: new uses have been cooked up for industrial public buildings. Beautiful apartment blocks, villas and palaces are to be renovated. New roads are to be built. All for a sum of 20 billion zloty (4.7 billion euros, $5.5 billion), according to Zdanowska.
'The Promised Land'
The history of Lodz could give a person vertigo.
In 1820, the city numbered only 800 people. A century and an industrial revolution later, there were 500,000 people living in the city nicknamed the Polish Manchester.
At the time, Lodz was home to Poles, Jews and Germans and was ranked number two in the world in terms of growth rate. Chicago was number one.
The ruthless capitalism of those years was depicted in "The Promised Land", a 1899 novel set in Lodz written by Nobel Prize-winner Wladyslaw Reymont.
A screen version was later directed by Andrzej Wajda, one of a number of leading figures in the film world to study at Lodz's well-known cinema school.
To this day around 140 large red-brick factories from the 19th-century form part of the landscape of downtown Lodz. Most have lain abandoned for years, though a few have been turned into malls, art centres or loft apartments.
The former power station EC1, for example, is now the largest arts and science centre in Poland.
Believing in their city again
Lodz is also known for its art, attracting visitors to its design and photography festivals.
"It was a working-class town and not bourgeois, with all its cultural baggage, which paradoxically is a good thing because you could do more things that are impossible elsewhere -- and still can," said Michal Piernikowski, who heads the Lodz Design Festival.
"The level of madness -- and I mean that in a positive sense -- of the city and its residents is greater than anywhere else," he told AFP.
Piernikowski is also active at The Art Factory, a former textile factory that with the city's help now offers co-working space, exhibitions, concerts and support for creative entrepreneurs.
Its red brick walls have been renovated with care, without changing the post-industrial essence of the space. Even the 19th-century wooden warehouse floors have been maintained.
Whatever comes of the Expo 2022 decision, Lodz already feels like a winner. Investors have noticed the changes and are once again setting up factories in the city.
Today Lodz is one of Europe's household appliance manufacturing hubs, as well as a popular spot for bank headquarters and service centres.
"The greatest success of this revitalisation project is that the residents themselves have begun to believe in their city, which didn't use to be the case," said Marcin Obijalski, director of the revitalisation division of the mayor's office.
"Until now Lodz was considered a grey city by residents and out-of-towners alike. That's no longer the case."
© Agence France-Presse