I went for a walk south-east of the Hanza Hotel into the area which had once been home to a large Jewish community. Maskavas Iela is the road along which I walked the most, but the area is so interesting that I took many detours to the south and the north. Few obvious reminders of a Jewish presence exist other than the ruins of Choral Synagogue and the Holocaust Memorial, but the old wooden houses and the muddy courtyards behind the areas’ surviving buildings (there are many empty plots where buildings once stood) conjure up impressions of what daily life must have been like when the Jewish population was much larger than is currently the case.
I walked as far as the Dodo Hotel where a bar and a few shops meet the immediate needs of the local people. To the north of the hotel is an enormous brick-built church with two steeples over the west entrance (a second large church exists in another part of the area), but, in many respects, it is the houses, the apartment blocks, the cramped courtyards, the derelict patches of land, the rows of wooden huts and brick outhouses, the muddy areas behind the apartment blocks where residents park their cars, and the trees with black trunks and branches but no leaves which appeal most to the eye. A few modern or renovated houses belong to wealthy people, but most inhabitants of the area are not the beneficiaries of capitalist economics. I also suspect that most people who live and work in the area are ethnic Russians. Cobbles seal many of the roads, but puddles have to be avoided once you leave the pavements. Most people walk alone, there are very few cars, and small groups of men loiter in quiet side streets where they consume cheap spirits mixed with cola in plastic bottles. Dogs bark as you approach, but they are behind wire or wooden fences. Trams provide a quick and inexpensive means of accessing or escaping from the area.
A young Russian woman asked me for 3 euros when I walked near the Dodo, but when I encountered her a little later she reduced her request for financial assistance to 1 euro. Everyone I passed looked at me to register the presence of a stranger, but no one muttered even “Good morning.” However, I knew this was an area I would have to visit again because it reveals its treasure only very slowly. At first you see only the shabby Soviet-era buildings, the neglected pre-Soviet houses and commercial premises, the poorly stocked shops, the drab bars and cafes, and the muddy open spaces. Then you notice that almost every surviving building has at least one admirable quality (the buildings need nothing but some tender loving care) and that the majority of people live with fastidious dignity in difficult conditions and circumstances. These less fashionable areas of Eastern Europe’s largest cities have much to commend them. The only risk you run? That you may photograph someone doing something they do not want recorded. But, with a little care, anyone can have an enlightening experience in these destinations a little less ordinary.
I undertook a walk of two hours through the area south-east of the hotel (along and around Maskavas and Jersikas ielas, which had once been home to a large Jewish community). Rundown though a lot of the area is, I liked it even more than during my earlier visit, not least because I found yet more landmark buildings and interesting backstreet views. East of the Dodo Hotel is a small square with a playground surrounded by some attractive buildings. In a more prosperous part of Riga the square would have a restaurant and one or two bars or cafes, but, this being a relatively deprived area, there are no facilities to encourage you to linger. When I visited, even the playground was deserted.