TEN YEARS CHALLENGE. Reliving the last decade in Riga.

I began the previous decade with quite a blow to how I see the world and people around me. I'd deliberately quit my first real relationship; I would lose my brother a month later; and I would pretty much turn into vegetarian, slash, vegan right after. If you think I had a tough case, Riga was not doing any better in 2010 - 2020.

capital r, capital riga, latvia, martins engelis

When looking back in time, I can admit I would never date myself. No one would fall for someone with so much selflove and so few actual success to have credit for. Lots of ego but no cultural capital in me; no bachelor's and master's degrees and no driving licence on me; didn't run all those creative industries or urban projects like the independent urban award in Riga I am proud of.

My tours would be replicas, not creations, and my knowledge would not be fortified by organizing 7 seasons of urban lectures even for the true-grit guides. My work would not yet be dedicated to my magnum opus - researching the history of the never-built metro of Riga.

Instead, life would be spend subjected to communal flats (that's actually not bad after all), and I would be sceptical toward tattoos apart of now having two small yet significant ones on my own. Hell yeah, It would even take several years for me to get involved in roller disco in Riga and training Riga Roller Derby girls team.

Ten years ago I would've never believed to actually have several ambient experimental beats albums being released (digitally, at least) and perform the material at Positivus, the biggest music festival in the Baltic states. Before 2010, I would only dream of travelling all across Europe and further, and having a chance to live in Iceland for a while.
Eventually, there wouldn't be those impressive two and a half years working at the national DMO's office, running multi-day tourism events and national marketing campaigns with individual budgets probably bigger than my earnings in the last 10 years alone.
When looking back at Riga then - I would not date it too. Although for these ten years the city has changed a lot. It has become more liberated and civically active, but it has made loads of people suffer.

People in Riga have gained more cafeterias they could dream of, but we have lost phone booths. The city has had the status of European Capital of Culture in 2014, when the now most visible landmark, the Latvian National Library, was also finished. But we still have no contemporary art museum and we have lost hand-painted film posters by the Splendid Palace movie theatre. Even Pride has evolved in Riga from being a poop throwing party by fundamentalists into the first Europride in a post-USSR country in 2015.

capital r, riga, capital riga, martins engelis
A sneak-peek into the lost relic. September, 2009

Everybody changes. Most of us hope - for the better and more beautiful. And, when people posted their portraits from 2009 last year to prove how good looking they have become, Riga, too, had its own #10yearschallenge.


A decade ago there were few cyclists (not to say anything about riding in winter), but, thankfully, there are many now. In 2009 I would start my own cycling odyssey in Riga that would turn into co-organizing and hosting Tweed runs, delivering bike tours and expeditions, and, of course, believing that I have something to do with evangelizing winter cycling in Riga. Of course, I would also make statistics of being hit by cars, mildly though; something of what happens less with cyclists, but now more with e-scooter riders today.

The opposite, a degradation, has occurred with the infrastructure - it was zero back then and it is still almost zero now. The first bike path was laid in 2010 and, globally speaking, that was almost it (there were even more cycling roads planned under Nazi occupation than there are now in 2020, how's that for a burning sensation).


The new, obscure, unfamiliar lead by Nils Ušakovs marked the largest ever experienced downfall of municipal governing in Latvia. For almost all of his term (2009 - 2019), the municipality was organized in the zodiac of corruption, illegal party financing, enigmatic expenditures, useless chief executives, waisted and dilapidated infrastructure and pro-Kremlin politics.
The budget of Riga has gone down from -31'000'000 € shortage (in 2009, before the election; at 660'000'000 € income1) to whooping -111'000'000 € in deficit (in 2019; at 973'000'000 € income2), thus making it historically the worst budget ever in Riga.


Another element that has suffered for the whole period and mainly because of the governance. Despite the market tradition enjoying its suburb revival by 2009-2010 when alternative tour guides got positively mad about Central market and its pavilions, it took the new governance of "Saskaņa" to flush it down.

At least or sadly, for a couple of years, markets became important after the economical crisis - for both locals and corruption, lack of transparency and negligence. It's the time when the now famous Kalnciema ielas tirdziņš appeared to be first scorned because of the hipster audience, but later cherished for standing up for the community and rightful development.

Now we have basically lost Vidzemes tirgus and we almost lost Āgenskalna tirgus. Who knows what's going on in Čiekurkalna tirgus and nothing much goes on in Latgalīte tirgus any more. Finally, Centrāltirgus is both under a slow and gentrified reconstruction and a shadow of the widely criticized Gastro food court; as well as terrible scandals of illegal cigarette selling. Besides, most of the market's old, shady post-modern composite booths have been finally torn down just weeks before today with some of them actually being built illegaly.

capital r, riga, capital riga, martins engelis
What was once an interesting, secluded post-soviet market, has lost almost everything to nothing. Vidzemes tirgus; September, 2009.

Let us hope for the new Central market outdoor planning to be remade with dignity, although Joe Horgan, another kindred soul from latviaweekly.com, is reasonably worried about just another trick of gentrification been played. Eventually, we love markets in Riga, but few folks obviously want us to despise them.

capital r, riga, capital riga, martins engelis
If the Central market's outdoor booths looked tolerable 10 years ago, that's because they were freshly built. Now one would think twice before saying "tolerable" and some - even legal. August, 2009.


10 years ago Old Riga still had several quite legendary subcultural, yet local places like "I love You", "Aptieka", or "Leningrad". Now they have been lost, and in a bad way. Also a decade ago one could only enter Old Riga by vehicle by paying a fee - now the drive-in barriers are long gone one could not say the same about all the cars. What a pity.


Instead, there are many new suburban places emphasizing the local spirit and rising from the ashes. Many young adults have fathomed out grass roots movement, place making, social innovation, capacity building, urban activism, rejuvenation, and street market concepts in Riga, and are cracking them real-time as we speak. Because of this, we have FREE RIGA, focusing on bringing back empty houses, Kalnciema Quarter and Sarkandaugava on bringing back communal pride, or Pilsētacilvēkiem.lv for fighting like gadflies for a prudent and clever contemporary urban environment in Riga.

What was one called hype creative quarters, have now turned into vibrant and multifunctional subcultural spaces like Tallinas Kvartāls or Piena Kvartāls. Instead, a true masterpiece of gentrification took place at Spīķeri area, hitting a total cul-de-sac. In a short time it turned out to be an urban environment with genius loci so dead, rent so high and creative industries so fleeing, it became appealing almost exclusively to Nils Ušakovs' party. And you already know, who he was.


An area I left 10 years ago has turned from an ugly duckling into a valiant local warrior without becoming a subject of pop culture, Instagram millennials and hipsters. Avoti district, similarly to Āgenskalns or Grīziņkalns, was once a shady area, an emotionally distant part of the central Riga with drunks, unsafe houses with communal toilets and dusty architecture. Now, because of grass-roots and subcultural initiatives and young brave reverting families, Avotu kvartāli has the best to offer for a contemporary, culturally capable, but not gentrified human being hungry for peace, culture, and history.

Altough been freshen up, Avotu street and its neighbourhood still looks a bit like a time machine back then and even now. September, 2009.


Who would have known that one of the most essential fights for residents will turn into protecting trees. A city that, relatively, is not the worst in problems with the greenery, lost 2500+ trees only in 5-years time from 2014 to 2018, while only gaining less than 2003! For the whole period since 2018 we have definitely lost more than 4500 objects by gaining almost 3 times less4.

Tree savings have been organized in order to protect them from being cut down because of some ghost tram. Then, social media activities for marking places where trees once have been executed was run. Activists have even demanded public trees being replanted by private developers when they were cut down for, well, no reason. It seems like a paradox to lose an element in Riga what makes up more than 50 % of Latvia.


Being a vegan or zero-waster 10 years ago wouldn't even make a topic. A decade has passed, and now they are the hottest ones for good. Having a handful of restaurants and eateries offering plant-based meals, has turned Riga into a pretty vibrant vegan destination for both locals and foreigners with more places one would expect. As for the flourishing zero-waste, recycling or reducing philosophy in Riga, we should have covered this already and we promise to do it by the end of this winter!


Riga would have that "White Christmas" 10 years ago. Or that cold, dry and sometimes sludgy winter mixed with dry and hot summers in general. Constantly. Now the weather has got pretty fuzzy - fo the climate change, it only needed one decade to make a terrifying point.

capital r, riga, capital riga, martins engelis
Bernard Larane, the soul behind the known Cadets de Gascogne bakery chain, does his usual. January, 2010 (from his private archive).


No doubt, lots of other things have taken place, and I might not manage to write about all now. The good news is, though - without the last decade, there would be no CAPITAL R. This has been one hell of a ride for Riga and the Rigans, for sure. And I admit, this has been a really emotional, economical, psychological and cultural roller-coaster for myself.

Despite that, dear 2010 - 2020, for whatever has happened - I am still more grateful than you think.

Mārtiņš Eņģelis

1 2009. gada budžets. Rigas pašvaldības portāls; pasvaldiba.riga.lv
2 2019. gada budžets. Rigas pašvaldības portāls; pasvaldiba.riga.lv
3 Vai zaļā Brīvības gatve pārvēršas par tuksnesi? Pilsetacilvekiem.lv
4 Rīgas cīņa ar kokiem. Pilsetacilvekiem.lv