RĪGAS METRS - Pt.1. The rise of the first and last urban award in Riga.

For the third consecutive year an independent initiative has been awarding urban activists in Rīga, when no one does. It's called RĪGAS METRS, and a symbolic ruler is awarded to "metres" - masters of creativity and initiatives serving as remarkable benchmarks and high standards for inspiring and showing, creating and proving something valuable in the city despite everything.
For the first time in English - how it all began? Who were the winners of RĪGAS METRS before, and who will be trophied this year? Why the laureates matter an why you ought to know about them? This is the first part of a 3-part retrospective article - how this indie award began and how was the first year succeeding?
SHOW, CREATE AND PROVE - 'CAUSE THERE'S NO OTHER WAY
RĪGAS METRS was founded in late January, 2017. Some group of artists created their own "independent art award" - an intangible event, at the same time. There were totally out-of-this-world nominees, and the winner turned out to be one of the jury. So, why can't there be another, really important award now, if this can be done so easily?

Meanwhile it was a moment when things started to go down and get confusing in the capital. The Riga council constantly showed lack of interest in developing any infrastructure and awarding good deeds, while criticizing activism and remodelling Rīga towards being a place for motorized vehicles rather than pedestrians, cyclists, public transport, fresh air and vibrant, slow streets. In the interim, people became more demanding - activism rate was growing more than ever, citizens wanted an active, yet easygoing city, a place to live in, not a place that becomes a transit area.

It was only natural for something that cherishes and awards such people to come up. Many will agree - it takes a lot of energy to fight for the right thing and, without an extra motivation, there comes a moment the fighter snaps. It lead to five people coming together on 1 February, 2017, to find a way - how to strengthen the spirit of the activists, and to discuss what were the top activities in previous year to potentially earn a RĪGAS METRS title. The jury members were architect and urbanist Aleksandrs Feļtins, tourism entrepreneur and active citizen Mārcis Kalniņš, urban activist and the co-founder of "Free Riga" housing rejuvenators Mārcis Rubenis, director of New Theatre Institute of Latvia Gundega Laiviņa, and then urbanist, tourism critic and the founder of RĪGAS METRS - Mārtiņš Eņģelis.

"THE BIG MEET" of the grand jury. From left - Mārcis Kalniņš, Aleksandrs Feļtins, Gundega Laiviņa, Mārcis Kalniņš.
Things happened super fast. In only a month's time the self-funded award was born along with its jury, first nominees and hands were shaken with a venue for the ceremony (along with finalizing programme). It was a clear sign of people around being thirsty for such philanthropy and empathy. Everybody in social connections were happy to take part and participate - after all this indie award really was independent and unselfish.
In short, RĪGAS METRS was awarded to those, "who inspired to interact with the city, and who showed, created and proved values and stories with importance, thus establishing motivation and productive grounds for new initiatives".
Each of jury presented their roll of nominees from where a final list was created. Each then voted for their personal favourite initiatives, thus, also through debates, eventually settling with final TOP 7 winners in Riga. Every year there would also be a "lifetime achievement award" for long-time activists, an "Offshore award" for initiatives outside Riga, a "Community award" showing public sympathy and, eventually an "Anti-award". The latter title would be presented to those who do the opposite - stop, smother, limit, restrict civic activity, development, common sense, as well as do not come up with any solutions themselves. Each winner would then get a very practical surprise trophy - a 1m long ruler with an engraved dog tag naming the title. The Anti-award winner - of course, a damaged one.

A FIRST YEAR - RĪGAS METRS 2016
The very first award took place in another independent and active place - Kaņepes Kultūras Centrs. Due to limited spaces at the venue and experimental character of the ceremony, there were only invited guests (all nominees). For those not in present the ceremony was broadcasted via Facebook Live. The event was accompanied by two wonderful artistic performances - daf grandmaster Hamidreza Rahbaralam and an instrumental jazz duet - Toms Rudzinskis & Edgars Cīrulis. The atmosphere was super cosy, and soon after many of the invitees recognized RĪGAS METRS awards ceremony as one of the most uniting and motivational ever.

The "Throphy" - RĪGAS METRS. © Artūrs Krūmiņš
The first year showed, how rich, interdisciplinary and interesting the competition has had become in Riga through this time of urban challenges - there were 23 nominees in Riga along with 5 "offshores". Every winner was fortified with a description - why these initiatives matter, and why the city and the people would be loosing something important without them. As well there were two special gifts from a conversation festival Lampa and a NGO working with various interdisciplinary social and literal projects called Ascendum.

The official laureates of the very first RĪGAS METRS 2016 urban independent award were:
  • Lifetime achievement award - Lilita Eglīte. She still is a long-term host of a famous TV show called "Ielas Garumā" or "Along the street". The show and her were awarded simply because there might be no one in Rīga, who hasn't heard of or seen Lilita's work. For a few generations now the show has been cited, used as a source of information about streets, their history, inhabitants, mode of life etc. thus illuminating the flow of city life next to us.
  • Anti-award - Rīga City council Traffic department. They were to blame for one of the main lane in Rīga, Krišjāņa Barona street, to be renovated with dated, ineffective, irresponsible and shady methods becoming a pain in the ass for pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, tourists, inhabitants. Thus the idea behind it was to modernize the street with a new surfacing and a shared bike & car lane (more like a joke), in less than a year the top layer of the street showed, how cheap were the materials, how unprofessional was the work, and how irresponsible was the cycling lane implementation. RĪGAS METRS 2016 perfectly foresaw the coming disaster of street renovation in the whole city in the next following years; all eventually lead to cases of corruption and will even more.
  • Offshore award - Rucka art and residency centre in Cēsis. Rucka was one of the first powerful magnets in Cēsis town, that began pulling people away from Rīga during the after-crisis down-shifting period. And for good - it became an open centre for all culture, art, architecture, and really expressed dignity toward the location. In 2016 Rucka was attacked twice by arsonists, yet had enough power to come back to full life and power both times along with being helped by locals, visitors, guests and even the national army!
  • RĪGAS METRS 2016 (in alphabetical order) - Daugavgrīva fortress / Sandra Jakušonoka. Daugavgrīva fortress located at the most Northern corner of Rīga was once one of the most remarkable military structures in the Baltic Sea region. Sadly, after Soviet Union left, the historically and architecturally important building was slowly pillaged until there were only bare brick walls left. Sandra Jakušonoka, along with another friendly neighbourhood community in nearby Bolderāja, stood against the nuisance and started to clean up and maintain the once forbidden and forgotten gem. More younger activists joined, soon establishing a fortress support group that even sooner ended up with organizing the first "Komēta" alternative and world music and culture fest (important to say - the festival received both special gifts from Lampa and Ascendum for 2016). Because of Sandra's perseverance Daugavgrīva fortress has now become one of Rīga's hottest peaceful locations to visit for saunter on weekends.
  • RĪGAS METRS 2016 - Exhibition "Ubāns' Riga". Konrāds Ubāns (1893 - 1981) was a prominent Latvian painter before WWII and also after, though his house, spirit and most of his heritage was bombed and burned down during air raid in 1944. It was a wonderful gesture from the organizers of culture life at Latvian National Library - the huge architecture piece by Daugava river built on the empty space where Mr. Ubāns' house once where. The library opened a well curated, detailed and very emotional exhibition dedicated to the artist's life, home, and art once located at this lost piece of land, also including material on his regular inspirational expeditions through nearest neighbourhoods.
  • RĪGAS METRS 2016 - Activist group "Friends of The Great cemetery". Representing an example of perfect self-organizing skills, this real life and Facebook group began in 2015 with a great interest and deeds in cleaning up, maintaining and popularizing The Great cemetery - a deteriorated, forgotten and dilapidated spot, a Latvian analogue of London's “Magnificent Seven” historic cemeteries.  The Great Cemetery is a historic memorial graveyard set in 18th century, closed down and turned into a god's forsaken spot, marauded and plundered in post-WWII years. In 2016 some information leaked on a tram line being planned to be built along a street crossing the cemetery (constructed already in the sixties, thus allegedly endangering the territory further). Through the Facebook group and public actions activists stepped up against the idea of The "Cemetery Tram" (a nickname of the infamous project). Activists were raising public awareness, lobbying in Parliament, speaking in media, while continuing to clean up the graveyards, monuments, family vaults and rising fallen headstones. After receiving RĪGAS METRS award the "graveyard tram" idea cooled down for a year to begin again with a double push in 2018, when pro-mayor trolls acting like enthusiasts paralysed the Facebook group. Nevertheless the community created a new, nowadays expanding, FB resource. By the end of 2018 “Friends of The Great Cemetery” (involving other civic activist organizations) hold public hearings on “Cemetery tram” in Riga City Hall and prepare a set of recommendations to the highest state and municipal authorities in regard of this controversial project.
  • RĪGAS METRS 2016 - Lastādija. The "Free Riga" rejuvenating team was born in 2014 during the Riga - European Capital of Culture year. The city had the status but the council were not able to change the fact that some 1/3 of buildings in the centre were partially or totally abandoned or closed. "Free Riga" began marking such building and developing projects to wake up owners and get them together with initiatives as potential house keepers. The concept really launched with a blast, when "Free Riga" took over a seemingly abandoned block of old 200-year-old houses in the close-centre neighbourhood in 2016 only to find out it was once having its own independent history, development and also a social and urban tragedy. The area was called Lastādija long time ago. For many it was a surprise to find out it has been the city's oldest neighbourhood. With the help of "Free Riga" Lastādija was re-established again on the map of the city with alternative and subcultural activities - all for strengthening the thin community from the grassroots level. The location still stands as an subcultural residency supporting independent arts, upcycling and DIY culture.
  • RĪGAS METRS 2016 - Pilsētacilvēkiem.lv. A newly made "city for the people" web page doing a lions share that year in emphasizing mostly urban processes in Riga, criticizing, and also pointing out Riga's challenges, absurdities, weird, illegal or irrational discoveries and visions. It was the very first media channel to create resonance in society and showed - what could Riga become, if it just did something.
  • RĪGAS METRS 2016 - Reinhold Schmaeling conference. Although taking place yearly, this Reinhold Schmaeling conference (named after one of the most influential head architects of the city) took their programme to another level. It was an event that literally asked a question - how to feel better in the city? For the first time it gathered a lot young professionals in urban planning, anthropology and place making, asking direct questions - why Riga isn't and how can Riga be a socially, economically, politically prestigious place?
  • RĪGAS METRS 2016 - Žanis Lipke memorial / Lolita Tomsone. Žanis Lipke (1900 - 1987) was a famous Jewish saviour, a Latvian analogue to Schindler. In Ķīpsala island, where he lived, there was a memorial museum built and opened 5+ years ago (also bringing all possible architecture awards too its architect Zaiga Gaile). With the leadership of Lolita Tomsone, another urban and social activist, the museum stepped down to be only a place for one man's work, and it became a pivotal point to researching Jewish history through WWII, as well organizing unusual events, exhibitions and theatre performances related to social challenges, war and other topics.
  • Community award - Activist group "Friends of The Great cemetery". During two weeks there were 477 unique public votes, cast by people mostly aged 21 - mid-40s and by majority of women (64 %). "Friends of The Great Cemetery" received 134 votes thus becoming the "sympathy of the people", leaving a second place with only 101.
All laureates of the first RĪGAS METRS award

The first year was surprisingly well welcomed. There were only a handful of people, who believed - this is some kind of commercial trick, someone is getting something political or economical out of it. On the meantime every laureate was excited and motivated, believe or not, there were even tears on stage. The most important drop of honey came soon after, when Sandra Jakušonoka from the Daugavgrīva fortress was interviewed by the national radio, and she admitted that
"This title is very important for the fortress, because this is one of few serious acknowledgements - the importance of the object is not only seen by us, our friends and the "Komēta" festival organizers, but it is also seen by the jury. The country has slightly forgotten our object, but RĪGAS METRS is an approval that the Daugavgrīva fortress is needed for society, and they understand its value. [..] In my opinion, this is the best award ever, because there is no competition in money-wise. The competition is created by attitude - from society and the creators of this award."
We believe that the main key of RĪGAS METRS' success was embedded in the idea that this is not a title to projects, but to the society all together. That the winners are not corporations or governmental organisations, but - everyday people attributing all other everyday people with just a bit more pride, importance, and another reason to wake up with dignity and enthusiasm.

But the most important was only on its way. The second year was meant to prove - whether will RĪGAS METRS swim or sink...

TO BE CONTINUED and vote for RĪGAS METRS 2018 here!

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