Now a budding foodie hub, attracting Belgrade’s fashionable creatives, Lower Dorcol was the site of Belgrade’s most notorious shanty town, Pištolj-mala (“Pistol slum”), some 90 years ago.
As Serbian architect and historian of Belgrade’s urbanism, Dr Zlata Vuksanović Macura, notes in her research(with some great photos), at its peak this shantytown housed about 1,500 souls in about 300 houses , spread in the area around the current Museum of Science and Technology, which used to be the first municipal power-plant opened in 1893.
The proximity of the power-plant attracted the city’s small industry since the late 19th century, , which in turn attracted the poor newcomers to the city. Factory workers quickly settled in the area from, and it was Lower Dorcol, or more precisely Venizelosova street, where the first social housing in Belgrade was built in 1911, according to the designs of Jelisaveta Načić, Serbia’s first female architect.
Unfortunately, during the WWI the already precarious situation of the citizens of Lower Dorćol became even worse as this area was heavily bombarded by the Austro-Hungarian forces, and left many of them homeless.
This destruction and the massive growth of Belgrade when it became the capital of Yugoslavia after WWI, led to the creation of its slums like Pištolj-mala. Impoverished masses flocked to the city in search of work and the population rose dramatically from 90,000 in 1919 to around 240,000 in 1931 and then to about 400,000 in 1941. Neither, the city’s smallish industry and nor the already poor housing stock could not absorb the new population, so soon the city was surrounded with shanty-towns and badly built yard-houses, where several families lived in one-bedroom buildings built around a yard with a communal tap and outhouse.
The largest of the slums was the (in)famous Jatagan-mala (Sword-slum, of “Senke nad Balkanom” fame), which was around the present day Autokomanda intersection, but Pištolj-mala was by far the most squalid. Its residents lived on a municipal landfill which stretched between the plants and the Danube and endured the foul-smelling open sewerage system. Despite this unlovely setting, many settled in the area because the landfill provided a source of employment and they were close to the city’s factories and the more affluent Upper Dorćol neighbourhood.
According to Dr Vuksanović Macura, the municipal authorities tried destroying Pištolj-mala several times in late 1920s, but this was mostly unsuccessful, as the residents just came back. Its demise was gradual from 1930s onwards, as the area was slowly built up with new industrial and residential building, however some of the sturdier yard-houses remained in the lower part of Dorbračina (close to Dorćol platz) and around Gundulićev Venac.
Lower Dorćol’s gentrification since 2000s, means that the days of yard-houses are numbered. Many of them have given way to unlovely, soulless (yet definitely more comfortable) buildings and the area’s most famous bakery, founded in 1912, “Tri Lava” (Three Lions, in Knez Miletina Street) is closed and crumbling.
It is unlikely that Donji Dorćol will manage to keep the memory of its previous residents, and its humble beginnings, not only because of the charm of the yard-houses but also because it would make us remember that life in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was far from easy for the majority of its people, despite the now popular revisionist narratives.
P.S. If you are interested in the topic of the lives of the poor in inter-war Belgarde and can read Serbo-Croatian, do check out Dr Zlata Vuksanović Macura’s seminal book “Život na ivici – Stanovanje Sirotinje u Beogradu 1919 – 1941”