The Spiš Miracle
The Spiš Miracle
In a region known for its high unemployment and the troubled coexistence of the white majority and the Roma minority, the thriving village of Spišský Hrhov is proof that goodwill and tolerance can make a difference.
The Spiš landscape is crinkly like the hair of a young child. There is something gentle and tender, almost fragile, in the way the rounded hilltops alternate with the long valleys. For most Slovaks, however, this region is not just a synonym of inalienable natural beauty. Over the last 20 years, Spiš has mostly been discussed in the context of its poverty and its Roma settlements, with living conditions reminiscent of the Middle Ages, and an unemployment rate standing at close to 100 per cent in some municipalities. Slovak mainstream society tends to interpret these problems as a direct consequence of the high percentage of Roma in the local population and of their alleged passivity or unwillingness to change their meagre living conditions.
Vladimir Ledecký, Mayor of Spišský Hrhov, is not among the subscribers to this view. Leading the village since 1998, he has been able to get Hrhov out of the dismal situation prevailing in the area. There are shiny new facades in the village, busy work life takes place in the streets and the locals have an air of contagious enthusiasm. Unlike in the neighbouring villages and towns, ethnicity is not the criterion by which people are judged in Spišský Hrhov. “When choosing a mason for the municipal company, we let all the candidates present their skills, and then we select the best one. As a result, we have lots of great Roma craftsmen. Elsewhere, preference is a priori given to non-Roma and aptitude is not considered.”
Back in the Game
The municipal company is one of the projects Ledecký introduced in Spišský Hrhov. “I don’t accept it if someone complains about unemployment and expects the government to solve the problem.” The municipal company currently employs 60 people and runs a number of operations: building works, a regional specialities shop and the repair of potholes in roads.
To Ledecký, though, community work cannot serve as a universal solution to unemployment, as the Slovak government advertises. “Its impact may even be negative at the end of the day. If you just hand out brooms to people to sweep, nothing will change. The village will frequently remain untidy. When this is then shown on television, the level of racism in the country moves up another notch. In my experience, what works is an actual employment contract. Even if it is only for a month or two, it puts people back in the game.”
The fact that Roma are involved in public as well as private repairs and refurbishment projects in the village brings Hrhov’s residents together. “They first meet at work, then in the pub, and that makes it easier to get rid of prejudices,” says Ledecký. Take a walk through Hrhov on any weekday and you encounter municipal workers at several locations. Two ladies in their sixties headed to a day-care centre for the elderly look affectionately at a man with bricklaying tools. “It was them who repaired our Centre. They’re really good at what they do. The building had been totally destroyed and see what it looks like now...”
The multi-storey centre for senior citizens was only one of a series of properties in need of repair. Another renovation is being completed just across the street. Two men are about to finish their work on the plaster, while a few women are cleaning the windows and wiping the floors.
Little Things Mean a Lot
Work is not the only thing that Hrhov gives to its citizens. New environmentally-friendly wooden houses were built by low-income families in a self-help effort. They get to repay the municipality gradually: it had advanced the costs for the materials. Miroslav Šarišský is one of those who were able to move into a new home. “We built them ourselves, we do the repairs ourselves,” he says. “This opportunity arose only when Ledecký became Mayor. He’s a good man, and he enjoys great respect in the community.”
Ledecký has a good reputation in the wider region, too. “Going to Hrhov? Incredible changes there. Their mayor managed to produce a true miracle,” says a fellow bus passenger, 40-year-old Margita of Spišská Nová Ves. “You know, the ‘miracle’ is based on little things. We started with little things that were not very expensive, but things to make life more pleasant,” says Ledecký. Meanwhile, he has also gotten big things going, such as a sewer and water supply system to serve the entire village. In Ledecký’s view, though, the benches under the old linden tree by the Church, the amphitheatre for holding various events and the heated public swimming pool are just as important. “I always feel happy when I see families with picnic blankets going to the pool in the summer.”
“Love” in the village centre
Even the least charming corner of the village centre, which has a corrugated iron fence at one end, is now decorated with cheerful illustrations created during the Hrhovské čudá (The Wonders of Hrhov) festival. Three-dimensional letters forming the Slovak word for “Love” – Láska – can be found just a couple of metres further off, with each letter over two metres high and covered in colourful mosaics. “I wanted to have a positive message in a public space,” says the mayor, leaning on the letter L.
What has made him succeed in involving the Roma in the life of the municipality? “We actually don’t address the Roma specifically. We strive to improve the quality of life for everyone in the village. And the Roma are a part of the community. Without implementing any tailored educational programmes, we have a number of Roma secondary school graduates, with many studying at university. We’re not paving new roads for Roma children, we just help them to look beyond the limits that they have set for themselves. And that’s enough.”
The population of the village was around 700 when Ledecký became Mayor. Today it has more than doubled, with additional people still moving here. They are attracted by the open-minded approach of the municipality and especially by the well-functioning community. Given this, winning the title of Municipality of the Year or being praised in a World Bank report seem small details for Hrhov.