City of Steel. Student Lasse Branding regularly travels to Bosnia, the land of his ancestors. In centrally located Zenica, he documents the local steel mill’s impact on the town’s people.
Text: Lasse Branding Fotos: Lasse Branding
Because of the industry and its many high-rise buildings, Zenica has the reputation of a grey working-class city. In 1882, under the rule of Austria and Hungary, the narrow-gauge railroad was completed and connected Zenica, which had been isolated until then, with the rest of the world. By train, the city’s inhabitants could now travel to the capital, Sarajevo, 70 km away. Surrounded by hills and fruit trees, there was not more than one village in the central Bosnian province at the beginning of the 19th century until the steel mill “Željezara” was built in Zenica in 1892. Under the five-year plan announced by Josip Broz Tito in 1947, Zenica rapidly developed as a steel and coal centre in the former Yugoslavia, becoming one of the country’s most important exporters. The plant was enormously expanded and rebuilt into one of the largest in Europe. People from all over Yugoslavia came to Zenica to work in the factory.
After the breakup of Yugoslavia, Lakshmi Mittal, one of the wealthiest men in the world, bought up most of the Bosnian steel industry with his company Arcelor Mittal in 2004. The deal was generally welcomed in Zenica – many saw it as a chance for work and a return to normalcy in a city devastated by war and hardship. Arcelor Mittal kept the steel mill in operation, but a lack of investment in new jobs and no environmental protection upgrades caused growing resentment among the population. The ambivalence of curse and blessing highlights the relationship between factory and city. On the one hand, the factory made the city what it once was, but on the other hand, the factory also brought a lot of suffering to the residents of Zenica. Today, the factory’s decline also means the city’s fall.
Lasse Branding’s work describes the state of a post-industrial working-class city of the former Yugoslavia and addresses the question of what a city built based on production growth looks like when growth shrinks. The socialist labour system ensured a high identification of the workers with the factory, which they once described as the “cradle of the proletariat.” Today, only a few residents still identify with what was once the largest ironworks in Europe. And yet, the inseparable history between the city and the factory remains and is looked back on wistfully.
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