Showdown in Prague
Prague has hosted some of Europe's most active cultural squat communities. But with western capitalism stomping through Bohemia, property developers are replacing artists. Linda Ohman paid a visit to one of the last of Prague's great art squats, once again under imminent threat of eviction.
Stare Stresovice is usually a quiet neighborhood of Prague. But in summer 2001 a production of Modra Ptak (Blue Bird) presented by a creative collection of squatters set the place on fire.
To watch the play meant walking through the streets or taking a horse drawn carriage ride; peering into the houses that belong to the sponsoring group Dobrocinny Spolek Medaku ve Stresovicich (the Charitable Organization of Merrymen at Stresovice, DSM).
Musicians, cabaret artists and lecturers - both adults and children - performed in a collection of open houses. A mad professor mixed glowing chemicals frothing and foaming in the living room.
The staging - which included a room with white feathers glued to the walls, ceiling and ground - played a key role in the extravagant production. Just as the space was central to the story, DSM’s houses have become integral to their organization. Members talk of them as living breathing objects, with a life of their own.
Jiri Weberschinke, who has lived in Stresovice since 1999, says that his group hardly think of themselves as squatters – but they hold no actual, legal claim over the houses.
DSM’s creative squatters not only live in the houses, they constantly open them up for community usage. Besides cultural events like concerts, exhibitions and lectures, the group runs a dramatic arts program for children and facilitate a meeting place for the neighborhood’s older inhabitants.
So when on 31 October 2001 the Prague Six municipality left notes to tell the organization they were going to be evicted, the members felt as if their very foundation was being rocked. The eviction notices said the squatter would be removed that same day, but no one from the municipality came.
DSM sent letters to the municipality for more details, but no answer came. Later, they were notified that inspectors from the municipal's property management company, SNEO, would be arriving on November 19.
"We know that the municipality wants to sell the houses," states Weberschinke. Over the years, the land has become increasingly valuable and a group of property developers have been buying the nearly 200 year-old houses simply to acquire the land for the construction of modern buildings. "We’re afraid that their new buildings will destroy the last, authentic fragments that remain of this neighborhood," says Weberschinke.
Unsure of what SNEO would do on arrival DSM rallied around fifty supporters to join them on 19 November 2001. The squatters restated their demand for an officially stated reason why their thriving community centre and cultural venue was to be sacrificed simply to create more expensive office space and luxury apartments. When the SNEO representatives arrived they offered no answers, simply measuring the house in silence and going away again.
After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, a reclamation plan gave the original owners six years to re-buy their houses. Some returned home, but many buildings were left empty. With the permission of their neighbors, Martin Skalsky - who now heads DSM - occupied one of the properties in 1995.
Having stood empty for years, the windows and doors were missing and roof caved in. The properties were in such a state, that when Skalsky first approached the City of Prague to stake a legal claim on the house, he was told it was uninhabitable.
Working with no real legal experience, Skalsky continued to pressure the City officials. He even dressed his father in a suit and sent him to City Hall on his behalf, in an attempt to show some authority. Skalsky Sr was offered no explanation, just a cup of coffee.
"We were just new to this type of legal action and needed help," says Skalsky. Shortly after moving in, he realized that people living in two neighboring houses were also squatting. "I just thought they owned them," he laughs. In 1999, the squatters formed DSM as an umbrella organization for their cultural activities and legal actions. Using their own money, DSM members completely renovated the houses and began a whole series of cultural community events.
In 2000, the City announced that it intended to auction off one of the houses which was the center for most of the activities. Because the houses are so important to the organization, Skalsky and Weberschinke believe the City's intent to sell them was also meant to destroy their organization. With local support the DSM collective managed to raise enough fuss to stem the sale.
While neighbors have said that they think DSM is a good addition to their community, the property developers are, unsurprisingly, less enthusiastic. Besides occupying valued space, DSM has begun to inform neighbors about zoning laws that the developers are breaking, delaying their projects.
Early in 2001, control of the houses shifted from City Hall to the Prague 6 municipality, and the alarm bells began to ring at DSM. To Weberschinke the move clarified the government’s intent because it is the municipality’s task to sell property. Within a year, the eviction notices came.
In December 2001, DSM learned that one of their houses would be sold and the remaining two would be rented out. The news was actually greeted as a small victory for the group, finally giving them an opportunity to claim the houses. Because of DSM’s efforts there was no set minimum asking price and any plans for what was to be done with the houses was to have been taken into account in the sale.
Bids to the tender were due on 31 January 2002, and DSM submitted a detailed proposal encompassing all three houses. The plan proposed an open community centre to the neighborhood, offices, rooms for workshops and meetings, performance space, and lastly, a small living area for the members.
However, despite having the opportunity to officially present the project’s intentions, DSM members remained cautious. They were aware that the municipality could still throw them a curve ball at any time.
Lessons from the past demonstrate the City’s antipathetic attitude to cultural squats. Ladronka, which was once the Czech Republic’s most famous squat also located in Prague, was closed down in 1999. The City authorities who controlled the land on which Ladronka once served up its copious cultural offerings promised that Ladronka’s cultural projects would continue to run in the building. It is now a training ground for Prague's police dogs.
It didn’t take long for the curve ball to come flying at the DSM crew either. Not even a full week after DSM submitted its proposal, the city municipality cancelled the auction with no notice of any future plans.
Unsure of what will happen next, DSM continue to plan towards realizing its project. To the group, the most important thing is to maintain the houses as a centre for their cultural programs: "We think it's the reason for why we're here," says Weberschinke, "to open the houses for the public."
With the battle between creative squatters and property developers now reaching its end game, Prague's legendary reputation for fostering creative bohemianism teeters on the edge of annihilation.