Press 2002

Squatting in Stresovice

Squatters in this quaint Prague neighborhood want to use unclaimed houses as the basis for a new cultural community center. But the city isn't ready to hand the buildings over.

Stare Stresovice (Old Stresovice) is usually a quiet neighborhood, situated just outside central Prague. But Stresovice came alive with the production of "Modra Ptak" ("Blue Bird") in the summer of 2001. To watch the play meant walking through the streets, taking a horse-drawn carriage ride and peering into the houses that belong to the sponsoring group, Dobrocinny spolek Medaku ve Stresovicich (the Charitable Organization of Merrymen at Stresovice, DSM).

DSM, a Czech civic organization, has sponsored musicians and lecturers to perform in the members' houses before, but this was the first time that a mad professor had been seen mixing glowing chemicals in their living room.

The staging, which included a room with white feathers glued to the walls, ceiling and ground, played a vital role in the production. Just as the space was central to the story, DSM's houses have become integral to the organization. Members talk about them as living and breathing objects, which have taken on a life of their own. Jiri Weberschinke, who has lived in Stresovice since 1999, says that his group doesn't really think of themselves as squatters, but they hold no legal claim to the houses. To many outside observers, Stresovice is a squat.

More than just a living space however, the houses are the center for DSM's project for the community. Besides cultural events, such as concerts, exhibitions and lectures, the group runs a dramatic arts program for children from the neighborhood and beyond. The houses have also become a meeting place for the neighborhood's older inhabitants, who were looking for a place to convene to discuss the neighborhood's issues. DSM has gathered them together and allowed them a space for open communication.

So when on October 31st, 2001 representatives from the Prague 6 municipality (under whose governance Stresovice falls) left notes to tell the organization that they were going to be evicted, the members felt as if the foundation of their organization was being threatened. The notices said they would be removed that same day, but no one from the municipality came. DSM moved to act and sent letters to Prague 6 for more details, but no answer came. Later, they were notified that inspectors from the municipality's property management company, SNEO, would come on November 19.

"We know that the municipality wants to sell the houses," says Weberschinke. Over the years, the land has become increasingly valuable. A group of developers has been buying the nearly 200 year-old houses for the land to construct 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, DSM rallied almost fifty supporters to join them on November 19, when representatives of the management company arrived. The squatters again demanded a reason for the eviction, but no answers came. SNEO's representatives measured the houses, then left.

Rebuilding the Rubble

The measurements were primarily to document the work DSM has done to improve the houses. Using their own money, members had completely renovated houses that were nearly ruined. 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 the neighbors, Martin Skalsky - who now heads DSM - took up residence in 1995.

After years of neglect, the houses were dilapidated. Having stood empty, windows and doors were missing and roofs were caved in. The houses were so wretched that when Skalsky first approached the City of Prague to stake a legal claim on his house, he was told it was uninhabitable. 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 hopes of projecting an image of authority. Skalsky Sr. was offered no answers - 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 the people in the two neighboring houses were also squatting. He had thought they owned them. In 1999, Skalsky and his neighbors formed DSM as an umbrella organization for their cultural activities and legal actions. Their united efforts paid off: in 2000, when the City announced it would auction off one of the houses and the center for most of the activities, DSM was able to stop the move.

An Uncertain Future

Because the houses are so important to the organization, Skalsky and Weberschinke believe the city's attempt to sell them was also meant to destroy their organization. While neighbors have said that they think DSM is a good addition to their community, the local developers are less enthusiastic. Aside from occupying valued space, DSM has started informing neighbors of zoning laws the developers are breaking, delaying the companies' projects.

Early in 2001, control of the houses shifted from City Hall to the Prague 6 municipality, causing added alarm for DSM. For Weberschinke, the move clarified the government's intent to shut DSM down. Prague City Hall does not usually sell property; that task usually falls to a municipality. Weberschinke was right; within a year, the eviction notices came. In December 2001, DSM learned one of their houses would be sold and the remaining two would be rented out. The group considered the news a victory, as it gave them an opportunity to claim the houses. Because of DSM's efforts, there would be no minimum asking price and plans for what is to be done with the houses would be taken into account. Bids to the tender were due on January 31, 2002, and DSM submitted a detailed proposal that encompassed all three houses. The plan proposed an open community center to the neighborhood, offices, rooms to hold workshops and meetings in, performance space, and lastly, a small living area for the members.

But even though DSM was able to officially present their project's intentions, members remained cautious. They knew the municipality could still throw them a curve ball at any time. Lessons from the past demonstrate the city's take on cultural squats; Ladronka, which was once the Czech Republic's most famous squat (also located in Prague) was closed down in 1999. The group that controlled the land promised Ladronka's cultural projects would continue to run in the building, but it is now a training ground for Prague's police dogs. It didn't take long for the curve ball to hit DSM as well. Less than a week after DSM submitted its proposal, Prague 6 cancelled the house auction without setting another date or giving any idea its plans.

Unsure of what will happen next, the members of DSM continue to work on realizing their vision. They're aware the most important thing is to maintain the houses as a center for their cultural programs. "We think it's the reason for why we're here," says Weberschinke. "To open the houses for the public."

Linda Öhman is a Swede living and working in Prague. She pays her bills by writing about Eastern European telecommunications and relies upon freelancing opportunities to stimulate her interests about the world around her.

Biggerboat, Linda Öhman