Letter from Prague How the Commies tried to destroy my neighbourhood
The Commies tried to destroy my neighbourhood. I must admit I myself wasn’t actually living there at the time, but if the Communists had had their way, much of Žižkov would today be covered in grey paneláky, prefabricated blocks of flats that blight the outskirts of many Czech cities and towns.
Plans for the total transformation of the district featured recently in an exhibition at the Town Hall on Havlíčkovo náměstí entitled Věčný Žižkov or Eternal Žižkov. And for those, myself included, who are rather fond of the old working class quarter, the plans were both fascinating and a bit chilling.
The idea, hatched in the second half of the 1960s, was that the old brick apartment buildings in much of what you might call lower Žižkov, essentially the area below Seifertova St and beneath Vítkov hill, would all be razed to the ground and the inhabitants sent to live on the outskirts of the city. The whole area would then have become one giant sídliště, or panelák estate.
Žižkovites were actually promised that they could later come back, the architect Zdeněk Lukeš recently wrote in a piece in the paper Lidové noviny. However, this was evidently a false pledge, as a previous project in the nearby Vinohrady had been exploited by Communist functionaries, who took the situation as a chance to grab themselves a dobrá adresa, or prime location.
In fairness, much of Žižkov was apparently extremely dilapidated in the period in question. It was dirty and hugely overcrowded, flats were very poorly equipped when it came to bathrooms and toilets, and the buildings themselves were often in a serious state of neglect.
In an interview on the website archiweb.cz, one architect involved in the planning of the asanace (clearance or demolition) said Czechoslovakia’s nationalised construction firms of that time, focused on large-scale projects, would simply never have been capable of repairing the tumble-down apartment buildings of Žižkov.
And some residents who were moved out to paneláky in some place called Čimice apparently expressed gratitude for their new-found space, relatively fresh air and greenery.
In any case, the project to demolish Žižkov didn’t get very far. A few parts in the vicinity of Olšanské náměstí were razed, which is why it is one of the few places close to the centre where you will today find somewhat incongruous looking paneláky.
But with the coming of the Velvet Revolution in late 1989 the whole project was halted due to pressure from local people. And thank goodness for that, say I.