Prague has of course changed in a host of ways during my 20-odd years living here. One of the most striking developments has been the dramatic fall in the number of Romanies in the city.
But you would see lots of them out and about on the streets of the capital. You’d hear them too. Unlike typical Czechs, many don’t seem to regard making noise in public as an enormous no-no.
Back in the day, the Roma minority were heavily concentrated in some districts of Prague, particularly Žižkov, Karlín, Smíchov and Libeň. Those parts of town are still where you are most likely to encounter them – but in considerably smaller numbers.
Many Czechs associate Romanies with crime. Recently a man I know said he wouldn’t risk leaving his car by my apartment in Žižkov as “it’s full of gypsies”.
His prejudice would appear a little outdated as my quite trendy part of “higher” Žižkov certainly isn’t full of them. And there are not as many in the grimier lower part as there used to be either.
In fact, according to a piece on the news website iDnes.cz a few months back, the number of Romanies living in Prague has halved in recent decades – to around 15,000.
A number of reasons for this trend have been posited. Following the devastation of Karlín in flooding in 2002 many Romanies who had left their homes never came back.
Since then the area has been significantly gentrified and many who did return after the floods later packed their bags.
Smíchov too has gone upmarket. Once rundown and scuzzy and considered relatively dangerous by Prague standards, it is today home to a busy shopping mall, shiny office complexes – and far fewer Romanies.
The Roma coordinator at City Hall’s ethnic minority and foreigners department told iDnes.cz that some had given up their rights to flats for crazily low prices as they saw their rents increase with the end of regulation.
Unscrupulous entrepreneurs have been buying their “dekréts” (essentially a license to live in a local authority apartment) and offering them ownership of inferior substitute accommodation in depressed areas such as Northern Bohemia. This in turn has led to the creation of more ghettos in those spots.
A guy I know who speaks the Romany language and knew many Romanies in Smíchov, where he resided for some years, says their exodus has been to Prague’s detriment.
Everybody’s talking today about how to make use of public space, he said, but the Roma community have been doing that forever.
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