Friday, 28 June 2013

Wenceslas Square

An invitation to accompany the elegiac urban narrator on a stroll around his chosen agglomeration may not be the most original literary trope, but what it lacks in formal novelty it more than makes up for in flexibility. So it is that I invite you, in the grand tradition of pop songster Ralph McTell, to take a walk with me through the streets of, err, Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí). Streets because Wenceslas Square is not really a square at all. It's an overgrown boulevard burrowed into the ancient hill that leads from neighbouring Vinohrady to just outside Prague's Old Town. Fanning out from this neon centre is a neglected underworld of cramped side streets and alleyways which make up the nefarious underbelly of the New Town. The grime-caked National Museum (Národní Muzeum) dominates the view to the south-east, a sort of grubby neoclassical partition between the New Town and the more convincingly bourgeois enclave of Vinohrady.

Though no one can doubt the bold intentions behind the New Town's design, it has long since parted with any pretensions to national splendour. The years when ambitious national revival architects exerted their most concentrated efforts on the New Town, and Wenceslas Square in particular, just happened to coincide with the first stirrings of mass culture, and the ideal of the city centre not just as a nexus of trade, but as a spectacular embodiment of the desires of the new leisure class (which in Hapsburg Prague were considerable). Thus Wenceslas Square was lavished with examples of that odd 19th century invention, the pleasure palace. Cinemas, cafes, restaurants, and no doubt other less savoury varieties of entertainment, blossomed in prettified arcades. Suddenly the alleys and aisles of mass consumption aspired to Versailles-like pomp - bequeathing a gloriously camp, kitschy opulence that still lies hidden behind the facades of the Square, funnelling curious pedestrians through its hidden walkways, even today.

Wenceslas Square's history can be described as a sort of circuit arcing from periphery to centre and back again. From its inauspicious 14th century beginnings as a glorified horse stable, to the images of mulleted rock and roll fans being clobbered on its cobbles in November 1989, and on to similarly thuggish floods of Brit lads looking for cheap booze'n'boobs, it seems the spotlight has been and left the Square. Despite being the one place in Prague that feels properly urban, it's still no Piccadilly Circus. And as people's attentions have turned towards the gorgeously restored Old Town and castle district, the casinos and strip bars have only got more garish. So while Prague's regular denizens rush down it to get to this or that tram, only the booze cruisers and the homeless and the junkies treat it as a destination in itself.

"Wenceslas square in 1667, 1867 and 1967 [cue rock and roll]..."

In the human swirl around the Muzeum metro entrance a few tourists stand eyeing the eponymous steed-mounted saint with scepticism. He in turn stares purposefully ahead, taking in his stiletto-heeled subjects and their glittering confection of lights with impassive Bohemian nobleness. Even in the Square's prime this buff monument to the Duke must have seemed at odds with its atmosphere of hedonism. It's like one of the Rushmore heads - probably the reverential Jefferson - being dumped in Times Square. From his plinth, however, the whole square unfolds. The Palac koruna, with its glittering flat crown and flank of sleeping stone guards, rises above the shunting trams and tall trees at the far end of the square, just gracing the Old Town. Closer, the boulevard is made up of faded Secese facades, their chintzy glory picked out for special attention by the afternoon sunlight. Domes mismatch with towers, municipal grey with bright yellow. Pedestrians duck between cars and sprint across the roads, shopping bags bouncing at their legs.

It was also near this plinth that famed student martyr Jan Palach burned himself to death in 1969, a sort of gun-wrenching coda to the Prague Spring. The sheer terrifying spectacle of his death appears to have disabled the last of the Czechoslovak resistance to the Moscow Protocols (committing the Dubček government to halting the reform movement in its tracks), and heralded the new reality of Soviet-led "normalisation". Far from galvanising the flailing resistance to the occupation, Czechs were, it seems, resigned to it, partly as a result of the extreme hopelessness symbolized in the act. The still-celebrated President Svoboda, who had earlier gone to Moscow to secure the release of Dubček and other Czechoslovak reform communists, patronised Palach's self-immolation as the misguided behaviour of a young man with otherwise good intentions. In that speech he assured the Czechoslovak public that "without you, comrades and friends, neither Comrade Dubček nor I can or want to govern." Some degree of public assent was won, and so the populace allied itself with the government even as its treasured reforms were being dismantled. Within months Dubček, already a bystander as his reforms were undone, was booted out of office entirely. A funeral for Palach took place in which hundreds of thousands lined the streets, yet the tone was one of commiseration and resignation rather than anger. Two young flag bearers stood beneath the equestrian statue on Wenceslas Square. The national colours - now the colours of mourning - were draped everywhere. Stanislav Milota's film Jan 69 captures beautifully this sense of resignation, especially in the shots of people filing calmly through the streets towards the Old Town Square. Despite the anxious faces and obvious sadness, it looks like yet another everyday bread queue, albeit in far larger numbers.

The film is available to watch, along with other videos about Palach, here:

Here is a summary of the "Czechoslovak uprising" in 1968:

City authorities are presently attempting to gentrify the Square. Having functioned basically as a magnet for sleaze for the past 20 years, it appears that those in charge would quite like to return it to its former glory. Apparently this is to be achieved by banning the rows of fast food stands that serve tourists with sausages of often dubious origin (Czechs speculate about the connection of the owners to some nebulous "mafia"). Meanwhile, Marks and Spencer has opened its flagship Czech store about halfway down Wenceslas Square. The ubiquitous architect Jakub Cigler was awarded the contract for the redevelopment of the Square some eight years ago, but progress is oddly slow.

The idea behind banning the sausage stands is that their absence will discourage homeless people from picking through the local bins - a tradition that presumably causes great consternation for delicate middle class onlookers. Yet this attitude completely ignores why homeless people are so often drawn to the Square. Owing to its bustling centrality, this was always the place to find a small act of generosity. A visit to Wenceslas Square is built into the daily routine. One man, Michal Hanel, who had been living on the streets for ten years, went every day: "Shortly after lunch he rushes down Wenceslas Square to meet Hare Krishna followers, the only people who have ever taken him in during his 10 long years on the streets."1 Just recently the "homeless problem in Prague" has become a major vote winner. A Civic Democrat (ODS) councillor by the name of Jiří Janeček has proposed transporting - voluntarily, of course - Prague's homeless population to a camp somewhere outside the city. When Prague is reported to have "the lowest share of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion"2 within the entire EU, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. The answer boils down to the concentration of homeless people in the city centre - part of an entire informal economy which thrives off the scraps of wealthy tourists. That and the fact that, as bankruptcies increase, the number of homeless people is likewise going up.

Only in the minds of conspiratorial city councillors do sausage stands and the city's homeless amount to a civic threat, the answer to which is Marks and Spencer! While its back streets are veritable dens of iniquity, the Square itself is only troubled by its array of frankly bizarre, occasionally intrusive sales techniques. The various backstreet Irish pubs are advertised by walking, grumpy placards - men who stand for hours at a time in the middle of the road wearing a stained neon shirt strewn with clovers and leprechauns. A jazz club is advertised by a walking, tooting saxophone. The effect of these outfits is obviously dehumanising, but also quite creepy. Outside the Thai massage parlour (it really does do Thai massages, if you're wondering) a gargantuan-gutted Shrek stands in a faded green dressing gown, multi-coloured umbrella held aloft at all times. His eyes, just visible through the forced gaiety of the mask, peer suspiciously out at passers by.

What keeps drawing the Square's collection of oddballs back? There is, for example, the guy with the placard who hangs around outside the Mustek metro entrance. For hours a day he bellows loudly about the alleged expropriation of his home by the Czech state. This practice, simply by dint of its regularity, has made him something of a celebrity. Needless to say, the authorities are yet to respond to his pleas. Then there's the guy who sits in wraparound shades on a tiny window-sill, quietly feeding two mangy pet birds, his hair frayed and tangled, exploding in unkempt knots around his head. Among the brightly coloured street entertainers, exhibitionists and sausage stands, he goes almost unnoticed. For these two, the Square fulfils opposite requirements: in the former case, it is the most public stage freely available; in the latter, its dense traffic provides the only place in the city where you can remain unnoticed for hours at a time. Police can be rough with the homeless, and it's sometimes worth staying out of their way.

At the bottom of Wenceslas Square, turning left onto Na Příkopě, you can see Národní třída (National Avenue) and at its far end the golden bulk of Národní divadlo (National Theatre). If it exists anywhere, then this long, strange boulevard, with its bottom pointing out at the Vltava in a flourish of Neo-renaissance gold, is the self-conscious cultural heart of the Czech "nation". No surprise, then, that it was here that the November 17th student march - ostensibly a peaceful "anti-fascist" demo - turned serious. The SNB - the state's heavy-handed enforcers - choked off all access to the streets as the march, already deviating from its official route, made its way up Národní třída towards Wenceslas Square. The key was not only blocking the boulevard itself, but covering the many labyrinthine alleys that connect Národní třída with the Old Town, the New Town, and the logical finish line of Wenceslas Square. Though the protest was effectively dampened by police, rumour spread that one young man, a maths and physics student by the name of Martin Smid, had died of injuries sustained from a police beating. The echo of Palach, and student sacrifice more generally, was by that time written into the Czech national character. As the rumour spread, the crowds returned to Wenceslas Square, this time in unstoppable numbers. It was a measure of just how unstable the regime had become that they scrambled to find the young man, eventually shoving him in front of cameras to prove to the previously compliant masses that no martyrs had been created. By then, however, the powerful if senescent national resentment of the Czechoslovak people had been awoken.

Here is footage of the November protests on the square in Prague:

In a sense the 1989 revolution always belonged to the students. It was they who risked their necks; their leaders who formed the dissident class of intellectuals who were constantly in and out of jail; their sacrifices - symbolic and material - that eventually got the dozing people out of their homes and onto Wenceslas Square, the focal point of any successful Czech revolution. The students were battle hardened and organised, and this left them in an extraordinarily advantageous position when it came to taking power after the fall of the Party. Civic Forum and Public Against Violence were only the public faces of a large, extraordinarily well educated (free, decent higher education is still the norm) alternative power base. This class was exactly what Vaclav Havel implied when he spoke about "Civil Society" - the intellectual carriers of the Czech(oslovak) national flame.

They took Wenceslas Square; now, it seems, they have the right to re-shape it as they fancy. Although most Czechoslovaks surveyed at the time dreaded the imposition of all-out capitalism (partly rationally and, perhaps, partly due to decades of Party propaganda), the free market was rapidly imposed from above. The expropriated palác Lucerna, that symbol of fin de siecle bourgeois decadence on Wenceslas Square, was at first returned to its now legal inheritor, President Vaclav Havel. But like so much of Wenceslas Square, nobody really knew what constructively to do with it, so it was sold off to big capital. This, then, is the shape of the Square to come: a half realised, maybe only half understood, tribute to the great bourgeois party in the sky.


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