Squatting in Prague ... and Solving Global Housing
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because these spaces could have increasingly global relevance.
Breakfast is cigarettes and a few cups of crappy powdered coffee. A truck pulls up to unload five kegs of beer. Five sleeping bodies are sprawled on three spartan beds.
We’ve been up late drinking, and for good reason. The motley fifteenish-person crew that lives here has been embroiled in a battle to keep its home. But Klinika is not getting kicked out. It’s psyched; its lawyer is psyched. Even the leader of one of the biggest political parties in the country is excited enough — or opportunistic enough — that he swung by this chaotic scene for a visit a few months ago.
Turns out this freshly won battle is part of a larger war. As squatters, the residents of Klinika are arguably homeless. And the place they call home, two stories of lovely cement in the center of Prague that was once a Soviet lung clinic, occupies prime real estate in a public park. With yesterday’s win, Klinika is one of the first successful — legally speaking — squatters in the history of the Czech Republic … on a continent where squatting is as ubiquitous as museums, espresso and blitzed tourists.
Think squatting and you likely think crusty anarcho-punks. Although not totally unfair, it’s far from the complete picture. From Barcelona, where squatters crowdfunded some 90,000 euros to rebuild a squat facing demolition, to London, where people have occupied spaces in tony neighborhoods to create housing for the homeless, squatting is evolving dramatically. Still, most squats either fail or snort at support from politicians. That’s just profoundly counter to their culture. Not Klinika. Known by members as an “autonomous social center” instead of “squat,” the group has dealt with politicians from the local Green Party to the foremost national populist party. It’s not like they’re having vegan potlucks with the nation’s political elite. But they are taking a significantly different approach to the reclaiming of unloved buildings.
As any urban planner can tell you, there’s a complicated relationship between squatters and the upper-middle class. The same desolate areas where squatters build homes often become rich capitals of art and counterculture — which later become hip urban paradises that drive out the squats and anyone else who can’t hang with the skyrocketing rents. Case in point: the Lower East Side in New York City. Indeed, Zizkov, the longtime working-class neighborhood only a few metro stops from the touristy center where Klinika sits, is undoubtedly gentrifying. Klinika’s win is a harbinger of what’s to come not only for future squats, but also for the neighborhood itself.
So what’s it like to hang out in an autonomous social center? I spent a night at one, and for starters, squatters out here run a hard-to-pigeonhole gamut of punks, students, do-gooders and even a token rebellious professor, all trying to turn a former Zizkov eyesore and haven for local drug users into a buzzing cultural space. As for anarchism? Most people write it off as black balaclavas and broken Starbucks windows, but its proponents point to something at once less and more dramatic. It’s not an ideology, says Marina Sitrin, author and visiting scholar at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the Graduate Center at CUNY. Rather, she says, it’s “a framework for thinking about and creating social relationships in equal and nonhierarchical ways.” Here, amid a whole lot of beer and weed, there were talks, classes and concerts. And yet, with the threat of eviction looming, there was also that jovial energy of a last hurrah — of knowing this might be your final night with the people who’ve become family in the place that’s become home.
Europe isn’t alone in its affordable housing crisis — you’re surely aware that much of the world is struggling. Many people are having to choose between rent and basics like health care. McKinsey estimates that some 350 million households are living in substandard digs, and 60 million households in the developed world are financially overstretched. In Europe, the recent financial crisis has had devastating effects on housing affordability on the continent. The Czech Republic weathered the crisis better than some other European countries. But youth unemployment almost doubled from 2007 to 2010, to 18 percent; now it’s plateaued at 15 percent. A 2013 survey suggests that some three-quarters of Prague residents cannot find housing at a reasonable price. Which is why a place like Klinika, a big building with the Czech word for “freedom” on the front door that blends in well with the semi-eroding rest of the neighborhood, is so appealing to some.
But five 40-somethings in suits? Usually on weekends, it’s just locals drinking in homey pubs. These guys are quite possibly the last people I’d expect to stroll through the doors, barring maybe a shirtless Vladimir Putin or Taylor Swift. But there they are one Friday evening. “Who were they?” I ask a young woman who’s in the middle of plastering the bathroom, where you flush the toilet with a bucket, gravity and a Hail Mary. Her one-word answer — “Bureaucrats” — speaks a lot of dread.
Bureaucrat numero uno is Pavel Hordig, the spokesman of the Office for Government Representation in Property Affairs. I go to see him a day or two later. Tall and balding, in a gray suit, he greets me affably at the front door of an office building as bland as the department it houses. “You’re a pioneer — the first foreign journalist to come to this office!” he declares with equal parts excitement and embarrassment (both of which are reciprocated). When it first started back in November, the squat was nightly news. Same for when the threat of the residents’ eviction in December sparked protests.
A few days before the squatters moved in, his office officially transferred ownership to the department of police administration. He admits the building was in a sad state, but Hordig says they did all they could — padlocks and occasional checkups — to keep it in somewhat acceptable condition and out of the hands of drug users. The squatters gave him and his team weeklong headaches, Hordig says, and mountains of extra work from processing dozens of media requests, as well as some angry letters. That said, he still gives them credit. “I expected wild dogs and a lot of dreadlocks,” he recalls. But it turns out they are “very clever and have done very impressive outreach to the public.” Those aren’t empty words, or not entirely: Earlier today, his office offered the squatters an extension that could be anywhere from six months to a year.
Back at Klinika, I wake up around 7 and swing off my bed, a musky-smelling futon, onto smooth concrete floors. I tiptoe past roommates I didn’t even know were there. Then an enormous crash erupts from the kitchen. It’s Honza, a fast-talking local, beating on a propane tank, which he’s blaming for the lack of fire coming out of an old industrial stove. Upon successfully making coffee (and not blowing the joint up), we join a few others in the backyard, where wooden crates serve as benches and tables.
About a dozen barrels lay in another part of the garden, a large, green expanse behind the building. The previous evening, a photography class from a nearby art school had gathered here to smoke and chat after a screening and presentation. The students’ reactions? Mixed. “It’s kinda creepy,” says Zofie Helfertuya, a stylish 20-year-old photography student, who “of course” had heard of Klinika — but wasn’t among the protesters. Creepy or not, Helfertuya better get used to it. The professor, a witty artist type named Stepanka Simlova, says she plans on having class here at least once a week. “I normally wouldn’t do that, but Klinika has opened up to the public and gained credibility,” she says. Behind her, the bisected black-and-red flag that symbolizes anarchism flaps atop the squat.
Downstairs, a group is preparing banners for a protest of the Transatlantic Trade and Partnership Agreement, which is an attempt to create one of the world’s largest free-trade zones out of Europe and the U.S. — its negotiations have been conducted with very little press and many, including U.N. officials, consider it an affront to democratic processes. Hanging up to dry is a sign depicting a firing target on a silhouette’s forehead, signifying the police’s aggression toward so-called “extreme leftists.” Meetings like this one, such as of the World Economic Forum, the World Trade Organization and the G-8, are longstanding targets of activists who oppose capitalism and what they see as global corporatization. And places like this? Key to the fight.
Not all squats are conceived as community spaces — squats of homeless people are perhaps the original type. But Michaela Pixova, a post-doc researcher in urban geography at Charles University in Prague, says that spaces like Klinika are “urgently needed in contemporary society,” adding that similar things are happening elsewhere. She points to Olomouc, a city in eastern Czech Republic, where a group is working on a squat just like Klinika. Previous squats in Prague have gone after privately owned buildings, but found that police were quick to pounce and evict. So they turned their gaze on public buildings, of which there are a few hundred vacant ones.
So how has Klinika pulled it off? Some might say they went mainstream. They held a blitz of nonstop concerts, lectures, a savvy social media campaign; they emphasized their intentions to run socially beneficial programs, like safe havens for street-dwelling addicts and … a kindergarten? (The room allotted for the latter is currently painted in the bold yellow-and-blue of the Ukrainian flag.) The whole strategy is likely to become the model for squatters in the Czech Republic, says Arnost Novak, a professor of environmental sociology at Charles University and a 20-year veteran of squatting.
There is, of course, tons of precedence for anarchist-influenced community spaces, and not just in Europe. For more than 35 years, Charas El Bohio on New York’s Lower East Side, though not a squat, inhabited a massive old elementary school and gave free meeting space to activist groups, as well as artist studios, neighborhood parties and programs for children. (The city evicted them and sold the space to a real estate developer in 2002.) In Italy, squats that operate as “self-governing squatted social centers” are almost too many in number to count.
Ultimately, with Klinika, some argue that roping in the not-squatters is what saved the squat. Tonight, in a dimmed room with a projector, about 30 people sit listening and watching a fiery presentation by urban geographer Erik Swyngedouw, formerly at Oxford, and now at the University of Manchester. He gestures wildly, using terms like post-politicization and political insurgency. He was interrupted only once — by a crying baby. (Cross a kindergarten and a squat, and you get Babies Against Speeches.) But Swyngedouw’s main message was something the folks at Klinika will likely contest: that the success of squats shouldn’t be measured by how long they last. Swyngedouw says the real metric is how much change they effect. And in most cases, like Klinika, they fail to reach that higher potential, appearing and then flaming out. “It’s just acting out,” he says.