Ramble On: After the Water
lived in New York City for eight years. On that big, bad
day last year, I was in bed with my then-girlfriend when
her mother called to make sure we were safe. I looked out
my window and saw the skyline bleeding smoke. We grabbed
my dog and my camera and walked to the nearby Brooklyn waterfront,
arriving just in time to see the second collapse. I somehow
snapped ten pictures. Flip through them, and you're watching
a ten-frame flip-book movie of the most documented event
During the following days, I was surprised by my lack of
desire to visit the city's newest graveyard, still fresh
with bodies and alive with rescue hopes. I could've secured
press credentials and walked in the front door, or I could've
snuck in through a back-alley route that a friend had sussed
out. I did neither. Instead, I did what most everyone else
did: I sat at my local bar with as many people as possible,
toasted the dead, and exchanged stories of those gone missing.
All this time, I thought I was still a ghoul. In my younger
days, I was an avid voyeur of degradation and violence.
I'd solicit the most vicious video footage from acquaintances
around the world who trafficked in that sort of stuff. I'd
slow down to get a better look at the car wreck. I'd curse
myself for not having my camera when I'd stumble across
a building on fire or the aftermath of a crime. These were
not journalistic impulses.
One year ago, I began to suspect that something inside me
had changed. When the floods hit Prague, I was convinced.
When the waters swept in and familiar buildings once again
suffered terrible indignities, I declined to act as a voyeur.
Pretending to have a journalist's drive would've been self-deception
conveniently constructed to justify necro-tourism. Several
of my peers hit the streets and came back with photographs
that speak nothing of the victims' pain. Their mawkish snapshots
belittle the tragedy.
I visited downtown Manhattan three months after the fact,
when I was ready to pay my respects to my home. Last week,
it was time to pay my respects to my adopted home by walking
through Prague's hardest-hit neighborhood, Karl'n.
Start your trip at the Lipanska tram
stop in Ziskov. Walk down the stairs at the red railing
onto Chlumova. Walk down four blocks to the Karlin tunnel
which takes you under Vitkov Hill, famous for the largest
equestrian statue in the world as well as the mausoleum
containing the remains of three Communist presidents and
the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. (The future use of the
mausoleum is currently the subject of debate between city
planning types.) Elsewhere in the hill is an underground
complex that once served as a secret police interrogation
center and beer hall. On occasion, informal invite-only
parties are still held inside.
The one-kilometer tunnel is crypt-cold and there's surprisingly
little graffiti inside, though you can find a few interesting
tags, including what might be the sole surviving body outline
sprayed on the ground. Emerge on Thamova, where the cobblestones
are still covered by mud carried in from the lands south
of Prague. To your immediate right, pay your respects to
The Black Cat, a great basement bar and music club destroyed
by the flood.
Turn right onto Pernerova. Pass the disused factories with
windows waiting to be broken by late-night snowballs. Feel
free to engage in a little urban spelunking. Three months
ago, you may have encountered an errant worker or security
guard. Not so these days. If, like me, you grew up with
construction sites for playgrounds, exploring these empty
buildings will bring back that childhood thrill of setting
foot on forbidden ground.
Bear left, head to the circle and turn right, staying on
Pernerova. Take note of the long wall covered by old, weatherworn
posters. Where's the Manic Street Preachers advertisement?
Where are ZZ Top and Robodisco and Kick the Shit? Where
are those images so ubiquitous around Old Town and Mala
strana and Zizkov? You won't see them here. No one's wasting
their time bombing this neighborhood with flyers because
there isn't much of a neighborhood to speak of.
While many upper-floor residents have returned to the area,
the ground floors remain gutted corpses, devoid not just
of people but of everything. They were emptied first by
the flood waters, and second by demolition crews. The reconstruction
efforts have begun. Stick you head in the open windows,
and you'll see electricians crouched over masses of tangled
wires. You'll hear the steady scrape-scrape-scrape of the
masons' trowels--fresh concrete to fill the cracked floors
and steady the uneven walls.
Walk to the end of the street and turn left when you see
bags of sand piled up in the playground. Turn left onto
U Invalidovny. Turn right at the big red building. This
is the Vojensky historicky arch'v building, originally a
military hospital, now serving as a record depository. The
Military and Architectural archives lost thousands of cartons
of documents, letters, and manuscripts in the floods. Like
its residential neighbors, the ground floor of this beautiful
complex is filled with detritus and stinks of damage.
At the next corner, you may find people picking apples in
the small fruit orchard. If you're feeling brave, sneak
through any of the many gaps in the fence and join them.
You'd be brave not for the trespass, but for eating any
fruit grown during the flood. Mistake not the August waters
for the cleansing hand of God. They were filthy and foul,
carrying with them tons and dirt and untold filth from the
city's subterranean sewers.
Turn left and continue your circle
around the building. At the park, where the summer's stunning
rose gardens show promise of a springtime recovery, turn
left and cross over to Kaizlovy Sady. Walk half a block
to the left, then turn right onto Petra Slevika. The streets
are relatively quiet. Trains rumble along up in the hills,
fat diesel engines gurgling and burping with power. Men
carry away trash in squeaky wheelbarrows. A dozen jackhammers
pound away in the distance, always just around the corner,
never seen. Much of the recovery is taking place in the
inner courtyards you can't see from the street, in the neighborhood's
inner sanctums. If you happen to find an open passageway,
peek in and you'll likely see a crew demolishing the old
and rebuilding the new simultaneously.
Keep walking. Pass the Tutti Gusti
pizza joint--closed. Restaurant UKonska--closed. Walk to
the end, turn right onto Brezinova, left onto Sokolovska.
The Ibis hotel--closed. Restaurace Hamburk--closed. The
manicure and pedicure shop--closed. The solarium--closed.
Trafika Tereza has gotten a new paint job to match the new
front window, and the copy shop seems to be in the process
of recovery, but much of the reconstruction seems to be
concentrated on the buildings themselves, not on the specific
businesses. The street itself is an open wound, with gaping
holes revealing the city's damaged arteries. Car traffic
is limited, and police are still posted at all major intersections.
Continue past the Kriskova metro station--closed.
Walk under the train bridge at Prvnino Pluka and come to
the shuttered and eerily barren Florenc metro. Walk past
the McDonald's and up toward the X-C tram stop. You're ascending
a hill so slight that you barely notice the incline. But
this insignificant rise made all the difference. At the
corner in front of you, Electro City is still open. Erotic
City is still open. At the bottom, though, behind you, there
stretches out Karl'n, struggling with a long and painful