Ramble On: After the Water
I 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 in history.
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 rebirth.