So they say the next gentrification wave will hit the district of Nusle. Like, really, really hard. Especially the part between Folimanka park and Synkovo náměstí. Naturally, we went out to explore what’s really happening there.
First, we had to map out the actual area we wanted to cover. Nusle isn’t a big district, but it’s still separated into smaller neighborhoods, and not all of them possess the same vibe. To pinpoint the exact place that’s gonna make it big (or at least seems so), you have to localize all the parks on the edges of Vinohrady and Vršovice; ‘our’ Nusle are the seemingly empty cluster of streets between them. On one side, they’re bordering the Folimanka park, on the other, there’s Grébovka, then Jezerka and then that huge-ass suicide bridge that seems to freak foreigners out, judging by this juicy piece by Cracked. People are not jumping off it anymore, but it still maintains its sinister, perilous presence.
After we localized our target area, we divided the field research into three parts: 1) Theoretical Preparation (‘Why all the hype?’), 2) Gaining Courage, and 3) Empirical Realization (which here is a fancy term for going to a few pubs).
Part One: Theoretical Preparation
If our premise states that Nusle are the next big thing, first we have to – being a proper scientific collective that we are – uphold that statement. Theoretically, the gentrification process starts simply: a few young, ambitious artists spot a cheap place and decide to build a smoothie bar. If there’s a cheaper neighborhood near the city center, odds are that something like that will inevitably happen. We won’t delve into sociological aspects of all this, because this is not that type of article, but after questioning a few people, we knew we were right here. People are really starting to live up to the ‘Nusle is cool now’ thing.
At Synkovo náměstí (colloquially called ‘Synkáč’) and on adjacent streets, two worlds collide. On the one hand, there are so many dubious non-stop bars one might think they gained intelligence and learned how to reproduce. On the other, new, flashier places pop up: eateries, cafes, upscale restaurants and pubs. This is aptly visible in places such as Zlý časy, which is a rather nice pub with like a dozen different beers on tap, but half of the clientele consists of locals heroically destroying the supply of the cheapest one. It’s clear why people move to Nusle – within the greater city center, this is probably the last place where you can find a cheap studio apartment without having to succumb to drug dealing (which, to be frank, wouldn’t be much of a problem at Synkáč). But our job wasn’t to find out why somebody new would move in; we wanted to talk to the people that already lived there.
Part Two: Gaining Courage
“Synkáč is the main border,” a local guy lectures us. We’re still talking within the safety of our Facebook accounts. “On the upper side of it, you have your nice villas, city parks and such. But that’s boring, so we’ll go the other way.” A photographer from Letná, who has a girlfriend in Nusle and for some reason prefers to visit her rather than let her visit him, recommends us cafes (Ňáký kafe) and theaters (Na Jezerce or Na Fidlovačce). Sadly, his list of Nusle’s attractions is shorter than a Napalm Death song, so after six or seven tips, cultural enlightenment gives way to supermarkets and that fucking bridge.
Interesting fact: In the olden days, Prague’s city walls divided the city proper from the area that started right where Nusle lies today. Given that middle age citizens weren’t exactly known for their progressive views on hygiene, trash and shit would be tossed right over the city wall – which, in a turn that has to be symbolic somehow, means that Nusle is built upon layers and layers of fortified garbage. That’s… actually pretty punk rock.
What isn’t punk rock is Nusle’s two main cultural centers. There’s Kongresové centrum Praha, where you can visit the Chinese National Cirque, a Gregorian chant adapted to a heavy metal version, or a Two Door Cinema Club gig (go figure). Then, there’s Cirqueon, basically a HQ for Prague’s surprisingly vibrant Nouveau Cirque scene; sadly, no actual shows are performed here, so all you can do is take your selfie in front of Cirqueon’s building and go do something else.
We quickly realized that if we wanted some authentic experience, we’d have to dive headfirst into Nusle’s web of pubs, bars, and questionable ‘coffee houses’. So we contacted a local guy (there’s no English demonym for people from Nusle, so we’re deciding to call them ‘Nusleites’ because it sounds kinda rad) and asked him to be our guide. Where to start? “Start with going to the center, it’s a quick ride,” the Nusleite damps our excitement. When we tell him we’re actually coming from the center, he shrugs and suggests to meet up at Jamrtál, Baretta, Sluníčko or Horská chata. Those are all pubs, but you’ve presumably figured that for yourselves.
Part Three: Empirical Realization
“Allah doesn’t belong here,” an angry man with a tablet yells between rounds of Candy Crush. It feels bizarre, because nobody actually asked him anything; he’s just, like, super enthusiastic about his worldviews. We’re sitting at 'La Špeluňka', a cozy diving bar located right next to Synkáč which builds its marketing strategy on really cheap beer. The interior bathes in serene yellow lights. At the bar, a local Steve Buscemi doppelganger entertains a group of jaunty thirty-somethings. But our attention belongs to the Candy Crush guy, because he’s talking to us and sounds terrifyingly determined to do something illegal.
“If your generation invites them (Muslims) over, then my generation will start mowing them down. With machine guns,” he claims fiercely, turns his head, and goes back to Candy Crush. Our female half says that this article will probably have negative effect on our Prozac consumption. But as charming as weird Hitler-esque rants can be, we have to switch our focus back to Nusleite. He’s waiting for us elsewhere.
Nusleite is an expert on semiotics and Sartre’s ontology, so our interview quickly goes off the rails. After a few dozen seconds, we’re already examining such pressing topics as ‘Why Nusle?’, ‘Does Nusle know what Nusle is?’, and ‘What’s the meaning of Nusle?’. We challenge him to pick one thing that makes this neighborhood unique. “The bridge,” he says almost immediately, and we figure that locals really pride themselves over that thing. “Even if you can’t see it properly, sometimes, as the sun rises up, you look outside your window and see the shade of it reflected on other buildings’ walls. It is beautiful,” he muses, lovingly. Then, he drinks some more and jumps back to Sartre.
At ‘Sluníčko’ (‘A Little Sun’), we are enchanted by scores of inflatable balloons flying through the space for some reason. It looks like a birthday party nobody bordered to attend. The radio is playing ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon and Nusleite sings “Imagine you’re not in Nusle”. In the corner, someone fell asleep under the TV. The overall atmosphere is as dignified as can be in a pub that looks like a background of a Tom Waits ballad, as opposed to ‘Boothill’, where the waiter personally shakes our hands and asks what would the lady and gentlemen wish to order. It’s beers. It feels a little too classy for a bona fide dive bar, but we enjoy it anyway. The ashtrays there are made of glass and look heavy enough to kill a guinea pig.
At ‘Blatnička’, a man sits at our table and introduces himself as Víťa from the 22nd century. Sensing opportunity, we ask him how life is like in Nusle. “Great, totally! But, sometimes, it gets windy, and when it does, dog shit flies through the air,” he admits, adding that the greatest benefit of Nusle is its close proximity to Lazarská, a central stop for night trams. Of course it is.
‘Jamrtál’, one of the pubs Nusleite suggested upon first contact, has some recognition in the underground art scene, and it’s quite easy to see why once you step inside. It was already past closing time when we came in, but people didn’t seem to accept that, so the party went on. We asked whether we could get some wine. “Well we’re closed, but sure… Do you want a glass or a bottle?”, the jovial waitress replied. Seeing we’re not from around here, one of the patrons let us in on a little secret: “See that toilet over there? Yeah, don’t go there, that’s the puking room. Use the other one.”
Someone is trying really hard to get some liquor, but the waitress stands her ground. She yells back, displaying her alpha position in a scarily intense way. She sounds a little like angry Trent Reznor. “Shut up, drunk, or someone’s gonna get hurt,” she says, and the guy takes the hint immediately, which is amazing because it looks like he’s been bathing in liquor for quite some time.
Another one of Nusleite’s picks is 'Horská chata' (‘A Mountain Cabin’). But our vision of a quiet, serenely lit room with a fireplace and maybe some trophies on the wall disappears in the moment we realize it’s actually called 'Bar Aquarius'. The pub gained its colloquial name because of the interior decor, but after midnight, it’s less a tranquil lodge and more a sociological study of all of Nusle’s vices. “It’s like a trailer park session down there,” Nusleite explains. And surely, when we enter, we see what he’s talking about.
Place: A single table by the bar. Population: One skinhead, one sad cougar, one local drug dealer, one local Jimmy Buffett, one guy that nobody cares about although he thinks they do, one girl that might be like eighteen years old, and that bloke who’s always happy to have someone to talk to. “I don’t want to go to the gym. I want to go to a theater,” the skinhead shouts in a voice that’s strangely aggressive for someone who claims to want to go to a theater. “What are you, tattooed?”, the drug dealer replies. “I’m not tattooed, I have a soul,” goes the skinhead, as the conversation dives into depths so surreal it’s impossible to catch up.
On the menu, we find something called ‘Helsinki’. We have absolutely no idea what that is, but we order it anyway. Our last note was written at 2:30 AM and reads ‘I don’t want to go home yet.’ That’s it. Sorry. The ineffable swagger of Nusle finally got us.