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The Industrial Ethos of (Soon-To-Be-Hip) Holešovice

Text: Photo: Libor Petrášek

"You might be writing an article about Holešovice, but I’m from Letná." Those were the words of Czech novelist David Zábranský when we asked for his local tips on account of him living in Prague’s seventh district. The reaction says it all: Praha 7 might not take up much space, but the distinction between its two separate neighborhoods is rather sharp. Letná is posh and trendy, Holešovice are not. So far.

The Holešovice area — which is actually the official cadastral name of the whole district, including Letná – feels almost like an island, separated from the rest of Prague by the riverbanks of Vltava’s meander and a large railroad track cutting through the land. It’s traditionally been a working man’s hood, and although it’s been going through its own hip makeover recently, the industrial ethos is still strong there, as opposed to, say, Karlín. These menacingly large, monolithic red brick buildings don’t lie — even though old-timey factories were long replaced by theaters, warehouse techno hotspots, and/or Vietnamese street markets.

"When you say Holešovice, I imagine the river and its banks, uniform-style hipster cafés, but also the Bubny railway station and it’s slightly surreal atmosphere," says Tomáš Zdeněk, our connection to the Cross Club, an infamous multi-genre behemoth that symbolizes the hood’s cultural profile for many outsiders. Boy, the male half of our editorial unit, wants to experience the railway station’s atmosphere too; too bad that Girl is waiting for him a few hundred meters over at Holešovická šachta, along with Dude, who used to work at the logistic section of an international soda company and says he knows every single grocery shop around here.

After a brief call, Boy has a new quest: since he’s already screwed up the instructions, it’s now up to him to find a café that should be tucked somewhere inside the Bubny station. Alas, if there is a café, a burly Rottweiler won’t let him find it, because since the station is abandoned now, it pretty much operates under the street law. There’s a modest Holocaust memorial and a warehouse-like building with a huge sign that reads “CrossFitCommitted”, but that scares Boy even more than the dog.

(The Internet says the café does exist, but is located inside the warehouse and open only for people that are #CrossFitCommitted. Pretentious it ain’t.)

"A dog scared you? Aren’t you supposed to like dogs?" says Girl a few minutes later, when the whole unit finally meets over a beer at Šachta, a recently opened gallery / hangout spot where the bartender proves his left-wing hipster-dom by playing Arcade Fire out of an iPod and charges a measly 28 CZK (approximately 1 Euro) for the beer.

"Too bad you didn’t spend more time at the station. You could see some rare birds that live there. I know that because I was there once on an event that was partly an ornithological course and partly a walk-through focused on local modern architecture. The hip people, eager to find out some trivia they could later use while picking up conceptual artist chicks at Cobra, were perplexed to learn that you could distinguish between separate kinds of sparrows purely by how they tweet. Whoa."

Factories, Beats, Tattoos

The grandest building in Holešovice is, in fact, a Vietnamese market. A huge one. It’s so vast that several tram stops are located alongside, and inside the old industrial complex, you can find places like the Alza warehouse (that’s that annoyingly pervasive electronic goods retail store where every Czech goes to buy their PC equipment), a brothel (seriously), or several foodie hotspots — like Hala 22, offering a mouthwatering range or vegetables. Also, there’s the Trafo Gallery, an important focal point of Czech hip-hop and graffiti culture.

All that stuff sometimes makes people forget that the market is, above all, a fucking market, as in "the place where you go to buy random stuff." Dude doesn’t forget, though. He has fond memories of that one time when he managed to buy some sweet-ass slippers there. We don’t know why he’s telling the story, but he sure seems excited about it.

By the way, Hala 22 — which translates to “Hall 22”, in case you didn’t get that — isn’t the only place around here named after its literal location. It’s like the good people of Holešovice spent all their creativity on overall concepts and ran out of it just before the naming process. Further evidence: 36 Underground, an underground place, and Jatka 78 (“Slaughterhouse 78”), a former slaughterhouse which now serves as a home turf for Cirk La Putyka na Smíchově, a famous (and seriously great) Nouveau Cirque ensemble.

(Before we move on to talk about Jatka some more, we should probably mention SaSaZu, a club / discotheque that also serves as an Asian restaurant and go-to venue for hip-hop and EDM celebrities. Girl went there once, only to broke her jawbone and have nobody believe her she wasn’t high on some kinda amphetamine, as that’s the norm over there; Boy visited SaSaZu with his old high school punk rock band for a talent show that included an interview with Míša Ochotská, a local orange-skinned gremlin who had successfully fooled people to think she was a newswoman like a decade ago. Neither of us are proud of it.)

Back to Jatka78. Štěpán Kubišta, our insider, explains: "We didn’t choose Holešovice, Holešovice chose us."

"Years ago, Cirk La Putyka held their rehearsals at Smíchov, but then the place burnt down. Rosťa Novák, the principal, began searching for a new residence, and here we are." Štěpán also explains that prior to that moment, Cirk had already performed in perhaps the most famous theater of all HolešoviceLa Fabrika (La Factory in English, because come on). "So, Rosťa already knew the hood," adds Štěpán. "When we got the memo, the town hall promised us the unused building of the former slaughterhouse. There’s still some legal shenanigans going on, but hey, we have a venue to perform at now."

"Overall, Holešovice are a perfect place for theaters," he says. "New venues are opening left and right. I guess you could say that Holešovice became the capital of Prague’s contemporary theater scene. There are new places scheduled to open at community places and galleries like Vnitroblock. at Dox. Godspeed!"

"On the other hand, the marketplace itself isn’t exactly an ideal environment for contemporary artist. Our neighbors' customers ignore us, and vice versa. It’s a shame, but there’s still some sort of a communication barrier. Ices are breaking, but slowly. To have place like Trafo Gallery nearby sure helps. I only hope that others will soon follow."

The industrial feeling that permeates Holešovice can posit problems for those who are not from around here. For one, you can have trouble finding the exact place you’re heading to, because they’re all close to each other and look the same. Two, seeing how they look the same, there’s really not much to talk about. Pick an empty warehouse, get your hands on some subsidies, build a makeshift podium and a bar, get the tastemakers hooked on Facebook, and you’re pretty much there.

On the other hand, some people are living the industrial fetish to its fullest, like that guy from Tetsuo. Like the ones who run Hell.cz, probably the most famous Czech tattoo & body modification temple. Want an anchor tattooed on your ankle? Go to any of the ten billion other tattoo saloons in Prague. Want a tongue split, some horns, scarification, a piercing in your tralala, or some other gravely NSFW shit? Yeah, that’s Hell.cz right there.

"Lots of people think we’re some sort of a cult, a group of Satanic worshippers," says our contact. "But the people at Hell.cz are seriously great, they take pride in their work and you can talk to them about anything. And they’re really good in what they do. Also, they frequently support charities and fight again prejudices. They organize Fetish nights, bondage, BDSM, suspension, this kind of stuff… it’s the only place I would voluntarily go to get hogtied. Which I did."

Even if you don’t fancy that kind of stuff, it’s still positive that there’s some other sort of alternative culture booming at Holešovice. Prior to that, locals were pretty much screwed — if we don’t count Mecca, a bizarre discotheque that feels like the year 1998 came to life and manifested itself via aggressive outbursts of legally harmful Eurodisco / EDM music.

Letná -> Holešovice -> Libeň (?)

"Holešovice used to be one of the only places in close-to-centre Prague where you could find cheap flats," says Milota Sidorová, an acclaimed architect who lived at the U Měšťanského pivovaru st. between 2012 and 2013. During that time, Holešovice just began to absorb some of Letná's swagger, but the process was still at its beginning. "When I moved in, Letná was already gentrified. Holešovice, not so much. You still had to search hard to find a decent restaurant."

"The street life was happening at Dělnická street. Old-timey shops, tobacconists, cheap drugstores… you know. At Měšťanský pivovar (The Brewery), there were the more upscale shops. Holešovice was divided into smaller parts, each functioning as a micro neighborhood on its own. You had to know where to go."

"That gave us the anonymity. It was a great environment for introverts. Vltava’s riverbanks are ideal for the morning jogging sessions, even though I had a dog bite my ass once. He was guarding a nearby homeless community. I guess I got too close that time."

"I remember the bridge connecting Holešovice and Palmovka. An absurdly long, never-ending bridge. The riverbanks were green, and complexes of new buildings were just starting to shape up." She points to the skyscrapers around Přístavní, where lots of local advertising agencies found their place, among them the Czech Republic’s Ogilvy branch. "Yet still, the place was far from being polished," adds Milota. "You could bike along the pathways and feel like you’re in 80’s Berlin. New opportunities arising everywhere, clashing with the junkie way of life."

"I’d say that nowadays, Holešovice are scheduled to be the next ‘it’. Look at the prices of new flats — rentals, even. They are skyrocketing. That’s not a Holešovice’s problem per se, it’s a Prague’s problem, but still. Expect that in a few years, to have a flat here will be seen as a luxury. Rather sooner than later."

Enter Art District 7, an ambitious project that aims to turn Holešovice into a full-blown cultural center. For some people, it already serves the purpose – those would be the good patrons of Cross Club, a legendary bar / gig venue that manages to pack a great café, a restaurant, a multi-genre music club, a conceptually beautiful beer garden, and a small theater into one giant building located right at the Nádraží Holešovice metro station.

Also, you can visit “Paralelní Polis”, an Ayn-Rand-esque hotspot for local ancaps. This is the place you’d go to if you wanted to pay for your coffee in bitcoins. Of course, the author of this article is a cultural Marxist, so we’ll cover the place with a direct quote from one of our local contacts: "I seriously thought about starting drinking again just so I’d get sick and throw up all over Paralelní Polis. It’d be worth the pain, I tell you."

Across the street, there’s Bar Diana – or, as everyone calls it, “that ugly non-stop place.” "I had a friend who used to ask for that little umbrella every time she ordered a drink," Dude says. "Like, when she was at home making rum and coke, she’d add a little umbrella to the mix, otherwise it wouldn’t be legit."

"Well, this one time, she went to Diana. The place reeked of stale beer and seventeen billion cigarettes being lit at the same tame. She approached the bar, and asked for a gin-tonic with an umbrella. That was literally the first time anyone ever asked for something extra there. The bartender was so thrown out she pulled out a bottle of Dynybyl (a cheap local gin brand), some random soda, and gave it to her. 'Where’s the umbrella?' my friend asked. Everyone around was drinking their beer, minding their own business, but my friend, she wanted her fucking umbrella. She didn’t get it. But she tried. You can’t blame her one bit."

"People change," says another respondent. "There was a time when people came to Holešovice as soon as Letná became too hip for them. Now, they have to go further, to Libeň. If there’s a new opening nearby, it’s more likely to be a ‘cool’ bistro than a pub. Take Home Kitchen, or Phil's Twenty7. All good places, nothing wrong about them, but the ethos… it’s vanishing."

"What’s wrong with your arm, dude?"

"You know Jankovcova st, right? Well, there’s a great pub near there. It’s called U Přístavu," says a local guy whom we contacted via Facebook; he then adds that he doesn’t exactly recommend it, given that a notorious Czech neo-fascist group shoot a promotional video there. "Overall, it’s not very safe," he adds. "This one time, we went there for a beer and saw some guys beating the shit out of each other, blood and all. But hey, there’s a nice old building right across the street."

"They sell crystal meth there."

U Přístavu, the aforementioned pub, is brimming with life. "Be careful," the guy warns us. "For example, there were times when some dude had a few too many and decided to go get high. Unfortunately, his girl didn’t like that, so they held a screaming contest across the road for an infinite number of minutes. Over there is a roundabout where local punks sometimes drink till the wee hours and then throw rubber balls on the road, in front of cars, in hope that children would go catch them. It can get rough around here, is what I’m saying."

Upon hearing this story, we of course went to the pub — and we weren’t disappointed. "I’m a nice guy now, I survived everything and I will behave from now on," an elderly guy quips; he looks like he could be around seventy, and of course, he’s supremely drunk. "The world is never gonna be normal again," he yells, grasping for another shot. Okay then.

At this point, our unit has to abandon the fruitful discussion about the semantics of racism in Russia, because the old man speaks at a volume that drowns every sound in the vicinity of a million miles. "Fuck you, bitch, I have to go to work!" he yells. "Fuck YOU, you don’t have a work, you’re gonna sleep under a tree if you continue to drink like that," his buddy replies. "Bullshit. Be quiet, and also, shut the fuck up," the first guy counters, as the syllogism of the situation reaches limits we thought unreachable.

It’s a fascinating place. Girl goes to a bathroom, and when she comes back, she says that there’s a man vigorously petting a dog for some reason. Alas, when Boy goes there to check, there’s no dog around; just a burly punker with a strict attitude. "You gon' drinkin'?" he asks, menacingly. "No, I’m going to piss," Boy replies. "OK. Shithead pussy."

We should probably mention here that our Dude had a crippled leg the whole time. Not that it would throw the punker off. "Whoa dude, you’re injured," he assumed, correctly. "What’s wrong with your arm, dude?"

Later on, we decide to skip the Salvation Army HQ and go see a riverbank. There’s a beautiful place hiding there, called Prazelenina – a community garden where you can get freshly brewed coffee, sit around a campfire, take a dip in the river or throw some zucchinis on the grill. (During summer season, that is.) This being the Czech Republic, you can (of course) have a beer as well; it’s being sold right from the trailer. Boy and Girl both agree that this should Prague’s ultimate dating spot, if your (potential) significant other likes to get “urban” and can talk about post-modernism.

Our last spot is called U Vody ("A Pub Near the Water"), where we were promised “a great party with topless women.” Well, when we came in, the most erotic thing around was a Katy Perry YouTube video playing; it lasted for about two minutes, until one of the patrons, a bone fide old-school Harley-Davidson-style rocker, shut it down and put some fucking AC/DC on.

This is the place where Boy and Girl end their journey, serenely. Dude, not so much. He wanted to drink some more, which had led him to U Tonyho, a non-stop dive bar with seriously cheap bear (27 CZK for a pint). "Oh yeah, it’s full of Neo-Nazis," he adds, hindering our spirit. Also, he wrote that in CAPS LOCK, but we simply couldn’t have the word “Nazi” spelled in caps in this article. Sorry.

The last time we hear about Dude that night is about an hour later, when we somehow — logically — ended up at Cross, the most famous place there is. This time, it was almost completely quiet, if you don’t count a party of middle-aged guys who were talking about sex metaphors and came up with "sliced-up kielbasa", which is disturbing on levels we find unimaginable.

It’s good to end your Holešovice trip at Cross, though. You’ll be pretty close to Letná, which gives you and option to bail out — if you want to. Lots of people don’t anymore, as they’re starting to realize that between the working class dirtiness and theatrical histrionics, there’s some serious potential lying there. We agree there is. Definitely.

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