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The Meticulously Planned Realism of Stodůlky

Text: Photo: Libor Petrášek Styling: H&M

"Does the metro go there?" For many people, this is the crucial factor when considering moving to a specific part of Prague. In Stodůlky, though, the question seems rather ironic. Public transport in Prague’s southwestern outskirts is the metro. There’s hardly anything else — while other city parts are connected mainly by tram (or bus) lines, Stodůlky alone swallow, like, 20% of the whole B (yellow) line.

It is strange, then, that we initially didn’t intend to write about Stodůlky at all. It is a giant area, yes, but it all kinda flies under the radar — for one, we’re talking about Prague’s 13th district, which is a number high enough to ensure no hipster cultural gentrification will reach there, at least not in foreseeable future. Furthermore, the whole “five metro stations” (yes, there’s five of them) thing doesn’t hit that hard when you realize that if you don’t live in Stodůlky, you just… don’t go there. There’s a yellow tail attached to Smíchov stretching westward, but lots of people can’t even name the stations. They could basically all be called Here be dragons.

Yet, 61 thousand people live there, between the Nové Butovice, Hůrka, Lužiny, Luka and Stodůlky stations. This is Prague’s single most populated neighborhood. If it were a separate city, it’d be ranked 15th in population in the whole country. It’d be bigger than Opava, Jihlava, or Karlovy Vary. If you do the math, it really does make sense to ensure all these people can get around.

Boy, the male half of our editorial unit, chose Luka as a starting point. It was a random choice. Banker, our local contact, advised us to try to walk through as many parts as possible — one of Stodůlky’s biggest attributes is its vastness, so we had to walk a lot to really experience it. At the Luka station, there’s a local dive bar (U Sama) and an adjacent pub (Srdcovka U Drsnejch) that looks a bit more upscale. Srdcovka also has its own smoking lounge, which seems like a legal grey area; you won’t get served there, but you can bring your drink with you, and the whole area is walled, roofed, and located right next to the pub.

While Srdcovka was filled with jovial patrons discussing the recent Champions League final, another place — a restaurant creatively called Bernard Pub – offered more family-friendly atmosphere. Banker (and Google Maps) told us it was located right next to a lake. It was. What Banker (and Google Maps) didn’t tell us, though, was that the lake is literally located in the middle of an avalanche of panel house buildings.

"Five metro stations is a lot, but it makes sense here. The population density in Stodůlky is really high," Banker explains. He’s been living here for seven years now. In the mid-eighties, the area of Stodůlky still comprised only of the original small village (complete with a church and everything) and huge, empty plains around it. Now, the area — also known as Southwestern Town — is filled with typically uniform (if nice and colorful) Soviet-style buildings. It’s one of the youngest panel house neighborhoods in Prague, parts of which were even built after the Revolution.

The old village now looks like it’s just waiting to be swallowed by its surroundings. That shouldn’t happen, though. The wildly ambitious vision of drowning everything in grey to create a Socialist residential utopia is gone.

Yasmina is a high school student who lives in Velká Ohrada, a small part of Stodůlky, with her mother. "I don’t have any friends there," she says. "When I tell somebody that I’m from Stodůlky, they usually say things like: What is that? Is that even in Prague? Poor thing!… etc. Or they don’t say anything and just look at me sadly. Don’t get me wrong, life here is good, not hectic at all — at Velká Ohrada, you can even feel the village-like vibe. Our neighbor has hens and a rooster!"

"People say that to live in Stodůlky must feel like visiting USSR again. I don’t think so. It’s really not that negative. Prokopské údolí (a huge natural park) is located nearby, as is Dalejské údolí. Both of those are really great hiking places. Kids play outside all the time."

Living la Vida Luka

Banker’s flat is located right in the heart of the panel jungle. However, he doesn’t believe that living in such a building would necessarily have to be less comfortable. "Yeah, there are hundreds of people living basically atop each other, but how exactly is that worse than the city where you meet crowds every time you go outside? It might feel like you’re gonna lose some privacy, but keep in mind how huge the whole neighborhood is. The buildings are massive, yes, but so is the space separating them. Stodůlky were built in an era when the architects and engineers actually cared for people’s well being."

"Look at any modern housing project — the buildings are mashed together, with little to no space between them. Of course, it’s partly because the property prices are spiraling out of control. But that’s what I call not enough privacy. At Lužiny, for example, there are big parks separating the panel houses, there’s a kindergarten, a maternity ward… good luck trying to find those in any new apartment complex."

Not that new development would not exist here. Au contraire — it pretty much started here. The most famous new complex is called Luka Living, if only because there are tons of ads for it scattered all over the metro stations. "They build constantly, you can totally buy a brand new flat here. But it’s pretty steep," says Banker, destroying the idea of acquiring affordable property in the city’s outskirts.

Girl, the female half of our editorial unit, lived here as well. Her flat was located at Slunečné náměstí (Sun Square). She spent a year there, before moving on to Dejvice. "It’s true that there’a lot of space in Stodůlky, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better place to live," she opines. "There’s no spontaneity. Everything’s meticulously planned, centralized, and anonymous. In Dejvice, you can walk the streets and see how they were built in a similar style, but still kept something unique in them. It doesn’t take 20 minutes to cross a city park. It doesn’t take a two-minute elevator ride to reach the upper stories in your building. All that means that people are, in a way, living closer to each other."

The relative anonymity of living in Stodůlky spills over to the online world, too – "There are some local online forums, but nothing interesting happens there," explains one of our respondents. We have located one of those, a Facebook group called Maminky Prahy 13 (Mums of Prague 13). Alas, the admins didn’t let us in, even after multiple tries.

It seems like Girl just doesn’t look like a mum from Prague 13. The fact that she’s not from Prague 13, and also not a mum, might have something to do with that.

Stodůlky were largely crafted as a whole, which means that although technically, the neighborhood spans several distinct city quarters, you won’t find much difference between them. There’s simply nothing that would be specific to, say, Hůrka, and didn’t exist a few miles away at Lužiny. "Local patriotism isn’t a thing here… you know, in the older, more historic quarters, there will always be people who tie their lives to them. But the modern Stodůlky is basically a bunch of new big buildings on a plain. Locals rarely have roots here."

"You’ll end up here eventually"

Just outside Stodůlky, in the quarter of Jinonice, there are two faculties of Prague’s Charles University. But as we reached out to the students in hope that they’d share something meaningful about local life, we quickly realized that most of them aren’t big fans of having to go to school that far away from the city center. The school itself is nice, but there’s simply nothing around that’d persuade students to stay here for longer than they absolutely have to.

Yet, the people of Stodůlky come from various backgrounds — adventurous twenty-somethings just aren’t one of them. "Lots of Russians live here," says Banker. "Lots of Vietnamese people, too. Lately I’ve heard people speaking languages that I’d expect to hear somewhere in Vinohrady, not here — languages like French or Italian. I think that as the living costs continue to skyrocket in Prague, more and more people will be pushed out to the suburbs. But it’s still tough. A flat in that building over there will still cost you like 4 million crowns."

"And that won’t change easily. Even if you live in a rented apartment, those rents will still rise, but your salary won’t. In the end… you’ll end up here eventually," he shrugs. At least freelance artists and students won’t be forced into a Sophie’s Choice situation wherein they’d have to decide between living in Stodůlky and not starving — they’ll starve in Stodůlky too. Talk about silver linings!

"What’s interesting is that there are virtually no ghettos in the outskirts. In Paris, a place like this would turn into a ghetto," says Dívka; Banker adds that this was a real concern once, which is why lots of people actually fled. But instead of lawlessness and poverty, Stodůlky were overtaken by lazily quiet atmosphere of a uniformed city-within-a-city.

The fall of the Eastern Bloc brought other problems, though: "During Soviet times, people would gather and clean up their neighborhood. But after the Revolution, they simply stopped doing that — nobody was forcing them to anymore, so why would they continue? Any kind of a communal activity was suddenly regarded as a sign of communism. Picking up trash? That’s what communists wanted us to! We don’t have to do that anymore! This attitude, of course, meant that the whole place deteriorated quickly. It’s only starting to get better now."

"I like it here, though," adds Banker. "I have a wife and child here, it’s calm and quiet, you can be in the center in 15 minutes." Should he change his job and transfer to Komerční Banka, he wouldn’t even have to go the city anymore — this bank has its headquarters right here in Stodůlky. Everything a young family needs is located nearby.

"There’s no industry, no big local employer. But new office buildings are being set up at Nové Butovice. It’s totally possible to work in a cubicle for some giant concern here."

When we tell Yasmina that one of our colleagues summarized Stodůlky in one sentence – "That’s really close to IKEA" – her eyes fill with joy. "Oh yeah! I’ve even thought about going to work for them. IKEA is like a real life Lego."

"But really, the fact that there’s an IKEA doesn’t really change your everyday life. How many times a year do you go there? It’s nice to know it’s around, but… Well, some people go there for lunch regularly, so I guess there’s that." Speaking of culinary adventures…

"There ain’t no hipsters here"

"If you don’t eat meat, you can’t help but feel somewhat ostracized here," says Dívka, as we try to order dinner in a conceptually adventurous pub called Bunkr (it’s conceptually adventurous because it really looks like a bunker). "Well, there are nice restaurants, like Gao Den. What I miss more is some diversity," adds Banker. "There’s very little ethnic restaurants. People from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Vietnam etc. live here, but they just… don’t do business here."

"I think it’s because most pubs and restaurants are concentrated around metro stations, which is where people usually meet. And you have to please everybody when you run an eatery at a metro station, so what will you specialize on? Mostly typical Czech food, yeah. If you opened a gluten-free vegan fast food stand there, nobody would go in. So, given the lack of choice, people usually buy they groceries and cook at home," he explains, adding that even places that might look diverse (like Pizzeria Dai Marinai) don’t go for it much. It’s simply not possible to create an illusion that you’re dining in an authentic Mediterranean trattoria while sitting in the middle of Prague 13.

That’s how life in Stodůlky generally works — people mind their own business. To meet random new people is not easy, because where? Even classic Czech pubs won’t survive here, because they require their patrons to socialize, which is just not how things are done around here. Thus, most pubs belong to a franchise: Kolkovna, The Pub, Potrefená Husa. There are some dive bars where you could theoretically play guitar and get soused on a sunny afternoon, but they’re mostly centered around metro stations (see restaurants, above).

"I think that some people treat those shady casinos you’ll find at every station as normal pubs," muses Banker; we’re sitting at a nice restaurant called Na Výsluní and Girl admits that while the place itself is kinda average, the patrons look fascinating: "Look how red this guy is! And that one is, like, violet-brown! Is it possible that Stodůlky can turn you into an eggplant?"

At K Zahrádkám, another restaurant with a big garden, they offer like hundred types of pickled Camembert (and the menu is written in Comic Sans, for good measure). We can’t help it — although details like that matter, all the restaurants still kinda look the same, feel the same, and offer little in a way of party potential. Another one, Pivovar Lužiny, has great microbrew, but the waiters will explain to you that closing time at 10 PM means that last orders go around at about 9:15 PM. Here, the curfew means that everything is tidy and empty. Can’t have noise after ten here. There are 60 thousand people trying to sleep.

The Great Dinner Dilemma is finally settled when Girl and Banker order some fried cheese — Banker then proceeds to sing praise about Stodůlky’s Central Park that goes through the entire neighborhood. "Well, there’s literally no point from which you won’t see a single panel house," he says, "but nevertheless, it’s still the heart of Stodůlky. Local communities meet there, local mothers do yoga there, you get the idea. There’s also a small lake here where post-Soviet people like to go fishing. There was even a Children’s Day party held in Russian. And if you want pure nature, Prokopské údolí is right around the corner."

Culturally speaking, Stodůlky — and this will come as no surprise to anyone who’s reading this article — don’t offer much past the typical local gatherings and extra-curricular activities for kids. MeetFactory is not far away, though.

"Oh, and, of course, KD Mlejn. That’s an important central point of local culture. But that’s it — no clubs, no indie venues, no contemporary art galleries, no arthouse cinemas, nothing. Not even warehouses where you could at least throw a makeshift techno party."

"The Czech Photo Centre at Nové Butovice is looking nice, though — and there’s a great sculpture by David Černý standing in front of it. It’s called Trifot. That’s a rare sight: Actual contemporary art in Stodůlky."

We ask whether there’s at least a hipster-style café – so far we’ve found at least one in every quarter, even in Braník. Banker’s answer is swift, dry, and persuasive: "There ain’t no hipsters here."

The situation is better for people who want to stay in shape. There’s a BMX track (built from the soil that gave way to the panel buildings), a mini-golf, a basketball court, and even an outdoor gym. Oh, and a skatepark at Lužiny. It’s not the best skatepark in town, but, we are told, it’s "surprisingly good."

To end our evening on a high note, we opt for a long hike through the neighborhood. The starting point is set at the lake in Central Park ("nobody ever swims there, just dogs and a few homeless people during summers"). Wild ducks fly above our heads, as red sunset mirrors in the windows of a giant panel building.

Velká Ohrada, Yasmina’s quarter, feels definitely tighter and more home-y. The buildings are shorter (five to seven stories), which is enough for Boy to call it “Stodůlky's own Palma de Mallorca” (he’d been drinking beer for hours by this point). This is the place where the annual Ohrada Fest takes place. A local pub called Sport Bar Fantazie looks way livelier than the sterile franchise restaurants, there’s a great water fountain, and a (somewhat) famous restaurant called Kastrol. It’s a nice neighborhood, structured kinda like a chess board, with lots of trees and a surprisingly well hidden little villa quarter located nearby.

That’s really a good way to end an article — or would be if Boy didn’t continue to smash his body against the ground, his flip-flops proving to be a poor choice for a hike in the dark. "There has to be a volcano here somewhere," Dívka looks around. "We’ve already passed a restaurant called Volcano, there’s a street named K Sopce (Towards the Volcano), and given how crooked and cracked the sidewalks are, I assume there’s some wild tectonic shit happening right under them."

After 10 PM, Stodůlky officially close. We’d like to have another beer, but there are no suitable options anymore.

"We’ve been walking for four straight kilometers and found nothing," Boy later laments to Yasmina who doesn’t look surprised: "It’s hard to even buy anything past 10 PM, let alone sit down and have a drink. Stodůlky go to sleep after sunset. The whole neighborhood just switches lights off and shuts down."

With nothing more to do, we head home. The closest metro station is Lužiny, with some interesting sculptures by Olbram Zoubek decorating the place. Banker was right — the trip back downtown is a short and quick one. But as soon as we step out in central Prague again, we feel like we’ve just landed in an entirely different city.

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