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The Rocky Reality of Life in Vysočany and Hloubětín

Text: Photo: Libor Petrášek Styling: H&M

The yellow (B) line of Prague’s subway system is lined in a way that’s almost instinctive: around the central stations, stuff is happening, but the farther to the edges you go, the lesser the fun. That’s the popular opinion, anyway. There are denizens of Prague who’ve been living here for decades and still can’t tell all the stations in order. Well, to the good people of Vysočany and Hloubětín, this is largely a myth. For them, the area around this particular edge of the B line is downright eclectic.

Shortly after we picked these two neighborhoods as our next targets, we found out three things: A) quite a lot of people live there; B) every one of them sees the hood a bit differently; and C) all these views make sense, as Vysočany a Hloubětín are much more divided than you’d expect from a place on the city outskirts. It’s like going to a rock festival and find out that all the bands are playing at the same time. Thus, we picked four local guys — let’s call them Homie, Manager, Northerner and Blondy — and arrived in Vysočany by train, because yada yada concept.

The choice of transportation makes sense, though, given that the area lies between two train stations — and you might have heard of the first one. Praha-Libeň is a frequent stop on international routes (between Hamburg and Budapest), which is why the building actually fulfills basic criteria for this sort of thing, albeit it might look kinda like a post-Soviet mall. The second station, Praha-Vysočany, serves only local trains heading to Čakovice (or Kolín, if they’re fancy). This is of course much more romantic, so we decided to pick the Vysočany station.

It was a good choice. The building is picaresque and very oldschool. However, it is connected with the outside world via an underpass that looks ancient enough to remember the good old days of Franz Ferdinand (the Archduke, not the band, although we’d forgive you if you thought otherwise). Once you get out, a post-apocalyptic scenery welcomes you to Prague’s own District 9.

(The district of Vysočany is Prague 9. We feel like it’d be good to explain the joke here. Sorry.)

"Those are warehouses. One of them belongs to a company that sells metal detectors, you know. For people who are looking for metals," says Manager. "When you step inside, you feel like you’re in a 90’s Russian movie. You go through the underpass and keep saying to yourself: This is it. On the other side, there’s gotta be guys with rifles there. No one will even hear you scream."

He shakes his head, shivering, and turns the conversation to Exit-Us – a legendary music club that was closed years ago, which is a shame because, as Manager recalls, Rammstein parties used to take place there. A band in full Rammstein gear would play Rammstein all night long, and up to 150 people, also in full Rammstein gear, would take the Rammstein thing extremely seriously. There’s an urban legend about their singer, who allegedly set himself on fire while trying to out-Rammstein Rammstein, and by now the word Rammstein has lost all its meaning to you. You’re welcome. Rammstein.

Of course, we could just take the subway and get off at Kolbenova, one of the ergonomically smartest stations in Prague; that way, we’d probably start off the evening in a sauna, located inside the Step hotel, then head on for a Chinese dinner at Huang He (rumors say they make the best Kung Pao in town), then go for a nice drink. The problem is that there’s… not a lot of options to do the last phase of this plan. When we asked locals for tips, instead of chic bars, they talked about famous local fishmongers and stuff.

So, to make things easier, we met in a random café near the railway station and went on to Hospůdka Na Radnici. The journey began.

Vysočany MMA League & The Cuckoo Man & Vintage Drugs

"Well, there’s really not that much interesting pubs. Like… maybe four of them. And we’re sitting in one right now," says Homie. It’s workday, around 6 PM, and the place is absolutely packed — the majority of tables are already taken, which, as we are soon told, is the norm over here. Sometimes, Homie explains, you need to book your place a few days in advance. The reason? Hospůdka Na Radnici has good food and premium Pilsner beer. That might be standard in the center, but it sure as hell ain’t standard here.

The other pubs located around here have their own quirks: Restaurace Harfa is nicknamed MineCraft because of its pixelated logo, U Kocoura sometimes hosts random music gigs, and Pivárna U Klauna scores with a good selection of microbrews. But Na Radnici takes the crown when it comes to architectural eclecticism. The place itself looks like your garden variety old Czech beer pub, but it is attached to an old Town House building, which gives way to a modern mall called Fénix, which morphs into another mall, but from the Soviet era. It feels like you’ve just time-traveled through the last 200 years in under three seconds.

"Oh, and there used to be a nonstop bar here, called LiveSport Bar," Homie recalls. When we try to find out what was so special about this bar, the answer is pretty clear: "Fights. People would fight there a lot. There was a huge bouncer sitting in the corner at all times, but that didn’t matter. Somebody pissed somebody off and a fight ensued. The bouncer just told them to get the fuck out of the bar, so they fought outside on the pavement. The funny thing is that the bar had cameras installed outside, so we just sat there, drinking our beers, watching the fight in real time on TV. It was like Vysočany MMA League."

Homie lives in an apartment complex called Nová Harfa; if you arrive in Prague via Kolín, that’s the flock of geometrically arranged skyscrapers visible from the railroad. He bought his flat around ten years ago, when the construction works finished. According to him, to live there for ten years (ish) is an exceptionally long time.

"Yeah, not a lot of people live here this long," he shares. "Which also means that there are not a lot of people who actually give a crap around the public space. It’s not impossible, there are activists who really try to make Vysočany a better place to live, but the majority of people, they just kinda go here to sleep and leave in the morning."

"It’s usual for people to move in and out frequently. That’s why lots of interesting places had to shut down: there’s no stable clientele. Chances of surviving the first two years are rather low for cafés, bistros and the like. It’s hard to be proactive in this way because the buildings are bought up by developing companies that rarely give a shit," shrugs Homie. "And it’s not like the flats were cheap. The fluctuation of people is not driven by students. The majority of flats are nice and newly built… and the rest are homes of the workmen building them."

"Lots of residents took a mortgage and bought a flat here. That was my case, too. But I have stayed; the others usually rent the flats out," he explains. "And it took me several years to be really comfortable around here. At first glance, Vysočany look ugly: gray buildings, old factories, and not much else. I thought about getting the hell out. You know the feeling — you move to a place that feels totally alien, go for a beer and people stare at you, daring you to explain where did you come from. Or selling weed. Among themselves. They won’t let you in on the action."

"But then I started to wander aimlessly through the factories at Kolbenka — just me and a flashlight — and that was the turning point. There are interesting places, but you have to actively try to find them. They won’t greet you with open arms."

What Homie says fits in nicely with our own feeling, which is basically that Vysočany look like Prague’s Little Detroit. Everything is obtrusively big, and you can visualize how decades ago, those factories were all brimming with life. Now, they’re a ghost town. Where are all the people? "At home, watching TV," explains Homie. "Or shopping in the giant mall, Galerie Harfa. Or having babies. Lots of people here have babies… which will then grow up, and the family will pack their shit and move to the suburbs, and it kinda goes on and on like this."

"Yeah, the old working class people? They’re not here anymore. People I meet in the tram are generally young," he says. "Thirty-somethings who have money. A strange guy used to live here; he would make parrot noises. Were he a superhero, his name would be The Cuckoo Man. He had Tourette’s, but, like… some ornithological version of it, I don’t know. He was internalized here, in a mental institution, which is actually quite famous."

Blondy, who actually lives a few hundred meters away in Libeň, adds his two cents: "I knew a legendary drug dealer! He lived right here, in one of those fancy new buildings. He would throw parties at home — huge parties with DJs — and he also kept a collection of MDMA from 1998. He was insane. One time, he thought he had a bomb in his apartment, so he’d call firefighters and policemen… and when they arrived, they found out it was actually an air conditioner. Go figure. It was in the news. You know, standard stuff.

"Well, the police naturally found out his… secret stash he kept in the freezer. It was crazy. Tons of vintage drugs. And they were still working, too! I visited him a few times. The freezer was full of drugs. Nothing else, no food, just… drugs."

Rugby, flea markets, artists, punks

But what about cultural options? When we ask the ultimate question, the response is quiet at first. "Well, there’s a huge laser game park," says Homie after a while, and other answers are similarly unorthodox: the flea market at Elektra, a kart track, and a rugby field.

"But the flea market is really massive. You can get literally anything there, from safety pins to a human skulls. I saw one, with my own two eyeballs," swears Blondy. It’s the hugest flea market in Prague. Open only on weekends, it even has a special bus shuttle that brings people in.

"Yeah, that place is awesome. You know who sells there? Thieves, that’s who. They steal stuff all week and try to sell it during weekends," Manager explains. "There’s probably the world’s highest concentration of Casio boomboxes there. Also, there are guys who collect some shit their whole life and then find out that it’s worthless, so they try to sell it there, too. And the third type would be people who pick up random shit on the streets in hopes that hipsters are crazy enough to buy it ironically. Which, by the way, totally happens."

The local kart track is in full operation; you can go watch a race there, but, as Homie explains, "people from Nová Harfa don’t usually watch karts, let alone racing them." The rugby team, RC Praga, draws more attention. If only because their stadium is located so close to the apartment complex that you can hear them yell in your living room. Sometimes.

"You are chilling out at home, and suddenly, a terrifying primal scream," adds Homie. "So, naturally, you wanna see what’s that all about. You go check it out and find a rugby team practicing a few dozen meters over. Which is actually great fun. It’s cool to have a beer, watch a rugby game, chill… rugby is a great sport for watching. I don’t care about sports much, so for me, it’s definitely more fun than football."

Northerner, who lives further away in Hloubětín (next to the local castle), knows this firsthand, as he’s a RC Praga player himself. He started last autumn, because why not? It’s not like you had hundreds of options what to do in your spare time in Hloubětín.

"I went to my first training session," he recalls, "and saw a guy, more like a human skyscraper, and he was terrifying. I realized that was the coach. ‘This is your first time, so just look around’, he told me. Then, I realized that Praga is one of the best teams in Czech Republic, and thought to myself: What the fuck am I doing here? Then, the coach said: 'We’re gonna play a practice match. The cup semifinal is approaching."

"He told me I would be playing left wing. ‘What do I do?’ I asked, a little frightened, and he replied: 'Just sorta move around, it’ll be good.' It was not good. At first I thought, maybe it’s not that hard, you know? Maybe I’m a natural. Maybe this is the moment I’ll realize that I was born to be a rugby great. But then I caught the ball, looked around, and saw three overly excited giants rushing towards me, screaming at the top of their lungs. Take a guess how it went."

We are sitting in a hip café called Pragovka; its decor looks a lot like the new cafés and bistro you’d find in Karlín (DIY furniture, minimalist design, lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, walls made from glass, you know the drill). The catch is that Pragovka is not accessible from the street — you have to enter an abandoned industrial complex first. "This is the first café that really caught on here," says Homie. "Yeah, the locals don’t go out that much. Why would they do so when they have perfectly good coffee at home? There’s also Dadap, located right next to the station Praha-Libeň, but again: when you exit a train, do you stop for a nice warm cup? No, you don’t. You have stuff to deal with."

The industrial complex that houses Pragovka café is huge, and in the recent years, it gained recognition as the hotspot of Prague’s booming art and techno scene. There are really many, many, many, many, many, many smaller venues tucked inside. But the question is, how long will it last? Developing companies have big plans with the area, and they’re not exactly concerned with opinions of the alternative young: "They want functioning warehouses and office buildings here, not pop-up techno hubs."

To be honest, the developers aren’t the only problem when it comes to this sort of thing. The other one is noise. Althought Vysočany might look like a ghost town sometimes, people still live there, and they’re generally not happy with being put to sleep by a giant 118+ BPM kick drum in the middle of the night. That’s why Hala 70 had to shut down already; where a thousand of people once danced to Paul Kalkbrenner is now a car service. Of course, the warehouse party scene is still strong here, but problems emerge. On the other hand, ateliers, like Studio PRÁM, thrive here. Visual artists are generally much less noisy than Paul Kalkbrenner.

"Elektročas is a huge old company that makes clocks for the whole Czech Republic. I went to visit the factory once. It’s the only one around that’s still running," shares Homie. "And I’m telling you, that building didn’t change from the freakin' fifties. Old, rusty machines, cracked ceilings and walls… and in the middle of that, a group of workmen surprised that they face unemployment after 60 years of working here, all day, every day. It’s basically a museum of earlier lives. Go see it while it still stands. It’s not far from the Praha-Libeň station, the tram stop is Kabešova."

"When I went there, I spent half an hour just talking with the guard. He showed me old pictures, told me stories… it was clear that he’s just so lonely. There’s no one to talk to. In a few years' time, the place will be gone forever."

When we are talking about culture, we of course have to mention O2 Arena. Probably the most instantly recognizable structure in Vysočany, the ice hockey arena that also hosts big concerts and flashy events for thousands of spectators is often the commonest reason why people visit Vysočany in the first place. When we tried to find someone who’s been to the Arena’s skybox, a friend told us: "Yeah, this one time. The boss wanted to throw a team building session, but he simply couldn’t take us to the pub… no, we had to go see Kabát (a terrible Czech rock band). In O2 Arena. So he bought a skybox for the show. The Kabát show. In O2. Fucking. Arena."

"It was absurd. Catering everywhere like we’re at a Roman orgy, models just hanging around… I tried to talk to a few of them, but they didn’t care, because they’re used to people hitting on them. A colleague was eating a goulash, I was ignored by hot women, the singer of Kabát yelled some annoyingly loud chorus, and there were flames everywhere. Bizarre."

But what about when you wanted to go see a show, but preferably something less grandiose than the stuff playing at O2 Arena? The situation is not good. "There’s the Gong theater. But no cinema," summarizes Homie, sharply. "The only cinema around was me. I’d lend a projector, spread a bedsheet over a wall in some abandoned factory, and play movies there. But apart from that, nothing. It’s kind of a hot topic here."

So where are people meeting up when there’s no indie club, no cinema, and no guarantee that basically any place will stay in business for more than a few years? "At the train station," explains Homie. "Vysočany are big and vast, there’s nothing cozy, the public space is not suited for hanging out. So if you need to meet someone, you do it at Praha-Libeň. Or, sometimes, around the metro stations."

By the way, the Praha-Libeň station houses a legendary pub – it’s that kind of place where you can have a morning vodka shot and nobody will bat an eyelid. Should you somehow make it through the whole day there, head for Modrá Vopice (‘Blue Monkey’), Prague’s probably most famous punk music venue. And when we say punk, we don’t mean Blink-182; we mean dirty, drunk, dangerously off-tune, unabashedly aggressive DIY punk. Case in point: There’s a little festival there called Fecal Party (of course there is), and punkers often hand out the fliers right at the mall, in the hands of middle-aged ladies buying yogurts and salads. It’s almost poetic to see a flier talking about BRUTAL GRINDCORE FECAL NIGHT pinned right next to an ad for baby clothes.

"I know why they call it Blue Monkey. The walls are blue and the bartender is a monkey," said one of our friends; he was of course hammered as all hell, but still not as much as the drummer of the band that was about to play. Turns out it’s really hard to play drums when you’re so shitfaced you don’t know the difference between your hands and feet. The guy tried a few times, then gave up and fell asleep right there on his snare drum, while the rest of the band were still trying to hit their power chords in the right order.

Rokytka & Eliška & Šebestián & Russia

Homie and Blondy both live next to the crossroad at Balabenka, but each on a different side. It’s the dividing line between Libeň and Vysočany, a natural breaking point. "Nobody crosses Balabenka on foot. That’d be insane," says Blondy, and Homie agrees: "That’s right. I’m able to go on foot from the center all the way to Balabenka, but once I’m there, I take a tram. Just a stop or two, then I get off and continue walking again. It’s not a time issue… it’s just that it’s nearly impossible to walk through the crossroad."

So that leaves one last thing on our list — nature. Surprisingly, some places in Vysočany and Hloubětín are really quaint and green, like the small stream of Rokytka river that runs through the entire neighborhood. According to Manager, the banks of Rokytka provide lots of cool little hiding spots when you want some privacy for, uhm, making love to another person. Or yourself, if you’re into that sort of thing.

"Just a short time ago, a new pond was created right here at Vysočany," Homie breaks the sex-talk. "In the middle of an apartment building complex stood a bunch of abandoned little gardens. The homeless would live there for a while, but their huts were torn down… so wild rabbits moved in instead. Now, there’s a pond. But the construction is still not finished. For about three years now."

The wild rabbits are one of the less predictable constants of local life, along with the cherry tree garden in Hloubětín and a park in Podvinní that looks like an abandoned village while still being a stone throw away from Eliška, the highest residential building in Central Europe. And there are plans for more. "See that uppermost floor of Eliška? Yeah, that’s one huge flat. It’s so stupidly luxurious that at first, no-one would even rent it."

Our last stop, Vinárna u Šebestiána, might seem like a place to drink wine (what with being named ‘Vinárna’ and all), but according to the jovial waitress, people here usually just have beers. That is, if they manage to get inside — the double door that separates the pub from the outside world opens against itself, which might be conceptually avant-garde, but for drunk people trying to get in or out, it’s basically like that suicide booth from Futurama.

"Hey, I live at the Elektra station," Northerner summarizes. "Get off at Poděbradská – it’s a huge motorway. Walk a hundred meters and you’re basically in the middle of a small forest, right next to Rokytka. If anybody wants to be a hipster, my advice would be to screw Stromovka and go here. It’s beautiful, and it’s definitely not mainstream."

In Prague’s more central parts, when you want to buy stuff, you often go to the nearest Vietnamese shop. In Vysočany, not so much. "There’s one Vietnamese place, I recall, but that closes at 11 PM. And another one, which is open, like, once a month. I’ve been there like twice in the last five years, and that was just because I was so perplexed with it being open, it felt almost like winning a jackpot."

"When you need something during the night, you have to go to the gas station. That’s Vysočany’s version of drunk street food: sandwiches at gas stations. Over time, you can even make friends with the clerks. You go there, buy a beer, some sandwich, hang out a bit," says Homie, and according to Northerner, Hloubětín ain’t much different: "The nearest Vietnamese shop is a ten minute walk away. In the same building as Erotic City market and some random smelly pub. But they don’t have anything good in there, so it sucks anyway."

Homie finishes his part by highlighting that many of the residents are Russian, prompting you to learn some basic Russian basically without effort, since judging by what you overhear on the streets, Vysočany are almost bilingual. Northerner gets more philosophical: "Vysočany and Hloubětín are that magical kind of place that’s absolutely wrong in every aspect, yet somehow, you still feel good here."

"Just look around: there’s huge motorways, remains of old buildings, churches, bizarre Communist-era statues, luxurious new apartments, dirty pubs, a chapeau, Rokytka, wild animals running loose, supermarkets, gigantic empty warehouses… you simply can’t shoehorn something as eclectic as that into one or two characteristics. Picture an old-timey, Austrian-Hungarian restaurant, with massive wooden furniture and all. There’s one just like that, right at Poděbradská. Next to an ugly Soviet apartment complex. It’s weird, but in a good way."

"Will you have anything else?" the waitress at U Šebestiána disrupts our conversation; it is time to pack things up and go, given that we’re already way past closing time. “Last beers? Some shots?” "Oh please no, tomorrow is a normal workday," we wail, but the waitress has her priorities set straight: "So what? You’ll manage," and goes to the bar for last beers & some shots. Cool. For a neighborhood tucked away at the end of the Metro’s yellow line, Vysočany and Hloubětín are cool.

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