Learning from Prague, a UNESCO City of Literature

[Note: This post is a slightly modified version of “Learning from another UNESCO City of Literature,” Iowa City Press-Citizen (July 25, 2015), p. 11 A.]

For 5 days in mid-July I was in Prague, Czech Republic, taking a break from my City Council work by participating in a conference of the Association of European Schools of Planning. I want to share some of what I learned while there.

Presentations at the conference amply revealed that this is a difficult moment for Europeans and their planners. Ever since the fall of The Wall in 1989, they have been inspired by the dream of a unified Europe. But – now divided over how to respond to economic globalization, religious and ethnic differences, and stark inequities in the spatial distribution of wealth and risk – they see their dream evaporating before their eyes.

Consider the place of Greece in the European Union. One night during the conference I watched Greeks in Athens violently protesting the crippling austerity measures being imposed upon them by the European Bank and especially the German government. One keynote speaker at the conference described it and similar protests in pubic spaces as “the spectral return of the political in a post-democratic era,” and as a “reawakening of history.”

As these protests in Greece were unfolding, I spent one afternoon walking through the beautiful city of Prague with Katerina Bajo, an administrative official with Prague’s UNESCO City of Literature. I did so in my role as a member of our own City of Literature’s Board of Directors.

As the walk revealed, Prague is justly known for the beauty of its historic buildings, squares, and streetscapes. But it seemed to me that Prague’s success in attracting large numbers of tourists (myself included) has resulted in the city centre being turned over to tourists and shops that cater to them.

Enchanted by the beauty of the city and distracted by the siren song of tourist-oriented consumerism, one could easily forget the troubled but often inspiring history that produced the enchanting present day city.

On our walk Katerina guided me to a former home of Franz Kafka, renowned author of The Trial, The Metamorphosis, and The Castle. Each of these novels concerns individuals who find themselves in a nightmarishly impersonal and bureaucratic world. Dying in 1924, Kafka never lived to see the ethno-nationalist Nazi nightmare that led to the death of his three sisters and millions of other Jews during WW II.

Nor did he live through the Soviet years. Walking through Wenceslas Square, I recalled the moment when Soviet Army tanks rolled into the Square near the start of Philip Kaufman’s film version of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And I thought admiringly of playwright and former Czech President Vaclav Havel’s role in the Velvet Revolution that toppled communism in 1989.

On our walk, Katerina also took me to the site of one of Prague’s two famous “defenestrations.”

On May 13, 1618, two agents of the Hapsburg emperor were tossed from third floor windows in Prague Castle. Astonishingly, they survived the 70-foot fall. Catholics maintained the men were saved by angels or by the intercession of the Virgin Mary, who caught them, but later Protestant pamphleteers asserted that they survived due to falling onto a dung heap. This defenestration signaled the beginning of a revolt against the emperor, and marked one of the opening phases of the Thirty Years’ War.

Luckily, if any of us City Council members are defenestrated, we won’t have far to fall from our City Hall’s windows.

Not yet having been defenestrated, I could not help but wonder how we in Iowa City should respond to pressures similar to those currently being experienced in European cities. Shall we market our status as a City of Literature to attract tourists, and then watch our city become nothing more than a stage setting for the enactment of consumerism? Shall we passively accept austerity measures and then awaken to find our streets afire with violent protests?

No, I believe we need to build incrementally on our city’s authentic sense of place while also strengthening bonds of community among our diverse residents. And we should strive to become a Just City, a city that is good on the ground for all, both now and in the future.

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