Friday, May 31, 2013

It Gets Its Claws in You: Travelogue Prague (making my way away and back again)

Prague by Oskar Kokoschka

                "Prague doesn't let go.... This little mother has claws" Kafka. 

People interpret and translate Kafka's words in many ways.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez stayed up all night reading the Metamorphosis the first day he held a copy.  For many,  he helped define what a modern literature could be - even if he did want his unpublished manuscripts to be burned, a request his friend willfully disobeyed, in a move lauded by Borges and generations of fans.  It influenced movies, stories, and ways of looking at our century.


There is a certain ring to flying to Prague in May.    Spasms of uprisings, turmoil, tragedy, and occupations, followed by liberation, have characterized the modern - (1918, 38,45,48, 68, 89) - history of this place.   Many took place in May.   Watching the tumultuous events of 1989 on the television, reading it in newsprint, reminded me that history could sometimes shift toward progress, even it dips the other way more often than not.   Its been well over two decades since then.   Movements have ascended, and descended since then, but Prague still calls.  So, does that reminder that regular people can impact history. 

Velvet Revolution Prague 1989

Since watching those days of the Velvet Revolution, I wrote as much as I could about the revolution, studying Prague's police with Mr Liang at Vassar, tracing Prague's impact on history.  When the police sided with the people, revolution was bound to happen.  This was the lynchpin in 1989.  Shortly after the amicable divorce between the Check Republic and Slovakia, Yugoslavia failed to follow.  War raged in Europe after their splits and not-so-amicable divorces, with those hypothesizing about the "end of history" were proved bitterly wrong, as the ghosts of European history raged.  History is alive and pulsing here.  Capitalism was not  going to prove smooth after the short 20th Century from 1914-1989.  By 2000, the world would converge on the city for the IMF meetings and subsequent protests in 2000 as a new movement against capitalism took shape a decade after the of the Soviet control.

IMF Protests in Prague in September 2000, bottom the author with Ron Hayduk in IMF protests in Washington DC earlier in the year. 


In the years to follow, I joined the movements fighting the AIDS carnage and corporate globalization over the following decades, bringing kids into this world, just before the start of the Iraq War in 2003.  A decade later I was finally going to Prague.  Yet, it was hard to leave town to get there.  Days with the kids are just too hard to end.  Separation from New York's claws is never easy either... with teaching, grades, to complete, blogs to write, comic book stores to go to, burritos to enjoy, and rainy afternoons with the girls. 

adventures along the queens waterfront the day before I left
date night at 169 bar. pics by caroline shepard

Needless to say, I missed the flight out.   New York gets a hold of you and doesn’t let go, either.


Finally I caught the 9:30 PM flight to Dusseldorf  with a connection to Berlin a few hours later and the grand chaos started to envelop me.  Being lost in time  is just part of the process of traveling through the clouds, into the night over the ocean.   

Flying over I scribbled some notes in the back of a pad.  Waking up on flight, reading Scott Crow’s Black Flags and Windmills and Derek  Sayer’s  Prague: A Surrealist History, reflecting on the journey  to Prague –feeling a since of kinship spirit with the history, a kindred spirit with the feeling of freedom, of care for art, the Surrealists who rejected  Stalinism, worrying it would consume them.  Reflecting in anarchism, imaging it is the only way bureaucracy or crony capitalism,  enjoying letting go of self… in the plane but wondering  why I’m leaving but still going.  If not now, when will I go?  I missed the Velvet Revolution or Prague  Actions in 2000?  When will I have time if not now?   I’m so consumed with work or the stories of our Bacchanalian carnival if life experience… of dancing with Times Up!  or organizing, creating gardens, and fighting back against the pain and oblivion of our system of profit driven war and prisons and violence and foreclosure and jail and ethnic cleansing… And imagining where to go while trying to elude the inevitable violence of our system.  At Judson, we bear witness to it… fighting it… in Times Up! we attempt to defy it.  But the pain is still there.  But so is the map to another way to be.  With each ride, we sketch an ethnography of people’s resistance… from Passolini’s steps through Rome, through DuBord’s endless strolls through Paris, tracing an alternate routes of the streets of world cities , as a new dialectical urbanism takes shape.  

Before I leave Prague, I hope to see the street theater Monica describes, the subterranean Prague, of the surrealists, of Tomas Masaryk, of the Plastic People of the Universe, and their story of the collective liberation.    
Plastic People of the Universe « Shrine of Dreams

At 11:30 AM we landed in Dusseldorf in the rain.  There is still a contact high to walking out of the  airport in a new continent, seeing newspapers in other languages, hoping for a coffee, but being ok, in the daze of the middle of the night, middle of the day, in between feeling, catching a connection to Berlin where I hope to catch a train to Praha.  Caroline and I were texting.  Maybe I should take the train from there I wrote her.  Nah, just take the train from Prague she suggested.  It will be quicker.

First a bus, then a train to central station, where I bought tickets for the 4:48 train to Praha.  Waiting in line for a ticket, the ticket woman scolded me for not getting a ticket for my place  in line.  “Welcome to the fatherland,” Caroline texted back.  “Scolding are their way.”

Berlin always feels like the most awake of cities.  I first traveled here in 1991 the summer of the August Coup to oust Gorbachev.  Berlinners feared the soviets were going to roll in again.  You could feel  history in the very streets of the city. 
Soviet tanks moving in for the Coup.

Today, much of this drama feels absent from the streets of Berlin.  But they also feel open to graffiti, wheat posting, and art in ways often absent ours. The city is full of its invitations to participate in DIY Culture.  With an hour and a half before my train, I walked about… enjoying the sites of graffiti, an invitation to a party, a museum, some art, and the feeling of an open city awake in history. 

Anxious to get there on time and make it to Praha by 9:30 I jumped on the train at 4:30, ordered a beer, looked out the countryside, and started to feel on top of things.  What  I did not know was there was a 4:38 train to Munich going in the opposite direction, on which I was riding, instead of the 4:47 to Praha.

Laughing I texted Caroline. “Of for Christ sake.  Hope you got off.”   she advised.  By this point, the Germans were starting to feel sorry for me.  I was still sleep deprived and more than a little out of it.  The fun part of travelling is allowing things to just happen.  A lovely lady at the next station helped me with an itinerary to travel through Leipzig and then Dresden and then to Praha, arriving at 11:30 PM, provided I make all my connections.

So I waited around for my next connection, taking me to Leipzig, where I looked for my next connection, realizing I had gotten off one train station too early.  There was the Leipzig stop and then the Leipzig Hbf stop, I  was quick to learn.   I had gotten off one too early.   My next train was not for an hour. 

Texts started flowing in full of suggestions – get a car, go find Marc, our LA friend from the Journal of Aesthetics who lives there.  The comedy of errors and suggestions were many.

“Maybe you should have taken the train from Dusseldorf,” Caroline noted as I stood stranded at the Leipzig train station drinking a beer.  “The girls think its hysterical.  But we can’t understand how you got to Liepzig.” 

By the time I got to Dresden I had missed the train to Praha.  I would send up sleeping by the train somewhere between Dresden and Praha,  in a small town called Zittau, hoping to catch the 4:51 AM train to Liberec , then to Turnov and finally Praha at 8:34.  Birds chimed in throughout the night… as I read, thought and wondered about my life, lost on the train.  What about my life had brought me to this point, lost in my life, looking out into the woods, in ZIttau, texting my kids in the US, who thought the whole thing was hilarious.  And to an extent, so did I.  You never knew why a street or trip takes you where it takes you.  What book it brings along… Scott Crowe’s homage to disaster relief keep me up all night reading, especially when the pavement became too chilly to sleep on, or the anti homeless benches  kept me from stretching out. But the psychic energy of all the trains, of all the German trains traveling, up and down the country with unyielding efficiency, this started to wear on me, being stuck here.


The following morning I caught all my trains. 

Still it was ok to be lost in my life, in my story.  There was something poetic about losing my way on the way to the city where some many others had found their way to participate in Surrealist escapades. 


In 1926 Andre Breton came to Prague.

"I am very happy to be speaking today in a city outside of France which yesterday was still unknown to me, but which  of all the cities i had not visited, was by far the leave foreign to me. Prague with its legendary charms is, in fact, one of those cities that electively  pin down poetic thought which is always more or  less adrift in space.  Completely adrift  from the geographical, historical, and economic considerations that this city and its inhabitants   may lend themselves to, when viewed  from a distance, by the magic capital of old Europe.... By the very fact that [Prague]  carefully incubates  all the delights of the past for the imagination..... it seems to me that it would be less difficult for me to make myself understood in this corner of the world than any other...."

prague writers

Throughout the lovely train ride through the countryside, I reflected on the history of the region.  My mind trailed back to the late 1930’s as I looked the gorgeous Sudetenland Chamberlin was more than happy to allow the Nazi’s to annex without consequence, ushering in a disastrous period.  This area would suffer the longest occupation by the Nazis, 1939-45.

Arriving in Prague, I felt a warm kinship passing the statue of Good King Wenceslas, and the square I had seen full of throngs of the crowd two decades prior.  I thought of Havel, of being a kid reading Unbearable Lightness of Being, of the Prague 1968, when the Dubacek called for a “Socialism with a human face” only to watch the tanks roll in.  Twenty one years later, Havel brought him back to address the crowd chanting “Chechoslovakia!!!!”   All these memories, of my studies of the spasms of modernity - (1918, 38,45,48, 68, 89) of Prague, it call came flowing back, looking at the city with my own eyes for the very first time. 

images of prague spring 1968

My hotel was in the lovely Mala Strana  neighborhood.  Fortunately, my conference wasn’t for a few hours.  So I walked through the town, delighting in the cobble stones, the pubs, stores, cafes and poetry teeming from the streets.  Cities such as this with a “history as long and convoluted as Prague’s” they are far more than the bricks and mortar.  They are a testament to some idea, a reason people came here  through history.  “It is also a dream world of signs and symbols, memories, and desires, explains Derek  Sayer in Prague: A Surrealist History.  This is a space where Kafka walked, along side revolutionaries, bureaucrats, anarchists, and anti-Semites, where tanks rolled, history was make and  the glimpses of something both horrible and wonderful impacted what life would be, in between occupations, periods of independence, political shifts, revolutions, battles, and protests. Walking over the Manes Bridge, through Jan Palach Square, I looked up seeing an image of what looked like angels, reminders of Benjamin’s angels of history.   As Benjamin wrote in his Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History. 


But do we move forward with an arch of justice as MLK suggests we do?  This is never quite clear.  It certainly was not clear walking through the Jewish Cemetery, looking at the memories to those lost at the final solution of history.



The first night, Rob, my oldest buddy from college.  Back then, he used to drive the van of rugby players across Southern California.  Today, he writes and teaches at Exeter, we  stumbled upon a tavern on Ujezd, between our hotel and the conference site, which seemed to be designed by Salvidor Dali.  With a metallic worm seemingly crawling from the ceiling, a steel bust on the bar, and the scent of pot whiffing through the air, and absinth and bir in abundance, the place quickly became our go to spot.  We'd hang out at klub ujezd all week long.   

Another observer noted.


At the conference, folks from Australia to California, New York to South Africa, told stories, held workshops, drank coffee and wine, and shared approaches to global storytelling, method and practice.

“Take a look a three pictures of your choice.  Write down what they mean to you,” one instructor told us.  So I grabbed a picture of a college square, reminiscent of the square in Chariots of Fire, where they raced, scholarship and play, history and bodily experience  intermingling.  The pictures triggered a memory of hanging out with my grand mom before she passed three decades prior.

 “Identify a story about yourself and pick a pivotal moment in your life,” she instructed us.

“Spring 1983, I visited my grandparent’s house for a week. It was one of the last times before they left” I scribbled down.”

“Now  circle three words which resonate with you,” she told us. I circled “before they left” recalling the old song quote they used to put in high school yearbooks.  “Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes now is time for one of those goodbyes…” A flurry of feelings, a deep resonance of sadness, thinking of the gals, o f an aging father back home…. We all have those goodbyes. But they are part of the cycles of our lives, just hopefully not now.  Few of us are ever really completely friends with sister death.

In between conference days of stories, I walked to and from, visiting a book store over and over, drinking coffee from the same spots, the city started feeling more and more familiar.  I started to feel like I was in college again.  Rob and I hung out every night, talking writing, friends, history, marriage, chaos, love, literature and death. 

Walking over the Charles Bridge, we saw college huddling in the corners, sharing a bottle of wine, hanging out.  Two decades ago I was one of those kids.  Time passes but the art still lingers. 

Top Charles Bridge in winter.  Middle 17th-century-crucifixion-statue-on-charles-bridge-in-prague-czech-republich.  Bottom at night.

Rob suggested I visit the Kafka museum where I was left painfully aware of the fragile nature of creativity and our lives and cities.  “This narrow circle encompasses my whole life…” Kafka reflected, drawing a picture of Prague’s old town. Finishing the tour, I walked back over the Charles Bridge into the old city neighborhood which encircled him, seemingly suffocating him, leaving a psychological geography of pain and a portrait of a twentieth century psyche.  Walking through the labyrinthine streets, I got lost one last time on the trip, finding my way to the Mucha Museum of art nuveau. Walking back to the Square, someone was playing Mac the Knife and I thought of the throngs of college students who came here after the revolution, including Caroline, and my brother Will, walking through Wenceslas Square one more time. 

Old Town Square and the tanks rolling in to crush Prague Spring 1968.

Looking at the site where the tanks rolled in crushing the Prague Spring uprising of 1968, little did I know bulldozers were moving in on the Nothing Yet Garden we had created over the previous weeks in Williamburg, Brooklyn.  Instead of the tanks which crushed “socialism with a human face” bulldozers decimated our little garden, where we hoped to bring a little humanity to our capitalist city.

photo times up


·  On May 05, 2013, at 7:01p.m., Paula at 596 Acres said:

Housing Preservation and Development is the agency handling the Request for Proposals for this site as a housing development. You can try contacting Jack Hammer and asking for the best person to speak to about the "LPC Warehouse RFP" to get more information about when/whether the winning proposal will be announced. Jack Hammer: 212-863-8667

In addition, the community board may have information: (718) 389-0009

·  On May 23, 2013, at 10:03a.m., Richard at 596 Acres said:

Here's what's going on...

·  On May 23, 2013, at 11:36a.m., Richard at 596 Acres said:

And here's the Press Release from HPD

·  On May 23, 2013, at 11:42a.m., Paula at 596 Acres said:

·  On May 23, 2013, at 11:45a.m., Keegan said:

This morning at 7am the sanitation department showed up at the garden with a bulldozer and dump trucks. They said that HPD has asked them to "clean up the lot." Two reps from HPD were with them. When we arrived and tried to talk to them, they told us that we had "been sqautting just long enough," and to call the commissioner. They gave me the phone number we have called and left messages on numerous times, which is still not being answered or returning calls. They destroyed all the planters and benches rather than giving us a chance to move them, and even removed all the rocks we had organized as pathways.

·  On May 23, 2013, at 11:51a.m., keegan said:

thanks paula, i couldn't find it on their website

·  On May 23, 2013, at 4:22p.m., Rose said:

It's really too bad that none of the benches, planters and plant materials couldn't be salvaged and donated. Don't get discouraged everyone :) Stay positive.

·  On May 24, 2013, at 5:38p.m., Keegan said:

New development: HPD told us that where we were gardening is not part of the RFP recently won by NBDC. They told us that HPD is still in charge of it and would be the ones to say we can legally garden there. They said the only person who could make such a decision is Charlie Marcus. His number is 212-863-8961. We left a message. He has not yet returned our calls.



On May 22, 2013 HPD announced that North Brooklyn Development Corporation had won the RFP and would be developing the lot this year. After finding out about the RFP announcement, Time’s Up volunteers were eager to talk to North Brooklyn Development Corporation and find out if they would permit the garden until development started, or even include a garden in the plans, since the RFP requires open space. Instead, the next day at 7:00 A.M., the City’s Department of Sanitation destroyed the raised beds, picnic tables, benches, and stage, and bulldozed the garden. Volunteers called HPD on the spot. When HPD finally returned their calls, they were told that the lot was actually not part of the RFP, still belonged to HPD, and would remain vacant. HPD came in without any warning, destroyed valuable materials that the organization can never get back, and reversed hundreds of hours of hard work put into cleaning and beautifying this lot. If they would have just given us a reasonable amount of time, we would have moved the raised beds, tables, benches, stage, and beehive to another location.

Dozens of people approached the gardeners as the bulldozers demolished the lot, offering their condolences and support. “I’ve been watching you guys work on this from my office window, and it looked just great,” one person said. “It doesn’t make any sense, this lot was full of trash for 20 years and they never cleaned it up until you guys started gardening here.” If the garden had been destroyed by the developer who had bought the lot, the gardeners could have understood the impetus to clean the space, but we are all confused as to why the City spent its own money and resources destroying a project that had extensive community support and no complaints. Even though this garden was destroyed, at a huge loss of resources and volunteer efforts, Time’s Up will continue to struggle to create the open space that the community so desperately desires, both in this lot and others.


Bulldozing the space, the city worker confessed he felt like a Nazi, but he was just following orders.  History is really driven by these dialectical forces, increase, reduce,.  We fight for land, but ownership is illusory.  No one owns it.  Still battles over symbolic ownership churn through history. 

photo times up!

I’d make my train back to Berlin easily, catching some kids wheat pasting in the streets on my way to my hotel in Berlin, a city which feels like a friend, its train lines from the Tiergarden to the Zoo. 

  These days the circle of my life expands and expands from Prague to Berlin to the Lower East Side, to Vieques, California, Texas and Brooklyn, and back again, back over the bridge and back. It was hard leaving Prague once it got its claws in me.  But the trip was worth it.  So was the journey home, back to New York, to romp around from downtown to Washington Square and the Lower East Side once again. 


Picture outside Children's Magical Garden, where fences have gone up.
Photo by Peter Shapiro

Visiting my favorite gardens, many have fences in them now, as the city inserts its claims and claws.  The encroachment of the private into the public.  This is a global problem.   Increase, reduce, the dialectics of history offer an opportunity for another velvet revolution around the corner, if we can wait, be patient, persistent, creative, joyous, and industrious.


Why not asked members of nothing yet garden on Monday memorial day... back in their garden.