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Sunday, March 1, 1992

Czechoslovakia on the Hudson

Mr. Zimmerman, who was a film producer in New York when he worte this article, is now a writer and historian specializing in science and the history of space exploration. No further reproduction of this article is allowed without written permission of the author.

The invitation from friends in Prague finally ended many years of procrastination. “Come! We will put you up, show you our country.” It was an offer I couldn’t turn down. I packed my bags, and off I went to the formerly Communist country of Czechoslovakia. What could be more different from New York City?

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, of all places, Czechoslovakia reminded me most of my hometown of New York.

The first night I stayed in Sazava, a small town 60 miles from Prague. My friend, nicknamed “Buffalo,” had an apartment in an abandoned monastery. Outside, the building was drab and appeared poorly maintained. Inside, the apartment was sophisticated and elegant, large enough with its high ceilings and wood floors for Buffalo to fix it up.

I suddenly felt as if I weren’t in Czechoslovakia, but in a renovated Manhattan loft! As in a loft, because the original architecture was intended for other purposes, Buffalo’s quarters were spacious and made for a nice apartment.

In the city of Brno, we walked along what once had been a major shopping avenue, then we turned into a side street to find the home of another of my hosts. The shopping avenue was quiet and mostly empty. Many storefronts were boarded up, and those that were open were doing little business. The side street was lined with the dilapidated facades of tenements. I kept thinking of the South Bronx and other poor areas of New York, where the shopping districts are abandoned, storefronts are covered, and the tenements are crumbling.

After hiking for several days in the backwoods of Moravia, we returned to the outskirts of Prague, where we stayed in the home of Denny, Hannah, and their three children. As with most buildings in Czechoslovakia, the outside was run-down. The Communists had subdivided the house into four small apartments, so Denny and Hannah’s two-bedroom apartment was cramped. Since they didn’t own the apartment, gained no benefit if they improved it, and paid a ridiculously low rent set by the government, they suffered things as they were, praying that the government might someday heed their requests for maintenance.

It was just like a typical Manhattan tenement! Rent control makes the building unprofitable, and neither the tenants nor the landlord performs any maintenance.

For two days I visited lovely Prague. The Vltava River winds its way through the city. On the east is the Oldtown Square; on the west is Prague Castle. Crossing the river is the Charles Bridge, a pedestrian walkway filled with vendors, performers, and tourists. This is the center of the city’s street life.

Statues of famous people line the stone railing on each side of the bridge. The statues are black with soot and dirt, but the Communist government, instead of cleaning them, painted the better-looking ones black so they would match.

Gee, I thought, just like New York. In the 1980s the city government painted fake window shades and plants on the bricked-up windows of abandoned buildings, trying to hide its failure to renovate these crumbling structures.

As we strolled through the city, thousands of people crowded the streets. Vendors and street performers were everywhere; the action went on late into the night. Yet most buildings were shut, and there were few bars, restaurants, or nightclubs. The entertainment and commerce were on the street.

I thought of the 2nd Avenue flea market in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the stores are often closed or abandoned, and the sidewalks stay crowded with hundreds of vendors. There is one difference: In New York you are accosted by people asking for change; in Prague you are accosted by people asking you to change money.

On my last day in Czechoslovakia we stopped off for a few hours in Plsen. Many buildings in the town center had been abandoned, apparently for a long time. Less than three blocks from the main square we saw several empty lots overgrown with trees. One empty building had holes in the roof and rusty scaffolding around it.

I had been told by Czechs that World War II damage still can be seen in some cities. I found this implausible, until I visited Plsen. If the empty lots and damaged buildings were not left over from World War II, they had been there for at least several decades.

I have seen such abandoned buildings in only one other place. You guessed it. In New York City valuable buildings are often left to decay, sometimes for decades.

Similarities and Differences

Not everything I saw in Czechoslovakia reminded me of New York. For example, it wasn’t easy to find a restaurant. In Prague we walked for almost 40 minutes to find a place to eat lunch. The restaurants were either full, too expensive, closed, or too far away.

Yet I was disturbed by what I found in common. The connecting thread is that real estate in both Czechoslovakia and New York is controlled by the government, either by regulation or direct ownership.

Why did Prague look like the East Village, with street vendors and boarded-up storefronts? Now that Czechs are free to start their own businesses, they are quick to do so. Unfortunately, the new government still controls all real estate, and so the only place to open a shop is on the sidewalk. In New York, licenses, regulations, and building codes raise the cost of real estate so much that a poor person can’t afford to set up shop legally. It’s easier to open a table and sell books.

Why do buildings in New York and Plsen remain unused for decades? The same laws, taxes, and regulations that discourage new businesses in New York have destroyed many old businesses. The city takes over the real estate, and we have the government as landlord, just as in a Communist country. And as in Czechoslovakia, the government cannot do the job. It would rather paint fake repairs than fix things.

And, finally, why did Czechoslovakian homes remind me of the living quarters New Yorkers have to deal with? New York has rent control, strict zoning laws, and complicated building codes. Czechoslovakia has total government ownership of real estate. Both remove freedom of choice from the citizenry, and both distort the real estate market. People have to improvise unorthodox ways to live, or tolerate miserable ones.

Hence, people move into unlikely places (a factory loft, an abandoned monastery), getting around government restrictions as best they can. Or, worse, they live in overcrowded apartments in badly maintained buildings because rent controls have created housing shortages.

There is, however, a major difference between Czechoslovakia and New York. In Czechoslovakia I sensed an enormous optimism and pride. These are people who know what was wrong with their society for the last 40 years, had no control over it until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, and now are freely working to bring about change. Slowly, they are returning the land to private hands.

Upon returning to New York, I realized that things are different here. Since the 1940s, the city has grown more and more socialistic. Even with municipal bankruptcies, a failed school system, unsafe and inefficient mass transit, stifling taxes, and a legal structure that strangles old and new businesses alike, there is still no Velvet Revolution in New York City. As I said to my Czech friends: “It seems we have both been cursed with a Communist government. You, however, haven’t been stupid enough to keep voting for it.”