Suburban Life in Prague: The Hidden Reality of Panel Housing Estate

I remember precisely when my brother told me that after he had finished school, he was going to move back to our hometown to find a job there. ‘It’s just temporary, so I’m moving to Felberka, he said. ‘Why Felberka?, I replied, and he gave me a surprised look. ‘I don’t have money to buy a nice flat downtown. Everybody in my situation moves to Felberka, he explained. It made perfect sense. Felberka is a ‘sídliště,’ and everywhere around the country there are thousands of places like that. I’ve known many people from them, some of them are in jail now, others are successful graduates, athletes or artists. Every sídliště is a small world in itself, a world where poverty meets talent, where opinions and life choices clash into one another with surprising intensity.

Jižní město (Southern Town), photo: Hynek Moravec, CC BY 3.0

Jižní město (Southern Town), photo: Hynek Moravec, CC BY 3.0

This happened in a small, forgettable Czech town, but the phenomenon of sídlišt’ is even stronger in Prague. Originally, the word meant just ‘a place where people live’ – an inhabited land, to be precise – but nowadays everyone knows that a sídliště is usually a small suburban complex of panel buildings (‘Paneláky’, sg. ‘panelák’), capable of housing hundreds, even thousands of people. A panel building, this architectonic highlight of Soviet-era legacy, is a defining feature here: absurdly big, gray, and somewhat depressing; it typically pierces the sky without the subtle elegance of a modern skyscraper. As the Communist regime tried to transform its moral standpoints into building more and more factories (or, most usually, mines), panel buildings flooded the country. Some cities were made entirely of them – Havířov or Most, for example, are actually both just one giant sídliště. To run a successful coal mining industry, you need a space to accommodate the workers, and nothing is more effective than stuffing them into a panel building.

If you’re staying in the center of Prague, this reality will remain mercifully hidden from you: the residential areas there are very old and objectively beautiful. But as soon as you take almost any tram / bus / metro and go to the final stop, you’ll see one. The stops even have the word Sídliště incorporated in their names. Granted, the overwhelming greyness is mostly gone now; in the 1990s, most Czech towns and cities got their panel buildings colorfully painted, so it looks a lot more livable now. But the sense still prevails. In Czech Republic, people often call those buildings ‘rabbit cages,’ which indicates how those who lived there usually felt: stuffed into a giant box like rabbits, each in their own room in a 10-story worker’s dorm.

Photo: Ondřej Koníček, CC BY-SA 3.0

Photo: Ondřej Koníček, CC BY-SA 3.0

Okay, I might be exaggerating a bit now. Certainly to live in a sídliště isn’t venomous, many students, young families or older people live there quite comfortably. It’s just that when talking about finding a flat to spend your life in, a place to have a family, one usually does not dream about a sídliště. After dark, a quick walk through one should be enough to gain the impression that somewhere there, right at that very moment, someone is getting stabbed. Well, that’s not true, at least not anymore. Prague’s sídlištěs are no more dangerous than any other part of the city. But the jump from one reality to another can be very persuasive.

The biggest sídlištěs of Prague are named after cardinal directions: Severní město (Northern Town), Jihozápadní město (South-Western Town) and Jižní město (Southern Town). That last one is particularly impressive with some 80,000 residents, it’s by far the largest sídliště in Czech Republic. Many people think of it as a separate city. If you think about it, 80,000 is a really big number in CZ. Jižní město, or ‘Jižák’ (as everyone calls it), is legendary. Did you know this is where Czech hip-hop was born? The very first Czech hip-hop track dates back to 1984 and is called ‘Jižák’ (written by Lesík Hajdovský & Manželé). Even today, there is a recording studio there (‘Studio Jižák’) that practically shapes the whole Prague hip-hop scene. If you want to experience Jižák’s atmosphere, take the red metro line (Line C) and go either to Chodov or Háje.

Sídliště Řepy, photo:  Aktron, PD

Sídliště Řepy, photo: Aktron, PD

Another sídliště worth visiting is definitely Zahradní město (Garden Town). No musical genre was born there, at least not to my knowledge, but the place is really interesting for a few other reasons. First, there are 1930-era villas amongst the panel buildings from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s; which renders it a great place for architects to experience. Second, every single street is named after a flower, bush or tree. With two main streets named Poplar Alley and Apple Tree Alley, Garden Town really lives up to its name.

Those two are not just suburbs – they are entire small cities, complete with schools, kindergartens, supermarkets, banks, shops, swimming pools, gyms, and everything else one needs to live a comfortable life. There are people who spent their entire lives there, and they wouldn’t leave if you paid them. The place is their home.

So if you have some spare time in Prague, consider stepping outside the comfort zone that is the center and visiting some of these places. They aren’t picturesque, sure, but in a sense, they can be truly magical. You can’t get a real taste of real living in the real city unless you go to the suburbs, and Prague suburbs are definitely worth it.

Author: Dominik Zezula

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