Strolling across the Charles Bridge or having a dinner under Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock is not something most locals would consider either fun or bearable.
Unless, it turns out, they do it in the middle of a pandemic. The restrictions on travel put in place because of the coronavirus have slashed the number of visitors to the Czech capital by more than 73% in 2020, according to the city’s official statistics. While disastrous for Prague’s economy, the tourist exodus was a revelation for many of its citizens who were suddenly able to reclaim their city and enjoy its beauty in a slower pace. Prague’s historical center became livable again — and its political and community leaders are trying to find a way to keep it that way even after the crowds of tourists return.
“All of these beautiful places suddenly reemerged,” said Matej Velek. “All the glitz, the cheap, tacky souvenirs and the flashing signs that try to lure you to spend money, all this stuff vanished incredibly quickly once the tourists disappeared.” Velek, Prague born and bred, belongs to a growing contingent of locals trying to revive the city’s many forgotten public spaces. He is one of the team behind Kasarna Karlin, part community meeting spot, part a beer garden with open air cinema, a playground and a cafe in an abandoned swimming pool. The venue occupies the huge courtyard of disused military barracks in Karlin, a neighborhood that was badly damaged during Prague’s devastating 2002 floods. The state-owned building had been deserted for years awaiting a possible renovation at some point in the future when Velek and his team managed to convince the authorities to allow a local nonprofit to use the venue for community and cultural purposes until the redevelopment starts. Ever since it opened in 2017, it became one of the neighborhood’s favorite spots. And while the complex has seen a lot of a bureaucratic back and forth involving various government departments in recent years, Kasarna Karlin has become something of a blueprint for community projects — so much so that representatives of other cities visit the venue to get the know how.