Karel Karika: Czech children's comics were inspired by what is today a socially excluded neighborhood
Karel Karika was born in 1960 in Ústí nad Labem, where he has lived and worked his entire life. He graduated from the Secondary Technical School in Teplice.
Since 1988 he has been in the business of selling aquariums. Since the end of the 1980s he has actively been interested in the public affairs of his home town and is involved in many local civic activities.
Currently Karika is serving as vice-mayor of the central municipal departmen of Ústí nad Labem and is a member of the Committee for National Minorities of the Ústecký Regional Assembly on behalf of the JsmePRO!kraj movement ("We're for the Region!") and for a fourth year in a row is serving as an opposition member of the municipal department's audit committee. He is a co-founder of the Ústí against Gambling Initiative and "We Don't Want Neo-Nazis in Ústí" and a vice-chair of the civic association "Rodina spolu" (Family Together).
I met with Karel Karika in the office where he is currently working as vice-mayor. In addition to holding public office, he is also a donor to the Romea scholarship program that supports Romani students.
Even though my questions were aimed at an issue that concerns many other areas of the Czech Republic, our interview especially revolved around the much-discussed Předlice quarter. It's no surprise: Karika has a great interest in changing the locality for the better and it is apparent how much he cares about local residents.
He even asserts that he has a plan to transform the site into a recreational area - how? He discussed that while describing his other monumental plans.
Q: What is the situation like at this moment with housing in Ústí nad Labem?
A: Because the cities in this country during the 1990s got rid of almost all of the apartment stock that they owned, the housing situation has generally become bad. Ústí nad Labem currently has 127 apartments available that are owned by the city. All are occupied and have the status of social apartments, even though they don't function according to those rules, because they are occupied b people who have, in my opinion, the money to afford better housing but who find it more advantageous to live in a municipal unit. We will adopt new measures soon with respect to the social housing law, according to which 5 % of all units should be owned by the city's housing fund.
Q: You are preparing for the social housing law. What measures will you have to adopt, as a city?
A: We are thoroughly preparing ourselves for this. In my role as vice-mayor I am connecting with reliable entrepreneurs who are repairing buildings, for example, in the Předlice quarter to support social housing that will be sustainable for 20 years, and the apartment units will be of a quality that people will be able to live there with dignity. We want to conclude contracts with those entrepreneurs so we, as the municipality, can use those units and move people who need the housing into them under that law.
Q: What kinds of problems is Předlice currently facing?
A: The biggest problem is that of racketeers and speculators, the so-called "traffickers in poverty" who lease to tenants for high rents that are then covered by the state. They loan these people money at usurious rates, such as up to 100 % intrest. It's basically a spiral of poverty from which there is no way out. In such cases the state should intervene, or indirectly, the municipality.
Q: In what way should the state, in your opinion, resolve this situation?
A: Community centers should be created in the socially excluded localities. In Předlice there is just one organization, People in Need (Člověk v tísni), doing excellent work, but their target is group is just children up to the age of 15, while what we need is to work with adults and motivate them to change their lifestyle. We need, for example, courses in financial literacy, to familiarize these people with the opportunities for debt relief, etc. That is precisely what the community centers we are lacking would address, they are very necessary.
Q: What concrete steps are you taking to change Předlice?
A: When I took office two years ago, I declared that the locality would become a recreation zone within a few years. My assertion sparked a lot of derision, hatred and hype. Despite that, I am doing my best to keep that promise: We had a children's playground built, we have created a park out of a big landfill area, and we are planning to repair the sidewalks. All of the apartment buildings that were ready for demolition used to be in the hands of collections agents and were dangerous to their residents, but we didn't have anybody with whom we could discuss repairing them. Despite that, we have succeeded in achieving the result that the buildings have all been sold and now have specific owners with whom we can now make agreements and even levy fines against if necessary. Naturally, some of the buildings have been bought up by speculators, but in most cases they are owned by individuals who are repairing them and putting them in order. The situation has changed from the ground up.
Q: How are the residents of Předlice responding to the changes?
A: It's difficult to answer that question. The long-time residents who have basically lived there all their lives don't believe much in such changes, because nobody has ever taken any interest in Předlice, to say nothing of investing into it. Now somebody is coming and beginning to completely change it, and they take it as a kind of populism - I'm not surprised. They will have to discover for themselves that we actually want to aid them. Some already comprehend this, for which I am immeasurably glad. Now we have a plan for transforming Předlice into a significant cultural site: We are planning to build the Jaroslav Foglar Museum there. The main intention is to transform the disadvantages of this place into advantages and turn it into a site of attractions for locals and tourists, something to discover. Almost nobody knows that Zdeněk Foglar, the brother of Czech children's author Jaroslav Foglar, was born there and lived there from 1914-1917. I can demonstrate that the author of "Rychlé šípy" [Translator's Note: "Fast Arrows" - the name of a group of boys in a children's comic book series that was later turned into a film and television programming] drew his inspiration for that series from living in Ústí nad Labem.
Q: Do you already have an idea for how, concretely, you will achieve implementation of your plans?
A: Financially the project will be guaranteed by the city, with the aid of state subsidy supports. The local residents will provide the labor for repairing and maintaining the environment. They can also produce mementos and souvenirs for tourists, who might then, in collaboration with People in Need, sell them. For the local residents it would mean turning a profit as well. Schools and universities from all over the Czech Repulbic could be involved in the visual revival of the locality through art projects.
Q: Is it already clear what the starting point is for the hiking trail?
A: The beginning of the hiking trail will be at the "entrance gate to Předlice". There will be a map of the entire trail painted on the walls of the underpass, and the route will lead down Panská–Klišská–Okružní Streets. Along the length of Klišská Street visitors will be able to follow a story drawn onto the concrete fence. From there the route will continue down Průmyslová-Tovární-Majakovského-Prostřední Streets to the home of Jaroslav Foglar. Twenty meters beyond that we would reach the museum with its own entryway (from the Primary School), the church where the character Jan Tleskač fell from the bell tower, a memorial to the Tleskač flying bicycle, and finally the wine bar "U Rychlých šípů" (At the Fast Arrows), which will be located in the original catacombs.
Q: I'm changing the subject a bit here, but do local people trust you? Do they come to you about their problems, do they confide in you?
A: Yes, people have begun to come to me who have various problems. I do my best to aid them if it's in my power, but this just highlights that what is lacking here is a municipal integration adviser or just anybody in whom these people could confide. That brings me back to the topic of community centers, these are lacking in the Czech Republic, and without them integration cannot happen, integration here basically never actually ever began. We are also lacking jobs and transparent housing.
Q: Do you believe your failure in the recent elections can be connected with how you are taking care of Předlice?
A: I do not believe that was the reason I lost. No, it's simpler: Today, people of average and below-average intelligence are letting themselves be influenced by populist slogans. If the Romani residents of the Ústecký Region would vote, I believe our party would have won the elections. [laughs]. Overall I regret that even the people I have been doing my best to impact for the last two years didn't vote. I got Romani residents onto all of the electoral commissions so they wouldn't feel inferior. I do not blame them, though, for the time being we haven't worked with them enough and it takes time for them to comprehend the importance of elections. Ultimately they will get it, of that I am convinced.
First published in the November 2016 edition of the monthly Romano voďi. You can order a copy (in Czech only) through the simple online form at www.romanovodi.cz.
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