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Romani residents of excluded locality in northern Czech Republic organize cleanup of its public spaces

17.4.2017 9:49
From Thursday 30 March to Saturday 1 April 2017 the locally-organized
From Thursday 30 March to Saturday 1 April 2017 the locally-organized "Předlice Cleanup" took place in the city of Ústí nad Labem, Czech Republic. (PHOTO: Jana Plavec)

From Thursday 30 March through Saturday, 1 April, the newly-created Amare Předlice ("Our Předlice") group held its "Úklid Předlic" (Předlice Cleanup) event in Ústí nad Labem, Czech Republic. The event was historically an important breakthrough for this community living in social exclusion and primarily for the locality itself, which has long been socially excluded.

The importance of this event is underlined by the fact that is not just a one-time event, but part of a long-term activation of local residents "from the grass roots". The group managed to reach agreement with the city to borrow a dumpster free of charge which was already full by noon on the Thursday, and therefore another was added that same afternoon.

The most intensive cleanup of the public spaces happened during Friday, and on Saturday afternoon people transitioned from that main activity to other community activities for local children, grilling food outdoors, and listening to live music performed by local musicians. The celebration of the successful cleanup was well-attended and lasted into the evening.

Just to say "We want to change this on our own"

The initiative to establish Amare Předlice arose at the beginning of February this year in reaction to the long-stagnant state of the locality, which is home to almost 2 000 inhabitants including families with pre-school and school-aged children. On its Facebook page, the group began to point out what the state of the public spaces was like there, as well as to the phenomenon of illegal dumping in the community involving toxic waste.

Families with children live adjacent to those illegal dumps for whom the public space was literally full of piles of waste and where there are no benches or other locations for spending free time outdoors. Viewed through eyes of a resident of a privileged city, that fact in and of itself produces interesting sights - volleyball practice happening across a rope strung between hot water pipes, somersaults practiced on seats taken from a couch, or "classic" football played in the street among the garbage cans.

In its manifesto, the group has declared that it will attempt collaboration with the city to find solutions for the situation by working with the local community through cultural and sports events. At the end of February and during the penultimate week of March this year, members of the group went for a walk with city bureaucrats and the vice-mayor of the municipal department under which Předlice falls, Karel Karika, through the public spaces and streets so they could spend time together observing the state of the disorder, including the neighborhood's invisible crosswalks and potholed pavement.

While the vast majority of the housing stock in the neighborhood is privately owned, the state of its public spaces and roads indicates long-term neglect of this quarter by the city administration. Veronika Kmetzová, in an interview about the initiative to beautify Předlice, has pointed out what the relationship is between local residents and public space:  "If you approach property as something that basically doesn't belong to you, then you have no need to care for it. However, once you realize that you have your housing in your own hands, you being to think differently. Moreover, if you take good care of it, then you bascially indirectly beautify your immediate surroundings, like the quarter itself, the street and the town."

The owners of the vast majority of local apartment buildings there have no interesting in cultivating the buildings themselves, as can be seen, for example, from the building next to the Nursery School on Marxova Street that recently collapsed, to say nothing of the public spaces of the quarter. The recently-begun negotiations with the city are bearing fruit, namely, maintenance of the public greenery around the central green spaces between Marxova and Prostřední Streets, as well as the presence of a Crime Prevention Assistant to help people cross the road where there are no crosswalks.

Sa Roma, the grandmother of Amare Předlice

Our joy over the fact that these activities are being led by the residents themselves is doubled by what we know of the background to them. Roughly two and a half years ago, a group of friends who were not indifferent to the fate of the locals brought inspiration to the city.

We visited the neighborhood to inspire and motivate the locals in their efforts to change the environment in which they live. By implementing activities, primarily for children, we wanted to nudge the eventual realization of other changes in the quarter, because we were well aware that child safety is a strong motivation for change and progress.

We did our best to base our activities on what is already available there, such as the church and the school space. We were not interested in creating a kind of backup space for the locals and then offering it to them to use.

Rather, the effort came from their side to motivate other locals to implement their own activities, and we worked with them on a community basis, playing not the main role, but a side role. Our role was that of their friends - we did not approach them with the motto "We have the solution for you", we did not disdain them, and we did not take a racist view of them.

It was clear to us that ideas for partial changes to the public space there had long been growing in the minds of the residents, and our task was to listen to them and support them in their efforts. First we organized events for them, and then we began to organize things together.

We weren't very organized ourselves, we weren't a social service, we were (and we are) primarily curious friends who come from a city that is privileged. After some time we informally named our group "Sa Roma".

We hoped that we would one day be able to look on while the locals made their own efforts to shift an environment that was dominated by lack of political interest and by prejudice. That time has now come.

Předlice is rising up. We wish them all a good wind for their journey to a better tomorrow of coexistence in a place that has already been written off by so many people.

Barbora Matysová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Předlice, úklid, Ústí nad Labem, vyloučená lokalita



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