From underground bunkers to “Fire Mountain”: how Prague’s poorest have lived over the centuries

How did the working poor live in Prague during the Austro-Hungarian Empire? In the days of the democratic First Czechoslovak Republic? Under Communism? And what about the homeless of today? Two separate yet complementary exhibitions now at the City of Prague Museum take a novel approach to presenting the capital’s often forgotten, overlooked or unknown history of poverty and homelessness.

Photo: archive of City of Prague MuseumPhoto: archive of City of Prague Museum Tomáš Pospiszyl is an art historian and curator of the contemporary exhibit “Fire Mountain”, the result of a six-year research project by a former graffiti artist known as EPOS 257. In solidarity with the Prague homeless community that he documented, EPOS 257 prefers to remain anonymous. So, Mr Pospiszyl was kind enough to walk me through both the artist’s Fire Mountain exhibit and its historical counterpart, entitled “Poor Prague: People – Places – Institutions (1781-1948)”.

“I like very much that it is paired with a project authored by a contemporary young artist. It connects very well, I believe, because poor people lived in Prague not only in history, it’s something that we have to face today. Even it’s not as visible as it was in the past, it is here.”

The historical exhibition begins with 1781, the year that Emperor Joseph II issued the Serfdom Patent, an edict which aimed to abolish aspects of the traditional serfdom system in the Habsburg lands by establishing basic civil liberties for all. It traces the subsequent development of a host of institutions – orphanages, poor houses, debtors’ prisons, mental hospitals – over the centuries.

“These were initiatives of Emperor Joseph II, who actually started as a head of state to build policies about poor people. And also it is connected to an understanding of human rights that people do have a right to food, shelter, and healthcare.

“And all these things were connected with Joseph II, who we know from the film ‘Amadeus’ (by Miloš Forman) as this dumb emperor, but in fact he had this very nice side, as someone who wanted to reform and modernise the Austrian Empire.”

So, ‘too many notes’ – and too many poor people!

“Yes!”

The Poor Prague exhibition presents perspectives on the reality of poverty in the Czech capital mainly in the first half of the 20th century, depicting the survival strategies of the working poor and destitute, as well as now vanished places linked with poverty – such as makeshift colonies of single-room shacks.

Photo: archive of City of Prague MuseumPhoto: archive of City of Prague Museum “These colonies on the outskirts of Prague, where poor people lived, were built by them. Here we have a reconstruction of one such house, where we can see how spacious – or not spacious – it was. It’s really small, really tiny. But, for example, even today we can still find some remains of these quarters.”

“Some of these houses are still inhabited today, in Prague 4 and 5. The authorities are trying to demolish these buildings but this is something that has been going on for some 80 years. It was always a goal to get rid of this ‘shame of Prague’. But it’s still part of the organism of the city.”

We’re in a (reconstruction) of a two-by-three metre, windowless shack: this would house an entire family?

“Yes. A four-person family could live in such a space. And what I like about this part of the exhibition is it also shows the situation nowadays, where we can see a new apartment being offered by developers today that’s a little bit larger – but not much – and costs, I don’t know, maybe twenty years’ worth of my salary!

“So it’s an interesting parallel. Today, we don’t have the opportunity to build shacks for ourselves. We have to leave it to greedy developers to build them for us and sell them for these outrageous prices. As you can see from the floorplan, it’s not much bigger than where we are right now.”

“Quite often, these shacks or houses were built overnight, which was one of the ways to fight against the authorities – once they were erected, it was not as easy to make people leave them.”

Now this is particularly surprising – here we have a photo of an ‘underground flat’ in Vysočany from 1926…

“It’s totally bizarre. There’s nothing I can add to this! It almost looks like a bunker or (air raid) shelter.”

Arizona colony, photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public DomainArizona colony, photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Any idea how they came to get these exotic names – such as “Arizona” or “Mexico”?

“Well, quite often they were inspired by popular culture, by Western films.”

There’s one named “Eden” – or paradise – I suppose it’s a bit ironic?

“Not exactly. That was a place where there was a Luna Park with different rides and amusements and also a makeshift colony attached to it. For example, it was a place quite visited by the artistic avant-garde in the 1920s to explore popular culture, how people entertained themselves. So there were elements of ‘Eden’ and happiness of workers in the early 20th century.

“But you asked about the names ‘Arizona’ or ‘Mexico’ – this was also connected to the tramping (woodcraft) movement of the early 20th century. Some dwellings were built by soldiers from the World War I, and people’s romantic dreams were connected with the United States and American culture. That’s why they named them this way.”

Fire Mountain – the story of a homeless community in modern Prague

The artist known as EPOS 257 studied at The Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague and has long worked on theme related to the urban environment and iconography of the city. The Fire Mountain project stems in part due to his fascination with Prague’s periphery. But he has long focused on the life of the homeless, as exhibition curator Tomáš Pospiszyl explains.

“Epos 257 is originally a graffiti artist, someone who spent a lot of time in train yards and abandoned industrial buildings. These areas are quite often inhabited by homeless people, and he got less and less interested in graffiti and more interested in these people and their destinies.

“He’s been visiting, documenting this particular community of homeless people that’s been called ‘Fire Mountain’ for more than six years, and this exhibition is a result of his research. For the artist, it was very important that it was paired with the historical exhibition; that it shows that contemporary homeless people are not only a result of the post-industrial age but something that has its history and has only its new specificities in contemporary times.

“Fire Mountain was well hidden. We will see the situation through the photographs and maps in the exhibition, but in general, it is possible that homeless people are hiding. They are trying to find places where they will not be disturbed. Also, especially older homeless people live alone. They don’t like too much company. So Fire Mountain was a bit special in this case because it was a larger group of people that was changing a lot during the years of its existence. But it was relatively large.”

Are there any members of this homeless community who have given interviews to the media, or does pretty much everyone want to be anonymous?

“They would like to be anonymous. So would the artist – it’s a gesture of solidarity, somehow.”

Was it in any way difficult to get the museum to host this exhibition? Is it a bit outside of what they normally show here?

“Some people in the museum were a bit confused. They didn’t know why to show this – why to show something that is not historical, that is ugly, that is showing something we should be ashamed of. Which is exactly why the artist has taken up this subject.”

“It is outside of what they normally do, but there was strong support on the part of the director, and other people in the museum were also very interested – and they liked the combination with the historical exhibition [Poor Prague].

“But some people in the museum were a bit confused. They didn’t know why to show this – why to show something that is not historical, that is ugly, that is showing something we should be ashamed of. Which is exactly why the artist has taken up this subject.”

And how did Fire Mountain get its name?

Well, it’s a long story… One of the reasons it was called Fire Mountain is that ten years ago, the main source of income for homeless people was ‘mining’ copper. ‘Mining’ meaning collecting or stealing cables and burning off the plastics on the cable, which produces a lot of black smoke.

And here on the video, you can see how you can get the copper from the cables.

I see. So, the junkyards or recycling points wouldn’t take copper cable with the plastic casing still on it. And people came to this spot because they could burn it without being noticed?

“Without being noticed or it would take police or firefighters long enough to get there that they could finish the job. You cannot really do it in the centre of the city.”

Ok. So, now we’re looking at a quite a selection of cables of various sizes, as well as keys and locks, various household goods…

“And they are all in this big museum case reminiscent of some archaeological exposition or artefacts from some exotic foreign culture, but in fact they were all collected in Prague a few years ago. It’s a little bit misleading – or rather, it was rather the intention of EPOS 257 to place it in these museological connections.

“In fact, if you look at some of the artefacts shown, these are the bundles of copper how they are being sold to recycling places – and it truly looks like some kind of archaeological artefact; something that we could encounter in a historical museum.

“Some of them are connected with sources of income, but there are also objects connected with the personal and everyday lives of homeless people in Prague”

There are also half a dozen stuffed animals, other toys, half of a dollhouse… Were there children living there?

“No, but toys and stuffed animals are very visible if you visit a homeless colony or shelters. There are always some stuffed animals or toys, but they are owned by adult people. It shows maybe their dreams or traumas, and need for having a home – having a friend.”

And these other objects here – we’ve got some cutlery but also it looks like car parts, maybe…

'Fire Mountain', photo: archive of City of Prague Museum'Fire Mountain', photo: archive of City of Prague Museum “The artist and his collaborators from the homeless community truly used archaeological methods. They were actually exploring the fire pits in abandoned homeless colonies, and this is what they found. Different objects used in everyday life that also were lost. We can only wonder where they come from, what significance they may have.

“These two bottles from washing machine detergent… The one on the right is a makeshift washing machine. You put dirty underwear inside, a bit of soap in there, shake it. They you get clean underwear. And the one on the left is a makeshift toilet. When it’s too cold to leave your tent, you can use the bottle.

“But I have to say that the whole exhibition was prepared in collaboration with homeless people. They were also invited for the opening, so the artist was not trying to exploit them without them knowing what was going on.

“He not only collected different objects and materials, but also their stories – their histories – which are in quite an extensive way presented here at the exhibition as well.”

Also part of the Fire Mountain exhibition is a model of the development project that has emerged in the Prague neighbourhood of Třebešín, by the disused freight train station the homeless community was built up around.

Exhibition curator Tomáš Pospiszyl says there are plans to install at least temporarily a stone monument on the site made by one community member, into which he chiselled a simple statement of their existence.

“It’s was actually done by one of the homeless men, who used to work with stone. The artist took him to a quarry, the picked a stone and took it to Prague in a place where the Fire Mountain people live now. It’s a giant piece of stone. And on it is written: ‘Fire Mountain: We lived here. We are not here any longer. Farewell.’