Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 35
24 May 1999

Andrew Stroehlein C E N T R A L   E U R O P E :
"A 400-year-old building in Central Europe can be as modern as the newest skyscraper in New York."
An interview with urban expert
Roberta Brandes Gratz

Andrew Stroehlein

Roberta Brandes Gratz is a journalist, lecturer and urban critic. She is best known for her examination of the modern city, its problems and its potential, which she explores in her books, The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way and Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown (both John Wiley & Sons). Though a native New Yorker, she has ventured to Central Europe on numerous occasions, not only to lecture about her concept of "urban husbandry" but also to conduct research into the region's cities. According to Gratz, American cities can learn much from Central Europe's solutions to universal urban challenges, an idea she has outlined in an essay entitled "Americans Want What Czechs Have." On a recent trip to Prague, Gratz took some time to elaborate on this idea with us.

Central Europe Review: Your idea for urban revitalisation through "urban husbandry" relies on a strong civic society and a strong sense of community involvement. It's been said by commentators in this country that that a strong civic society doesn't exist. How can you develop these sort of small-scale projects that you talk about without a sense of community involvement?

Roberta Brandes Gratz: It's a tricky question. I don't want to profess to have any answer to that. I think that a major distinction, however, in the Czech Republic is people are not dealing with the kind of torn apart physical fabric that we are in American society. The urban husbandry that I'm talking about is both social and physical repair and management of places. On that score, we've seen both good news and bad news in Central Eastern Europe. For reasons of recent history, the development here has been different. Where the Communists built pre-fab, apartment tower blocks or "new communities" - well, they’ve at least been built with some relation to major towns and cities. So, they pose a different kind of challenge than we see in America. In the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Central Eastern Europe, we see a physical landscape that functions in a really very classically efficient urban, functional way. Yes, it needs to be repaired, updated and modernized, but it needn't be replaced.

That's the challenge. Because the models that so many Iron Curtain countries look at are models where the replacement has been rather devastating. The challenge here is the kind of challenge I have written about: the Soho Syndrome, that is, the return to the traditional neighborhoods. In American cities places such as Soho have lead the way: Soho, New York has become universally well known. It is a totally modern , up-to-date, productive economically and a socially vibrant community. Yet, hardly a new building in it.

Over the past half century, an erroneous idea has emerged that progress and change means replacement. And that need not be true. Soho offers such a model.

Actually, as we conduct this interview, we are sitting in a building that is three or four hundred years old [Lidovy dum in Prague, ed.]. But it can be as modern as the newest skyscraper in New York. It does not have to be replaced in order to be modern. A city does not have to be demolished and replaced.

The other thing is that I think is fundamental in a lot of these issues and not often understood is that central to all of these issues the one connection to every single issue is transportation. Once you start to reshape the physical landscape for the car and you start unraveling that extraordinarily efficient network of public transport - it's like peeling away the layers of an onion. Sooner or later, you start loosing enough of the body so that what you have left is a core and no fruit.

Thus, it's not just about saving buildings, it's not about history and preservation and all of those very important issues. It's about how everything ties together.

I developed the term "urban husbandry" to try to give a new lens through which people can look at these issues and understand that it's how you manage the whole, not how you can deal with separate parts. There has to be a balance.

CER: The Soho example is interesting. One of the problems in Central Europe, as you know, is simply a lack of money, and renovation would certainly be in most cases cheaper than demolishing a building to erect a new one. But still, proper renovation, based on a Western standard, would be outside the price range of people here - except for a lucky few businesses. This is especially true in smaller towns, and once you get outside of Prague.

Roberta Brandes Gratz: The story of Soho - and of all of these neighborhoods - is that they were settled first by people without money - poor artists. Sometimes, they didn't even have heat and shelter. But piece by piece you can rebuild a place. An existing tram system can be rebuilt piece by piece. You can do tracks at one time. You can do signals at another time. You can replace the cars at another time. But a highway you have to build all at once. The important distinction here is that the pieces are in place to repair and rebuild.

In the United States we had a lot of pieces, but we tore it apart and threw it away under the mistaken notion that the car was going to be everything. That is the essential point. When you start transforming your society to the car, it begins to unravel that delicate fabric that holds society together.

Now, its very important to understand that I am not suggesting for one minute that people shouldn't own a car if they so desire. There is a difference between owning a car and a dependency on a car. One can own a car and use it by choice.

But you know as well as I do, that in America probably 90 percent of Americans have no choice. It's the car or nothing. Very few people live in communities as privileged as I do, in a city like New York, where I have no need for a car except to leave town.

CER: On a personal note, that is one of the main things I noticed when I first moved here. I lived in a very small town out in the countryside, and it is amazing to have given up the car and to not miss it. You really notice that you can do everything just with walking.

Roberta Brandes Gratz: It has been very interesting to me to encounter a number of Americans of the same mind over the course of the past couple of years that I've been travelling in Central Europe. I have met Americans who have discovered a whole new life without a car. Such a carless life was as alien to them as American life is alien to the Czechs.

I don't for one minute want to be put in a position of saying to anyone who has lived behind the Iron Curtain should now reject cars and pizzas and television. I welcome all of it.

Just don't think that it is the be all and end all of life. You can have superstores, but you don't have to have the formulaic development that comes with it - the big box encircled by parking. American communities are now resisting this shape of development, and the big chains have learned how to come in to a community and exist in the way that a traditional department store knows how to exist in an urban community. They exist as a part of a street, not as their own destination. Central Europe should accept nothing less.

CER: The new rich in this country, once they've reached a certain level of wealth, are determined to move out to any one of the small communities attached to Prague - places that used to be separate villages but have since been overtaken by this wave of newcomers. They want to live on a new residential estates with an acre of land, which is quite a lot in the Czech Republic. They want a garage. They are buying into a cliché of America, if you will, not buying into renovation. And all of the money they are paying for these places is money lost to inner-city renovation. They could theoretically spend their new-found millions on renovating a large apartment or villa close to the center of Prague in one of the other traditional neighborhoods. How should they be encouraged otherwise?

Roberta Brandes Gratz: I'm not sure that I care to convince them otherwise. If they want to live out of town, that is their choice. The important thing is, are those communities connected to the center by transit?

CER: Yes, but the new rich won't use public transport because for status reasons.

Roberta Brandes Gratz: Well, okay. That's their problem. Eventually they might. Or if there are two working parents and a teenage child, they are either going to need three cars, or one of them might use transit. There are two points.

Number one, they can live wherever they want. But you do not transform the landscape for their convenience. If they choose to drive a car, that is their choice. They cannot expect the rest of society to be sacrificed so that they can have a faster trip by car. Americans chose the car, and now they sit in traffic and steam. You make a choice, you live with the consequences.

Number two, make it equally desirable for people with the same income to live within the city. It should be as easy for a family to get a mortgage or a loan to purchase a home in that neighborhood as it might be out of town. Also, the schools and facilities in town should be as good as the ones out there. One-acre development is nuts for any kind of urban area.

Still, there are going to people who are going to want suburban life. But it shouldn't be easy for that to occur, and it should certainly be an expensive choice.

CER: One of the problems is that the very people who are moving and adopting this sort of lifestyle are some of the most influential in society. These are the decision-makers, unfortunately.

Roberta Brandes Gratz: That's a problem. Then they will force society to pay a very stiff price. The hidden cost of this kind of development is extraordinary. The car does not pay its way. Somebody else always has to pay the bill. If influential people are going to move out and take the money and ideas with them, the Czechs will have a real unraveling of what is now a very functional, admirably social and political landscape.

CER: Part of the "IKEA revolution" here, however, is driven by the same engine as the inhuman apartment-block culture seen under Communism. There is a new consumer boom, and the speed of change cannot be handled by the old structures.

Roberta Brandes Gratz: That may be true but you do not have to build the wrong new ones. Speed has nothing to do with it. You can build all sorts of structures. You can build two-family housing, four-family housing, and absorb many more people. Single-family housing is the stupidest way to absorb rapid change.

CER: But this new phase is yet another rapid change that catches a rather old, inefficient institution off guard.

Roberta Brandes Gratz: I do not know whether "new efficient" institutions respond any better. America built public housing as bad as the Communist apartment-block monstrosities in Eastern Europe. Yet, Americans have no excuse: we did it under the capitalists.

None of what is happening now in Central and Eastern Europe is inevitable. I think; instead, what is happening is developers are saying, "this is what the public wants, therefore this is what you have to let us build."

Baloney. Give them something different, and if it's new and better, they might like that too.

Interview conducted by

Andrew Stroehlein, 24 May 1999


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