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Street Names: II

Street Names: II

Posted: October 20, 1992

By Griffin, Maura

What's in a name? When it comes to Prague's streets, where you live depends on who's in power

Washington, D.C. has the right idea. They named all their streets after letters of the alphabet. Prague is different. As the city has emerged, been conquered, emerged victorious, been conquered again, and finally emerged as the capital of an independent state, the swirling events have been reflected in the names of the streets, squares, public gardens, bridges and subway stations. The latest changes, which are outlined here, may cause you to tear up your map in frustration. What's ahead? On January 1, the country splits and, no doubt, pro-Slovak street names will disappear in Prague and pro-Czech streets will vanish from Bratislava. So don't invest in an expensive atlas yet.

Where Do You Live? It Depends on the Year

1100-1850-Streets are built and named after marketplaces, handicrafts, local peculiarities (like Dlouha or 'long' street). Streets are seldom named after people, there aren't many streets to begin with, and names are changed rather slowly.

1897-Prague city council adopts a policy not to change original street names unless there is a strong reason to do so.

1918-Gleeful officials of the new Czechoslovak nation change street names to remove all traces of foreign rule.

1939-The Germans take not only the country, but its street names as well. Names like 'TK' ("TK') become commonplace.

1945-The Germans flee and the streets undergo a third transformation.

1948-Citizens have just enough time to memorize their mailing addresses when the communists come in and change names that celebrate 'capitalistic order' and replace them with names of 'the foremost fighters of the working class.'

1968-Angry Czechs tear down many road and street signs throughout Prague to confuse the Russians who have invaded their city. The same signs soon go up again, along with a few new ones.

1989-The relative calm is broken when the 1989 revolution drives out the communists. Signs bearing street names honoring communist functionaries are crossed out and pulled down, then names are officially changed.

1992-Streets that escaped immediate scrutiny after the revolution are renamed. Roman Rajaj, the secretary of the Topographic Commission of Prague warns, 'In a democracy, we will continue to change all the names of the streets that we are ashamed of. It might be a never-ending proposal.'

A Tale of One Street

The changing ideologies in Czechoslovakia have been tough on some streets. Take Vinohradska Street, which runs behind the National Museum. It was called Ricanska trida (the road to Ricany) until 1875; then Cernokostelecka (the road to Kostelec ) until 1884; Jungmannova (for a revered 19th-century scholar who compiled the first Czech-German dictionary) until 1920; Fochova (after a French marshall who was Allied supreme commander during World War I) until 1940; Schwerinova (after the capital of a region of Germany) until 1945, back to Fochova until 1946, then to Stalinova (after the communist leader) and, when Stalin fell out of favor, to Vinohradska (which means vineyards).

57,600 Kcs-estimated cost to change signs on all the streets being renamed

Who's Naming All These Streets?

Before 1989, whatever foreign regime was in power at the time had the power to change the street names. After the revolution, the city council decided to seek a kinder, gentler approach to naming streets and last year came up with rules that involve the everyday citizen.

A council of 16 residents, elected by Prague voters, take suggestions from citizens, political scientists, historians and linguists to decide which street names will be changed to what.

'In this second phase, we had 2,500 people writing in to suggest names,' says Roman Rataj, secretary of the Topographic Commission of Prague. 'We quickly realized that if we didn't have some control, we'd have 50 streets named after the same person.'

The council decided to return many of the street names to what they had been before the communists took over in 1948. So today's Prague echoes the Prague of the past, with old names such as Rybna (Fish Market), Uhelny (Coal Market), and Pasirska (Beltmaker) Streets being returned to their original locations.

Residents of to-be-changed streets are mailed the proposed name and invited to vote on whether to accept it. Most of the time, they agree to the change, Rataj says. Sometimes, however, there are problems. Rokossovskeho street in Prague 8-named for Konstantin Rokossovsky, the reputedly brutal Soviet marshal in charge of the suppression of Polish uprisings in 1956-was on the list of names to be changed. The council had suggested the name Hnezdenska to honor the Czech founder of the first religious town in Poland in the 11th century, but the residents vetoed the change, saying it would 'be too much trouble.'

One street, Slovenskeho narodniho povstani (Street of the Slovak National Uprising), is being debated for a change to Svatovitska (St. Vitus Street), which is its historical name, honoring the cathedral it approaches. Some in the council say that the uprising in 1944 was misrepresented by the communists to be in their favor, while the uprising was actually not pro-communist but anti-fascist. Some say that because the uprising represents something positive about the Czechs' attitude toward Slovaks, it should not be changed.

A major street in Prague slated to be named for former Czechoslovak president Eduard Benes was abruptly changed to Evropska. Benes, who was president when the Nazis overtook the country and again when the communists seized control, is regarded by some historians as a weak leader. So the people of Prague 6 did not want to rename the large street, formerly called Leninova, to honor him. 'It's a big road that goes all the way to the airport and the people consider it the gateway to Europe,' says Renata Leiplova of City Hall. 'They wanted to use Benes's name somewhere else.' Benes's name now graces an embankment in Prague 7, Nabr. Eduarda Benese.

Red Army Boulevard (Rude armady), a main thoroughfare in Prague 8, went through a long negotiation for a name change. The process ended in a compromise: one section has become Klapova, after Otakar Klapka, a Prague mayor who was executed by the Nazis in 1940. Another section honors Petr Zenkl, a former mayor of Prague who also served as cabinet minister and head of the National Socialist Party when the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948.

Most Czechs are happy to be rid of names honoring people they abhor. 'So many of the streets, the squares and the metro stops were named after communist bosses who had no other importance to the world outside that regime,' says Vladimir Dvorak, a physicist who lives in Prague 6. 'I'm happy I no longer have to see the names of communists.'

What are we doing with this stuff?

Many other symbols of communism also have been erased: Rudy vrch (Red Hill) has been changed to Strmy vrch (Steep Hill); Petiletky ulice (Street of the Five-Year Plan) has become Ceskoslovenskeho exilu (Czechoslovak Exiles Street) to honor those who left the country after 1948; namesti Sovetskych tankistu (Square of the Soviet Tank Drivers) is now namesti Kinskych, to honor a family of historic nobility who are now reclaiming castles and palaces in Czechoslovakia.

Some street names have been slightly altered to reflect a new sentiment. The street 7 listopadu (Nov. 7th Street) is now simply Listopadova (November Street), to remove the reference to the Russian Revolution and instead commemorate the November 1989 revolution.

By Griffin, Maura

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