MotherJones JF93: Springtime in Prague

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Visitors to Prague just four years ago saw a city marked by beauty and calm; the striking preservation of ancient architecture, untouched by World War II; a window into the past, enhanced by the lack of western-style commerce.

Today Wenceslas Square rivals Times Square for pushy crowds and crass marketing. Billboards flash from the baroque roofs that line the stoic Old Town Square. Vendors hawk tacky souvenirs and Coca-Cola. Casinos and striptease shows vie with crystal shops for tourist dollars. Half the conversations are dominated by loud American English, and the city now supports three English-language newspapers. The cold war is over and, as George Bush liked to brag, we won.

Small wonder, then, that postcommunist Prague has become a magnet for Americans. Cheap food and rent, a low police profile, and a populace that loves American pop culture make the city a natural destination for hustling capitalists, impoverished students, and adventurers. Locals call the American kids “Recessionists.”

“It’s definitely getting more crowded with Americans all the time,” says Prague Post reporter Ross Larsen, himself a recent arrival. “It’s infested with them. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an American.” The Post’s editor, Alan Levy, proudly takes credit. “We are living in the Left Bank of the nineties,” Levy wrote across the front page over a year ago. “Prague is Second Chance City. Future Hemingways and Fitzgeralds, Audens and Isherwoods, Boswells and Shirers will chronicle our course.”

Maybe. But like many of the Americans setting up shop in Prague, Montanan John Bruce Shoemaker sees dollars, not culture, from the dance floor of his thriving nightclub Ubiquity.

“The East is like the Wild West,” he says. “Look who’s coming through. They’re mostly twenty-one years old with Daddy’s money, get upset when their knapsack is ripped off, and go home. I know very few people who have produced. I’d say on the whole, not much gets done.”

As long as the living is cheap and easy, refugees from the recession will keep coming. It’ll be a few more post-Velvet Revolution years, though, before it’s clear if the Yankee influx is a productive influence, or just hastens Prague’s slide toward becoming a tawdry Eastern European version of Amsterdam.

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