This project aims at recollecting and preserving knowledge about the life of a community of inhabitants of three prefabricated apartment blocks (paneláky) at the U Opavice street on the outskirts of a medium-sized Czech city of Opava. I (Iveta) myself was born and raised there.
The neighborhood consists of three eight-story apartment blocks, built in the mid 1960s for the Housing Cooperative of the Employees of Minerva in Opava. As the name of the coop indicates, employees of the Minerva plant (a local producer of industrial valves) were the primary intended occupants. Some surplus flats were allocated also to the employees of another local industrial engineering plant called Ostroj. Eventually, the U Opavice 2-4 paneláky residents consisted of people of a variety of professions, including coal miners and teachers, as well as manual and technical workers employed in the above mentioned two plants.
My own memories of childhood spent in my family’s flat on the top story of the apartment block at U Opavice 4, and especially my memories of playing outdoors in the vicinity of our paneláky, are quite positive. The conversations comprising this interview project suggest that I am not alone in that recollection. The positive assessments prevail despite the fact that the flats were small and crowded, the walls paper thin, privacy limited, hot water initially available only three times a week, the lift often unreliable, electricity was occasionally turned off, and when there was a shortage of coal the apartments could be cold in the winter. Browsing around the internet, one can see that positive assessments of lives in paneláky have been increasing in recent years. But traditionally prefab apartment blocks (paneláky) have been associated with uniformity and monotony, and their drab image has been used to buttress the stereotype of the socialist Eastern European life as grey, anonymous and lamentable. Contrary to the stereotype, the U Opavice paneláky coop managed to create quite a strong sense of community and belonging among its residents, which persists to this day and continues to be actively nurtured.
Many of the current residents of the U Opavice paneláky community have lived here since when the apartment buildings were first built in the sixties, and their active participation in that process of construction first grounded and connected them to this place. Interviews that I, accompanied by photographer Jindřich Štreit, conducted with the U Opavice 2-4 inhabitants in July and August of 2018, suggest that my mostly positive recollections are shared by most of the remaining original residents. What the interviews show as well is the amount of work on the part of the coop leaders and members that buttresses these memories and the amount of effort that went into the creation of the pleasant environment here that locals so often comment upon.
Most of the interviewees featured here are either current or former U Opavice 2-4 paneláky residents, including the long-time head of the U Opavice self-governing coop unit Vojtěch Kostka. I also conducted an interview with Jan Hampel, the current head of the SBD Stavbař housing cooperative (of which the U Opavice unit is a member), as well as with Jarmila Smolková, the owner of a neighboring family house at U Střelnice street. In the 1960s, Mrs. Smolková’s parents – through their (forced) ceding and sale of a portion of their backyard – contributed to the space needed for the construction of the three U Opavice apartment blocks.
Overall, three generations of the current paneláky residents were interviewed for the project. Of them, Gerlinda Frajzová, born in 1932 and today in her mid-eighties, is an eye-witness to the longest stretch of local history. Although she moved into her current U Opavice 2 flat only in the 1980s, Mrs. Frajzová was born and spent her entire life in this neighborhood. Born when Opava, at the time still known as Troppau, was German, she recalls such events as the Nazi persecution of the local Jewish population, air raids and air-raid shelters, the arrival of the Red army, as well as the post-WWII expulsion of the German population from the region. Mr. Hampel, the head of the SBD Stavbař cooperative, similarly recalls the town from during and after WWII, the shelled buildings, and the post-war shortage of livable housing.
The majority of the interviewees belong to the first generation of the U Opavice coop members. They moved here in the mid-1960s, and today they are in their seventies or eighties. Most of the residents today of the three paneláky belong to this oldest generation. This group is represented in the interviews by Jiřina Mainušová, Barbora Premusová and Karel Premus, Maria Korbelová, Marie Kocurová, Renata Kubánková and Bohumil Kubánek, Věra and Josef Pavelek, Vojtěch Kostka, Libuše Masaříková and Mirek Masařík, Věra Beinhauerová, and Zdeňka Jusová and Jan Jusa.
The second generation of local residents, today mostly in their fifties, is represented in the project by Pavel Lyko, Pavlína Granzerová (born Korbelová), Zbyněk Štěrba, Jolana Kozáková and Luboš Kozák, Pavlína Newerlová, myself, and Arnold Kostka and Eva Kostková. Pavel, Pavlína, Zbyněk and myself were raised at the U Opavice paneláky, and Pavel Lyko even recalls the construction of the apartment blocks, as he and his parents lived in the nearby older apartment building at U Střelnice 18-20 at the time. Pavel’s late father Karel Lyko was one of the founders of the housing coop Minerva and the coop’s first head.
Tereza Bočková and Lenka Štrohalmová are the youngest interviewees in this project. Both of the women are in their early twenties and both are currently on a parental leave with small children (Jonáš and Katka). They moved into their apartments U Opavice 4 fairly recently with their husbands.
As calculated by Zdeňka Jusová (my mother), over sixty children were born and raised, to some extent collectively, at the three U Opavice paneláky from the mid-1960s throughout the 1980s (when the numbers of new children declined with the increasing age of the residents). What do they and their parents remember the most? How do the U Opavice coop members remember the beginnings of the community? Reflecting back, how do they assess the quality of living at the U Opavice paneláky? What are the advantages and what are the disadvantages of living in a panelák flat? Did they manage to create a sense of belonging to this place? How was a community-building organized before 1989 and what are some challenges of community building today?
All of the project participants spoke highly of the U Opavice paneláky surroundings, which the residents consider ideal for a peaceful living. The river Opava figured especially prominently in the interviews, and many interviewees, particularly the older generation, recalled swimming in the river in the summer and skating on its frozen surface in the winter. Eva and Arnold Kostka, for instance, used to spend their summer afternoons lounging on the banks of Opavice (as the river Opava is nicknamed by the locals), and they were not the only ones. Mr. Kostka recalls how their neighbor and friend Mr. Baránek used to join them after work, often bringing coffee for them on a tray. The river banks are regulated, but in 1997 Opava spilled out of its banks and flooded the U Opavice garages and cellars, an event remembered by all in vivid details.
Also nearby is the City Park (Městské sady), which offers Opava inhabitants a range of ways to actively relax. The public outdoor swimming pool, ideal for families with children, is located at the park, and many of the U Opavice residents also own a vegetable garden at the community garden plots located in the City Park as well. The football stadium is a stone’s throw away from the paneláky as well, although this can pose a problem due to occasional increased levels of traffic and noise. People living in this neighborhood are surrounded by nature and greenery, including a lovely linden alley right under the windows of the apartment buildings. The sounds of croaking frogs and quacking ducks are part of the experience of living in this neighborhood while the city center is still within a walking distance. The so-called Silver lake, a former gypsum quarry, is also nearby, and many U Opavice residents like to spend summers swimming and sunbathing at the lake, which can be reached on foot in ten-fifteen minutes. Another aspect of the three paneláky housing complex highly valued by the residents is the fact that it is neither large nor sprawling. With this housing development consisting of only three apartment blocks it does not dominate the adjacent neighborhood that otherwise consists mostly of small family houses with gardens. And although the apartments in the U Opavice paneláky are small, the surrounding space is open and expansive. Those raised here have particularly fond memories of the apartment blocks’ outdoor space, whether the soccer field, the swings or the open and large grass lawn ideal for running and playing.
But the surrounding did not fix itself and, as for instance Zbyněk Štěrba emphasized in his interview, we – the first generation of the paneláky children – were fortunate to have a group of enthusiastic and engaged dads and moms ready to get involved and get dirty cultivating the shared outdoors space. The first generation of coop members was particularly heavily engaged in improving the surrounding environment, and it’s interesting that, at least according to today’s accounts, they did not complain about this extra work. To create pleasant living space was important to them, and they were aware from the beginning that coop housing would entail community work and active engagement. The original U Opavice paneláky residents were mostly of the same, young generation – almost all of them moved here as young couples with small children. In the interviews they recall that the apartments, from today’s perspective quite modest and cramped, did not necessarily appear small to them in the 1960s and that they did not mind moving into modern apartment blocks either. They mostly welcomed the privacy the apartments provided them, including the private bathrooms, far from standard at the time in the shared-facilities housing many had previously inhabited.
When the first coop members moved into the U Opavice paneláky, the task of improving the surroundings and of landscaping the lot was entirely in their hands. They recall the socialist brigades (BSP) and socialist campaigns called “akce Z” that coops across the country were expected to organize and within the framework of which the U Opavice coop members landscaped the lawn, planted trees and shrubbery, built the soccer field as well as the coop garages. Twice a year, in the spring and in the fall, the coop organized a community cleaning of the outdoor vicinity; together the residents raked leaves, swept sidewalks and in other ways cleaned and improved inside and outside of the apartment buildings. Although I personally do not remember the socialist brigades with much fondness, Pavlína (born Korbelová) liked to participate; she recalls feeling a sense of satisfaction as the tractor trailer filled with rubbish and the paneláky vicinity looked clean again.
The interviews also remind us that the pre-1989 state actively encouraged these citizens’ self-help brigades in a variety of ways and through various mechanisms, which today are no longer available. The pre-1989 state emphasized socialist (shared) forms of ownership, and businesses and companies were not private but were owned by the state-by all. Under those circumstances, it was not uncommon, as Mr. Kubánek, for instance, recalls, for a coop member to borrow (practically for free) equipment, tools, or for instance a truck from his/her company for housing cooperative needs and purposes. It was possible to weld needed materials at the company shop, sometimes even during working hours. People took these realities for granted, but with the change in state ideology post 1989, these possibilities have vanished and today, when businesses and firms are in private hands, such practices are no longer acceptable. Habit dies hard however, and although socialist brigades no longer exist and the coop today employs a private person to cut the lawn and recently hired a company for cleaning of the shared premises, many of the older coop members cannot help themselves. They walk outside picking up garbage where they see it, clean the paneláky surroundings and plant and water flowers and trees – whether it’s Mrs. Hendrychová, Mr. Kocur, the late Mrs. Elblová, Mrs. Martínková or Mr. Jusa, my dad, who is busy at the moment refurbishing tree stumps into stools for an outdoor community seating place outside one of the apartment buildings.
Besides the socialist brigades, which most of the interviewees remember positively and even with some pride, one past local tradition that all of the early residents recall fondly is the Children’s Day, which the U Opavice coop – under the leadership of the first coop head Karel Lyko – celebrated at the beginning of the summer in the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Thanks to Mr. Lyko, we also have photo documentation for this event. The interviews suggest that the Children’s Day was enjoyed not only by children but that it was a pleasant experience for the involved adults as well. Several interviewees recall especially one specific year, when at the end of the Day the parents’ generation sat by the fire till the early morning hours, drinking home-made elderberry wine and having a great time together. People got to know one another in this way – through shared work and experiences, which later turned into shared memories. This does not mean, however, that the U Opavice coop residents lived as some kind of a large communist collective; one’s immediate family always remained the main way of socializing. People spent most of their free time within their own family circle, whether at the grandmother’s, at the garden, or at the cottage. Yet, the coop system also had built into itself various opportunities for shared cohabitation through which the coop members got to know each other. Neighbor helped neighbor, which is something the oldest generation remembers particularly nostalgically.
Some of the interviewees talked at length about the various ways in which pre-1989 socialist firms including Minerva or Ostroj cared for their employees. Company canteens provided warm lunches, although the quality of cooking there was often mediocre. Many have particularly fond memories of socialist firms’ recreational cottages and trade union’s (ROH) recreational packages, available to workers and their families for a nominal price. It is a pity that most of these cottages, which officially belonged to trade unions, have somehow passed into private hands, often the hands of those who happened to be in the company leadership positions during the post-1989 years. Mr. Premus, a long-time Minerva employee, also recalls the so-called “hajdamaše,” or company parties with goulash and dancing. Minerva would have leftover money at the end of the year and workers would organize a party. Employees were spending fun time together (družili se), also across professional and education status, and the regime supported this sort of collective building and socializing in a variety of ways.
The mistakes and problems of the pre-1989 socialist system were emphasized in the interviews as well. Mrs. Mainušová, for instance, remembers the showcase trials with Milada Horáková in 1950; Mr. Masařík and Mr. Jusa talk about how they lost their jobs because of their political activities in 1968, Luboš Kozák recalls the mandatory window decorations and the endless tedious official events and meetings, and others remember how difficult it was to travel abroad.
Many of the older-generation interviewees commented on changes in contemporary society towards individualism and materialistic values and felt nostalgic for the past when people pulled together and when society was less starkly divided by the size of one’s paycheck. At the same time, it’s clear that various types of divisions existed pre-1989 as well. For instance, the paneláky playground was for “our kids” only, meaning the children of paneláky residents, while children from the broader neighborhood were not always welcome. And the most taken-for-granted division – between the neighborhood Roma community and the local ethnic Czech (white) population – was in effect both in the past (with some exceptions) and today, when it is becoming perhaps even more unbridgeable.
How do the paneláky residents evaluate the work of their coop and what do they think of living in coop flats? The interviewees spoke highly of the efforts of the past and present coop heads, Karel Lyko, Oldřich Mainuš and (today) Vojtěch Kostka. Vojtěch Kostka has been the U Opavice coop unit head since 1995 and he also held that position for several years in the 1970s. He has led the coop unit through such difficult tasks as the refurbishing of the boiler room from solid fuels to gas, and later also through the total revitalization of the paneláky, when the apartment buildings were newly insulated and the housing cores, elevators and windows were replaced. Thanks to Mr. Kostka’s efforts, the coop managed to receive a green grant, through which it gets reimbursed for 94% of the interest it pays on the revitalization loan.
From the interview with Mr. Kostka, one understands why the U Opavice residents feel weary about his planned departure from office. Coop unit leadership is a challenging post that requires diligence, financial planning, good organizational skills, technical knowledge, patience, as well as a certain emotional distance on the occasions when coop members turn to him with complaints. Although Mr. Kostka has long been planning to hand the office over to a successor, there are no volunteers to take the post over. From the conversation with him it is clear that the position fits his talents well – it’s as if he was born for it – and hopefully it brings him some satisfaction as well. Currently, Mr. Kostka is preoccupied with trying to solve a (likely unsolvable) problem with a slightly uneven sidewalk. He also puts effort into working closely with the few young families living at the U Opavice paneláky, whose needs are not always appreciated by the older residents. Overall, the coop will need to become more accommodating of families with small children if it wishes to attract more young residents into the future. Nowadays, young people in the Czech Republic have more housing options than was the case in the past and their expectations are also higher, and much more materially acquisitive, than those of the post-war generation.
The U Opavice coop unit’s future is unclear, as is the future of housing coops in the Czech Republic overall. Both the chair of the umbrella housing coop SBD Stavbař, Mr. Hampel, and the head of the U Opavice coop unit, Mr. Kostka, mentioned in their interviews the post-1989 efforts of the state to break cooperatives and to replace cooperative form of ownership with private ownership. As a result, about 50% of the U Opavice paneláky flats are privately owned by the coop members by now, despite the fact that private ownership actually does not bring any practical benefits over cooperative flat rental. The U Opavice coop members are thus divided into flat tenants and flat owners, and the number of flat owners is expected to grow. On the other hand, from the interviews it is also clear that the young generation has not turned away completely from cooperative thinking. For example, the second generation residents Luboš and Jolana Kozák are big fans of cooperative ideals, and their younger son is part of a collective of young enthusiasts who are experimenting with a coop vegan patisserie/restaurant in the city of Brno.
As already mentioned, although paneláky are conventionally associated with anonymity, the U Opavice coop unit has managed to create a sense of community and belonging for its members. One way this sense of community continues to be maintained is through monthly gatherings over beer in the nearby U tří jabloní (Three Apple Trees) restaurant. These regular get-togethers were Vojtěch Kostka’s idea, and everybody is welcome, although most of the regular attendees are of the older generation. Interestingly, the idea for these meetings was inspired originally by Mr. Kostka’s sense of a lack of opportunities especially for men from the neighborhood to meet and socialize with one another. This seems relevant in the light of ongoing discussions in the US about how much more difficult it seems to be for men, and especially retired men, than for women to find and retain close friends and how they suffer from the consequent lack of comradeship and friendship in their lives.
Speaking of gender issues, it is fascinating to consider how many of the now retired women from the U Opavice paneláky were employed in technical or manual fields or worked with machines. This generation of Czech women defy workplace gender stereotypes at least as they have commonly circulated in the West. For example, Mrs. Korbelová and Mrs. Kocurová worked as manual workers in Minerva, Mrs. Masaříková repaired elevators in Silesia, Mrs. Beiheuerová was a crane operator in Ostroj, Mrs. Premusová worked as a lift truck driver in Minerva, Mrs. Newerlová still works on shifts, and Eva Kostková even worked as a coal stoker in the U Opavice boiler room when it was still non-automated and all tasks there were done manually. These are physically demanding jobs that are not traditionally associated with women, but which all of these women mastered. In this context, we should also mention Mrs. Mainušová, who was the first female graduate of the Opava Industrial School and who later had a successful career as a quality controller at Minerva. As far as professions are concerned, the U Opavice women did not care about gender stereotypes. Mrs. Beiheuerová even went to work on a crane in Ostroj against her husband’s will. As she says in her interview, her husband was convinced she couldn’t handle the crane. That just made her angry and even more motivated to succeed.
By way of conclusion:
Since I have spent half of my life in the Czech Republic and half in the USA, I cannot help but compare the Czech and American situations concerning housing. In the context of urban geography, paneláky in Eastern / Central Europe can be viewed as a kind of a vertical analog of American suburbs. Both prefabricated housing developments in Central / Eastern Europe and suburbs typical of middle-class housing in the US are often described as uniform and drab and associated with anonymity and social isolation.
But while paneláky are said to symbolize the anonymous and alienated life under Eastern European state socialism, the U Opavice coop created a solid sense of belonging for its members; anonymity has hardly been an issue here. Local residents rather tend to compare the living here to village life where everyone knows everyone. While this sense of belonging is surely partly due to the pleasant location on the town’s outskirts, this project is also a testimony to the effort on the part of many who actively participated in creating this sense of community and the pleasant environment here. One also comes to appreciate the various ways in which the pre-1989 Czechoslovak social system, with its emphasis on collective effort and the idea of community, set up structures and conditions conducive to the construction of a sense of collective. Finally, the pressing necessities of post-WWII period also contributed to the original willingness towards joint effort, and among other things the interviews bear witness to the resiliency, perserverence and modesty characteristic of the post-war generation of our parents.
In conclusion, we can only agree with the words of Zbyněk that our parents have created something unique at the U Opavice paneláky – whether with the help of the socialist regime or in spite of it.
– Jindřich Štreit
– Karel Lyko, archival photos from the construction of the U Opavice 2-4 soccer field
– Karel Lyko, archival photographs from the U Opavice 2-4 Children’s Days
– Pavel Lyko, photos of the Opava river flood, 1997
– Pavelková (Blažková), archival photo of the U Opavice road from the 1960s