Since the moment I moved to Brno for my internship, I have often heard both Czech and foreign inhabitants saying how much they love the city. Many of them find the second-largest city in the Czech Republic enjoyable to live in thanks to its job opportunities and relaxed atmosphere, rich cultural life and lovely secret places one needs time to discover. However, there was a locality that, judging by the tone of speakers, some wished it to be hidden from them. Labelled as ‘Cejl’, ‘the ghetto’ or ‘Bronx’, the district located within 15 minutes walk from the city center was referred as a questionable place to live – often justified by the many Romani residents.
SIDE EFFECTS OF LITTLE HAVANA
«Some of my Czech friends were very surprised to learn that I live in Cejl and asked if I was afraid to walk at night. At the same time, I personally, never felt any danger, regardless of the time of day,» comments Dmitrii Bulashevich from Russia. «I find the manner of people here to communicate standing on the sidewalks in large groups rather unusual as well as what is comfortable distance for the Roma is much less than that for the Czechs. When I walk on the sidewalk in Cejl, a group of Romani people will start giving way to me when I come up about a meter or closer. Czechs in this situation walk off much earlier and generally try to leave the passage on the sidewalk. It seems to me that this difference in mentality significantly influences the intensity of communication between Czechs and the Roma. Most likely, the Czechs see such Romani groups on the sidewalks as less friendly or rather hostile, although I have not noticed any dislike from them.»
Walking around the neighbourhood with David Oplatek, city councillor of the district Brno-Centre, who kindly agreed to show me around the place he has been living for the last eleven years, I could not help but notice how narrow are sidewalks on Francouzská, Bratislavská and Stará streets. You will not see nice alleys or passages here – if two passerby meet, then someone would need to step aside. Moreover, as David notices, there is lack of public spaces in the area. Despite being a centrally located city part, there are no public parks nor even squares here. The only piece of blank land on Hvězdová is always packed with cars. No wonder why many Romani residents, traditionally having big families and closer communities, have nowhere to gather should they feel like having a small talk.
«As I moved 11 times since my arrival in Brno in 2009, I consider living here maybe more louder; in summer time streets look like „little Havana“ here, people put chairs in front of their homes and they are chatting till late night hours. That is nice,» – says Nina Zelená, a co-owner of a local cafe. «After we [she and her boyfriend Martin Květkovský] moved to Bratislavská street, we quickly found out that in our block (of flats) there was an abandoned Vietnamese bar or gaming club… Martin talked to the owner of the building and we talked together about idea of making cafeteria or creative space for everybody in general, but mostly for people in this area since there was nothing like that here at that time. We opened during Ghettofest 2015 [local street festival], I guess it was June? We chose name Café in the Ghetto because of the song by Elvis Presley, but also to point out (and ease) the fact that this area is still considered as ghetto by Brno´s inhabitants.»
In addition to gaming clubs and gambling houses, both Martin and Nina indicate such downsides of the neighbourhood as dirty streets and drug smuggling: «What is extraordinary here is that Romani men sell heroine on Bratislavská and Vranovská streets,» adds Martin. As David Oplatek confirmed, drug-dealers indeed can be found only around Cejl, not in other city districts of Brno, and police could not do much about that so far.
«We didn’t know anything about the neighbourhood before we moved in, but soon realised that was completely different from the other parts of Brno I’ve been in. Most of the time it’s a dirty place and they have huge gatherings at some storefront. During one Christmas night (24th) I recall we left to meet some friends and one side of a nearby street had some guys arguing and ready for action and the other side had friends celebrating, so you never know what to expect,» comments José Barata from Portugal. «I also change place every couple of weeks to a friend’s place near Mendlovo Náměstí, and the neighbourhood and the security is almost the opposite. I feel that area is cleaner, safer and has a better environment than my place near Cejl. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never had problems at my place so far, but the area looks intimidating and kind of frightening, because one never knows what to expect and one is different from most families who live in that area, so they could have a problem with you or even talk with you in some language you don’t understand, and for an expat that could be a huge trouble.»
GENTRIFICATION AND RENTAL COSTS
The above-mentioned issues, on the one hand, reinforced the bad reputation of Cejl; on the other hand, the hearsay allowed many students and young families to find cheaper accommodation in closer proximity to the city center. However, the latter, for the last several years, has been gradually leading to the interest from real estate companies that renovate residential buildings and rent them off for a higher price, often too expansive for previous tenants. According to David Oplatek, 2/3 of buildings in the neighbourhood is owned by private sector and only 1/3 of that by municipality, which forces people who cannot afford raising rents to move out to other parts of the city.
As we are passing by a street with elegant art nouveau buildings, which are quite a surprise to see in a locality known as a ghetto, David recalls: «I remember these houses in a very bad condition. Look at this one: Romani families used to live here, but now all of the 27 flats are empty. I suppose they will rent the renovated building to different people.»
Nina: «Yes, I have heard about it [gentrification and its effect on local population]. Also I know many Romani families that have really big problems with finding a new place to stay. They are paying much more money than „we“ do for same flats.”
Martin: «I haven’t heard [about gentrification], but if I would have, I would consider it logical as this locality is close to the city center.»
THE CHANGING FATE OF CEJL’S POPULATION
Historically, the part of the city was inhabited by workers due to factories located close to the nearby Svitava River. Many of those residents were of Jewish and German origin; the former as well as the majority of Czech Roma were exterminated during the Second World War. The emptied houses, first, harboured new German residents from the bombed cities of Germany; however, all of them had to leave their new houses shortly after the war. As a consequence, when after-war Czech Republic needed work force, many Slovak Roma arrived in the country for work opportunities. As Kristina Kohoutová (Museum of Romani Culture in Brno) states, even though Slovak Republic, similarly to Czech Republic, was occupied by Nazi Germany and a great number of Slovak Roma were also murdered during the war, many Romani people there, however, survived since then-Slovak government was a Nazi Germany ally.
Slovak Roma found new home in many Czech cities and towns, for example, in Prague, Olomouc, Ostrava, Ústí nad Labem. Nevertheless, newly arrived families could not afford modernised panel apartment blocks, which were seen as more comfortable comparing to typical pre-war houses with no bathrooms. Thus, Brno’s Cejl became a place where only old, poor or relocated Slovak Roma lived. The latter became outsiders being marginalised and socially excluded from the rest of city population as foreigners different to the Czech as well as to remained Czech Roma. Even today, many Cejl’s Roma avoid talking to media as they feel shy and being judged, so want to keep their privacy.
Furthermore, the ghetto situation in Brno is still better than, for instance, in less economically developed North Bohemia. According to David Oplatek, who has visited many Czech regions due to his work, Romani ghettos in such cities as Usti nad Labem, Most and Chomutov remain in worse condition.
As Nina Zelená recalls: «If I compare it [Brno’s Cejl] to Lunik IX, borough in the city of my hometown in Košice, which houses the largest community of Romani people or gypsies in Slovakia, the situation is much better here. I like the fact that this part of city has still low rents, so many Czech people without prejudice live here, also many foreigners. It’s a beautiful cultural mix.»
David, who along with his neighbour Pavel Strašák, organises the locality’s street festival ‘Ghettofest’ since 2012 as an action against a neo-Nazi march in Brno and a positive signal to the rest of the city’s population, however, is concerned about the future of the cultural mix: «I don’t know how this neighbourhood will look like in 2025. Perhaps, the houses will be better, but it is likely that less Romani families will be living there.”
Author: Yelena Kilina