If those words mean anything to you, it’s probably just as names you’ve seen on a map of Brno, or as syllables you’ve heard over a tram or bus speaker. We’re used to thinking of street names – if we think of them at all – as directions, as codes for the best way to get from place to place. But they are also, very often, the names of people – people who lived and died, and whose lives passed on into code – into names and memories.
There are strange entanglements between our lives and the streets we move along, and those entanglements show up in our language too. We’re used to saying we “lead” our lives, and saying that streets “lead” somewhere (and those metaphors are used in Czech as well). But our lives have ways of estranging our language. In this pandemic, many of the places we might have thought the streets “led” us to – our favorite pubs, our kids’ schools, our theatres – are closed. With those somewheres shut down, where should we lead our lives in these strange times?
Well, the streets themselves are still open – and there are other ways they can lead us than just to other places. Streets aren’t merely empty corridors, there to service our homes and businesses; they are active channels where power and life are constantly flowing. That flow is sometimes ancient, and may seem unchangeable, but in fact it’s always contingent; it can be blocked, or diverted into new channels. Or it can be given new names and new meanings – and maybe sometimes we have to do that. But before we impose our own new imaginations on the streets, or ignore them in a rush to our destinations, it’s good to feel the flow for a moment and let the old names and meanings guide our eyes and feet. And if we use the street names not only as directions, but as presences, as evocations, they can lead us toward other lives – ones we’ll never live, and ones we’ve forgotten were possible.
In May, during the first (of how many?) lockdown(s), I did a lot of walking, just to get out of the house, move my limbs, and get some air. I often walked in Černá Pole, since it’s near my house, and it’s a lovely area. At first my walking was aimless (unless vaguely aiming for an Albert or Kaufland counts), but because I’m me, at some point I stumbled into a grand but pointless project: I decided to visit every street in the neighborhood, and learn about the origin of its name. Over the next two months, I walked to a new street every day, took a photo or two, looked up the story behind the street name (with the help of the amazing Internetová encyklopedie dějin Brna), and posted the results on Instagram, with lots of very un-trending hashtags (I’m proud to say the only other #pflegrova hashtag besides mine, as of November 2020, is an ad for pedicures).
In this article, I’d like to lead you on a virtual walk through Černá Pole, which is one of Brno’s most beautiful neighborhoods – and one of its best for walking in, even if you’re not allowed to step inside anywhere. A walk from one end of the hood to the other will take you past every kind of suburban Brno eye candy – regal boulevards, leafy parks, quaint century-old villas, functionalist cubes, post-industrial question marks, and of course, pastel paneláky.
But along with these sights, there are invisible currents of meaning in the street names. Černá Pole’s development from farmland to suburb coincided pretty much exactly with Brno’s turbulent 20th century. So many of that century’s opened veins of science, art, and war, as well as so many of its sealed lips and unmarked graves, are encoded in the neighborhood’s current (and former) street names. As you walk (or read), you can use my Instagram posts as an irreverent guide to that secret history.
If you want to take the walk in person, bring your mask and your one legally-allowed companion, and enjoy! It’s about 4 km, and so it will take about an hour, if you don’t linger (though feel free to linger…)
Start at the northeastern corner of Moravské náměstí (near the #1 and #6 tram stop). This also happens to be the southwestern corner of Černá Pole. Instead of following the tram line up Lidická, head down along Koliště. Try to hold both in your mind: the rushing traffic of today, and the solid, fortified walls that held back the Swedish invaders in the 17th century. Toggle between them and feel the instability of the city, rustling and porous, shuffling its substance around in space and time.
Turn left and follow the #5 tram tracks along the loud and busy street named after Milada Horáková. This was once a dirt track along the top of a dam holding back a mill pond. Now it’s a pulsing urban artery. Three hours before she was executed for treason, Horáková wrote to her family: “Now, I will fly again into the fields and meadows, the hills and the ponds, the mountains and the lowlands. I will be unchained again.”
Turn left onto tree-lined Třída Kapitána Jaroše. I’ve always thought this street was oddly barren – it’s so beautiful; it seems like it should be put to better use than a parking lot. But in the past year or so, with Milady café and a few new beer gardens popping up under the trees, the boulevard seems to be blossoming. From Jaroška, you could go right on Kudelova or Hilleho, streets named after WW2 martyrs. But although there’s no path through Černá Pole that can entirely avoid that dark era of Czech history, we can avoid it for now by escaping further into the past, and taking…
…Bartošova street – named after a 19th century musician and ethnographer. While you’re walking down his street, see if you can collect some songs in his honor. The street is short, so you’ll have to hurry, and get lucky. Or you’ll have to consider some things songs that you wouldn’t normally.
When you emerge onto náměstí 28. října, skirt the left side of the square and head towards Lužánky along Vrchlického sad. Notice the social realist monolith which commemorates a popular demonstration for voting rights in 1893. This one just barely survived the post-Communist purge of uncool monuments. It calls for “the defense of the republic against fascism and war,” while it also calls for “the socialist future of our country.” By etching these lines together into the same slab, the monument claims that these are two sides of the same struggle. But are they really? Perhaps we still can’t decide, and perhaps that’s why the monument still stands.
The streets, like the lines of a poem, can be read in different ways. In better times I would suggest marking your place for a moment with a beer at Ponava cafe. But as it is, you might as well read on, and make a right on Lužánecká. Dodge the muddy holes from the sewer replacement work, cross Drobného, and head up the steep hill…
…on Antonína Slavíka, named after radio fanatic, world traveler, and speaker of seven languages Antonín Slavík. He was imprisoned in Špilberk, then Berlin, and then he was executed by the Nazis – in a symbolic f* you to the Czech people – on October 27, 1942, the day before the celebration of the founding of Czechoslovakia. There have been a lot of symbolic f* yous in this neighborhood. A list of changes to this street’s name over time perfectly dramatizes the struggle between German and Czech nationalities to lay claim to this strategic high ground: in 1865 the new street was called Am Bergl (“on the hill”); in 1896 it was changed to Beischlägergasse (after a city council member); in 1918, Na kopečku (“on the hill”) returned, but in Czech; in 1939, it was back to Beischlägerstrasse; in 1945, back to Na kopečku briefly, then finally(?) Antonína Slavíka in 1946.
As you angle softly to the left onto Helfertova, you’re passing close to where archaeologists discovered the first evidence of human settlements on this hill. During the construction of the first children’s hospital in 1896, fragments of tools and amphorae were unearthed, revealing the site of an early Bronze Age village of farmers and cattle breeders. They chose a nice spot to settle – a warm south-facing bluff above the Ponava creek. Look back over your shoulder at the peeling façade of houses along Kunzova street. Then look through the houses to see what those people saw almost 4000 years ago – Brno without Brno, a center of forests and fields whose circumference was everywhere.
Go left on Černopolní (which I purposely saved for last in my initial street name gathering). This is the only street outside of the center which many Brno tourists visit, because of a certain famous white geometry lesson at No. 45. I’m sorry, but I can’t pass Villa Tugendhat without going on a bit of a rant: I really, really hate The Glass Room. I hated it while I was reading it a couple of years ago, and I hate it even more the more I think about it. It irks me that the author took a real house, a real family, and a real history, and used these as local color for his own lame fantasy about adultery and rape and Nazis. The real story of the Villa and its owners has enough real drama, and would have been fascinating to explore in a novel; Mawer’s melodrama is long, boring, and devoid of any of the grace and beauty you feel inside the real Villa. So…that’s my take on it. But Daniella Hammer-Tugendhat, the youngest daughter of the original owners, said it much better: “First the Nazis took our house, and now Mawer took our story.”
Take a right on Lužova, and tip your hat (but who has a hat that can be tipped anymore?) to the brave general Luža, while you admire Villa Tughendhat’s less flashy but still stunning architectural neighbors. Man, I wish I lived in one of these houses.
When you get to the end of the street, do a little jog to the left on Lesnická, then turn right into Zdráhalova. But as you do, peek to your right towards one of Brno’s nicest parks, Schreberovy zahrádky. It used to be a cemetery, but in 1907, it was turned into a “garden colony” of small houses, inspired by the ideas of Daniel Gottlieb Moriz Schreber, an orthopedist from Leipzig who had this crazy idea that city residents should get out of their homes and walk around and get some fresh air occasionally. Whatever, Schreber!
When you get to Zemědělská, jog left, then hang right onto Antala Staška. Enjoy the colorful old houses while you can (especially the stained glass and steampunkiness of the villa at No. 28); you’re about to leave the older part of Černá Pole and head into the concrete-happy post-war part.
It’s funny to me that Provazníkova street is such a massive thoroughfare, when the artist it’s named after is so obscure. I had to look hard to find samples of his work online, but it was worth it; his sketches of dancers and exotic locales are light and pretty – unlike his unwelcoming street. You could head to the right here and walk through a nice area with pubs and parks, and even a castle! But the pubs are closed – and I’d like to see you try to get inside that castle. So go left instead, and explore Černá Pole’s seedier side.
When you get to the Lesnická bus stop, go right and follow the #9 tram tracks along třída Generála Píky. To your left is the arboretum, and to your right is yet another inaccessible place – the vast, dilapidated army barracks. You can peer through a few rusty gates at this zombie movie set and wonder, like me, why something better hasn’t been done with it. The only substantial info I’ve found about it is this article from 2014 (in which the city council asks the military if it can be developed, and the military says no) and this reminder that as of 2019 there are still no plans to evict the ghosts.
When you get to the next tram stop, curve to the right onto Bieblova, and appreciate a different kind of geometry lesson: the awe-inspiring sight of concrete blocks lined up like huge dominoes along the avenue, cascading towards the vanishing point. Just one push…
…and you’re in náměstí SNP, the center of Černá Pole’s late-1960s socialist sídliště. Maybe this square has seen better days…but it’s definitely seen worse days. In fact its worst day might have been at its very beginning, in 1968, when the cultural house under construction in the middle of the square collapsed, burying a group of workers under tons of prefabricated concrete. Seven people were killed and five were wounded; later reports blamed shoddy materials, negligent bosses, and the overall lack of standards and accountability at the time. You can pay your respects to these victims of Brno’s growth at the plaque in their honor, on the southwest corner of the building. Then pass through the arcade, steer clear of its bleak pub, and emerge on the square’s greener side. The solar-system-themed playground here is always hopping with kids, there’s a popular little café, a library stand with free books, and in summer, some weird metal poles that spray a cool mist over your head. And some of the park benches just got a new coat of white paint! Once you’ve spent long enough here to see the beauty of it, find your way out of the square heading northeast on Janouškova (and in passing, check out the cartoonishly majestic eagle and bear murals on the garage to your left)…
…and then turn right onto Fügnerova. Now you’re in Štefánikova čtvrť, Černá Pole’s last little northern enclave of functionalist apartments and single-family houses. The totalitarian terraces of Lesná loom on the horizon. A left turn on Novotného would lead you straight there, via a footbridge across the Tišnov train line. But if you’re done walking for now, just stay on Fügnerova until it dead ends, and you’re at the terminus of the #5 tram.
You could walk in Černá Pole for much longer if you wanted to, winding your way back to the center along the eastern side on the neighborhood, which I didn’t take you through. I chose a particular story to tell you, a particular trajectory through time and space, but you could choose another. Merhautova… Krkoškova… Mathonova… Žampachova… these are secret codes for an alternate path through the Black Field. And they are invitations to explore another set of past lives.
To us, those lives, like the streets named after them, have a clear beginning and end. We know (or we think we know) where they lead. But to the people who were living them, there was no such certainty. Most of them never walked the streets that would be named for them – but some of them probably did, never imagining the martyrdom that would turn that street into their memorial. All of them walked down streets that would be renamed. All of them walked down pathways that would later disappear into highways or rooms. And all of them walked through vineyards, or walls, or vacant lots, that would later be streets. The same is true for us. If you want to know the stories behind your own neighborhood’s street names, check out the Internetová encyklopedie dějin Brna. And if you post any of your street name explorations online, I’d love it if you tagged me. As small as Brno is (relative to the universe), it’s still big enough that I can’t imagine visiting every street in the city during my life and documenting the story of its name. But if each of you takes one neighborhood, maybe we can complete this unnecessary project together. And while you’re walking down “your” streets, allow yourself a moment of aimlessness, of indecision. Pretend you don’t know where you’re going – and then realize it’s true; you don’t. And then let the streets lead you – but like, for real.