Brno from B to Ž: A Tough-Love Guide to the City’s 48 Neighborhoods, Part 8 – Husovice

Part 8: Husovice

Once again, I’m cheating. If you’re following my (increasingly) irregular series of Brno neighborhood articles, you’ll notice I’m taking liberties with the alphabetical order I promised (not to mention the monthly schedule).

Those of you eagerly awaiting my hot takes on Dvorska and Holásky – I know there are hordes of you – don’t panic! I’m going to go back and write about those exotic locales. But winter and the pandemic have kept me inside a lot recently, so I’ve decided to skip ahead a few places, to the neighborhood that’s been my home for the past few years.

I live with my partner Radka (and our cat) in Husovice, in an apartment on the top floor of her family’s house. The apartment has four windows – two big ones facing north and south, out of each side of the house, and two smaller skylights on either side of the slanted roof.

I’ve been staring out of those four windows a lot recently. I imagine I’m not alone, and that you’ve also been spending more time than usual looking through windows – the windows of your house or flat – or more often, maybe, the windows of your web browser.

So in this heyday of window gazing, I thought it’d be fitting to show you four different views of Husovice, one from each of our four windows:

From the back window…

One day, very soon, our cat will have the two doves that live in the back garden plum tree. He’s sure of it. But for now, he dream-stalks them from the windowsill.

I’m doing the same with Brno’s skyline. What little of it I can see from here shows a lot, I think, about the part of it I’m looking from, the neighborhood named “Goosetown.”

On the left, over the golden fuzz of the cat’s back, beyond the scruffy gardens and the rooftops of our vnitroblok, I can see the twin smokestacks of the steam plant down in Zábrdovice. This mighty monument may be going out of commission soon – but for now, the bigger chimney is my trusty weather vane, churning out fat grey puffs that fly apart in fierce winds, or, on calm days, bubble up humidly.

On the right there’s a much less conspicuous landmark – two blurry, brownish needles poking above the roof tiles, like the tufts of a lynx’s ears. They could almost be TV antennae – so it took me a few months of living here before I even noticed them, and realized what they were – the very tip-tops of the twin spires of Petrov cathedral.

It feels absolutely right that Petrov, that stately symbol of Brno, is almost drowned in my view from Husovice, like Goya’s dog.

Because Husovice doesn’t run in the same circles as stateliness. It’s awkward, off-kilter, misaligned.

I feel the Husovice dissonance every time I commute home from the center of town. You’ve felt it too, if you’ve ever taken the #4 tram heading west from the main station. At first you curve smoothly down Cejl street, following a centuries-old path towards the Svitava river. You veer slightly to the northwest onto Vranovská street, passing through the stone “gates” of Husovice – the weedy remnants of a bridge that carried the old Tišnovská rail line.

Then, prepare to be nauseous, because for the next few minutes you’re jerked around by several aggressive right-angle zig-zags, the price your body must pay to make it onto Husovice’s main drag, Dukelská třída. Actually, on the tram, the centrifugal force is not so bad – but if I’m heading home after a few on the #94 night bus, I try to fight for a seat at the station, to avoid being flung repeatedly back and forth into strangers’ laps.

A lot of Brno’s immediate suburbs radiate proudly from the center – they are oriented to be in line with it. Think of Veveří, or Královo Pole, with their wide avenues aimed directly at the historical core of the city.

Husovice isn’t like that. It’s on a different axis, turned away from the rest of the city. It’s not clear what it’s turned toward, though. Its main road, short and stubby, lined with sad-eyed shopfronts, is perfectly parallel to the Svitava. You might think there’s a natural logic to that, but in fact the natural logic is inverted. The river, which once sprawled in wide loops and braids through the floodplain, was straightened in the 1920s – to be in line with the road, it seems – and to make room for more factories and workers’ dormitories.

Walking or riding through Husovice, you can feel how its naturally swervy landscape has been wrenched around even further by human design – its steep bluffs terraced by train embankments, its deep ravines widened for roads, its smooth hillsides chopped into quarries, its muddy swampland propped up, smoothed with concrete, left to crack and erode. Much of the neighborhood’s history has been written by bulldozers. Its old village center (what’s now Tomkovo náměstí) was gutted in the 1970s so the new multi-lane ring road could plow through it – and it’s now being gutted again, even wider, to make room for the newer, better ring road.

In all that construction and destruction, some lines of sight are broken, while new lines of sight open up. Some old things become newly visible. Some new things block our view of the old.

If you were to map all those lines of sight, all the ways that people have looked at Husovice, or looked through it, and beyond it – it would be a perfect history of the neighborhood – a perfect darkness.

But of course, no one wants a perfect history like that. We want an informal, non-mandatory present – one we can move around in freely, and escape if we need to. We want a story with holes in it.

From the bedroom skylight…

Sometimes what we see through the holes in the story seem like the more interesting story.

But then, sometimes the more interesting story is the one we least want to see.

I’ve been talking about Husovice’s misalignment with the rest of Brno – but one clear morning not too long ago, one of its strange alignments disturbed me even more.

As I do most mornings, I pushed open the skylight, stuck my torso out, and yawned into the cool air. I surveyed the vnitroblok and its scruffy gardens, and I looked down at the plum tree at the back of the garden, to make sure the dove couple was still huddled there.

But as I glanced to my left over the rooftops, I did a double take. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: a few blocks away, a plume of white smoke was rising from the old brick chimney of the Briessova Sladovna. The former malt house is a lovely remnant of Brno’s late-19th-century industrial boom – but it hasn’t been in operation for decades (and if some developers get their wish, its days may be numbered).

Had I somehow slipped back a hundred years? A weird instinct made me look around for signs that I was still in the 21st century. Satellite dishes and TV antennae on the roofs. High overhead, an airplane contrail. Well – the late 20th is good enough, I thought.

I rubbed my eyes cartoonishly and looked back to the left. Then I realized – I’d been duped by a trick of perspective. The smoke was actually coming from the SAKO waste incinerator, far across the city, above Juliánov. In my line of sight from the window, the modern smokestack was hidden directly behind the old one. If I stuck my head just a smidge further out from the window, the illusion was broken, the fire went out of the old Briessova chimney, and the past was put back in its place, cold and dormant.

But I was shaken. That trick of perspective had knocked loose a vision which stayed with me – a vision of the past as the only real thing, and the present as a cheap illusion.

I saw the past – the living world – as a smoldering chain of machines, its gears scraping and shuttling and pulsing with grease. Massive, screeching wheels powered everything. The needs of the mills – the placement of valves and ducts – dictated the shape of the earth. The machines decided where rivers would run, where valleys would cut through. The mechanism kept replicating, kept churning out dark substance, more of itself, more slag and ash, more valleys and hills, panels and niches where it needed them.

And instead of being used, cleared away, sold off, the past kept building up right where it was, in thickening folds. The present was not the product of the past. It was a gaudy plastic advertisement, with too-green trees and computer-rendered people enjoying life, stretched over the gears of the past to keep them hidden. But beneath that façade, the past was still in operation. Its product was a festering excess, a flaking rust of itself. I worried that it would never disappear, never concede to us any clean surface on which to build the present.

From the front window…

Looking down through the steam of my coffee mug, I can see two sets of footprints in the new snow. They zigzag down the sidewalk in front of our house, head into the grass, loop around a trash can, and slant off down the street.

I can’t see who made them – but one of them must have been a dog.

If I lean out, I can see almost the whole length of Náměstí Republiky, the main square of modern Husovice.

I don’t really like to translate the Czech word náměstí as square. It feels absurd to use that English word to describe Czech náměstí – which often take the shape of triangles, hourglasses, distended gallbladders – anything but squares. It’s a very literal example of how languages don’t map onto each other perfectly.

But it’s only a minor stretch to call Náměstí Republiky a square. It’s at least rectangular…ish. And with its lovely triple-row arbor of trees, its little fountain with four horse heads, and of course its spectacular church, it could be one of the most beautiful squares in Brno. It just needs a little more love. I remember when nothing much was happening in Slovanské náměstí in Královo Pole – and now it’s lined with nice cafes and restaurants. Maybe one day the same thing will happen here.

I can’t see Tomkovo náměstí – there’s no word for its blasted and razed anti-shape in any language.

I can’t see through the church, and over the hill, to Písečník, the former “emergency colony” at the north end of Husovice.

Like the more famous Kamenka colony above Staré Brno, Písečník was founded in the 1920s when desperate people with nowhere else to go started hammering together their own shacks at the neglected edges of the city. In this case, they squatted in a ravine squeezed between an old sandstone quarry and the Tišnovská rail line.

These days, Písečník is occupied by artists and Moravian bohemians, who are either renovating their houses, or letting them rot artistically, or both. The new Mitte café at the top of the street is a sign that the area has now been reclaimed by polite society. But as you sip your espresso on the café patio, you can get a bourgeois thrill by thinking about how if you had come to this street uninvited in the 50s or 60s, you would have got seriously roughed up.

I can’t see further back, to a time when revolution filled the smoggy air around Husovice, and the young teacher Pankrác Krkoška set Brno on fire with the spirit of the Czech national revival, publishing feuilletons on Marx and Darwin, founding the Husovice Sokol, and cheering on the Svatoboj theatre troupe, whose motto was “Education is our salvation.”

I can’t see what people from other, “nicer” parts of town are really seeing when I tell them I live in Husovice, and they say “Oh…”

But I can see their eyes hesitate. They are wondering whether I’m in on their conspiracy of prejudice. How politely they need to hide it.

It’s getting dark enough now that my own reflection starts to look back at me from the window. My face twitches slightly – a black and white cat trots nonchalantly across it, across the middle of the square, as if she owns it. But then from across the street, she spies a woman walking her dog. She freezes and scurries under a car.

I can hear Cate Le Bon singing “Home to you / Is a neighborhood in the night kitchen.”

I can’t see the Ponávka – Brno’s secret third river – as it ripples through the darkness. Buried underground in 1899, the waters of the Ponávka flowed just below their original course, just east of the city center, for almost a century. Then in 1993, city engineers diverted the river into a 3 km-long tunnel. Now the unseen waters flow from Královo Pole, under the Lesná hill, to Husovice, where they emerge back into daylight, just below the old Cacovice mill. They are alien waters from another valley, posing as just another phantom limb of the Svitava.

I can see the Sunday crowds as they spill out of the front door of the Kostel Nejsvětějšího srdce Páně, the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

I still remember the first time I laid eyes on this church, an art deco masterpiece from 1910. It was many years ago, sometime during my first aimless months in Brno. Wandering randomly down from Černá Pole, I caught a glimpse of it from behind, framed by the houses on Třebízského street, and it took my breath away.

Now, when just one small corner of the church fills my whole kitchen window, I can’t always see it in that same way, as something transcendent and marvelous. I have to let go of my vision for a moment. Instead of seeing it, I have to feel it, almost as a person, as a presence.

I can hear the bells of the church rumbling and blurring my body.

I can see a hearse backing up to the church, its rear hatch open, waiting for a coffin. The mourners stand around in little groups talking, smiling sadly.

Or sometimes the bells are ringing for a wedding. Friends and family stand around in little groups, waiting for the bride and groom, talking, sadly smiling.

I glance down from the window at the book I’m reading, The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, part of which is set in 18th century Brno. I see these words, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft:

“How strange – it is a city that looks at people, and not the other way round.”

From the front skylight…

Windows are strange contrivances. We think of them as opportunities; metaphorically, we’re always opening them, never closing them. But of course, they are man-made holes in man-made walls; if they represent freedom and escape, it’s only because they’re a bright point of focus in the otherwise dark spaces we’ve confined ourselves to. They help us see – but only by framing our vision, and limiting our perspective.

That limited perspective is sometimes what saves us. It frees us to focus on just a few things, and see them for what they really are. I mean, to see how the rest of the world is reflected in them.

Our front skylight is set in the ceiling, a few feet over our heads – so there’s no leaning out of this window. All we can do is look up through it.

Perfectly framed in the skylight – and only thing visible through it, is the bell tower of the church of the Most Sacred Heart. At the top of the tower is a round window, and at night it shines different colors for different days of the Catholic calendar. Green for ordinary days. Purple for Lent and Advent. White on a saint’s day.

Unless the saint was a martyr – then the window glows an ominous red. The all-seeing Eye of Sauron, Radka jokes.

If you’re looking out of this skylight into that eerie eye when the church bells ring, there’s no way to see the people in the náměstí below, to see whether they’re dressed in black, or white, or gold sequins. So there’s no way to know why the bells are ringing. It could be for a christening, a wedding, or a funeral.

Or it could just be for the passing of ordinary time over, under, through Husovice, like a buried river, on its way to the next neighborhood, the next secret opening.

Brno Daily Subscribe
Sign up for morning news in your mail