San Francisco and Prague: A Double Portrait
Remembering historic times of magic — in two magical cities.
January 3, 2021
San Francisco and Prague are beautiful cities. In San Francisco, it’s the lucent blue of a vast bay, pastel homes climbing formidable hills — and a magnificent bridge spanning the chasm just where bay and ocean meet.
In Prague, it’s the low graceful Charles Bridge spanning the river that winds through a bejeweled city. Cathedral spires pierce the sky above — and Prague Castle looms over the ancient bridge and nearby medieval towers.
Untouched in 20th century wars, Prague (after communism) was a sleeping beauty — waking from decades of enforced slumber.
Two cities, epicenters of change
Both cities, San Francisco in the 1960s, and Prague in the 1990s, were epicenters of change — magnets for idealistic youth longing to be part of building something new.
Bay Area historian Dennis McNally spent two decades as publicist for the Grateful Dead. More recently, he curated a photo exhibit of the 1967 Summer of Love.
“The counter-culture of the 1960s,” he says, “was transformative. It wasn’t just free love and drugs. It was political protest and racial justice, redefining sexuality, organic food, environmentalism, yoga — fringe issues then — mainstream today.”
That counter-culture ranged from Black Panther headquarters in Oakland, to free speech and anti-war protests in Berkeley — to Ken Kesey’s earlier acid trips in Palo Alto.
The Bay Area in the 1960s exemplified freedom. The future promised to be better than the present. “Doing your own thing” embodied a vision that far reaching societal change was coming.
Late, but I was there
I came late to the San Francisco scene. I spent the summer of 1970 in Berkeley. It was there, on June 21st, in the Pauley Ballroom on Sproul Plaza at the University of California, that I attended my first Grateful Dead concert.
It was ostensibly a concert to raise money for an Indian tribe — displaced from land near Mt. Shasta. Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue, was there, too.
What I remember most was a giant inflatable, transparent bubble — like a Buckminster Fuller dome, in which people danced and moved freely.
On Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, a popular record shop had cleared a section of its display window and placed at the center the cover of the just released “Workingman’s Dead” album.
An understated advertisement beneath the album said simply, “New Dead.”
My sublet apartment at the corner of Ellsworth and Dwight Way was not far from where “People’s Park” had been. It was a block of vacant university property — which radical students had occupied a year earlier.
They christened the space “People’s Park — and turned it into a free speech zone where protesters and hippies gathered promoting alternative lifestyles.
In May 1969, (then-California Governor Ronald Reagan) sent in police and national guardsmen to reclaim the park — and quell the huge demonstrations of students wanting to preserve it.
It was an electric time in Berkeley, the city hailed by Tom Hayden in Ramparts magazine as “America’s first liberated territory.”
Another cultural revolution, this time in Prague
A generation later, on a smaller scale — but at least as significant — another cultural revolution took hold. This time in Prague (in central Europe — behind what was once behind the Iron Curtain).
In November 1989, a self-deprecating playwright, Vaclav Havel, was catapulted from prison to the presidency of Czechoslovakia.
This modest wordsmith — a true master of irony — was an unlikely pied piper. Yet, in the glow of freedom that followed peaceful revolution, the young and committed in the arts and business flocked to Prague — pilgrims seeking something bigger than themselves.
How to build a post-communist society?
Privileged young Americans, trekking through Europe, were lured to the city by beauty and cheap accommodation. They were among the first to be smitten by Prague — in a time of uncertainty and possibility.
How is a post-communist society built? How do people respond when the shackles stifling all forms of expression are removed? What kind of society should be built…
Would it be Havel’s idealistic land of peace and love, where towns had a pub and sweet shop on every corner? Or the crass, pulsating capitalism favored by Havel’s arch-rival — free-market ideologue Vaclav Klaus?
New newspapers and bookstores
In 1990, five students from Santa Barbara started an English-language newspaper — a bi-weekly called “Prognosis.”
A year later, some broke away to start a rival paper, the Prague Post – which was funded by a wealthy Texas investor.
Alan Levy, an expatriate New Yorker, approaching 60, and living in Vienna at the time, became editor.
He had been expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1968, after Soviet troops invaded to extinguish the Prague Spring — a brief period of freedom during which the arts flourished.
It was Levy who famously said that post-communist Prague was a haven for artists, the “left bank of the 1990s,” — like Paris in the 1920s.
Inspiration from Shakespeare
Other young Americans in 1993 opened The Globe Bookstore and Coffee House — modeled after Shakespeare and Company in Paris and City Lights in San Francisco.
Mark Baker, from Ohio, was a Globe founder — and still lives in Prague. He arrived, he says, “carried away with the optimism unleashed by the fall of communism.” It was, says Baker, an exhilarating time as Prague and all of eastern Europe reopened to the world.
Prague, of course, could not match San Francisco for depth or duration, as there were formidable language and cultural obstacles.
Havel himself in the early 1990s spoke little English. Nonetheless, the Globe prospered for several years — becoming a literary landmark that hosted readings by notable Czechs and Alan Ginsburg, whose poem “Howl” had first been read in San Francisco.
I was fortunate enough to have personally experienced Prague during this magical time. From 1994 to 1997, I lived with my family in a house on the crown of a hill — which gazed down over Prague Castle in the distance.
Expats in winter
I devoured each issue of the city’s English language papers. And on winter nights, coming from the airport and flights from shabby Sofia or Bucharest, it was a huge treat to wind through the cobbled lanes of Holesovice — and stop at The Globe to see what was happening.
No matter how late, there were people inside perusing books and speaking English. A cappuccino — or something stronger — could be had from the cafe and, near the front, there was an overstuffed chair where one could sit and unwind.
Back to old glory — and more
Prague today is more beautiful than ever. It sparkles from badly needed renovation. Privatization removed buildings — and small business from the dead hand of state control.
However, Prague’s artistic scene is a mere shadow of what it was in the 1990s — or the pre-WW1 period of Franz Kafka and Alfonse Mucha.
Not only are Havel and Levy long gone. Political corruption is endemic — and the vibrant expatriate community has shrunk. The Prague Post went bankrupt and, under new ownership, The Globe isn’t doing much matter.
The glorious Prague cultural scene of the 1990s, laments Mark Baker, was largely a media creation. The critical base of intellectuals and artists wasn’t big enough to last.
As goes Prague, so does San Francisco
Sadly, more or less the same thing occurred in San Francisco. Dennis McNally complains that, after the tech giants arrived in the Silicon Valley, the city’s artistic scene choked on money.
He says “young people no longer come for adventure or enlightenment, they come to get rich.” Before that, he continues, AIDS had devastated the gay community — deflating the arts.
Tech is the new magnet drawing the ambitious and well educated of another generation to San Francisco.
Preferring the city to the monotonous Silicon Valley suburbs where they work, the influx of the technocrats drove rents sky-high — and prompted huge developments in the old Mission district — obliterating most of what remained of 1960s hippiedom.
Today, San Francisco and Prague, these once vibrant meccas, cry out for a Vaclav Havel or someone like him.
As Alan Levy said of Havel, “it was his example of intelligence, modesty, artistry and love that drew people to Prague.”
Both San Francisco in the 1960s and Prague in the 1990s were epicenters of change -- magnets for idealistic youth longing to be part of building something new.
The glorious Prague cultural scene of the 1990s was largely a media creation. The critical base of intellectuals and artists wasn’t big enough to last.
Post-communist Prague was a haven for artists -- like Paris in the 1920s.
Prague’s artistic scene is a mere shadow of what it was in the 1990s.
Prague today is more beautiful than ever. It sparkles -- but it badly needs renovation.