“Without languages, you might as well stay home,” our first ride out of Prague told me as we pulled onto the highway. He was an older man, with white hair and a respectable car–if you find things like cars respectable–and the same man whose first question had been “But you’re not too dirty?”
“Back then the borders were closed,” he continued. “But I always said to myself, ‘one day, the day will come,’ and now it has.” He spoke Czech and German, as well as a few words of English that he seemed reluctant to use.
We’d spent an hour and a half at a gas station just outside the city, just beside the highway leading to Dresden. Katey was getting sick, so we took turns, her, hiding behind a sign to drink a beer, me, kneeling on the sidewalk eating a peanut butter-smeared baguette . (People in Germany actually recommend that you drink in a beer when sick to get better. Of course, it’s supposed to be warm and at night, but who’s counting?)
People were friendly–only a few pretended not to have seen us or
scowled at us from behind their windshields–and the rest waved and smiled and tried to have elaborate sign language conversations with us, all to say they’d like to take us, but just weren’t going our way. During communism, Izz told us, it was practically illegal not to pick up hitch hikers. (I guess there was one thing communism was good for after all. Ba dum bum, BA!) But if it had ever been easy to hitch out of Prague, it wasn’t anymore. Or we had fallen into another hitch hiking black hole and were in the dreaded Wrong Spot.
We took a break in an abandoned lot to split the last beer and then set up at a large intersection about a block away from the gas station. Four lanes, all pointing toward Dresden, and a big concrete shoulder where people would have room to pull over. In ten minutes we were in the station wagon heading onto the highway.
He hadn’t been going far and left us just outside the city at a gas station surrounded by flat empty fields. We set up on the exit road with our sign. Another forty-five minutes passed. Then a trucker, who only spoke a few words of German, said he could take us along another 40 kilometers. He was kind, and despite the language barrier, tried to talk and joke and point out the sights. We spoke in single words and gestures. When an enormous flock of birds flew past I said “Vogel” over and over again, flapping my arms when he didn’t understand. Soon after we saw a helicopter. “Vogel!” he said, pointing and chuckling at his joke. Then he pointed to the right. “Flughafen,” he said, nodding in the same direction for emphasis.
At the next rest stop we had another exit ramp to stand by. The light was starting to dim, and the temperature to drop. “If we have to sleep here, let’s stay over there,” Katey joked, pointing at what looked like a castle tower on the other side of the highway. Princesses of the highway, I thought, tucked away safe in our little stone tower, offering shelter to the hitch hikers who chanced through our rest stop.
Then a black station wagon with German plates drove up, and whisked us off to Dresden.
We took the tram to Neustadt, and the closer we got, the more I started to twitch. “I can’t wait to see my old housemates” twitches and “hey look remember when that thing happened right over there” twitches. “I hope I don’t run into my ex-lover” twitches and “oh god they finally finished building the supermarket on the spot where the squatted park used to be” twitches. Like arriving somewhere brand new and coming home, all at once.
As we walked up Kamenzer Straße, I saw a man looking out of a window in one of the fancy new flats in the ho-hum building they’d thrown up on the lot that used to be a squatted community park. The police had evicted it once and bulldozed everything, but the people came back, rebuilt. During the six months that I lived on Kamenzer, they evicted the park a second time, but that time they immediately started building and set up 24-hour security. It didn’t stop residents from heckling, vandalizing, and boycotting, and eventually the Konsum supermarket slated to rent the commerical property on the first floor backed out of the deal, due to bad publicity.
Instead the neighborhood got a Netto, an underground parking lot, and expensive apartments. As rumor had it, the local government was offering 10,000 euro subsidies for every parking spot created in Neustadt. Hellooo gentrification.
We’d banged on pots and ran through the streets, but they built it anyway. And enough people didn’t know or didn’t care to, now that it was finished, actually keep them afloat. To add insult to injury, all of their vegetable dumpsters were locked away somewhere out of sight and the store itself was filled with those dubious tinted glass balls that can only mean one thing: cameras.
They had every right to be worried, to overstock on security guards and cameras. The Kamenzer bunch had put up a long fight for the ground–protests and informative campaigns, and a bus trip to the house of some executive duder behind it all. But in the end community interests had lost and big business had won, ho-hum, I’ve seen this one before, isn’t there anything else on?
On the day the Netto opened, my old housemates told me, there were over a dozen security guards on hand, and no one under 40 was allowed inside. The Sheune punks had moved to Kamenzer for the day, but when they wanted to buy more beer, were given the cold shoulder. I don’t know what happened next, but as the bottle-throwing Scheune punks are the reason no bottled alcohol is sold in Neustadt after 10 pm, I can’t imagine that it was pretty.
Slowly, people forget, their amnesia and laziness driving them inside to do their weekly shopping, their car-dependence driving them to rent one of the parking spots, and we all fall down.
The Elbe-Bridge issue had been another battle lost. Dresden is–was–on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list because of its grassy, natural river banks–no walls, and long, bridge-less stretches–until the local government decided that, in the interest of traffic, a multi-lane bridge should be built at Waldschloßchen. Protesters had demanded a tunnel–an expensive compromise that would give drivers their road and UNESCO their unscathed river, but the bridge was ultimately approved in an absurd vote that, instead of asking directly, “Do you want this bridge, yes or no?” asked “Do you wish there were less traffic jams?” (I can’t find the exact wording, but I can assure you, it was worded into the kind of statement that almost no one could disagree with.)–and squatted a 400-year old tree slated to be cut down as part of construction. The were taken down by the German police unit that specializes in removing squatters from trees, and bridge construction has already begun.
The Dresden Neustadt, if you’ve never been there, is like some sort of crust-punk, hippy-child, alternative-parent’s dream. The walls are convered in graffiti and the sidewalks in dogshit. There are dread-locked parents and goths and punks and students and hippies and crusties and artists and activists and writers and dreamers and scammers. The rent is cheap, and so is the beer; on the weekends the streets fill with people, celebrating, and you’re never far from someone who wants to see this system burn as badly as you do.
Like every beautifully, perfectly run-down side of town since the beginning of time, the Neustadt is slowly falling to gentrification. A supermarket here, a rent-raise there, and soon the area will just be filled with more monotone yuppies, all hoping to have bought in on that romantic, bohemian whatever that they thought they saw here that time they came to look at cheap apartments. But by then it will be gone, because the higher rent will have forced all the ex-workers and the dreamers and the hippies out. It’s just not that easy to pull a scam anymore. There are just too many cameras.