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Prague Dries Off

Dozens of refrigerated trucks sit in a factory parking lot outside Prague, holding some of the municipal library's most valuable historic books and manuscripts, which were soaked in the mess and frozen for safekeeping. If the Czech government can raise the funds, special drying machines may be able to save the manuscripts from further damage. And the central military archives, whose files still held clues to thousands of unsolved crimes from the Nazi occupation and the Communist era, were drenched—halting, perhaps permanently, the search for justice.

Prague's vibrant arts scene included nearly 60 small theaters; most were located in basements, and many were devastated. Among the casualties was the Theater at the Laundry (Divadlo na Pradle) in Mala Strana, built in 1924 by a group of avant-garde artists that in its time included Smetana and fellow composer Antonin Dvorak. "The stage buckled like an ocean wave," says Petr Hruska, the theater's director. "We had to throw out everything that was made of wood." The theater's art gallery and the Czech Museum of Popular Music, both quartered in an enfilade of basement rooms, were completely destroyed. Hruska estimates that it will be more than two years before the theater raises its curtain again.

Many preservationists, however, are looking beyond immediate repairs. "There is a danger that Prague really could lose its character," Biegel says. "I'm concerned that profiteers will knock down buildings they think are too small, and build others." Even before the flood, large swaths of Prague and other historic Czech cities had been painted in shiny colors, and historic details touched up to look "as good as new." With the disaster bringing yet more reconstruction to the historic center, the question is how to rebuild tastefully.

Michal Ajvaz, a novelist known for his magical-realist tales of Prague, says he fears the floods have damaged more than buildings. Long before last August, he says, the authentic Prague had fled the winding streets of the touristed center to neighborhoods even Kafka and the Golem hardly knew. In Karlin, a 19th-century working-class district just east of the city center, "the atmosphere had a special sleepy fatigue," he says. "But it held a certain tension that would sometimes erupt" in the pubs and narrow streets. Prague's equivalent to the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Karlin was characterized by crumbling apartment buildings; 100-year-old factories, their smokestacks idle since the fall of Communism; pawnshops, shoemakers, and an antique furniture bazaar.

All that is rapidly vanishing. More than 40 aging apartment houses in Karlin were rendered uninhabitable when the sandy soil beneath them receded with the floodwaters. Real estate developers are looking to fill the vacant spaces with glass-fronted apartment and office blocks. All the money being eagerly handed out for reconstruction by insurance companies and the government is making Karlin's gentrification even more likely.

It's not only Prague that is endangered. Dozens of well-preserved towns across the countryside now face a similar threat. In Cesky Krumlov, a small medieval town that was flooded by 10 feet of water, preservationists are fighting a rear-guard action against a tide of kitschy renovations.

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