We met Šimon Fiala at a cafe close to the Nusel Steps – a place which he knows intimately, having dedicated many hours to fixing up the steps during the past five years. He began by picking up trash by himself; today, his initiative “Friends of the Nusel Steps” has almost 2,000 followers on Facebook and just as many visitors during the September “Experience the City Differently” event. Šimon and his volunteers have created and planted terraced planting beds alongside the steps and built a seating area around the chapel below the steps. Now, they are looking for a way to create a neighborhood community out of a place that is more of a connector than a place where people spend time, and to convince the local town hall to take on the maintenance of this public space.
What sparked your interest in the Nusel Steps?
In 2015, I moved into Bělehradská street, right below the Nusel Steps. It was my first time living so close to the city center – before I lived in the Ládví housing estate, which is a completely different type of space. So there I was, suddenly living in a historical city, which made a big impression on me with the grand boulevards and beautiful buildings. I was already familiar with the Nusel Steps because my girlfriend, now my wife, used to live above them and she took me there a few times.
It’s an unusual public space, which was created as a connector between the Vinohrady neighborhood and the Královské Vinohrady railway station. It was a majestic boulevard, sized to accommodate the crowds anticipated to walk this way between the Vinohrady neighborhood and the Královské Vinohrady railway station. But the railway station has been out of operation for 80 years now and the Nusel Steps lost their original function and purpose. But it is truly a grand public space, a broad promenade with an elegant handrail and beautiful views from the hill. But the city wasn’t interested, neither the Prague 2 town hall or the Prague City town hall wanted to invest money in the upkeep and just maintained it as a second-rate pathway.
Why made you start doing something as a citizen?
I was working on my doctorate in sociology, examining social movements. I kept writing about engaged urban citizens. So I thought that I might try it myself to get an interesting glimpse of the subject. My first thought was to create a Facebook page for the Nusel Steps where people could post photos and share experiences connected to the space. But I quickly found that in order to get people to visit the FB page, they would have to be attracted to it by something. I realized that there had to be some activity in order for the FB page to deserve people’s attention. I tried to do a spontaneous garbage clean up event, because there was really a lot of trash there then, and I put a photo from the clean up on the Facebook page. I got a great response from friends and acquaintances. So I said to myself: there’s potential, I just have to capture it the right way.
You’re no longer picking up trash by yourself. You have a wider team of people around you who help you. How difficult was it to create a community out of the Friends of the Nusel Steps?
A turning point occurred when I met other people who were drawn to the idea of maintaining the steps and who started doing it with me. My most active co-members are Karolina Mendlová, who organized the “Experience the City Differently” event and manages our social networks, and Honza Sedlák, who doesn’t like Facebook but always know how to arrange whatever needs to be done. Plus a few other people – some like to plant plants, some like to organize events, some take photos and some repair things.
You never really know who will get involved and how much hope you should put into a particular person. We’ve talked to hundreds of people, who were really interested at first but then we never saw them again. On the other hand there are other people who came to one event and since then they’ve been engaged on a regular basis. We have different circles of people. There are about 3 to 5 of us who get together and talk about what to do with the steps, then there’s another group of about 20 people who come out to help with events, another 100 who are regular visitors and others who are active only on Facebook. And our biggest event, which is Experience the City Differently, that draws about 2,000 people and the number of friends on Facebook is also growing. People can join whenever – we don’t have a formal membership structure – and do whatever they like to do or what they are talented at.
Those are impressive figures!
But there’s a lot of work behind those numbers as well as the fact that we haven’t given up. Not a single person showed up to our first event, except for me and my wife. I started cleaning up, my wife said she didn’t want to clean up other people’s garbage and so we went home (laughter). But that didn’t deter me. I kept trying and then it caught on. After a while we joined forces with established brands like the nationwide event “Let’s Clean Up The Czech Republic”. And people responded to that.
You no longer live near the Nusel Steps. Did you move away feeling that the community could continue without your presence?
I’m not sure about that – that’s why I’m still doing it. But maybe it’s just my impression. I haven’t had the courage to leave it entirely – I’m afraid that what we started here would fade away. And I still like calling the town hall, reminding them that their work on the steps isn’t finished, submitting ideas for how things on the steps could work better. It doesn’t always work out, sometimes you hit a complete wall. Especially at the beginning they didn’t understand what we were trying to do at all. By now we’ve developed a relationship with the town councillors and civil servants, but it’s kind of an unusual relationship: we criticize them but they also give us grants (laughter). We submit applications to the environmental category of the small grants programs on a regular basis, so it’s partially thanks to them that we can operate as we do. A long time ago I found the term “performative criticism” in an article about civic engagement. I think that’s exactly what we do. The fact that we have to take care of the area is clear evidence that the town hall isn’t doing its job adequately. And the fact that we collected an entire truckload of garbage around the steps in a single day also makes you stop and think. We’re talking about the center of Prague, the wealthiest district in the Czech Republic, but you still see garbage lying around, trees suffering from a lack of maintenance and spray paint on every vertical surface. So we confront the town hall with these facts and when they mess something up we aren’t afraid to write about it.
So in your opinion the town hall hasn’t taken adequate care of the area up to this point?
I think it’s gotten better. But sometimes the district would put in a order for a clean up and the cleaning service would only clean the steps themselves. They just left anything that fell beyond the railing. So we gradually convinced the city to improve the cleaning services.
What other activities besides clean ups have you organized on the steps?
We thought about what all we could do on the steps. We cleaned up garbage, then what? We could organize a neighborhood picnic, plant flowers or hold an “Experience the City Differently” event. We gradually began filling up the space with events and it turned out that we want to both make the steps a more vibrant place and also improve the steps in general, get them in better shape. It would be ideal to just go to the town hall and say: “improve the steps”. But it doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. For example, we came in with the idea of making a park at the chapel. The town hall told us only if you do it yourselves. They thought that that would be the end of us, but a few months later we laid a grant application on the table. In the end it turned out that we weren’t able to do everything ourselves so we did it together: the town hall had a fence built, got the soil ready and we did the planting and got the site furniture. WE moved forward in this way. We got additional funding from the O2 Foundation and Via Foundation. Altogether we’ve raised about CZK 200,000 ($9,200), which we’ve gradually invested into the space.
So you’ve gone from clean up days to neighborhood gatherings..
It’s all connected. The garbage clean up events were the first thing, because it’s the easiest to organize, you just buy gloves and garbage bags and that’s it. When we had the site cleaned up we thought about how to change the place itself, how to create something permanent there, how to make a non-space into a space and how to make a pathway into a public space. One of our goals is to create a theme for the Nusel Steps, make them into a phenomen, so they become a place where people gather and so that the people who live around here become local patriots who act as stewards. That partially succeeded but we still struggle with how to connect people. The Nusel Steps are not an entirely suitable place for systematic gatherings, it’s such a public place that it doesn’t really work as a place for neighbors and friends to get together as it would be in an inner courtyard, for example. There are always strangers there. So we’ve focused more on how to work with the steps as a truly public space. So for instance, we put together the park seating area next to the chapel. Our reasoning was: it’s a sacred space so it deserves to not be a dog toilet, it deserves to be a dignified corner where you can sit and meditate. And we took that to the town hall. We divided the entire are into zones depending on ownership of different sites and also on their potential. And we began addressing the sites, one by one. We began with the chapel and the next year we addressed the areas of vegetation along the steps, which seemed a bit less simple because they belong to the city of Prague, while the area around the chapel belongs to the local district. Then there are sites which we are still avoiding because they belong to another entity, like the Czech Railways, which is not communicative at all.
There’s one more unique feature in the Nusel Steps area – a historical log cabin. Does it fit into your concept for the area?
In my head I’ve divided the area into high potential, medium potential and hopeless sites and the log cabin is definitely hopeless. It belongs to some groups that are not transparent and are involved with some corruption cases. It’s not empty – a caretaker operates it for rental. But you can’t reach an agreement with them. They won’t even fix a wall to keep the bricks from falling into our planting bed. We consider it as a huge failure of the system – it’s similar to the Vyšehrad railway station case. And another case is the Chapel of the Holy Family at the Nusel Steps, which was built in 1755 by a citizen, Karel Leopold Bepta, and then apparently nationalized and later restituted, which is why it has 13 owners now. So it’s a hopeless situation. The chapel looks really nice, but in about 10 years it will need to be reconstructed and no one is prepared to take that on.
Have you considered running for local office? Wouldn’t your community activities make it easier?
When we started operating as Friends of the Nusel Steps, the Green Party helped us the most, with clean up days for example. So we kind of got connected and I joined the Green Party and I’m still a member of the Green Party. But the Nusel Steps were always my priority. I didn’t really feel at home in politics and I haven’t ever considered running for office in the Prague 2 district, partially because I’ve never had a permanent residence here. I think that there are more than enough interesting figures in the Prague 2 district and even in the Green Party, there are a lot of people who have been here a long time so I wouldn’t even be able to compete. In that sense I’ve always been more of a Friend of the Nusel Steps than Green.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the biggest thing you’ve done – planting flowers in the beds alongside the steps.
That was our biggest event to date. Fortified by our previous success with founding a park at the chapel in cooperation with the Prague 2 district authority, we asked the Technical Roads Agency, which manages the steps, if we could improve the overlooked vegetation beds that run along the bottom part of the steps. They informally agreed, basically saying they weren’t against it, which enabled us to get public funding for the project. The planting took place as a public event, which we put a lot of preparation into. To avoid eroding the soil from the steep slope, we had to first create terraces there. We had about CZK 80,000 ($3700) for the entire project and we thought we’d spend about half on plants and half on groundwork – reworking the beds, terracing and bringing in 10 tons of soil. We began asking contractors and found out that they could do only one side for the budget we had. It looked like we were going to have to return the funding and then we found two guys who were willing to do all the groundwork for CZK 60,000 ($2780), which was a bit of a miracle. But even so we only had CZK 20,000 ($920) left over for the flowers and we needed to cover an area of 250 sqm. We held a fundraising drive on Darujme.cz, where we collected another CZK 20,000 from people who liked what we were doing. So we had CZK 40,000 ($1850) for the plants, which you can see there now. It’s a combination of perennials and shrubs, which the association Street Gardening selected for us and helped us plant with their volunteers.
So everything turned out well in the end! Were there any times when things weren’t going well and you felt like giving up?
To water the plants, we have a big barrel on the steps. We’ve had to replace the faucet about 5 times because someone always breaks it or steals it. We have to repair or replace the benches and chairs we have on the steps all the time. You can’t keep maintaining the space using your own resources forever. It’s a lot harder to apply for funding for maintenance of a place that already exists than to build a new place – it’s harder to justify the benefit. I’m glad that Via Foundation understood what we were trying to do and supported us.
What do your neighbors, the people who live around the Nusel Steps, think about what you’re doing?
Actually I don’t know because the city center is a really anonymous place. You can’t just go up to a neighbor and ask. We’ve gotten to know some people in the neighborhood because they go to the steps often and get involved in some of our activities. Then there are people who live in a boarding house in the street Pod Nuselskými schody. Some of them get involved too, but sometimes they are somewhat destructive, where one group starts working on various repair jobs but they never finish them (laughter). On the other hand, we think it’s a good thing that they sense that the place belongs to them and that they should help take care of it. Then there’s a group of engaged people who are interested in local initiatives generally, like for instance Let’s Wake Up Nusel or Nusel Steps, so they get involved in all of the initiatives, regardless of whether they take place in Prague 2, 4 or elsewhere. And then there are the neighbors whom we haven’t managed to engage because we don’t know how to appeal to them. We work through Facebook a lot, we send out a newsletter and once in a while we put up flyers. But other than that we aren’t able to communicate directly with the residents around here, unless they find us.
Fortunately, our activities are the type of thing it’s hard to object to. It’s almost kitschy. You add another chair to the steps and you get a few likes on Facebook (laughter). But in general we have two types of haters. One group doesn’t understand why we focus on the Nusel Steps, why we don’t do something else. And the other group is dog walkers, because we’ve taken a bit of space where they used to walk their dogs. Our view is that public space is distributed in some way and occasionally you have to take space away in one function to add it in another. Just like we took space away from the homeless and various night creatures, who don’t feel quite as comfortable here anymore since the space is maintained now. And then with some neighbors we differ on whether it’s necessary to park on the sidewalk. People always have minor disputes about public space.
So neighbors don’t help clean up seating areas either and you have to deal with the site furniture too?
We’ve got a good agreement going with a tea house, which always helps us out when we need something. We can fill up a barrel with water there, they let us connect to the electricity during events even though we occasionally throw out their fuses. I think that it’s important to work with local businesses which also have an interest in having a functional space. Along with the tea house there are other restaurants here, there are the old catholics who run the chapel, and there are a lot of new hipster shops on Bělehradska street…it’s important to engage all of them in the project because they have the power to lead long-term.
What are your upcoming plans for the Nusel Steps?
We’ve reached an agreement with the Technical Roads Agency, who manage vegetation, that they’ll renew the row of trees along the steps. We created a petition about it. We got some signatures, not that many, but enough to bring it to the attention of the district authority and the city government. The city government passed it on to the Technical Roads Agency, where it ended up at the vegetation management desk. We got the Nusel Steps included on a list of about 5 areas which are scheduled to undergo revitalization in the near future.
When I moved into the Nusel Steps area five years ago, there were a lot more trees here and they were in better condition. But we’ve had four particularly dry years in a row and that has taken its toll. And the site is south-facing, so you really need the shade from teh trees. The Technical Roads Agency had a dendrological assessment done which found that all of the existing trees are either in a disastrous state or they are nearing the end of their lifespan and should be removed within a five-year horizon. So we let them know in no uncertain terms that for every tree that gets removed, we expect a new tree. But it’s not that easy. There are all sorts of cables running alongside the stairs, power lines, gas lines, etc. So the infrastructure may need to be moved and brought together. And that brought to light other problems so it looks like it’s going to be costly – in the range of CZK 10 million or more. According to the Technical Roads Agency, implementation should begin next year. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that they don’t cut the project because of COVID-19 and public funding revisions!