When There Was Magic in San Francisco and Prague

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 where bay and ocean meet.

In Prague it’s the low-slung, graceful Charles Bridge spanning the river that winds through a bejeweled city. Above, cathedral spires pierce the sky and Prague Castle looms over the ancient bridge and medieval towers. Untouched in 20th century wars, Prague after communism was sleeping beauty waking from decades of enforced slumber. 

Both cities, San Francisco in the 60s, Prague in the 90s, became epicenters of change, magnets for idealistic youth longing to be part of something new and different.  

Bay Area historian Dennis McNally spent two decades as publicist for the Grateful Dead. More recently he curated a photo exhibit on 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, racial justice, redefining sexuality, organic food, environmentalism,  yoga—fringe issues then, main stream today.”

Dennis McNally

It 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’ personified freedom and consciousness. Possibilities seemed endless. “Doing your own thing’ embodied a vision that far reaching societal change might be at hand. 

A generation later and after the collapse of communism, something similar took hold in Prague, behind what was the iron curtain.  

In November 1989 a fumbling but articulate playwright, Vaclav Havel, was catapulted from prison to the presidency of Czechoslovakia. This modest, self-deprecating artist 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.

Backpacking young Americans were drawn to Prague by the lure of cheap living. They were  among the first to be smitten by Prague and its possibilities.  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, funded by a rich Texan. Alan Levy, an expatriate writer from New York nearing 60, who had been expelled from Czechoslovakia after the USSR invaded in 1968, became editor.  Levy famously said post-communist Prague was a haven for artists akin to Paris in the 1920s.

Other young Americans in 1993 opened The Globe Bookstore and Coffee House, modelled after Shakespeare’s in Paris’s 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.

Mark Baker

Prague, of course, couldn’t match San Francisco’s depth or duration. There were formidable language and cultural obstacles. Havel himself, in the early 90s, 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. 

Today Prague is more beautiful than ever. It sparkles after badly needed renovation and capital investment. Privatization removed buildings and small business from the yoke of state control.  But the artistic scene is a mere shadow of what it was in the 90s or the pre-world war one era of Kafka and Mucha. Havel and Levy are gone, political corruption is endemic and the vibrant expatriate community has shrunk. The Prague Post went bankrupt and under new ownership the Globe doesn’t much matter. 

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 eduated of another generation to San Francisco.  Preferring the city to the monotonous Silicon Valley suburbs where they work, the Technorati influx drove rents sky high and prompted huge development in the old Mission district, obliterating most of what remained of 1960s hippiedom.  

Today 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. # 

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