City Hall pledges to "clean up" Czech capital with zero tolerance policy

Wenceslas Square

This week we look at what Prague residents say to City Hall's new pledge to clean up the city centre with a zero tolerance policy. And one of the places that Prague Mayor Pavel Bem hopes to begin with is Wenceslas Square.

It's just about 8 pm now and I'm walking along one of the most expensive streets in the world - Na Prikope. Here tourism represents up to 50 percent of retail turnover.

But as you turn the corner onto Wenceslas Square, you find a different picture - a completely different crowd and a very different smell. This lady used to work at a fast food stand at the bottom of the square:

"Well, I don't get scared so easily but I must admit that some of these people look a little dodgy. Not normal people who are coming from work but the people standing at the corners of the streets doing nothing. It depends on the area you are in and the time of the day that you come here. There are many offices and hotels here and during the day, the people just get on with their business but during the night or evening hours the clientele changes. In the small streets there are many cabarets or brothels that the foreigners go to look for the 'special services'. So, it has changed, actually."

Was that the case a couple of years ago?

"The nationality has changed from the Arabs to the Russians but I think there have been people like that for a long time."

There are plans to turn Wenceslas Square into a luxury shopping street...

"Yes, I think it is a great idea because most of the tourists come to the centre and there is nothing to look at. So, I think they should try to improve the situation a little and put some nice buildings and shops here so that even the locals will like to go for a walk here."

Pavel Bem
Wenceslas Square is a long and wide boulevard lined with historic buildings - some of which are protected as historic monuments. At the top stands the stately National Museum overlooking the square and the proud statue of St. Wenceslas. The area has great potential, says Prague Mayor Pavel Bem and the city's residents should want to be proud of it. True - the Czech capital does not face much in the waz of violent crime, but he says, the city does need a zero tolerance policy - just like the one New York City's Rudolf Giuliani used to clean up the Big Apple.

Are you from Prague?

"Yes I am."

Do you come to the city centre often?

Wenceslas Square
"Well, not that often and mostly during the day. Well, you know there is a lot of construction going on here and the people on the street have changed. It is more multi-cultural. In fact I don't feel affected by this but I understand that there are people who feel a little uncomfortable passing by people offering sexual services. That might offend many people but it doesn't offend me."

City Hall is planning to clean up the city centre a little...

"Actually, there are many suspicious 'boys' who try to approach my girlfriend, when we walk down Wenceslas Square, all sorts of guys on the street - the Yugoslavs and Russians. That was the first time I thought to myself it wouldn't be a bad idea to get rid of them. I guess we don't have a Czech Giuliani but if the policies prove to be as successful as in New York then why not?"

So how does Prague Mayor Pavel Bem plan to clean up the city? Well, the crime rate is not as high as that of New York and Prague residents can take an evening stroll without fearing violent attacks. Evening joggers are pretty safe; there are also very few shootings or muggings. And yet, the Czech capital is in dire need of declaring war on petty crime, the mayor says.

Speaking at a gathering of Prague residents, organised by one of the country's leading newspapers, Mlada fronta Dnes, over the weekend, Mr Bem promised heavier fines for littering, the failure to respect no parking areas, and travelling on public transport without a ticket. But City Hall still lacks a concrete plan. Will the number of police officers patrolling Prague streets be raised, will public transport ticket inspectors have more power, or will the graffiti law help to clamp down on sprayers once and for all. Pavel Bem says yes but just like in New York City, residents need to be patient.