Ostrava - steel heart of Czechoslovakia

Hello and welcome to another edition of Spotlight. This week it's with me, Zuzana Smidova, and I am inviting you to join me on a tour of the Moravian city of Ostrava. Being an Ostrava correspondent for Radio Prague and living in a nearby town, I'm well acquainted with the town's past and present, it's achievements and its problems. And so today I will be your guide through the city.

It used to be called the 'steel heart of Czechoslovakia' but many things have changed since then and now the city is struggling with a 15% unemployment rate. In the communist years it was best known for being heavily polluted, the view of the city dominated by chimneys and mining towers. But what does it look like now ? I live in a small town nearby and as I take the bus to Ostrava almost everyday, I can not help notice that the horizon of the city has changed significantly. Those numerous chimneys, slag heaps and mining towers are still in evidence - a testimony of the city's heavy industrial past - but there's hardly any smoke coming out of the chimneys, the slag heaps are covered with greenery and none of the mining towers brings miners up to ground level any more.

Right now I am standing in front of the new city hall, I say new, even though it was built in the early thirties, but there is an even an older one on the main square, which now serves as a city museum. The new city hall is a fine example of the functionalist style and is dominated by a high tower. Unfortunately today the tower is closed, but I will take you to a different spot, a hill beyond the city, from where one can get as good a view as from the top of the tower.

Ostrava has about three hundred and thirty thousand inhabitants and almost ten per cent of them are Romanies. Therefore I decided to talk to someone who is involved in the life of the Roma community in Ostrava. Three years after the 1998 floods in Moravia, many Roma families are still living in temporary shelters in Hrusov and Liscina. Those are actually 'dying' parts of the city, because even the municipality proclaimed them to be a health hazard to their inhabitants. The situation is in desperate need of a solution.

But there is also some pioneering work being done. The city officials together with the local bishopric and Mr. Vishwanthan are organizing a project called "Life together". Its aim is to build a small housing quarter in which both Roma and non-Roma families will live together in harmony. Those who want to live there are directly involved in organizing the project and will also help with the actual building process.

Recently the European Roma Rights Center filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on behalf of 18 Roma children from the town of Ostrava. The case is challenging, as their lawyer put it, the systematic racial segregation and discrimination of Roma children in Czech schools. And so I asked Mr Vishwanathan about that as well: Now I am standing on that hill above the city, overlooking the Odra River. The river flows through the city and along it's banks there's a lot of greenery. There are also visible artificial hills: piles of earth which have been dug up from the mines in the past. On the horizon I can see the Beskydy Mountains but straight below me there are numerous industrial plants.

On the right there is the Vitkovice steel works and on the other side of the city an outline of Nova Hut, two giant companies which for many years shaped the history of Ostrava. Now both of them are struggling though, looking for foreign investors to help resolve their economic problems.

The recent crisis in the steel industry and the whole process of restructulization hit this heavily industralised region badly. So what is the future of the city? I asked the American Ambassador to the Czech Republic John Shattuck, who recently visited Ostrava to share his views. But Ostrava is not only the former 'industrial heart' of this country. In its industrial past lies a certain poetic nostalgia. To get a more artistic view of the city I spoke to Viktor Kolar, a photographer.

Author: Zuzana Šmídová
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