In the Name of Havel

Renaming streets and squares in honor of famous figures can be a tricky business

A number of Czech city councils are currently considering which squares and streets might bear the name of the late president Václav Havel. Proponents of renaming won't have it easy, though. "The most obvious place in Prague would seem to be one of the Vltava embankments where Václav Havel used to live in the past," says Václav Ledvinka, head of the Prague Archive and a member of the Place-Name (Toponymy) Committee of Prague. "But he himself as president allowed it to be renamed Rašínovo nábřeží (Rašín's Embankment) in the '90s, so we can't really take it away from [Alois] Rašín and give it to Václav Havel now."


Renaming a square or a street in downtown Prague can also lead to objections from residents, who would have to change their ID cards and other documents if their address changed. For this reason, plans to name Šmeralova street in Prague after former dissident Pavel Tigrid were rejected. "It will be a hard thing to push through the change of a street name," says Ledvinka.


There hasn't been much renaming of Czech streets in the last 20 years, and even in the early 1990s, following the regime change, city councils tended to preserve old names associated with controversial figures if they could find somebody less contentious with the same name to reassign it to. The city of Brno kept Nejedlý street, for instance, which, until 1991, honored Zdeněk Nejedlý, the former Communist politician and historian. Following the Velvet Revolution, the street now supposedly commemorates painter Otakar Nejedlý.


Nice names
New names are still needed for public places, though. In Prague alone, around a hundred new streets are built every year. Anybody can propose a name for a new street or public space. "The current trend is for developers to suggest street names but we've successfully resisted this," says Ledvinka, whose responsibility it is to recommend names for streets and squares.


Construction companies often propose names for streets and squares based on research carried out by marketing agencies, with the main goal of attracting a buyer. So Prague authorities receive proposals for street names such as Voňavá (Perfumed), Kvetoucí (Blooming), Příjemná (Pleasant) and Perspective (Good Prospects). The Prague authorities have rejected such names, however, because of their obvious marketing agenda.


From time to time, the experts' views are sidelined by committed developers who win local political backing and are able to push their proposals through the city council. The authorities permitted a small patch of grass in the midst of a construction site in Žižkov to be named Central Park, for instance. Private companies also get their way sometimes: Prague now has a street called Duhová (Rainbow), where energy giant ČEZ has its headquarters. ČEZ's original proposal, "Rainbow Energy Street," didn't come to pass.


Following a massive renaming of Czech streets and squares in the early '90s, dominated by the name of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, political figures' names haven't played a big role in the past two decades. "Towns prefer neutral names, such as Zátiší ("Still Life"), or U Potůčku ("By the Little Stream"), and if they want a celebrity, they prefer a footballer," says Ledvinka. Prague's Čakovice district, meanwhile, now has three streets named after local residents -- a priest, a pub landlord and a volunteer fireman (Engler, Kotršál and Špecián).


Regardless of the time it was built, the most common name for a Czech street or square is Zahradní ("Garden", 689), followed by Krátká ("Short"), Nádražní ("Railway"), and Školní ("School"). When it comes to famous historical figures, the most popular names are J. A. Komenský (385) and Miroslav Tyrš (372), while the most frequently honored political figure is František Palacký (325), who even trumps T. G. Masaryk (314). Former President Edvard Beneš has around 70 streets and squares named after him across the country, Ludvík Svoboda 42 and Antonín Zápotocký five. Two streets bear the name of Winston Churchill and one in Prague 6, renamed last year, commemorates Ronald Reagan. It's worth pointing out that this was in an area with no residents, so there no was resistance from local people.


Apricots and footballers
When it comes to modern trends in street-naming, suburban satellite communities deserve a special chapter of their own. These small villages have no toponymy committees and streets are named however the local authorities chooses. Plants and flowers are often the inspiration, resulting in streets with names such as Meruňková (Apricot) and Liliová (Lily).


The village of Velké Přílepy, near Prague, is an exception, however. One new development has streets with names taken from three different categories: actors, composers and athletes. So you can walk down streets dedicated to Dana Medřická (an actress) or footballers František Plánička and Josef Bican. "I must admit there was a bit of a problem with the football players," says Mayor Věra Čermáková. "One city council representative refused to agree to the proposed footballers since, according to him, they were all Slavia players." (There is a fierce rivalry between the two main Prague clubs, Slavia and Sparta.)


In the town of Kuřim, near Brno, a whole neighborhood has names inspired by Jaroslav Foglar's iconic book Rychlé šípy, a novel about a Scout movement club. Czech streets named in the past two decades sometimes display a sense of humor. Several streets bear the name of Jára Cimrman, a fictitious character created by a group of humorists. An amazing polymath, Cimrman is supposedly the country's greatest playwright, composer, poet and inventor. In the village of Stará Huť in the Příbram region, there are streets named after Cimrman's (non-existent) plays such as Němý Bobeš and K Severnímu pólu. Another legendary fictional character, the good soldier Švejk, doesn't fare so well: there is only one street in the Czech named after writer Jaroslav Hašek's creation.

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