Between summer 2018 and winter 2019, I collaborated with Jindrich Štreit, the celebrated Czech documentary photographer, on an oral history project, Panel Story: The Life of a Community, in the small Czech town of Opava.
This study aimed to produce and preserve knowledge about the life of a neighborhood community at the U Opavice street in Opava, where I was born and raised. Consisting of three seven-story “panelaky” (prefabricated apartment buildings), the community at the center of this study dates back to the early 1960s. Many of the current inhabitants of this panelaky development have lived there since the beginning when the apartments were built, and their active participation in that process of building first connected them to this place.
In terms of physical urban geography, the tall multi-story panelaky are sometimes described as vertical suburbs. But while panelaky, similar to the US suburbs, tend to be associated with uniformity and monotony and their images have been used to buttress the stereotype of the socialist life as grey and anonymous, the U Opavice cooperative managed to create a strong sense of closeness and connection to the place, which perseveres to this day and continues to be actively nurtured. The Panel Story project aimed to capture the sense of community the people living here have created, and also how their lives (and the neighborhood) have been changing since 1989.
The project was supported by Carleton College’s Mellon grant Public Works: Arts & Humanities Connecting Communities. The grant financed the development of the Panel Story website, the publishing of the Panel Story book, an accompanying photograph exhibition and public discussion, as well as a visit of WGSE students at the U Opavice site in October 2019.