Prague thirsts for cafe American failed to revive


PRAGUE -- A dispute over a landmark coffeehouse that served no espresso or cappuccino for nearly two years is now brewing up a potful of anti-American ire.

The Cafe Slavia, once the haunt of Czech poets, painters and political activists -- including one young student named Vaclav Havel -- shut its doors in late 1991 when a Boston developer, H. N. Gorin Inc., took over the lease.

Last week, a group of students and former regulars at the Slavia decided they were tired of waiting for their favorite hangout to reopen, so they broke in and began serving coffee and pastries.

"This is a historical place, and to close it for two years is just not good," said Drahos Sustr, a volunteer bartender in the reopened coffeehouse. "I know many people who wanted to come here and couldn't. It's simply stupid to close a coffeehouse like this that's so well known."

Even before the break-in, concern over the Slavia's closure had reached the highest levels of Czech society. Even the president -- the same Vaclav Havel who once frequented the coffeehouse -- had started a petition drive to spur Gorin into action.

If Gorin doesn't "open the cafe to the public without delay . . . it could seriously damage the good attitude the Prague intelligentsia has toward capitalism and toward the United States of America," Mr. Havel said in an open letter to the company's president, Rosalind Gorin. Mr. Havel's office said the president would not comment on this week's break-in.

The dispute over the cafe began shortly after the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" that ended four decades of communist rule in Prague. The new government was looking for a way to privatize the Slavia without driving away the students, artists and elderly who frequented it. Since the Slavia is in a building used by the film school of the Academy of Performing Arts, the school was given the task of finding someone to run the coffeehouse.

Gorin won a competition among a dozen firms for the right to operate the Slavia and an adjacent restaurant for 50 years. Part of the contract specifies that the basic character of the coffeehouse cannot be changed.

"The problem is that the contract is without any terms, without any dates," lamented Jan Bernard, dean of the film school. "If Gorin opens Slavia after 49 years, it would be within the terms of the contract."

Mrs. Gorin did not answer repeated inquiries about the matter left with her secretary at her Boston office, and no one answered the phone at her Prague office. Mrs. Gorin has said she was having difficulty finding financing for the project and that reconstructing the cafe would take longer than initially envisioned.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Cafe Slavia to Prague cultural life. With mammoth windows providing a panoramic vista of Prague castle and the Vltava River, the Slavia always offered some of the best view-gazing in town. And filled with every manner of artist, writer, intellectual and pensioner, it provided some of the best company as well.

"It had a very special atmosphere. It wasn't a place where people would show off in their new suit or dress or hat," said Zdenek Urbanek, a writer whose friendship with Mr. Havel began with a meeting in the Slavia. "It was a social and cultural institution. Except for the state security agents, no big shots of the Communist Party came there."

For the last two years, the cafe has been sitting empty, gathering dust. Then last week, a group of young people broke in to the Slavia at 6:00 a.m., and by 10:00 they were serving customers, although in guerrilla fashion. Young people crowded the heavy marble tables, drinking coffee and beer from plastic cups and eating pastries off paper plates.

The leaders of the break-in say they have the right to operate the cafe, because a former associate of Mrs. Gorin's in Prague, Ladislav Provaan, gave them permission to do so. Mr. Provaan says he and another partner own 60 percent of Gorin's local affiliate, so he has the right to reassign the lease on the Slavia.

"We just wanted to show that for a few hours the cafe was able to open," Mr. Provaan said.

There is, however, little doubt where the sympathies of most people here lie in the conflict.

"I have to say," Mr. Bernard of the film school confided conspiratorially, "it was very pleasant to be in the Slavia again."

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