Bars in ruins, retro-gardens and nostalgia cafes in Budapest at the dawn of the 21st century
by Márk Éber and Dora Szego
Late at night, the little-frequented side streets of Budapest, far from the main thoroughfares, present a small-town, deserted air. Glancing around, one can see only a handful of passers-by, either making their way somewhere, or just wandering aimlessly. Lonely skirtchasers, dog walkers, alcoholics propping up the walls after closing time, lovers, hookers. The doorways present one of two tableaux - either the watchful gaze of the homeless from behind their cardboard and blanket shelters, or lovers in various states of 'preoccupation'. But the night-time scene in Budapest also presents unusual hybrids. Islands of light and sound behind the facades of comatose buildings, havens for those seeking out-of-the-ordinary experiences. The host buildings' past lives are varied: mostly, they are abandoned apartment buildings, giving over their courtyards, once loud with the chatter of maids and the busy steps of customers rushing to place their orders at the furriers', tailors', or upholsterers' workshops. Later, bright-eyed gypsy children did close-quarters battle with pensioners behind the battlements of their railings. In one or two neglected niches, artisans toiled away doggedly at the professions they'd pursued for decades and became - perhaps not even deliberately - the last refuge of the preservation of capital. But there are also former industrial buildings: Tűzraktár, that former chemical laboratory monstrosity in Tűzoltó utca, or the former garage where the greasy hands of the mechanics reaching under the bonnets of the Wartburgs and the Trabants have been replaced - within this aesthetisation of the experience of blue-collar labour - by cheerful clientele of Kuplung bar. And then there are the sandy banks nipping away small sections of our Danube, some of them still bristling with wartime mines. The vanguard of this movement, the Kopaszi is only a memory now, lost in its luxurious fate.
These bars in the ruins are not without precedent: the former beergardens and kiosks were similar, but we can also think about the post-War mass balls, which were held in the streets and courtyards of Erzsebetvaros to ease the trauma and help regenerate. The decades of socialism were a heavy blow to the once prestigious middle and upper middle class districts, the 'prefab politics' merely looking on at the erosion of the city center. Property developers rushed to exploit the by-now crisis conditions of these houses in the nineties, making for strange modern hybrids: scruffy, turn of the century houses preserving only vestiges of their former glory are interspersed with shining new-build blocks of flats in their all the shades of the rainbow. The new arrivals live uncomfortably side by side with the marginal occupants of the small council flats of the decaying neighbourhoods. The developers' marketing plays on the conquered areas' chic legacy, conjuring up their small-town past feeling, while at the very same time destroying it. Perhaps certain parts of Budapest and their occupants are again in a pathological state and are in need of some trauma relief.
There is a multitude of different types of places to gather, meet, relax and exchange ideas in Budapest's belt of transitional apartment blocks, but they all share a common denominator - they all grew out of the soil of decay. They found the justification for their existence in a transitional situation in which the city's old public places have ceased to be, but nothing new has arisen to replace them. The failure of state socialism, leading to regime change has brought to the surface previously mostly hidden social problems. Today, the public squares of Budapest have become a haven for the jobless and homeless: decayed, ruined. In these situations the passer-by is forced into a sort of guerrilla warfare; faced with beggars, filth and noise in the underpasses, he hurries through or avoids them completely. If he would rest in the course of his journey, practically only 'consumer spaces' are open to him, which he has to consume at to use (cafes, fast food restaurants, malls). The public spaces of Budapest have by now definitively lost their role as agorae for meeting and exchange of ideas - the few exceptions being the Millenaris Park, and Erzsebet and Kosztolanyi squares.
The transformative cultural transition of the value systems of the developed West only just reached Central and Eastern Europe: post-materialist values are best represented in the generation seeking alternatives, raised in the ruins of state socialism. In this spirit were born the people of the bars in ruined houses, who created their own agorae: alternative cultural centers, retro-gardens and nostalgia-terraces. These communal spaces born in the "interregnum" are linked to transitionality in several ways. In the widest sense, they are an expression of the transitionary path out of the cultural and mental ruins of the former Warsaw block countries. The object culture of the bars in ruins makes use of the consumer items which served as validation of the consumer policy of the progressively softer state from the 1960s onwards, while reinterpreting them according to Western consumer trends. Let's just take as an example Tisza trainers, products of the economy of lack, which lowered standards of production and aimed at uniformity, obviously products of need, which - having been reinvented in the image of Puma shoes and redesigned - have now become a retro-trendy brand. In a narrower sense, the tamed communal space is also transitory. The buildings, often condemned or in any case in need of rebuilding, are overshadowed by the recurring threats of eviction and closure. In the community of the visitors of these pubs - not without appreciating the business possibilities of such actions - the rumours of closure only serve to heighten the number of visitors. Like the squats slowly taking hold in Hungary, the constant danger of eviction encourages solidarity in activism and protest and helps to anchor identity in space; those who are up on the latest news can have the privileged feeling of being special in being well-informed. "Every night could be the last" - it is the hysteria surrounding this sentiment that generates the current attraction for the people of these bars in ruins, and creates a daily influx of 'cultural pilgrims' to the places under the greatest threat of closure. This exalted role has for the past few months been played by Sirály in Király utca.
But ruins - like traditions - can not only be discovered, but also invented. A creative spirit with style helps the process along. The hallmarks of these bars in ruins, their air of 'decay' is often emphasised artificially. The 'quixotic' furnishings aim to create spaces in which the retro feeling aims to present their own past for image building - like the Corvintető on top of the former state department store in Blaha square, or Fecske on the roof terrace of the Komjádi swimming pool, which evokes stripy swimsuits. This aesthetic of squalidity as well as fulfilling an identity seeking role also serves economic interests - these bars in ruins are cost effectove investments. In these gardens, courtyards, terraces, the young clientele gives content to the object culture of socialism, which they did not experience first hand, and constructs in this way the 'never-was-present' of the age. Sometimes the memory of state socialism is nonetheless painfully alive: the youth, drowning in bits of falling plaster consume their expensive beer after waiting in an endless line by the dim light of basement lights. The spectre of capitalism is also at the bar: it winks at us ironically, reflecting on the price of the drinks.
The scene is saved from sameness because it draws on the styles of a whole century: biedermeier, secessionist, socialist realism. The effect of objects and styles thrown together has a strangely harmonious effect - like an attic stuffed full of the memories of peoples. In these 'furniture parks', there is the eclectic mix of benches originally made for public squares, bakelite and plastic tables from defunct cinemas, rows of seats rescued from closed working mens' clubs, the table football tables that serve to relax and unite social groups, as well as the objects evoking private living quarters; armchairs, sofas, uplighters. An indispensable part of the interior décor is the various lights: rice-paper lamps, trunks, torches, candles, which have a dual function as territorial markers and differentiators. In building on the past, these bars in ruins are boycotting the path represented by investment capitalism: the rootless new forms following in the wake of the bulldozers.
In contrast with the elegant cafes, sophisticated 'lounges' and refined pubs of the city center, in contrast to the cellars and gardens given over to wine fetishism, in contrast to the boozy stink of the cheap bars, and the small pubs trying to win custom with their cheap menus and the basement restaurants with their check tablecloths, in contrast to the spaces of synthetic-drug fuelled parties, the bars in ruins are attractive to fundamentally different type of lifestyle patterns, and offers different types of experiences. Under coloured lanterns and the ivy growing up the party walls, stand the youth: humanities students and arty types, bicycle couriers and girls evoking the chequered style of the seventies, meek high school students and unemployed graduates, Erasmus students and proud native guides, people staring about with red eyes and gesticulating wildly with their wine spritzers, the carefree roosters of fashionable scruffiness and deliberately cultivated stubble. The actors of this stage can all be said to belong to the bohemian part of the 'self-creating milieu' of the 'experience-society'; ideas linked with the name of Gerhard Schulze. This self-creating social big group consists of youths with a high level of education, who instead of adapting to the exigencies of their lives are concentrating instead on the fulfilment of their wishes, on the full expression of their inner meaning (accepted as a given). The distinctive lifestyle of this milieu is an artistic approach, to which these bars in ruins lend an authentic atmosphere.
'Culture as bait' - about which Anna Wessely writes - is also valid in the case of Budapest's bars in ruins. The naked buildings are first discovered by artistic figures: they make creative and communal spaces, cinemas, bars and exhibition spaces, theatres and concert halls and studios among the ruins. Often only a slender piece of metal advertises to newcomers that, when they hang up their bicycles and sledges, they should also abandon all hope of table service and generally the methods of consumer society. But the hidden courtyards are slowly discovered by the friends of friends, and the previously apparently homogenous crowd is diluted with 'outsiders': alongside the insiders who consider themselves the wellspring of authenticity, there appear from air-conditioned office blocks those nine-to-fivers seeking a warmer atmosphere. At the same time, the old spaces become familiar, and then boring to the founding community. For any self-respecting person choosing an alternative lifestyle, the commercialisation of these places is synonymous with their loss of their distinguishing characteristics, and therefore they look for and find newer and newer havens, and assemble their broken furniture in newer and newer courtyards. These places are only cool until they become mass-spaces - and in this a new aspect of transition appears. The cultural forms of symbolic resistance - or at least the appearance of it - lead to a well-known paradox: the places defining themselves in contrast to the cathedrals of consumption (viz. the Szimpla Outdoor Cinema, the Tűzraktár and its successors and the Kultiplex) quickly become, thanks to their popular success, and especially in the eyes of the original, underground guests, 'straightforwardly capitalist'. The development of anti-fashion style symbols based on creativity and bricolage leads to the construction an fixing of a new fashion canon.
By wandering between the places, experiences can be made variable and episodic. The self-fulfilling youth, that is the embodiments of Zygmunt Bauman's metaphorically 'touristic' approach to life, in the sense that they interpret their experience projects and their life stories as a journey that may emerge from a chain of 'trips'. These 'tourists' guard their freedom of choice keenly, their rejection once and for all of being tied down to permanent links: temp positions instead of a fixed career, partnerships instead of marriages, flexibility instead of responsibility. All assumption of responsibility is short term, and is effective only until 'further notice' - much like in the case of the bars in ruins that are the preferred backdrop of this milieu.
The fear that eviction and demolition await the bars in ruins is a real one. West Balkan, playing ironically on our over-eager assumption of our efforts at joining the developed world, moves about once a season, as does that monument to the café culture of socialism and the bars accepting voluntary closure when denied an extension of licence: Mumus, Platán and Akku, as well as that satire of the multiplex, Kultiplex. One of the main traits of the conflict between the interest actors is the continuing licensing of these bars and the maintenance of their stability. On this bourdieu-esque battlefield appear on one side the property owners and developers: now playing on the increase in the value of the plot and now in the guise of the proud mercenary turning over the empty building for cultural purposes - for a fee of course. On another side, the local council leaders are in a powerful position, fearful for their votes, and despite espousing 'safeguarding the cultural heritage' often act in a contradictory manner, and extend their cupped hands when they smell business; those responsible for granting licenses and the experts responsible for granting permission to demolish (often deciding in the manner of an illusionist). Also on the scene are the civil activists and cultural missionaries modelling themselves on Western examples, in their rehabilitative programme making space for bohemians and idealists as well as the ruined bastions of fun; and under this noble banner appear the entrepreneurs riding the wave of nostalgia willing to open bars and shops. By now, in the market that is the bars in ruins, there is battle of oligarchs: one circle of investors will control three or four places with different profiles. Those with only one bar are under threat of being muscled out of the market, if they are not fit for competition. Short-term agreements, the position of the dealmakers, the longevity of the brand, whether the 'place' will open again next year or not, and if not, where it will move to, and which sector of the market the business is aiming at are all factors.
However this field develops, on the way to these bars in ruins, we turn off the straight and narrow beaten track of thinking about the city, about the points of view repeated ad nauseam. These bars in ruins clothe the banks of the Danube, the apartment blocks of Pest and courtyards of former factories in life and meaning: they offer new perspectives in the experience of the city. Perhaps Budapest, with its migraines during the day and feverish visions in the night has begun a process of self-healing, and its dormant joie de vivre will be awakened by the light- and sound- islands hidden behind the facades of comatose buildings. One thing's for sure: the transitional places undoubtedly shift the revitalisation of the fabric of the city; with their flexibility, playfulness and creativity they can but help the regeneration of a metropolis with a bad atmosphere.
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