BUDAPEST, Hungary -- The two-story building at 14 Kazinczy Utca isn’t much to look at. Some of its windows have been boarded up and a thick layer of dirt and grime has settled into the crumbling facade. A collection of potted plants sits on a balcony overlooking the street while a bright yellow sign hangs in a doorway below.
You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but this is one of the most popular places to be in Budapest, at least on a Friday or Saturday night.
Push past the front door and a dimly-lit hallway leads to a large, open-air courtyard. Colorful lights strung together with furniture and a bicycle or two hang suspended in the air above and scenes from a black-and-white movie are projected onto the back wall. Off to the side sits an old Trabant, a type of car made in East Germany during the Cold War. The courtyard opens onto a maze of rooms, each decorated differently. In one, ancient-looking computer monitors and television sets are mounted to the walls. In another, a bathtub has been split in half and converted into a makeshift seating area.
This is Szimpla Kert, commonly known as Szimpla. It’s one of Budapest’s ruin pubs, bars that pop up and sometimes disappear just as quickly, in the courtyards of run-down buildings. Their success has been a catalyst for gentrification in the city’s Jewish quarter. As the neighborhood continues to change, however, ruin pubs may be forced to change along with it.
The recipe for a ruin pub, or romkocsma as they’re called in Hungarian, goes something like this: find an abandoned building, add a bar, a dance floor and outdoor seating and throw in a mix of art and communist nostalgia. Some consist of only a few rooms, while others have taken over and re-purposed entire apartment complexes. And they’re more than just a place to drink. Szimpla serves up traditional Hungarian pizza and hosts a farmers’ market on Sundays. Not to be outdone, Fogas Ház, a ruin pub which opened a few blocks away in 2010, has an in-house theater, artists' studios and a bike repair and rental store.
Ruin pubs have been around for a little over a decade and many of them have set up shop in the city’s Jewish quarter, which suffers from a mix of poverty and decay dating back to 1944, when Nazi soldiers rounded up and deported tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews living in the area. For decades afterward, the streets were empty and desolate, the buildings boarded up and abandoned.
Where most people saw decline, however, ruin pub operators saw opportunity. Szimpla was the first to open. It started as an indoor cafe in 2001. The following year, its owners scouted out a second location in the Jewish quarter, a decision motivated, in part, by the lure of cheap rent. The new building at 25 Király Utca had an open-air courtyard, allowing Szimpla to operate as an indoor/outdoor venue. It was outfitted with a bar, mismatched decor and a random assortment of second-hand furniture and, just like that, Budapest’s first ruin pub was born. Bars modeled after Szimpla soon began to appear in the narrow alleys and passageways of the Jewish quarter.
One of the most distinctive features of the romkocsma is that the buildings they inhabit often look like they should be condemned. Rather than trying to cover up the decay that surrounds them, ruin pubs spotlight it, celebrate it even. As they’ve taken on a higher profile, however, they have inadvertently become agents of gentrification, pulling people into formerly run-down areas of the city and attracting the attention of real estate developers.
Between 2002 and 2006, developers started tearing down buildings en masse. In their place, upscale apartment complexes and trendy restaurants and boutiques were hastily constructed. These threatened to re-make the neighborhood into a place where ruin pubs could no longer credibly exist.
"In the early 2000s, there was a clear antagonism between the developers and the ruin pubs," says Alexandra Kowalski, a resident of the Jewish quarter and assistant professor at the Central European University who recently completed a study of historic preservation in the area. "Ruin pubs were gaining traction as meeting places and a sort of hallmark of the neighborhood, while the developers were planning to build towers and tall buildings and completely change the look of the area."
In 2004, a civic organization calling itself "ÓVÁS!" (Hungarian for "protest") formed in opposition to the string of demolitions. Ruin pub owners sided with preservationists early on. "They want this kind of bohemian scene to stay," says Kowalski. But ruin pubs never set out to "save" the Jewish quarter or its buildings. "We didn’t save the historical building on purpose," says Titusz Badonics, a technician who works at Instant, a ruin pub that opened in 2008 in the city’s sixth district. "We just use it to do something which looks great in these kind of buildings. We make something until it’s gone."
Construction has slowed considerably in the past few years due to the efforts of preservationists and an economic downturn in Hungary. "The construction industry is stuck and degrading," Badonics says. "There are no big investments in the city." But though it’s lost momentum, gentrification in the Jewish quarter marches on. A survey conducted in 2010 shows that starting in 2001, highly educated individuals began moving into the neighborhood at a steadily increasing rate.
"Low status residents have been pushed out from the neighborhood," János Ladányi, a member of ÓVÁS!, comments. "New houses and apartments are occupied by higher status people."
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What happens to the ruin pubs if all the ruin is removed from the Jewish quarter?
"This is a transitional period," Ladányi says. "But every crisis has to end, and as the economy starts to go up there will be a strong push from investors to once again build houses, offices and hotels. Without systematic protection of the neighborhood, more and more buildings will be torn down and I’m afraid this is true for most of the ruin pubs as well."
But the romkocsma have become a powerful force in their own right and their exit would trigger an economic setback for the Jewish quarter. What seems more likely is that rather than being swallowed up by gentrification, ruin pubs will be forced to change the way they operate. To some extent, this has already started to happen. A new generation of ruin pub-like venues has cropped up in the last few years and begun to cater to a clientele that wants the ruin pub experience but prefers a slightly more sanitized version.
Bazaar Klub is one such venue. It stands at the corner of Sip and Dohány Utca in the shadow of the Dohány Street Synagogue and hosts concerts, plays and art exhibitions as well as a flea market on Sundays. Sound familiar? Its lineup of events conforms to what has now become standard ruin pub programming. But while Szimpla’s walls are covered in writing and scratch marks, Bazaar Klub’s are neatly coated in a fresh layer of paint. Its furniture and decor look brand-new and nothing about it feels run-down. Its owners have imitated the formula Szimpla created but made the experience more upscale, less gritty.
Szimpla isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. It’s arguably the most popular destination in the Jewish quarter and just last year Lonely Planet named it the 3rd best bar in the world. As the neighborhood changes, however, it’ll likely find itself in competition with trendier bars and clubs more often. It’s hard to say whether this second generation of ruin pubs, if you can call them that, will displace the pioneers of the scene entirely or if the two will continue to operate side-by-side. What is clear is that the success of the romkocsma has already changed their relationship to the Jewish quarter. What began as an alternative, underground phenomenon is now being pushed into the mainstream. As Kowalski puts it: "Ruin pubs are the life, the identity of the neighborhood. They’ve become a sort of brand, a marketing tool. There’s an economy here and people flock to Budapest for that."
Top image courtesy of Nóra Mészöly. View her photostream on Flickr here.