The Ruin Bars of Budapest
by Renata Eszter Horvath
How socio-demographic characteristics and decreasing state ownership led to the development of a new genre of hospitality in Budapest.
Hungary’s capital, Budapest is starting to become known across to world for its famous hot springs and bars. This article focuses on bars, mainly hospitality venues operating in dilapidated, urban buildings in Budapest. These venues, referred to in Hungarian as “romkert” (ruin garden) and “romkocsma” (ruin pub), are established in abandoned residential or office buildings. Some of these are opened all-year while others operate from the early spring until late autumn. Several have reopened in the same location in subsequent years, although many have moved from one place to another and the itinerant hospitality topographies of Budapest’s districts have thus been reconfigured annually.
The majority of the “rom” venues are operated in the VII district of Budapest, with a few in the surround VI, VIII an IX districts. This inner area of Budapest (including the V district) is characterised by low-quality housing, the value of which is compensated for by its good location in the heart of Budapest. In the VII district, 89% of the housing stock was constructed before 1919. Only 10% of buildings were built between the two world wars and only 1% originates from the socialist period. Following the Second World War, damaged buildings were pulled down and the resulting lots largely left vacant or used for car parking. The general deterioration of buildings was coupled with a declining population until 2001. More recently the population in the VI, VII and VIII districts has grown by over 20%.
The socio-demographic characteristics of VII district have four general features: an ageing population, with a high rate of elderly widows; lowering social status compared with the early 20th century; decreasing Jewish and increasing Roma population; and no marked segregation of different residents. The recent growth of the population in the VII district has seen a shift in the socio-demographic profile with the arrival of young people, artist, students renting or even buying flats for a relatively low price. There is growing number of higher educated people, childless young couples and a reduction in the proportion of unemployed, lower-status residents. These features played an important role in the development of this new genre of hospitality.
There has been the absence of a singular local governmental strategy for the regeneration (development) of this area. It was mainly led by the privet sector, often on market rather than public-private partnership terms, with a strong emphasis on speculation. Local government has limited opportunities for intervention because of the high degree of privatisation and the resulting ownership structure. There’s also a strong presence of civil organisations, which have opposed specific initiatives. This context means that the unfolding regeneration in this area is different from state- or public-private partnership dominated districts, where transformation has been more radical and comprehensive. The fragmentation of ownership and governance has led to numerous conflicts in the regeneration process in which “rom” venues have developed.
The increasing rent- and value-gap in the VII and neighbouring districts has led to tensions between residential and commercial use. Investors, developers and the municipality may be keen to engage in more radical transformation, but many of the buildings in the VII district are distinctive and have been given protected heritage status. These tensions between urban decay, valued and protected heritage and private investment are important in establishing the context for the development of “rom” venues.
In summary the underpinning forces of regeneration are the following: low-quality housing, with a growing rent and value gap, decaying urban fabric with an ageing, lower-status population, shrinking in size and decreasing state ownership and influence. The transformation of Budapest has created countless “loose spaces” and “dead zones” and in these in-between spaces, the planning and regeneration process is stalled, although the buildings do not remain empty. These constructions have been turned into galleries, concert halls and clubs, the ruined nature of the buildings into an aesthetic feature and colonised these spaces. The occupation of loose spaces and dead zones may be considered as the outcome of opportunistic entrepreneurialism, which thrives by exploiting conflicts surrounding planning and regeneration. Allowing the hospitality venues to operate thus enables private owners to capitalise on their investment in situations where other, more comprehensive transformation of spaces would encounter legal and political obstruction.