The Space Between: Ruin Pubs in the Hungarian Capital
In a city that takes it transportation seriously, where the escalator moves so fast that novices might consider wearing a helmet, I can’t say I was surprised to learn that vacant buildings and lots were being used in creative and innovative ways. Efficiency seems to be the name of the game in Budapest.
The history is sad. Unfathomable even. In a neighborhood devastated during the war, where thousands were forced from their homes, many to never return, revitalization is finally taking place. Buildings and lots that have been vacant for nearly half a century have new life.
A movement that started in 2010 has turned a neighborhood with an incredibly sad past into a trendy, hip part of town. Ruin pubs as they are called, are popping up all around Budapest. In the middle of the afternoon, I walked into what is considered the most famous of these institutions, Szimpla Kert, and found it swarming with tour groups, as well as locals taking a break in the courtyard garden. This establishment looks something like a hollowed out old building, filled with knick-knacks and furnishings from your local goodwill store. There were plastic flamingoes, giant clocks, velvet couches, colored light arrays, and an assortment of signs with crazy sayings. It looks like the kind of place hipsters on their single speed bicycles would frequent on a regular basis. But, it seemed more of a community institution – a place to memorialize the history of the neighborhood by developing new uses in the existing space.
Another one of these pubs, located just a block away, was built in an empty lot between two buildings. It had a tiki bar and colorful DSC_0685hammocks where patrons could relax away their day. A sort of beach in the middle of Budapest. Yet another, just across the street, was a taco stand, hidden behind giant, brightly painted steel doors. I was engrossed with these innovative and temporary uses of empty space. And, as I walked past these places, I wondered two things: how would the history of the neighborhood change once the places closed down and were replaced with new buildings and what lessons could the ruin pubs teach US cities?
I am not sure I could ever adequately or effectively address the question of how the history of the neighborhood might be affected once these temporary uses were ousted with the development of new buildings. However, I am prepared to hypothesize on what lessons might be transferred from the Hungarian capital to US cities in transition.
The first thing that comes to mind is that the US is a country full of regulations and opening a bar in a vacant building would break all sorts of building and other safety codes. But what about opening a temporary, pop-up bar on a vacant lot? Recently, I read an article on pop-up bars in Philadelphia and how entrepreneurs are circumventing strict alcohol regulations. Of course, there are issues with this method that are upsetting law makers and other entrepreneurs, but at least the debate has been brought to the forefront.
What can these temporary uses do for a community? How does the location of a pop-up bar impact neighboring establishments? Are these pop-ups inherently bad for economic development, or do they bestow benefits that should be considered? In the case of Budapest, we can infer that the inherent nature of the ruin pubs is not to wreak havoc or even steal business from other establishments, but to create vibrancy in a not-so vibrant, transitioning area. These pubs have taken downtrodden, forgotten parts of the city and brought a richness and sense of belonging
Maybe it is time to loosen the restrictions and allow for more entrepreneurial uses of vacant property in the United States, not as a way to dodge regulations and laws, but as a way to temporarily add a bit of panache to an area that is otherwise forgotten. Vibrant areas were not always so, and now vacant areas may once have been vibrant. There is no harm in bringing back the vitality there once was, even if it is just temporary.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.