Can Europe Make It?

The ‘shadow play’ of Budapest

In the summer months, Europe starts to migrate. Tourist hordes invade the cities that used to be our home. What have become of our towns? When and how did they become virtual and unbearably cool?

Márton Békés Balázs Böcskei
26 October 2015
A Gozsdu Udver bistropub.

A Gozsdu Udver bistropub. Flickr/ Vilmos Vincze. Soe rights reserved.This migration is not irregular, it is the seasonal speeding up of the global tourism of the middle class. European capitals are filled with people talking all kinds of languages, drink menus are replaced with new versions including higher prices and those who don’t belong to the global travelling middle class are crowded out of their cities for months.

According to Zygmunt Bauman “being a tourist” is a privilege, a sign of adaptation to the postmodern state of things. Therefore not only business people working and moving around in networks are classified as tourists, but also those cultural managers and intellectuals who adopt cosmopolitanism as their life strategy. Mostly they are the ones who make up the crowds in the inner city of Budapest, their local governors and their global counterparts are smiling happily, advertising through their life style such bilingual statements as “be a tourist in your own town”.

Digitalization of our city

So, here we are, tourists in our own city. “I love Budapest” – comes the message from new urban marketing. They order us to find a new café, a breakfast place, discover things that have already existed before but now can be “liked”, in other words: now visible for those who see through a digital eye. Let this city be in a light mood, let multiculturalism be a pastime activity, let’s discover day after day that we can discover something again tomorrow. The city turns into a constant buzz and it retains nothing else but its name, Budapest.

In the 2000s in Budapest, the money revolution arrived. The time of the invisible, off-shore development industry, which doesn’t communicate with anybody but itself. They wiped out entire neighborhoods and “developed” them into faceless mall-condo combos. The city embraced them in the name of “development” and only a few “crazy greens” chained themselves to trees and organized resistance.

The new pavements covering new urban rehabilitation projects take us to postindustrial workplaces to check in. On their paper thin laptops, account managers are making their money, forcing themselves to feel good at the places advertised in tourist magazines as “community venues”. In today’s Budapest, thanks to the sterilization and to the multicultural atmosphere-designer industry you have to write up on the entrance of a place what function they fulfil: social bar and public pub. As if a bar would not be a social place in the first place and the pub would not be public originally. While a bar is dark and mysterious, a social bar is white, carefully designed and sterile. While a pub is loud, smoky and swims in malt, a “public pub” is the place for craft, local and cherry beer.

In this “cognitive capitalism” everything is smoothly clickable. You work at a digitalized place, your breakfast is an Instagram-donut, and you must leave a footprint on the net, where every footprint is part of your digital life.

The over-touristic, digitalized urban state of affairs is not Budapest-specific: it is felt by everybody who is connected to their city through memories, family photo-albums, empty lots and history, a touch, a heartbreak, a park - in Bratislava, Brno, Warsaw and all other places where people live (not only travel through) and ask themselves: “Wasn’t there here earlier a …?”.

Gentrification and hipsterization

Here is a typical local example for how urban memory is wiped away by gentrification and hipsterization (see Richard Florida). The main street of the new party district developed in the former Jewish area of the city, Kazinczy street, is described by an urbanism website as ‘carefree and cheap”, explaining Gozsdu courtyard, the epicenter of consumption as: “more like Munich with a little Lisbon”. An exact and honest description. The wiping out of the memories of urban spaces is at high speed: sometimes it is called rationalization, sometimes rehabilitation, sometimes it involves re-structuring, sometimes simply demolition. As János Térey, Hungarian poet and writer put it: “In Budapest, we are walking on top of buried spaces: the flourishing pub-empire is born exactly on the blood soaked territory of the former Jewish ghetto.” The invasion of new people with purchasing power stepping on the memories of Budapest.

The metamorphosis of localities is the most painful in central Europe. This region receives its orders again and again from the west since the transition: the precondition for its desired future is catching up! What it means in the case of a small country open to global capital flows is that the homework its cities get is mostly to practice being “competitive”, “clean”, “relaxed”, and “transparent”. Catching up with the west in this region – at least in Budapest – means the adaptation to the west. Thanks to its unwanted results, the pub-crawling tourists speaking Hunglish should feel as much as home in this ’ghetto-turned-party-district’ neighborhood as its local citizens trying to get to their synagogues squeezing through wall to wall pub patios.

Once again, Central Europe is united: the homogenization of our cities is clear and tangible, they are neatly packed and placed into a new virtual-digital consumption structure and trend.

A global transformation

This global development seems to be obvious and irreversible. But there is still an ever-growing need to address the question, whether the city we live in is still our home or have we already become merely tourists in it. Can we still relate to the place? Do places still exist?

Alternatively, with the erasure of distance, did geographical distinctions and borders also evaporate? Can we still feel the change of seasons and the passing of time in a city? Do we even use the streets? First, it has to be detected whether there are still places and streets that can be seized or where there is a chance for people to meet. Do we leave traces behind us, or do we live in an environment that already has made it impossible? Is there something that can be called urban experience, is the city still adventurous in a way we are used to? It is not easy, if we are looking for a city that we can call home, and for that very reason leave real marks not just digital data. 

As medieval markets are replaced by 24/7 virtual ones, the city in the digital age does not go without its own radical changes, even if these do not appear as dramatic as demolition or construction. Together with the pipelines in the ditches new rules are laid down, and resisting these changes is not like regretting the disappearance of wastewater from the streets. Through the pipelines laid today, digital data is being streamed. The current state of affairs can be grasped concisely in the following: concrete highways replace the market place and consecutively, they are replaced by broadband networks.

The metropolis of today cannot be defined better both in time and space than by the numerous platforms, channels, monitors and messages of the media (communication, information) that interlace the city. Well before this phenomenon became mainstream, Paul Virilio stated[1] that the city wall of the metropolis without a horizon is the monitor, and its gates are those transit stations (like highways, airports, banks) heavily frequented and protected by “magnetic security controls”, where the gaze/feel of video surveillance, radars and detectors welcome the newcomers. 

The transparent, homogeneous metropolis of the twenty-first century is no longer organized by the dichotomy of manufacture/production, instead, the consumption/spectacle has taken over control. Within this logic it’s no wonder that high-rise office blocks with glass facades get constructed in the place where previously sullen plantations existed. With this move, the oily, steel-wool memory of the war against matter is not merely abolished, but, what’s more, replaced by a conflict-free zone that is structured by communication and made by silicon.

The chimneys are demolished, the walls toppled down, the trenches covered in: the factories of the  suburbs are no longer autonomous enclaves giving place to the grey-brownish caverns of  industrial machinery, but grounds for manager hotels involved in complex transactions, that are flawlessly integrated into the texture of the transparent mould of the metropolis. The metropolis is made up of ‘non-places’ like highways, gas stations, airports, waiting rooms, shopping malls or car parks[2]. Nothing is more telling about the metropolis and its stereotypical functions as the inner city-states (corpus separatum) alienated from the city itself, that are manifested in the community dwelling parks and shopping malls. In contrast to the traditional urban spaces, reminiscent of the forum and market place, the street and the square, they are behind separate walls and guarded with sovereign security practices. They are tokens of alienation and separation that atomize the spatial structure of the city and unify it according to their own logic at the same time. The metropolis is not a ghost city, but is a city ghost – the financial quarter is the necropolis of the capital, while the shopping street is the open air museum of consumption.

You would think that the new crowds drinking in the ruin pubs shake off the problems of locals living in ruin houses or on the streets. Not exactly. This is the neighborhood where “Budapest Bike Mafia” and others like “Our weekly bread” and “Food Angels Hungary” started: a few local ruin pubs cook and donate food, volunteer bikers take them around town to the homeless and they offer a crowd-funded and volunteer organized hot lunch every Sunday, for the 78th week in a row, now also in a second location, a totally different part of town, in the real ghetto of the 8th district. Since the beginning of the summer, they extended the food service to refugees being held up at Keleti train station.

The remains

The tectonic layers of the now merely functional inner city, the suburb deprived of functionality and the dysfunctional places in between and on the periphery (“temporary city zone”, purlieu, new ring around the city, deindustrialized rust zones) accumulate and their intersections draw a portrait of a city that cannot be recognized any more. We are not capable of telling where it ends or begins.

The purifying and digitalizing organization of the center goes together with the obliteration of the former functions, the erasure of the historical memory, the isolation of the “problematic neighborhoods” – keeping unwanted, uncomfortable groups like poor and homeless away - by the farther distancing of their borders.

As the suburbs by definition have no history, the inner city is forced to unlive its past. The obliteration of memory within the urban spaces happens on a daily basis even if they call it by euphemism rationalization or rehabilitation, which is either manifested by reconstruction or simply by destruction. In any case, it happens in the name of comfort and innovation, while in reality it’s for the sake of forgetting and strategic transparency.

It must be manageable and profitable. We can’t even imagine that where once strikes, sieges, demonstrations happened, where land-cruisers stood in fire and stifled silence filled the air, now financial quarters, entertainment facilities, banks and shopping malls grew out from the earth.

Memory of the city

We don’t know, as nothing refers to it, “how bloody the mortar is, that keeps together the construction that we call Budapest”[3]. In his short story book[4], János Térey writes about the hidden secrets, the dark corners of the capital. He articulates these as follows: “While strolling about in Budapest, we are bound to step on numerous buried scenes of action, the bulk of the squat pubs are for instance on the territory of the bloodstained ground of the former ghetto”. We should establish a Museum for Urban Conflicts at least to keep in mind what we should remember. In Belgrade they left open (they let it be left open) the traces of the bombing: cankered ruins in the middle of the city that reminds us that we should live together with tragedies and should not fall into the abyss of consumer amnesia. 

Today software architecture results in the programming of a city – a Budapest without the essence of Budapest. This attitude cannot be paired up with a certain Józsefváros, Erzsébetváros or Ferencváros[5], but only with an open, cutie, pro-consumer milieu, where life is not lived, but joyfully experienced. A few more years and an ungrounded, designable cloud of capital will replace those historical sites, the content of which resists being uploaded and shared on Facebook. 

Suburbs can be found just a few hundred meters away from the inner city localized by consumer goods, information flow and advertisements. The ever-glowing inner townishness overwhelmed by the constant circulation of data is closer than we think. The grey zone between the glimmery center and the annoying pseudo city constitutes the only rival to the metropolis.

“Every culture has its own counter-spaces” – wrote Foucault[6], inferring that in the gaps, hiatus and periphery of those homogenized spaces and non-places culture can exist, and be maintained by preserving its heterogeneous entity. The differences, anomalies impacted in the body of the metropolis: the still separated inside territories, the ruins sticking to their identity and the rebellious nature all around are those areas, shred of maps, or literally places of memory where we can still gain a footing. 

River and city (Budapest).

River and city (Budapest). Flickr/ Marcell Katona. Some rights reserved.

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[1] The Overexposed City, 1984

[2] Marc Augé: Non-places. 1992

[3] Gáspár Miklós Tamás

[4] Passing through Budapest, 2014

[5] Districts of Budapest, used to be called Josephstadt, Elizabethstadt and Franzstadt

[6] Des Espace Autres. 1984

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