Budapest's Ruin Bars: Regeneration, Hospitality and Culture
The culture cannot sustain itself; this is true to this day: the hospitality has to sustain the culture. (Ágnes, operator of Tűzraktér).

The dilapidated ruin bars of Budapest provide an interesting commentary on the role of hospitality and culture in the process of urban regeneration, partly because these venues’ distinctive cultural identity stem from rejecting the redevelopment process. These venues have now become a staple of Budapest’s nightlife and draw crowds from all over the world. Merging hospitality, culture and conservation seamlessly together, the style of the ruin bars have inspired countless events and venues throughoutEurope, even Szentek itself. Spawning out of the rise of entrepreneurial endeavours after the fall of the Soviet Union, the ruin bars only enteredBudapest in the early 2000s but have become an excellent example of guerrilla hospitality.

While the ruin bars came from a place of deprivation and neglect they are now a great source of income for Budapest.The ruin bars, or ‘romkocsma’ (rom), were given this name when their owners moved into derelict buildings in the VII district. This was a district with a long history of ghettoization, first of the Jews in 1944, and then of the Roma population. The now admired ramshackle nature of these bars originally stemmed from the lack of funding and interest in an area that was long looked down upon.  Now Budapest’s main clubs and bars stand shoulder to shoulder with the remnants of Jewish life – small family-owned restaurants, bakeries and the synagogues – that managed to survive both Nazi occupation and Soviet rule.

After years of neglect and abandonment many of the buildings in the district were about to be demolished, which led to artists flocking to the area in search of cheap creative spaces. 14 Kazinczy Street was one such space.Formerly a fireplace-factory about to be demolished, the site that is now Szimpla Kert was formed in 2002 after the Szimpla Bar was relocated.Patronised by people involved in new media, art, journalism and design, Szimpla’s operators took advantage of the ambiguous space by renting the building for a storage space. The grandfather of ruin bars was, and still is, decorated in anything the owners could find; old sofas, an assortment of colourful lampshades, repurposed bath tubs, even an old jeep. From there, Gozsdu and Szoda opened up into courtyards of abandoned buildings in the surrounding streets in 2003, followed by numerous others including WestBalkan, which had previously been located in Buda. These venues have evolved through the years with visitors helping to shape the spaces, leaving stickers and carving or drawing on the walls. The style that originated from alack of investors has now become intentional and emphasised with all ruin bars incorporating one or more artistic mediums such as graffiti, sculptures, and collages into their decoration.

While the success of the ruin bars led to massive gentrification and regeneration of the VII district, these bars tell an alternative story of the relationship between culture and regeneration, due to their adoption of “guerrilla hospitality”.

Szimpla Kert

AsLugosi and Lugosi (2008) argue, guerrilla hospitality can be defined through several key characteristics. First, it is opportunistic in flavour and organisation.Its existence relies on the personal investment and energy of the operators who are central to defining its character.

Secondly, guerrilla hospitality requires less formal investment of economic investment and is less reliant upon formal institutions such as banks for financial support.

Thirdly, guerrilla hospitality may be transient in location, moving from space to space. This is seen in Budapest where the rom venues found an ecological niche in which they could settle, albeit temporarily, as their existence relied on the halting of demolition or redevelopment of those buildings.

Finally, guerrilla hospitality draws on alternative forms of symbolic capital for its appeal and existence, in which inversions define the quality and value of space and place. By inverting the traditional commentary on urban regeneration and culture with their ruined aesthetic, these venues lever a new form of cultural capital.

The combination of these features shows that guerrilla hospitality involves judgements about urban aesthetics and the rehabilitation of the decaying environments, while also embracing decay and emphasising its intrinsic importance to the hospitality industry. In blending subcultural values and hospitality together the rom venues blur the distinction between hospitality as a commercial enterprise and hospitality as a cultural phenomenon.

By fusing hospitality and culture, numerous rom venues resisted closure by claiming status as  cultural institutions rather than mere bars.  Kuplung and Szimpla Kert have consciously positioned themselves as cultural institutes since 2005 by organising events, exhibitions and concerts whilst WestBalkan provides workspaces for several organisations in the arts. By positioning themselves within debates about art and commerce, as well as hospitality and regeneration, rom operators shift the notion of hospitable space.

Fecske, located on top of an open-air swimming pool.

Creativity seeps into the design and operational policies of these bars with operators sharing an understanding of art, bolstering the cultural capital of rom users by reaffirming their taste and marking the distinctiveness of the venues. By hosting intellectual debates, exhibitions, fashion shows with local art students and musical concerts—particularly jazz and electronic music - these venues utilise alternative discourses to mainstream culture in order to define a cultural niche. The owners of these venues dismiss the idea that bars and cafés should play a supporting role to the creative and cultural sector, instead centring these spaces as cultural focal points and attractions in their own right.

These ruin bars have proved that regeneration does not result in a loss of creativity or character. However, we must be reminded of the downfall of regeneration too. As the number of ruin bars soar, their prices do the same. Local low-budget consumers are slowly being excluded from the venues they helped to create, whilst prices of apartments in the area have sky-rocketed. If we wish to keep the authenticity of these spaces, we need to respect the spirit of guerrilla hospitality rather than trying to simply replicate rom venues’ distinctive style.

References

¹ "The First Woman Rapper MC Sha Rock Talks Women in Rap, Sugar Hill Records, & Her Movie Project”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8UBKxJg1SQ >

² “On set w/ Aaliyah, Da Brat, Missy Elliott & Lil’ Kim (1999): You Had To Be There”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOzcH9Fim1M >

³ hooks, bell. “Hardcore Honey: bell hooks Goes on the Down Low with Lil’ Kim”, (May 1997), < https://www.papermag.com/lil-kim-bell-hooks1-1427357106.html?rebelltitem=62#rebelltitem62 >

⁴ hooks, b. (1994, February). Sexism and misogyny: Who takes the rap? . . . Misogyny, gangsta rap, andpiano. Z Magazine. < http://s18.middlebury.edu/AMST0325A/hooks_Sexism%20and%20Misogynywho-takes-the-rap.pdf >

⁵ Adams, Terri M., and Douglas B. Fuller. “The Words Have Changed but the Ideology Remains the Same:Misogynistic Lyrics in Rap Music.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 36, no. 6, 2006, pp. 938–957, JSTOR, < http://www.jstor.org/stable/40034353 >

⁶ Barnes, Dee. “Here’s What’s Missing From Straight Outta Compton: Me and the Other Women Dr.Dre Beat Up”, < https://gawker.com/heres-whats-missing-from-straight-outta-compton-me-and1724735910 >

⁷ “Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche Flawless Speech”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75BknhBhWVg >

⁸ “Joan Morgan Talks Hip-Hop Feminism & The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeYRRzt2ikQ >

⁹ “WAP and the Spectacle of Sexual Liberation”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=ILApR36KgQw&fbclid=IwAR23XawseazqgOGpZJ-VknYVIx3SuO_qkbtovWHiPO5_KP3Z3IwTRmtCrp8 >

¹⁰ Gracie, Bianca. “How Women Reclaimed Hip-Hop in 2019 by Making Their Own Rules”, 19 December 2019, Billboard, < https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/8546781/female-rappers-2019-dominance >

Music never lets you down
Puts a smile on your face
Anytime, any place
Dancing helps relieve the pain
Soothes your mind, makes you happy again
Listen to those dancing feet
Close your eyes and let go
But it don't mean a thing
If it ain't got that swing
Bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa

Chic - Everybody Dance from the album: Chic (1977)