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24 hours in Budapest: Ábel Zsendovits (part six of six)

Nowhere is the contrast between the progressive drive of Hungary’s creative class and the current government’s reactionary politics more visible than in the sprawling capital Budapest. The city is known as the Paris of the East for its art nouveau architecture and flâneur-friendly boulevards, though extreme budget cuts and rampant racism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party are rapidly degrading its potential as a creative hub in what many see as an only nominally united Europan Union. We met six protagonists from the city’s varied art, music and cultural scenes who remain cautiously optimistic about their individual futures amidst the collective crisis. This is the final part of a six-part series. Click here for parts one, two, three, four and five. All photos by Rosalia Kullick.

Ábel Zsendovits is one of the four founders of the city’s oldest “ruin” bar, the Szimpla, in Budapest’s downtown 7th district. The bar’s combination of carefully maintained decaying architectural ecclecticism and alcohol provide Bohemian respite from the country’s current wave of reactionary politics.


11:34pm: A drink with Ábel Zsendovits

The cities of Berlin and Budapest have a mutual connection that dates back to the ’20s. The whole idea of turning an abandoned building into an improvised “ruin” bar was inspired by spaces like the famous Tacheles squat in Germany’s capital. Ten years ago there simply weren’t any bars in downtown Budapest where young people could go, other than the usual and pleasant beer gardens where everybody would hang out. Only after we opened the Szimpla, things started to change. Today the whole seventh district is covered with ruin bars, each trying, more or less, to recreate our success. The other day I actually counted them and it was more than thirty bars. But still, we were the first. When we moved to the premises in 2003 the building was already partly demolished. I even took photos of the crane with the wrecking ball. We then started to rebuild the rear part of the building by setting up a plastic tent in the debris, renovating all the remainders of the original structure until we eventually completed the roof. We furnished all the different parts of the complex with liveliness and with functionality.

In my opinion, the story of Szimpla accurately mirrors the last ten years of nightlife in Budapest. To put it simply: I feel we had instigated a new clubbing culture. Before Szimpla, you’d just drink in an average pub, but after we set up the bar, drinking became socially connected to a location, a place with real music that soon became recognized as a meeting point for the city’s hipsters. Also, this eventually became a destination for the young tourists. Of course, the immense expansion of ruin bars in the seventh district also led to some problems with the neighbors. I guess you could call it a kind of gentrification as many of the old neighbors felt forced out because they couldn’t stand the masses of drunken people night after night any longer. A new, younger generation that’s attracted to the same lively club scene that scared the old tenants away has filled the vacant flats since then.

Even though Szimpla has been an astounding success, the last few months have been a struggle for us. The municipality wanted to impose a curfew on all ruin bars to clear the noisy crowds from the streets at night. They wanted us to close our bars at midnight—an act that would have effectively meant the end of all the ruin bars, as our evenings don’t really start until then. Say what you want against the current government and the municipality, we only realized recently that if all the bars join forces we can put pressure on the authorities. Together, the city’s ruin bars have the economic power to set our own terms and conditions, forcing them to understand that they can’t invent laws that compromise our freedom to open our bars whenever we want. We have to pay a new tax now, but at least we’re allowed to stay open. The other day I was asked how this could have happened, and the answer is easy: tourism seems to be the only industry in the country that is still making money. Budapest has 2.7 million tourists a year. They spend approximately 2.79 nights in the city. It’s simply a textbook case of economics, I would say. ~


Published April 19, 2013. Words by Abel Zsendovits.