We live in a world of manufactured trends. Manipulated desires: must sees, must dos, must haves. Does anyone know what they really want anymore? Who gave these people permission to designate our desires? Uniformity permeates even the cutting edge. The mainstream weird is carefully molded to give the illusion of individuality, but it is also the product of a cultural assembly line. A truly spontaneous outburst of creative ingenuity is rare these days, but when it happens, it blazes.
In the summer of 2010, I stumbled upon my first Budapest ruin pub. During exploratory walks around my new neighborhood, I noticed a sign that hung over a derelict building: Szimpla Kert. The interior was a wonderland of havoc. Furniture and decor was salvaged from dumpsters and sidewalks. Benches were made from bathtubs and even a gutted Mini car. Religious and antique pastoral paintings, along with art pieces made out of random materials, hung on the gouged and peeling walls. Sharp edges and exposed wires. I always ran my hand over surfaces before sitting down. A tetanus shot in a Hungarian hospital was a terrifying thought. The room in the photo below could be the result of art therapy at an insane asylum. I was never able to hang out in this one.
I began to venture deeper into the slummy streets of the Seventh District, peering into doorways and windows. Somehow I knew that there were others. In any other city, such scenery would equal danger. But in Budapest, it was simply neglect. The next discovery was Ellátó Kert. It was tiny and minimalist. A few battered tables scattered around an empty lot. Then came Kuplung, housed in a former car repair garage.
I found Instant on a lively street in the Sixth District. One look at the rabbit tree and I knew I’d found my realm. It was even bigger than Szimpla Kert, though the decor was more minimalist. Different music buzzed in different corners of the hive. The dank, dark cellar smelled of mold and throbbed with erratic noise. Every Friday at around two in the morning, the spectacle would begin. My husband and I, and any guest who was visiting us, would stand back and marvel. At the elderly gentleman tearing up the floor to dubstep, waving his gnawed straw like a crazed orchestra conductor. Or the tall, blonde, angular twins sporting khaki Bermuda shorts, white polo shirts, and argyle sweaters tied around their necks. They busted into synchronized dance moves like some Aryan Nation Milli Vanilli. Every week it was some new impromptu tantrum. This was the place to let it all out with abandon. Everyone was welcome and everyone understood.
Over the next three years, in the warmer months, my husband and I would begin our weekly jaunts in the earliest Friday morning hours. We usually began at Szimpla Kert, but from there the itinerary fluctuated. Instant was always included, but the others in between were always different. Sometimes we’d end up at the rooftop bar at Corvintető, or if the weather was bad, at the club inside.
This was the most intimidating place to enter. Burly bouncers did security checks before entry. At least one bouncer stood at the edge of the tensest dance floor I’ve ever experienced. I danced on the perimeter or watched from afar. The only way out was a freight elevator, which was operated by a smiling young man offering a farewell shot of liquor. Our friend Alexandra, in the photo below, thought it was the coolest thing ever.
We would head home just before sunrise, more energized than tired. This is what it’s like to witness a phenomenon. The spark of uncontrived eccentricity. You need to savor it while it lasts. And I knew it wouldn’t be long.
It’s a familiar cycle: artists move into cheap, desolate areas. They breathe color and vibrancy into the decay. Rich developers see investment potential. They buy up the property, sanitize it and repackage it for the trendies and hipsters who then co-opt the sensation. The artists are then banished to new territory.
The first casualty was Ellátó Kert. The new murals were tasteful. The colors matched. Ibiza style chillout music had replaced the jarring electronica. Across the street, a trendy ruin pub opened. It was a huge success. Then another one opened a few streets away. And yet, it wasn’t enough that they had their own places created especially for them. The invasion was stealthy, at first. A stag party here, a meticulously manicured beard there. One night, Instant was suddenly populated by stiletto heels, solarium tans, and plastic surgery. My husband and I sought shelter in the cellar. These girls would sometimes descend, by accident, to the depths. Their unease amused me. The flustered glances at one another. Is this cool or not? Someone please tell them what they should think. After a polite amount of time, they’d ascend back into the light with sighs of relief.
I realize that I could be considered just as pretentious as the targets of my criticism. I’m not looking down on those who enjoy harmonious decor, interesting cocktails, stylish clothing, soothing music. I like these things, too. Even though I feel like an imposter when I’m in the realm of the hip. Everywhere around the world, there are places that cater to the look-at-me crowd. Those who don’t want to, or can’t, adhere to their dress and behavior codes know to stay away. It’s the sense of entitlement that disgusts me. The attitude that they are the ones responsible for the magic.
It’s not so much the customers’ fault as it is the developers’. One must adapt to stay competitive in the marketplace. Struggling artists don’t equal profit. By the summer of 2013, the battle had been lost. Kuplung, Corvintető, and Fogas Ház had been completely renovated. The sleepy, disheveled bartenders had been replaced by clean cut pretty boys, and scowling wannabe models. Ruin pub crawl tours were advertised to backpackers and stag parties.
Fogas Ház had become another favorite the year before. The pub had expanded from the ground floor of one building to the upper levels and into the courtyard of the connecting building. The tables and chairs matched. New eyes swept over the scene, making assessments. My husband and I became visible: a middle-aged couple sitting in a corner. I squirmed under the scrutiny.
Szimpla Kert had become a tourist attraction long before I had discovered it. It never pretended to be otherwise. For this reason, it has survived unscathed. Hipsters, hippies, trendies, backpackers, stag parties, the elderly, chubby fanny-pack wearing tourists, and children. No group can claim dominance.
As of July 2013, our final month in Budapest, just one stronghold remained: Kőleves Kert, a circus/playground themed ruin garden right in the middle of the Kazinczy Street mayhem. Other, more underground, ruin pubs and gardens had opened in other districts. It takes some effort to find them, and I’m not going to offer my help by naming them here. Maybe they, too, have since metamorphosed into something else.