Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Budapest -- JTA Highlights Ovas! and its attempts to save the architectural fabric of the Seventh District old Jewish quarter

 My favorite sign in the 7th district (for a dentist). I hope it doesn't get gentrified away... Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

JTA's intrepid Wandering Jew, Ben Harris, has written a lively story on the continuing battles over the fate of the Seventh District, Budapest's old downtown Jewish Quarter -- and the district in which  have had an apartment for the past 10 years. (It's a good summary -- and I'm glad to see it because I'm due to speak about the development of the Seventh District at a conference in a couple of weeks in Vilnius...)

He highlights the gentrification but also the activities of Ovas!, an organization founded about five years ago, in attempting to save the dilapidated buildings of the District from unscrupulous developers and the wreckers' ball. Ovas! fights the good fight, but to me the group's failure has been to say "no" to tearing down buildings without putting forward strong, positive alternative strategies.

 Poster for Ovas! outside the Siraly cafe on Kiraly street, Dec. 2008. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I advised Ovas! a little at the start of their activities (they even brought me to brief a city official on my strategic views) and I spoke about the development of Jewish quarters in general at a conference a few years ago organized by Ovas! A number of the people involved (including several of those quoted by Harris in his story) are friends of mine, and I particularly admire the detailed work that Anna Perczel has carried out so passionately over the years. Her book on the buildings of the district is exciting, to read -- but particularly to walk around with.

(See my own JTA story from 2004 about Ovas! by clicking HERE)

Gozsdu Udvar is a controversial restoration/gentrification project in Budapest's Seventh District. In later August/early September, part of the annual Jewish culture festival took place here. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Harris notes some of the corruption involved in the development of the District (fast becoming one of the city's trendiest neighborhoods for cafes and pubs). Many of the developers involved are Israeli.

Gyorgy Hunvald, the mayor of District 7, which includes the Jewish quarter, was deeply involved in selling off historic properties and allegedly making buckets of cash in the process. Hunvald was arrested in February and is now in jail facing charges of bribery and abuse of office.

Perczel sketched out a mind-bogglingly complex story of how investors, developers and the authorities in District 7 colluded to sell off properties, move people out of their homes, and tear down historic buildings for redevelopment. Some aspects of the corruption she describes border on the comical, as when a document that the district was obliged to take into account in formulating its development plan was declared secret and sealed for 15 years.

         Read full story at JTA web site

I began writing about these battles nearly 10 years ago, around the time that I got my apartment, when the local government in the Seventh District (local administrations in Budapest have more power than the city-wide administration) had drawn up plans to punch a pedestrian walkway, the "Madach Promenade", through the district.

When I wrote a "Letter from Budapest" on the issue for Business Week, gentrification of the area was just beginning, but  issues had already festered for years -- actually, for nearly a century. Planners had dreamed of building a new "Madach Avenue" through the district -- and in the 1930s had gotten close: they tore down the so-called Orczy House, a rambling center of Jewish life in the city, and in its place built a brick apartment complex with a huge archway that was to be the gateway to the new Madach Avenue. World War II put an end to these plans.
The Madach Promenade, in fact, is the latest incarnation of a grandiose dream that city planners have tried to implement at intervals over the past century. The failures left the district in limbo, compounding damage done by war and communist-era neglect. Three years ago, architect Andras Roman singled out the Madach plan as an example of how a bold but misplaced vision contributes to urban blight. In ''The Tragedy of an Avenue,'' which appeared in a Budapest cultural journal, Roman traced the failures to the city's behavior as a living organism. City planners, he wrote, ''didn't realize that a city wants to progress by its own rules. It is an inner process that resists the artificial.''

Today, despite all the plans, this process persists. In fact, many locals doubt that the Madach scheme will ever come to pass. But the state of limbo may turn into a fait accompli. Demolition by neglect is a byproduct of inertia, and vacant lots can be more valuable than those with old buildings on them. The Seventh will change, but perhaps not as anyone now envisages.

         Read full Business Week story
        Read my 2004 JTA article about OVAS!


  1. My niece lived in Budapest for several months recently and my sister visited for a month and saw many of the Jewish sites. I wish I had known about your books. I just purchased both of them. You have further inspired me to visit Budapest and also the Suwalki region where many of my ancestors are from. Thanks!

  2. it is an interesting question if Óvás! should really work out an alternative plan. Actually they did work out an alternative plan for the regulation of the district, but from what I understood from Anna was that they primarily "wanted to be" a kindof "watchdog" NGO that warns of something, and tries to solve the problem. But since the authorities - including the one for the protection of cultural heritage - were not receptive to their civil voice, they actually needed to work, almost as if doing the work instead of those people. KNowing the Hungarian NGO field, it requires a high level of fanatism - as there is not enough resources for sustaining an NGO, especially in such an issue where you actually need artchitects, lawyers and PR persons to act.