Light and Dark: French Film Maker Documents Budapest Party District
Budapestʼs “party district”, also known as the “PartyZone” is gaining global fame: the inner section of Erzsébetváros, the location of the short-lived Jewish ghetto in World War 2, today hosts a constant throng of visitors. All are keen to sample both the many “classical” restaurants along with the district’s trademark romkocsma, or “ruin pubs”. But – aside from the fun and frolicking – this seeming success has spawned a growing, troublesome, darker side.
Dóra Garai, who heads the NGO Élhető Erzsébetváros (Make Erzsébetváros livable again).
It is five in the afternoon on Kazinczy utca, Budapest VII, but already the streets are quietly buzzing with tourists, some buying eats from street-food stalls, some drinking in the pubs and cafés, others merely window-shopping. For Régis Desconclois, a French TV film maker, it is an ideal time to begin shooting the Budapest scenes for his documentary on the Hungarian capital’s PartyZone and its growing international reputation as an “affordable-fun-loving-destination” – along with its downside issues.
Desconclois has already shot the departure of a compatriot’s bachelor party group from Paris, and plans more “fly-on-the-wall” scenes with the gang as they explore Budapest’s many attractions. But for now, with your correspondent, he is working to document the placid, early evening scene near what today is arguably the district’s number one tourist destination – Szimpla kert.
Touting itself as the precursor of Budapest’s unique romkocsma trend, Szimpla kert began life as an alternative pub in an abandoned nearby housing block in 2002. Its philosophy was very simple – never mind the patched furniture, threadbare carpets and unplastered walls, just have a drink (or two) and soak up the relaxed atmosphere among friends.
The concept was readily accepted by locals (District VII traditionally being a liberal location) and, as ruin-pubs proliferated, its fame quickly spread across the capital, especially among the youth, who delighted in the affordable prices, unpretentious decors and wildly lax opening hours.
Before long, foreign tourists too discovered the delights of this quirky scene, and with details reported in the likes of the Rough Guide, it rapidly became a popular “must-do” when coming to Budapest. Today, though nobody knows the true numbers, it is arguable that a majority of the visitors that constituted the capital’s ten million guest-nights in 2017 made at least one trip into this heady, exciting locale.
“There were approximately 700 pubs and restaurants here at the last count, all in an area of just 0.5 square kilometers, but it’s hard to keep track of the exact numbers,” says Dóra Garai, who was born and raised in Akácfa utca, on the eastern side of the party district. “Certainly, there are tour companies which specifically focus on guiding groups [of foreigners] from ruin pub to ruin pub.”
But the growing popularity of the location, the ever-increasing crowds and ever-longer opening hours have brought their own issues. Indeed, for many, the party district has already become a victim of its own success.
The deeply disenchanted include Garai, now a leader of Élhető Erzsébetváros (essential translation, Make Erzsébetváros livable again) an NGO formed to restore what local citizens regard as their lost right to normal living in their own homes.
“When this whole thing started to evolve, in the beginning it was OK. It was convenient. As a teenager, I could go out, and I was home in five minutes. It wasn’t risky… it was for us, it was for the locals,” she says.
But in recent years, that has all changed: as each evening turns to night, the more serene ambience turns to hard partying, loud dance music, and very heavy drinking. From around midnight on, groups roam the streets, singing, shouting, and, more recently, vandalizing property, especially parked cars.
“A club opened under my flat, and I tried to sleep every night with the boom, boom beat coming through my pillow,” says Garai. “I’ve seen a row of cars with their wing-mirrors broken, people jumping on the bonnets. I’ve had to buy ten wing-mirrors myself, and I’ve sold my nice cars. Now, I use a Swift. I don’t mind if [and when] it gets damaged.”
Garai, who testified on camera to Desconclois for the documentary, reckons that roughly half the district’s original 45,000 residents have moved away in the past decade, unable to stand the noise, litter and general loutishness of late-night revelers. (Garai herself has moved to a quieter part of Erzsébetváros.)
And alongside the legal commercial activity, drug dealers also work the streets, she and others stress. “We recognize their faces,” she says. Despite repeated complaints to both the district council and police, the authorities rarely take action, she alleges. (Requests to the police and district council for interviews for the documentary were declined.)
John Bienias and Karen Culver, a British couple who moved into Kazinczy utca 11 years ago, share Garai’s experience. Originally attracted by the fun, local atmosphere, they say the “character” and number of visitors has changed in recent years.
“It used to be people would come here, enjoy the ambience, have a few drinks, and clear off,” Bienias says. “Now, it seems that people are coming to get as drunk as possible, as cheaply as possible. I think there’s a culture of ‘we’re away from home, we can do whatever we like, and it doesn’t matter’. And that’s a problem.”
Their sleep regularly disturbed by drunken revelers every night, they rise to find the street cleaned but piles of detritus – anything from packaging, bottles, pizza slices, vomit and urine – left in their doorway.
And there are drug dealers, who regularly trade near their door, untroubled by police on the opposite side of the street.
The couple are near breaking point, saying they will, reluctantly, move out if nothing is done to address the situation.
Garai, along with many supporters in her NGO, refuses to give up the struggle, regardless of official inaction.
“I was born here, and have lived here for 30 years,” she told the Budapest Business Journal after the documentary was aired in late June. “Nobody has the right to chase me away.”
Desconclois’ documentary is available (in French only) at: bfmtv.com/mediaplayer/video/budapest-la-fete-sans-limite-1085469.htm
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