Planning Histories Collide in Józsefváros

by Utazó

Source: habeebee

In the cities of the former Habsburg Empire, you’re bound to find a neighborhood called Josefstadt (Józsefváros in Hungarian). Since at least the early 1980s, the Józsefváros in Budapest has been a symbol of prostitution, urban blight, and segregation. It is no wonder that “The District,” a 2004 animated film, depicts the neighborhood as a battleground for Roma and Hungarian drug gangs. As part of recent neoliberal restructuring, district politicians and real-estate developers have sought to rebrand Józsefváros as a trendy residential area.

Source: Bálint Rigó

In developing a post-Communist identity for Budapest, public intellectuals have looked to the late 19th century as a “golden age” characterized by peaceful multicultural coexistence, urbanization, and economic boom. This has resulted in a mimicry of styles associated with the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Through EU- and state-sponsored projects, inner-city streets have received cobblestone paving, lamp posts, and street benches similar to those of a hundred years ago. Municipal officials have renamed streets based on the 1896 map: Lenin Boulevard is now Joseph Boulevard, Mayakovsky Street is King Street, and so on. There has been a veritable transformation of dilapidated apartment buildings in downtown Budapest, often limited to the facades.

Source: Qtya

Józsefváros has been a primary site of redevelopment. The inner section has gentrified in the past two decades, with the substantial Roma population and pensioners being pushed farther and farther out. When you cross the main boulevard that divides the neighborhood, you arrive at the outer section, which has been a testing ground for architects and planners for many years. The 19th-century apartment buildings are poorly constructed and uncomfortable, often with communal bathrooms. Some areas have experienced a “shock therapy” approach to redevelopment, while others have been completely abandoned.

Source: Bálint Rigó

Source: Qtya

In the 1960s, entire sections of the district were razed to construct housing projects. In the 2000s, a similar process was applied in building condos, offices, and entertainment venues.

Source: Qtya

Source: Corvin Setany

If you walk down the streets of outer Józsefváros today, you encounter a mix of urban wasteland and neoliberal urbanism. Empty lots and dilapidated buildings surround exclusive condo complexes, built in a run-of-the-mill style to house the up-and-coming young population of the city. Despite surface attempts at elegance, wealthy citizens do not move into these condos. Owners have to deal with thin walls, cheap construction, and ongoing technical problems.

One bright spot in the restructuring of Józsefváros is a rent-controlled apartment complex at 30-32 Práter Street (below), designed by Hungarian architect Péter Kis.

Source: Sándor Szabó

Source: Zsolt Batár, via Atelier Péter Kis

Encountering the buildings at street level feels like a momentary visit to a well-functioning urban area. The contrast is especially noticeable after walking through the mixture of shabby 19th-century apartment buildings, gigantic housing projects, and megalomaniac condos in the district. The unit fits nicely in a city block and makes creative use of its irregular plot size.

Source: Sándor Szabó

Despite an extreme shortage of affordable rental housing in Budapest, 30-32 Práter runs counter to prevailing development trends. It remains to be seen whether it will be a harbinger of change. Although the large windows, balconies, and hanging passages between buildings are appealing, it is uncertain whether they will work in a district with one of the highest crime rates in the city. Still, the low-income residents who moved into these apartments enjoy a living environment far superior to most expensive condos in the area.

Source: Zsolt Batár


  1. Nice article. I agree that the building on Prater utca is both architecturally interesting and, because of its controlled rent, a good way to put the brakes on the attempted (state-led?) gentrification of the district.

    I think it's also worth pointing out that, at least as far as I'm aware, these flats were built for families whose original flats were knocked down to make way for the Corvin Promenade project that you show above. The local government used to proudly display Prater Utca as an example of affordable housing going hand-in-hand with 'redevelopment'....

    ... but, and here's the issue, most of those displaced by the Corvin Project were really displaced away from the area. Only a small number could actually get flats in Prater Utca. I think it's important to mention it, because those who were redeveloping the district (local gov via the company Rev8) liked to hold up such 'social' projects as justification for undertaking such widespread demolition-displacement projects as Corvin. Which is why, as good as they are, I think the caveat is needed.

    At least this is as far as I'm aware....

    Thanks for the article.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.