Budapest’s 7th district: an area with many names
The Hungarian capital is the next stop in our look at districts in the cities of neighbouring countries. Like Vienna, Budapest has 23 districts.
When it was founded in 1873, the Hungarian capital consisted of just ten districts: Buda on the right bank of the Danube had three and Pest on the left had seven. In 1930 the boundaries were redrawn to create four new districts. The city had also grown bigger through the annexation of Csepel and part of Budakeszi. Further additions came after the Second World War, and the boundaries were once again redrawn to create 22 districts. The last addition came in 1994 when Soroksár in the 20th district became a district of its own.
Chicago in Budapest
The history of the 7th district goes back to the Turkish rule in Hungary. In the sixteenth century it was outside the city walls and consisted of vineyards and a few scattered farms. In the eighteenth century it experienced a rapid development, from 11 houses in 1734 to 559 in 1792. It received a further boost with the establishment of Budapest as the Hungarian capital and the construction of the Outer Ring in the 1870s. At this time it was named Erzsébetváros (Elisabethtown) after the Empress Elisabeth, wife of Franz Joseph I. The highpoint of its development came towards the end of the nineteenth century, when numerous apartment buildings were constructed and occupied by middle-class families. The city’s smallest district became its most densely populated. This is still the case today: although only 2.09 square kilometres in area, it has 62,530 inhabitants.
Erzsébetváros is often referred to by locals as “Chicago”. There are a number of possible explanations for this. In the first place the streets are laid out symmetrically, and the apartment buildings are regularly spaced, which reminds returning Hungarians of Chicago. Moreover, during the Kádár regime from 1957 to 1989 it was also one of the most dangerous districts with a very high crime rate.
The district was particularly popular with the Jewish inhabitants of Budapest, and in the late nineteenth century it was a centre of orthodoxy. The largest synagogue in Europe was built there on Dohány Street in 1859 by Ludwig Förster in Moorish style. Another synagogue designed by Secession artist Otto Wagner was erected on Rumbach Sebestyén Street, and other smaller synagogues followed. There was a Jewish infrastructure with schools, shops and kosher restaurants, but it was never an exclusively Jewish quarter or focal point. In the past and today, the Jews of Budapest are scattered all over the city.
Erzsébetváros is nevertheless regarded as a “Jewish quarter” because of a dark chapter in the Second World War. In 1944 it was walled off and designated as a Jewish ghetto. Some 70,000 Jews were herded into the ghetto under inhumane conditions while the other inhabitants of the district were relocated elsewhere. This terrible time is recalled by numerous monuments, a Jewish museum in a side wing of the synagogue, a martyrs’ cemetery and the magnificent metal weeping willow dedicated to the Swedish ambassador Raoul Wallenberg, who risked his life to rescue thousands of Jews.
Ruinpubs – new life for the old apartment buildings
The district also developed as a centre of Budapest nightlife. Making a virtue out of necessity, some clever businessmen resurrected the four-storey apartment buildings, which had been neglected during the Communist era, and their huge inner courtyards and transformed them into fashionable bars and restaurants. The history of this unusual and trendy area, which is also very popular with tourists, began ten years ago with Szimpla Kert. The recipe was simple: take a rundown building, conclude a temporary agreement on its use, put up a bar, and furnish it with colourful and equally shabby coffee house furniture. The Szimpla was soon followed by other outdoor bars and restaurants.
Redeveloping the district
In the meantime both businesses and the local council have recognised the potential of the 7th district. The council, for example, has turned the busy Kazinczy Street into a limited-traffic cultural zone, and many fashionable bars and designer boutiques have opened there. At night the street is full of young people, tourists and students.
Gozsdu Court is another area that was neglected for a long time and has now been transformed by an investor into an elegant office, residential and shop complex – a far cry from its original function in the mid-nineteenth century as a residence for women students. Other refurbishing projects include the Secession-style Hungária public baths. Having remained closed for a long time, this splendid building was bought by an investor and extensively renovated to become the home of the four-star Zara Continental hotel.
Also read our series on Vienna´s 23 districts
Districts in our partner cities
Part 1: Belgrade
Part 2: Bratislava
Part 3: Budapest
Part 4: Bucharest
Part 5: Ljubljana
Part 6: Krakow
Part 7: Moscow
Part 8: Prague
Part 9: Sarajevo
Part 10: Sofia
Part 11: Zagreb