Budapest's underpass squatters [1996 article] FWD

Tom Boland (
Mon, 6 Apr 1998 11:41:58 -0700 (PDT)
Sept. 24 - Oct. 7, 1996


by Gergely Nadori

   "Son of the underpasses, your life something misses." -- Hungarian rock
group Dynamite

   Underpasses are a city inside a city. They contain a curious
cross-section of the city inhabitants: The career woman, swinging her
briefcase as she walks briskly to the office; the old man, breathlessly
leaning on his cane as he shops for bread and fruit; and the troubled
teenager, shivering under a blanket in the night cold.

   For the visitor, watching the people who pass through Budapest's
underpasses offers a better cultural lesson than any guidebook.

   *A squalid history*

   Budapest's first roomy underpasses, housing shops and the country's
first vending machines, were built in the early 70s when the second subway
line was finished. These new passageways were soon populated by unique
residents. Hungarian hard-rock music first appeared about this time and
some youth, intrigued by rock's messages of rebellion, answered its call by
dropping out of school and running away from home. These so-called
squatters -- smelly, dirty and young -- were the first inhabitants of the

   The squatters had their own version of drug use and the black market.
Drugs were relatively tame by today's standards; hard-core street drugs,
like cocaine and heroin, were nearly impossible to get. Instead, the
squatters sniffed Technocol Rapid, a synthetic glue.

   To make money, they begged and sold their own lice. For this, they had a
ready market: Any child with head lice spent two weeks out of school, so
children eagerly bought the squatters' 10-forint matchboxes of lice.

   By the end of the 80s, nothing of the squatters' culture remained. Their
place was taken over by an older crowd who had been forced into
homelessness, rather than had chosen it.

   The next change in underpass culture occurred early this decade when
musicians first appeared in the underpasses. Poorly trained Hungarian
fiddlers and clarinet players tried to entertain passers-through -- with
limited success. The underpass music scene has slowly improved, and now,
during the daytime, nearly every underpass holds a good concert of
Bolivian, Peruvian or Ecuadorian music.

   *Different underpasses, different lives*

   Each of Budapest's 15 or so large underpasses has its own subcultural
flavor and its own history, among them, four are particularly notable.

   In the 70s and early 80s, the underpass beneath Batthyany square (see
map), close to Budapest castle, was the primary squatters' hangout. But
now, few vestiges of the underpass culture remain. Three years ago, the
vending machines were removed and replaced with grocery stores. The area
lives to its original fame one week every August, when the suburban train
going to the rock festival Pepsi Island starts here. During that week, the
underpass is swarming with young people from every walk of life. Though
they do not live in the underpasses, they create the same feeling of youth
and freedom as their predecessors.

   Nowhere in Budapest can such a diversity of people be seen as in the
underpass at Nyugati square, near the Western railway station, Nyugati
palyaudvar. During the day Latin American musicians play, and in hidden
corners, individual fiddlers and clarinet players have more financial
success than musicians at many of the other underpasses. Throughout the day
a long row of phone-card traders, who collect rare phone cards for their
design, stand near the phone booths, buying, selling and exchanging phone

   Every age category can be found among the Nyugati crowd. After 2 p.m.,
when school lets out, youth participating in the phone-card trade appear.
In the afternoon, one of Hungary's small political parties usually holds a
gathering, issuing nationalist propaganda through megaphones. Early evening
brings a strange mix of young people on their way to dance and drink and
yuppies headed to the area's posh pubs. Late at night, the homeless rule
the place. Some of the area's homeless, like "the King," an old man with a
long white beard who always wears a crown of leaves, are known throughout
the city.

   Nyugati's hot-dog and hamburger stands are open around the clock, and at
night an unusual cross section of the city eats here: The homeless wait for
the occasional free beer, yuppies on their way home stuff in a burger, and
the young visitors of nearby arcades trickle in, looking for cheap food.

   The underpass beneath Blaha Lujza square, at the edge of central Pest
and close to the Budapest neighborhood nicknamed "Chicago," is considered
the most dangerous. Nevertheless, many missionaries, from the Mormons to
the Hare Krishna, distribute their pamphlets here. Visitors will sometimes
hear chanting mingling with fiddle, and fiddle mixing with Andean wood
instruments, creating an eerie, but interesting, cacophony.

   The Astoria underpass, only one metro station away from Blaha Lujza, is
a moderately quiet place with its share of beggars. Its most noteworthy
characteristic is that it used to have the best Latin-American music in
town. But since the musicians were shot at three months ago, the groups
have scattered throughout the city, opting for areas such as the Nyugati
underpass. Nevertheless, the underpass, in the center of town and near a
university, is still among Budapest's busiest, and passers-through can buy
blankets and folk art from the vendors who have set up there.

   The visitor who ventures to this city within the city sees life in the
mainstream and life on the edge: the account executive, the elderly woman
struggling up the stairs, the homeless, the young boy on his skateboard,
the drug addict, the puzzled tourist, the poor musician.

   Instead of manicured tourist sites, the visitor sees the real Budapest.


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