Reality of the Dream: Government Funded Community Spaces

Part of what I was hoping to prove through my search was that the government should provide funding or space for community centers in each district. That is exactly what I found in Budapest, but the reality of this dream is not quite what I had envisioned.

Skating through Budapest on my way to another bathhouse, I spy a storefront with all the makings of a community space.

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I head inside and am greeted at the front desk by an elegant woman who is happy to answer any questions I might have and turns out to be one of the programming directors of the space.

She explains that every district in Hungary has its own government-funded community space – a “klub” called a “culture house.” Each culture house is under the stewardship of the mayor of the district who in turn appoints directors of each space. The programming directors choose what services to offer and how to design the space. This space offers exercise classes, a free library, children’s classes, among other things. She takes me on a tour of the space. There is an exercise class for government employees in session on the second floor.

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A gallery, kitchen and library on the first floor.

The space feels welcoming, but not too. There is a sense of rigidness I cant shake. Typically there is only one space per district but we are currently in the first district which is the largest and one of the wealthiest in Budapest, so there are two spaces. She points me in the direction of the other, larger klub for this district. I thank her and am off.  A ten minute ride along the river and I reach the main culture house for the first district.

The location is incredible – right in front of the river, next to the chain bridge and across from the Parliament. How amazing that the community has access to this space! At this point I am exceedingly excited. This is it, this is what I’ve been dreaming of here we go. I head inside and am greeted by a foyer and, again, a sense of ridgidness. The space does not feel alive.

A gorgeous woman in a long flowing dress is coming down the stairs. I think she may be one of the directors and so ask her about the space. She is actually a relationship counselor that rents out an office in the building. My enthusiasm is still raging so she takes me to see the office, it is a typical counselor office with high ceilings, soft muted colors, a long patient couch and desk with a computer. She says that all the rooms on this side of the building are rented out by businesses and that I should go back down the stairs to the other side.

I head back down and walk through the courtyard to find a separate area with women in workout clothes and young adults with instruments ebbing in and out of rooms. I walk around with now tempered enthusiasm, notice a bulletin board of events and look into an office with a young woman about my age working at one of the 6 desks.

She comes out to greet me and is willing to answer any questions I may have. We speak for about 2 hours. She calls the space an “institute” and explains that this type of Institute has a long history. In the early 1980s the communist government was having some issues so the spaces were used to monitor community interaction and preserve cultural identity. Citizens were not allowed to meet in coffeeshops etc. in an effort to discourage community organizing against the state and so met here. Oh. Woah. So the exact same type of space that I had been hoping to create to encourage self expression, community empowerment, freedom and collaboration, was used to stifle all of those and preserve the state. The irony of this is not lost on me.

 

She explains that before the fall of communism in 1989, the government was more strict and the spaces were used to control the people as people could not meet elsewhere. After the fall of communism and the political change, there was more opportunity to organize and come together as the government was less strict. Therefore the culture houses were not necessary and other, independently owned spaces began sprouting up. She tells me however of a female director of this culture house that has become somewhat of a legend who brought in the community and underground scene with rock music but that ever since that director, the cultural institutes in Hungary have had a hard time bringing in young people. Mostly parents with young children and the elderly use the houses.

She is very polished, neat and organized. She reminds me quite a lot of my peers at Princeton and in my former cubicle research job. She studied community, culture and how to organize programs for elderly people. Her job here is to assist the director, organize programs and be responsible for contracts. The space has to generate income, that is why they rent out the offices in the building. Their other sources of income are money from the government, money from the European Union through grants and event rentals. For big events they have to write a proposal to the mayor. For annual funding, they write a yearly report about what happened that year and what is going to happen the next year with financial estimates and requests for funding. This also includes their experiences, wishes and goals. Then the government will respond by saying they can get some of the money they asked for. It is always some, never all. And then they set their annual budget for events and programming. She says this is a very slow process so no events happen spontaneously. The director of the space even has an independant financial consultant to help with budgeting and requests. Everything feels very stiff.

What is incredibly striking to me is the intensity of burearcracy these community spaces are subject to. And how incredibly bland everything is. She says there’s no real sense of community in the space as a whole but that some of the classes they offer – like a folk dance class – have built up anow internal sense of community. She also expresses a dislike of the level of buracracy explaining that the director meets rarely, maybe once a year with the other directors. Her director hates going to these meetings because they are “so boring.” Just “older people talking about nothing. ” This hits me quite hard. What I would see as an amazing opportunity to meet with other spaces and connect and learn from each other they see as incredibly boring. Perhaps this is the fate of any space that receives government support?

Over the next week I set up meetings with directors of other districts’ culture houses and find them all to be quite similar in structure and services offered. Nevertheless, I am still honored and inspired to be meeting with people whose main focus is to provide a community space for all and preserve culture and the arts.


Oh wow what we learned here

  • There is precedent for government support of community spaces and still room for growth.
  • Again a precedented need for community spaces.
  • Even if the government provides these spaces, the people will not necessarily come.
  • Up until now I have been exploring community spaces that have been made on their own. Here in Eastern European countries the government creates spaces.
  • When you put a few people in charge of programming there is going to be no sense of ownership by the people that attend the space. It will feel more like a gym.
  • Bureaucracy – holy shit.
  • I’m sure the Genesis of these spaces was not as bleak as she made it out to be – that the government didn’t make the space only to spy on the people but that they actually prioritized and thought it important to have a community space. Nevertheless, it is frightening to think that the spaces I seek to make could so easily be used to control populations.
  • Reinforcement that spaces must be autonomous.
  • Bureaucracy can turn even the most fascinating things – culture music dance – sterile, rigid, bland.
  • The type of person who is director of programming is very important. I would love to learn more about the former female director who actively sought to provide a space for the alternative/forbidden music scene. Aurora almost seems more suited than these spaces to preserve culture and provide space for community.
  • What happens to a dream differed? It shrivels up in buracracy.