Explore the subterranean society of Pest's Nyugati underpass


8/28/2014 2:00 AM

Most Budapest citizens get the chills from even the mention of Nyugati underpass. This is not surprising: this sunless stretch is one of the darkest pits of Budapest, mainly characterized by filth, stench, crime, and prostitution. However, there are a few positive aspects to be found as well: we can buy almost anything here, from platform shoes and hookahs to encyclopedias, and sometimes charitable organizations provide food distribution for the needy.

Nyugati Railway Station is one of the oldest depots of Budapest: it opened in 1877 (there was a small station there before established in 1846, but that was demolished). The plans of the monumental building were created by Austrian architect August de Serres, and later the company of world-famous French architect Gustave Eiffel.

The vast system of the underpass was built much later, between 1977 and 1982, when the third metro line reached Nyugati Square. At one time, a shady hotel stood beside the railway station, nicknamed “Westend” by the locals – interestingly, this is where the shiny modern WestEnd CityCenter shopping mall got its name from. The underpass has a number of owners, including the Mayor’s Office, the Hungarian State Railways, and the Budapest Transport Company.

Goods everywhereNyugati underpass is one of the busiest hubs of the city; about 300,000 people rush through it every day. If we do not try to walk here with our eyes closed, we can discover a strange, magical world around us. For example, there is a sex shop, a wine bar, and a vendor selling huge, ripe peaches, but also a Chinese shop selling masks. The selection of the local shoe and clothes vendors is the secret treasure trove of Pest's stylists. For example, we can buy the most elegant shoddy platforms here. The used bookstore has almost everything we could ask for, from 10,000-forint encyclopedias to 30-forint “Tiffany” magazines. Next to the entrance of WestEnd is an elevator that leads up to the railway station.

"We protect each other"Some sellers have been here for over ten years, and would not swap their underpass place. Many of them complained that since the crisis, demand somewhat declined, but it is still worthwhile to open a shop here. They say that the rents are not cheap, it is very difficult to get your own site, and inspections are rather frequent. The underpass has been equipped with security cameras for years, so the number of thefts has decreased since its earlier times as a crime-riddled thoroughfare.

Hookah vendor Mariann told us that recently, the police shut down her store “by mistake”, so she had to spend days convincing authorities to let her open up shop again. But the store is doing well: their customers are mainly tourists and young people. Their products are of high quality, and said to be imported from Egypt and India; they are also sold for a slightly lower price than in the adjacent mall. Ádám, who is a shopkeeper at the GSM store, has been working in the underpass only for a few months. “At first, I had to get used to the darkness. I already became acquainted with most of the vendors – we are like a big family, we protect each other,” he said.

Secret storiesWe were very interested in the little pub next to the exit toward St. Stephen Boulevard. Unfortunately, the owner would not answer our questions, and all we learned is that the small place has its “core audience”. Even the beer is drinkable (we tested it).

The lady maintaining the pay toilet was not keen on giving us an interview either, but she did tell us that these facilities “have seen a lot of things”. According to gossip, the streetwalkers of the underpass often take their “business” there. The vendors told us that the ladies of the night (and sometimes day) offer their services for as little as 2,000 forints, but we do not have definite information about this, as we unfortunately could not address any of them.

"The acoustics are good”Every once in a while, we can also find some street musicians in the disarray of the underground square. A drummer-bassist-violinist trio told us that – despite the risk – they often come here to practice, but otherwise all play in professional bands. “ The acoustics are good, and we can even make some money,” they said.

János is homeless and lives in a hostel, but here he plays the harmonica. He does not like the Nyugati underpass. “Policemen once beat me for playing the harmonica here,” he tells us with sadness. It seems that the authorities really do not tolerate people living on the street here: János was the only homeless person we met around the underpass, even though we visited the place on several afternoons.

HelpersA Korean Shin pastor has been living in Hungary for 15 years. He sings in the underpass every Tuesday and Friday, but instead of money, he mainly collects believers. He told us that he chose the underpass because of the heavy traffic. A Methodist pastor also distributes food in the afternoon with the help of the congregation. When we were there, about 50-60 people stood in line for cold food.

The information office of the Maltese Charity Service has been working in the underpass – right next to the exit of the metro – for a year now. Here, those in need can receive information about accommodation, lung-screening opportunities, and free clothing. They offer coffee and tea to visitors, as well as Internet access. The staff of the charity welcomes people from 8am until 4pm. By the way, clueless tourists often mistake the office as an Internet café.

Everything is hereAt the time of our visit, Géza came in for a cup of coffee. The man has been spending his days in the last 12 years in the underpass, and his nights at a workers’ hostel. He lives off of the place. “I clean, sell, and supervise things.” He would like to get a job outside of the underpass, but as he confessed, he does not see much chance for that. “This is where my family works and where my friends are,” he said.

Some hate it, some might love it, but one thing is sure: Nyugati underpass is one of the most interesting and diverse places in Budapest – there is no getting enough of it. We can definitely confirm that!

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