Shaking up the Grätzl

Gracious old Vienna can be set in its ways. But a few entrepreneurs and activists are trying to do things differently

Half a century ago, Vienna was a very conservative place. To prove just how conservative, artist Günter Brus set out one day in July 1965.  He decked himself out entirely in white paint, adding only a jagged, black line, like a ghoulish scar, from head to foot, and walked from Heldenplatz across Michaelerplatz, through the suit-and-tie Vie-nna of the day.

He didn‘t get far. After a few hundred meters, Brus was arrested, taken to the station and fined for disturbing the peace. The police made him go home in a taxi – sending the strange-looking young man back out into the street was unthinkable.

“One has to consider, back then, everyone in Vienna who was dressed in any way differently was deemed unacceptable,” the artist said later.

Much has changed since then, to be sure. The rigid conformity has passed with the advent of the counterculture and the reform years of Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the growing internationalism following Austria’s EU membership in 1995 has transformed Vienna from a grey city on the edge of the Western world to a bustling European metropolis.

Still, Vienna has retained a certain provincialism, an old world charm that is understandably reluctant to change. Newly arrived expats complain about a complacency in habit and custom, buoyed by a mentality of “Des wor scho‘ immer so” (“It has always been like that”).

Some say Vienna must learn to be bolder and quicker to adapt to new trends.

Street-Food Shenanigans

Among those who demand more open-mindedness are the entrepreneurs who try to bring the joys of the mobile kitchen to Vienna. But so far, food trucks, much like other trend businesses like Uber or Airbnb, are viewed with suspicion by city officials.

Those who set out to bring some novel cuisine to Viennese streets find themselves engulfed in red tape. “You need permission from eight to nine city departments and also the district representation,” said Matthias Kroisz, who started Wrapstars, a food truck serving organic wraps, together with partners Marko Ertl and David Weber in 2013.

Police, food inspectors, city planners and road-safety authorities are all obliged to get involved in the process. And simply changing location on a daily basis, as food trucks in the U.S. and U.K. can, is nearly impossible, because the permission process is so complicated, Kroisz complained.

Chef Monica Kranner fared no better: In the end, it took nearly an entire year to get her rolling burger restaurant Hy-Kitchen up and running at the Freyung in Vienna’s center. She urges officials to make things easier. “There is, unfortunately, no optimal solution yet,” she said.

The city, meanwhile, is still mulling its options. “We are trying to make the approval process as short as possible,” said Alexander Hengl, spokesperson of the Vienna Urban Markets office. He currently estimates the wait at “a few weeks.” Creating designated areas for food trucks, as in Geneva, could be a possible option. “We have to examine this idea,” said Hengl.

Panic at the disco

city life
The popular Balkan dancehall and live music venue Ost Klub was just one of several nightlife spots forced to shut down due to noise complaints, closing its doors in 2014. // © Johannes Ehn /

The complications are not restricted to mobility. Noise pollution has forced a number of high-profile venues to close their doors recently.

One of them, “Market” near the Naschmarkt, once one of the coolest clubs in town, closed in 2012 after only two years, following litigation over noise complaints. Similar grievances forced the famed Balkan music venue Ost Klub and the shabby-chic club Morisson out of business.

Most recently, a court ordered the faux-rustic discotheque Bettelalm at Lugeck in the city center to close at midnight – now some club operators fear they could be next in line.

Is Vienna a tougher place for clubs than other European cities? Former Market owners Philip Andjelkovic and Georg Buchegger say it is a question of attitude – a sentiment shared by many – and an aging population, now estimated by city authorities at 41 years on average.

Others argue that strict enforcement of public courtesy laws helps make Vienna the livable city that it is. Bars with loud music and outdoor cafés filling every street threaten to turn the inner districts into a “Disneyland for tourists,” complained resident Walter Rettenmoser.

His Bürgerinitiative Riemergasse is committed to keeping the noise out. Places like Bettelalm are no better than the “posh hotel in the inner city demanding its own helicopter pad,” he recently wrote in a letter to the newspaper Kurier. The city government tends to see low levels of complaint as a benchmark for good performance, said Yvonne Franz, who researches urban transformation at the University of Vienna. “That is a bit of a Viennese peculiarity, to react to grievances rather than set positive things in motion.”

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Creating new bike lanes is no easy task, with the municipal government obliged to coordinate with district authorities who fear the losing parking spaces. // © Gerhard Deutsch/KURIER/

The bike-lane bane

Even for fairly simple changes like new bike lanes, local concerns are given too much weight, activists complain. They challenge the city (where the Green Party has been in the government since 2010) to live up to its promise to transform Vienna’s crowded streets and make the city greener.

Despite resistance, cycling is on the rise: In the past ten years, the number of bicycle rides has doubled to around 7 percent of all city journeys. But that figure has peaked. Only new bike lanes with extra safety measures can draw more new riders onto the streets and make Vienna a true cyclist’s city, believes Doug Culnane.

Culnane, a British expat, documents safety hazards in his Crowize blog. “There has been no interest from the city to push forward on infrastructure,” he complained.

City officials acknowledge that it has been difficult to change the layout of streets, mainly because local politicians are wary of electoral backlash. City Hall cannot act alone; all changes must be negotiated with local governments in the Bezirke, the municipal districts.

Local politicians fear a backlash over issues like slower traffic and reduced parking. “Parking spaces are a form of hard currency,” said the city’s bike commissioner Martin Blum. Still, he insists that while progress might be slower than in other cities, Vienna is moving toward a bike-friendly future.

Turn and face the strange

All in all, Vienna has a good chance of becoming more open to innovation and more accustomed to change, said researcher Yvonne Franz. After all, with the city adding 40,000 new residents each year, things may be set in motion faster than we think.

But it might take a new mindset, Franz said. Vienna is generally well-run and people expect things to be organized for them. “The mindset is: Somebody should take care of this.”

Doing things differently will require more locals to take the initiative. That can start in fairly small but significant ways. People in Berlin are setting their own furniture out onto the sidewalk, as a personal “terrace” in front of their buildings, or taking up urban gardening in public spaces.

“In Vienna,” Franz observed, “this is just starting to happen” Bringing new ideas to the streets may yet truly shake up the Grätzl.

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