Ex-Dissident Mayor Brings Renewal To Historic Budapest

In many of Budapest's old 19th-century neighborhoods a gracious host will welcome guests at the door, take their coats, stuff them full of homemade delicacies, and caution them not to step out onto the balcony. "The one next door collapsed onto the street last week," the host cautions. "I don't even let the cat go out onto ours anymore."

But after decades of neglect and decay, the Hungarian capital is experiencing significant urban renewal, due in great part to the city's youthful mayor, Gabor Demszky.

A former dissident and underground publisher of samizdat literature, Mr. Demszky has become the most popular and trusted politician in Hungary after President Arpad Goncz.

Streets in Budapest once choked with traffic and exhaust fumes are being pedestrianized, attracting private investors to refurbish adjacent buildings. Bike paths now wind through parks and along the grand boulevards, beside refurbished streetcar and subway lines. With pedestrian signal lamps chirping instructions to the blind, and the bells of passing bikes clearing errant tourists from their paths, Budapest looks and sounds more like Vienna and less like Moscow every day.

In 1994 Mr. Demszky was easily reelected to a second four-year term as mayor. In the 1980s, he narrowly avoided a similar term in prison for his dissident activities. As the head of an underground press, he oversaw the translation and publication of banned literature - bringing Milan Kundera's "Unbearable Lightness of Being" and George Orwell's "1984" to Hungarian readers for the first time. For his trouble, Communist authorities had him arrested, beaten, and tried for "assaulting police officers" in 1983. Now the books are available in the shops, and the police chief answers to him.

"It was an enormous change in my life to suddenly become mayor," he recalls. "I had been something of a free-lance intellectual.... Being mayor isn't like that at all. It was like becoming the general of an army when I'd never even been to boot camp."

Demszky appears to have adapted well. While many other East European cities have seen public services deteriorate during the region's difficult transition period, Budapest city hall has managed to secure funds to extend and modernize public transportation, replace aging water and sewer lines, and rehabilitate parks, bridges, churches, and other urban landmarks.

Pedestrian promenades have spread through the city's central business and tourist district, and parking is being regulated for the first time to encourage the use of refurbished public transport and reduce Budapest's increasing traffic congestion.

In addition, private investors have been renovating properties throughout the capital, undoubtedly reducing the number of balconies that have fallen onto the street.

The mayor's administrative style has been a far cry from that of the gray Communist Party bureaucrats that used to lead Eastern Europe's municipal governments. When the last Soviet troops withdrew from Hungary in 1991, Demszky invited his friend, the late rock star Frank Zappa, to perform at the festivities. The two had met earlier in the year in Los Angeles on Mr. Zappa's invitation.

Demszky may also be the only person to have met both Zappa and Ronald Reagan for the first time on the same day. "I'd asked to meet Reagan because while president he intervened to prevent my 1983 imprisonment, and I wished to thank him for that," Demszky says.

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