Freihausviertel – From Zeitgeist to Ortsgeist

Grätzl, noun, (Viennese dialect) a neighbourhood in Vienna contained by subjective boundaries and a coherent identity

Patrons gather for lunch and leisure at The Point of Sale on Schleifmühlgasse. | Photo: David Reali

The character of a Grätzl is revealed by its singularity. Easily distinguished from nearby areas, it is the carrier of a location-bound Zeitgeist – an Ortsgeist, if you will – the spirit of a place set in time, where particular people congregate. The Grätzl’s self-awareness provides its inhabitants with a sense of identity that is not easily shaken off and serves as the playground for all the different aspects of life, and in doing so, becomes a community’s shared home.

Once you become part of the guilty pleasures of neighbourhood gossip, of the thousand points of contact, or from slipping a favorite treat to your neighbor’s dog to opening a tab in a pub, an anonymous city loft will never again be quite enough.

So come with me to the Freihaus Viertel in the 4th District, named for a self-governing (and tax-exempt!) complex of apartments, markets, workshops, gardens and wine taverns dating from 1643, that included the famed Freihaustheater of Emanual Schikaneder. Now partially merged with the adjacent Schleifmühl Viertel, it’s the area just behind the Technical University – still called the Freihaus – along Margaretenstraße, encapsulating that communal flair the Viennese take such pride in.

Today though, it is the spirit of internationality and not acute Austrian-ness that has brought attention to the area. Journalist Anneliese Rohrer, a resident of the Schleifmühlgasse for 22 years, has witnessed the transformation of her Grätzl, which she now calls a “smaller scale New York Lower East Side.” In other words, it’s been gentrified, but it has also come alive.

From Irish pubs to the London food store “Bobby’s,” and even “Babette’s,” – a shop named for the Oscar-winning Danish film Babette’s Feats, based on the novel by Isak Dinesen, and dedicated (of course!) to cookbooks – each of these places has sagas to tell, and intriguing people to tell them. It was the 1990s revival of the nearby Naschmarkt, the city’s largest open-air market that triggered the change. According to long-time residents, the Freihaus quarter was not always the “cool place to be.”

Less than 20 years ago, no one except a few gifted speculators was interested in this drab, forgotten corner of town. Now, it’s a Bo-Bo paradise, chock full of artists, ateliers and attitudes to match, with ethnic crafts and eccentric eateries.

In a way, it’s a neighbourhood going back to its roots, as this was always a place where people made things. The Schleifmühl Viertel was once the home of the Mühlbach, or Mill Stream, an extended branch of the Vienna River stretching along the right and left banks of the Wienzeile. As early as the 16th century, documents attest to a Schleifmühle, a sharpening mill for weapons. Mühlgasse, Bärenmühle (bear mill) and Heumühlgasse (hay mill lane) were all part of the same group of trades, keeping to their old ways in the shadow of the Imperial Court until the late 19th century, when the Mühlbach was finally drained as part of the city’s flood control.

Across the Naschmarkt on the Linke Wienzeile, the Freihaustheater – later Theater auf der Wieden, now Theater an der Wien – was part of the rebirth of the 4th District after the second Turkish siege in 1683.

Under the patronage of Emanuel Schikaneder, whose close friendship with W.A. Mozart brought the “The Magic Flute” to stage, it rapidly gained a reputation among the Viennese. Artists, writers and musicians from all around the region, including poet Rainer Maria Rilke and writer Stefan Zweig, answered the call.

The memory of Schikaneder lives on, in a style he might have appreciated, in an artsy space and independent cinema on the street that bears his name, that has become a bar. An uncomplicated hipster’s nest at heart with affordable fizzy drinks and shaky tunes, Schikaneder is a students’ hub.

These days, much as in the days of the man himself, the students come to the Schikeneder with roll-up cigarettes, funny hats, and a heated round of politics.

But there are other secrets that add buzz to the area. Like the Beograd, an unprepossessing façade on Schikanedergasse 7, that hides a shady, spacious garden with tall trees, soft-spoken words and luscious food. Or flat1, across the street at No. 2, one of the many alternative art spaces hidden behind gray doorways, supporting the works of young local artists on the make.

Yet as with most dynamic places, here businesses come and go, unaware of the affection invested in them. Keeping track is hard – and if you’re a local, getting attached is even harder.

The café called Unglaublich on Schleifmühlgasse 7 once replaced the Centimeter; the greatly-mourned alternative English video rental shop Alphaville – Vienna’s most comprehensive collection of mainstream and independent films – is now a derelict shop just across the street; the family-run restaurant Catedral simply closed down. Still, people tend to dwell here – perhaps because of the forgotten pleasure of being part of an ephemeral scene and the fascination with history’s flaw of forgetting so easily the feeling of a place. The sense of community in the Freihaus Viertel, secretive and conspirational, lingers on.

 

BOBBY’s Foodstore: Schleifmühlgasse 8
Mon. – Fri., 10:00 – 18:30,
Sat., 10:00 – 18:00
www.bobbys.at

Babette’s Spice and Books For Cooks: Schleifmühlgasse 17
(01) 58 55 165
Mon.-Fri., 11:00 – 18:00,
Sat., 10:00 – 15:00
www.babettes.at

Cafe Unglaublich:
Schleifmühlgasse 7, (0) 680 238 55 35
Mon. – Fri., 10:00 – 16:00 and 17:30 – 24:00
www.unglaublich.cc

Schikaneder: Margaretenstraße 24,
(01) 58 52 867
Daily, 18:00 – 4:00
www.schikaneder.at

Flat1: Schikanedergasse 2/1
Maria Hanl (0) 664 4572650
Karin Maria Pfeifer (0) 699 12010203
Sula Zimmerberger (0) 699 19411713
Thu., 18:00 – 21:00, or by appointment.
www.flat1.at

Restaurant Beograd: Schikanedergasse 7,
(01) 587 74 44
Thu. – Tue., 11:30 – 2:00, kitchen until 1:00
www.restaurant-beograd.at

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