At the Brunnenmarkt: Cultural Bazaar

Residents, artists and local vendors bring their streets back to vibrant life

Ernst Maczek-Mateovics, architect of the Brunnenmarkt | Photo: Victoria Oscarrson

An overflowing fresh produce stand at the Brunnenmarkt | Photo: Victoria Oscarrson

Dog days of August in Vienna, cool and sunny at 8:30 a.m. The Brunnenmarkt in Vienna’s 16th District of Ottakring has already been a bevy of activity since about 6:00.

One of the city’s liveliest and most authentic street markets, it is also one of the oldest, first opened in 1786 on the Brunnengasse and expanding into the square at Yppenplatz in 1897.

Ernst Maczek-Mateovics, architect of the Brunnenmarkt | Photo: Victoria Oscarrson

Tucked neatly behind the Gürtel, its theater of trade begins at Thaliastrasse and is four blocks (800 meters) long with over 150 vendors – Turks, Serbs, Austrians, and more Turks – in fact, at moments, you could almost imagine you were in Istanbul with women draped in loose dresses and colorful headscarves, men clustered in tight groups. Then there are the artsy types, artists, writers, musicians and theater people, some trailing children, who have also made this pulsing neighborhood their home.

This market area, prior to 1700, a village unto itself known as Neulerchenfeld, had almost become extinct in the burgeoning residential development of the post war years, until a group of local people took on the task of bringing it back to life. Among the masterminds was the husband/wife architectural team of Brigitta and Ernst Maczek-Mateovics, seasoned residents who developed a three-stage plan that with perseverance, intelligence and a bit of luck, they were able to sell to the neighbourhood and the city. By 2000, work had begun to preserve and upgrade what existed.

Today, the Brunnenmarkt is a bustle of activity.

Kebabs are already on the grill by the time we arrive on a Saturday morning, emitting pungent wafts of lamb.  Dark-haired Turkish hawkers boom out their wares in German along with the loud grinding of Turkish coffee. Up-market seems far away midst the tumbling cucumbers, randomly piled mixes of colored peppers, corn being inspected in a rampage of pulling back the husks to check quality.  At an offal stand, voices clamor in serious haggling over the best price of grisly looking intestines while a couple of sly bees swoop in for a landing and a nibble of the action.

Hard to capture all this; it’s a world apart, embraced by its own special mix of local residents.  Today the area is nearly 50% Turkish, however at various times it was dominated first by Bulgarians, then Yugoslavs and some Czechs. But with education and ripening opportunities, the concentration of immigrants has changed.

I poked my head into a large, spotlessly clean restaurant prominently called K for Kent, the image of what I imagine an interactive Turkish club might be, spare with white walls and bright lights. The cast of characters was impressive: a twisted gray beard falling mid chest on an elderly Moslem man bent into his coffee, two male bellies moving in unison with their discussions, card players slapping the table, beers shaking, and a few pale-faced women whispering through their black vents.

An overflowing fresh produce stand at the Brunnenmarkt | Photo: Victoria Oscarrson

About 150,000 Turks now live in Austria, many of them in Vienna, having come as guest workers in the years since the WWII. And while this is a tiny percentage of the city’s total population of 2.1 million, the strength of their culture makes them a vivid presence in neighborhoods like Ottakring. I felt conspicuous just walking in and out of the door.

Down the way, a Turkish grocery sold pomegranate juice at one litre for 3,99 Euros half the 8,00 Euros at Meinl am Graben,. At Brunnenmarkt Stand 184, Azmir Ersory deserves praise for his extensive selection of around-the-world cheeses.  At a shoe vendor, I mused at painted toenails on plastic feet in high heel sandals and life-size orange plastic Mediterranean palm trees trying to offer shade.  Pastry shops showed off carefully sculptured wedding cakes.  Umbrellas hung through upper branches of a tree, leftovers from an artist’s performance piece. On every side, cafes are tucked away on side streets for Turks and fellow travelers. The mix is alive.

Other vendors are more traditional. Bio-Fisch at Grundsteingasse 12 carries a sign advertising carp, which “master fish merchants” Marc Mößmer und Markus Payr raise in Lower Austria and distribute through vendors throughout the region. At 9:00 am, there is already a queue waiting for the doors to open, inside is a small room with paint flaking and carp flip-flopping in a big bathtub, the price determined by whether the fish comes scaled and cleaned or bought as is; their website is impressive.

Then looking back past Bio-Fisch is a sort-of Hof, in a long sort-of garden with tables and chairs, in what turns out to have been a 19th century carton factory. This  derelict building was purchased in 1988 by Berliner Dr. Ragnar Mathey who saved it from demolition, cleaned it up and invited artists to live there. The building has evolved into an active center for multi-media artists called Ragnarhof ,incorporating studios, a theater and an impressive separate exhibition space.

The contrast to Bio-Fisch defies explanation, and is another side to the persona of this Soho in Ottakring, where a decade ago, artists began to take over abandoned shops to make galleries and studios. A Soho exhibition event is held every year the end of May.

Then one reaches Yppenplatz and a bit of old Vienna. Here is the home of Staud’s, the internationally renowned Viennese manufacturer of jellies and jams, in the building where the family first began with pickles and sauerkraut a century ago. The dimensions and detail of the old facility were beautifully recreated by Maczek-Mateovics maintaining the original interior character. Privately financed by the Staud family, this was the first example of how the neighborhood buildings, once restored, could look. Now, Grandmother Staud at eighty-four never misses a day on the job.  Don’t miss her collection of owls, which Ernst Mateovic claims was the inspiration for the redesign of the building.

At Yppenplatz, the residents won the day and have succeeded in preserving the market.  A new infrastructure of modern water supply, sewage and electricity has now been completed, with Maczek-Mateovics behind the square’s new layout built on a grid of squares 2.90 meters, with the size of the kiosks keeping the sense of old lanes along the market expanse.  The hope is that these squares can eventually all be rented from the city, and more pavilions put up.  On Saturdays, is a farmer’s market with fresh produce from the early morning pickings, such as today, dark green/red tomatoes, rare to find and sweeter that you can imagine.

The project of rebuilding continues down Brunnengasse, scheduled to be completed in 2010, weather and budget permitting. Thirty percent of the total budget of has been funded by the EU, the rest locally. Some wonder whether the redevelopment is worth the investment, in view of the accepted wisdom that people today have forgotten the joy of buying fresh produce, and supermarkets have people into the habit of hit-and-run shopping.

This accepted wisdom, however, may be wrong, at least in Vienna. A recent study by the consultants A.T. Kearney, reported in Der Standard August 16, found that changing patterns of Austrian household formation are moving away from traditional families for whom a weekly shopping trip to a supermarket made sense, and are being replaced by one or two person households of more selective consumers, who prefer local specialty shopping and personal attention.

This may bode well for Vienna’s markets, and for the future viability of the Brunnenmarkt, where vendors and customers often know one another by name, and quality and service, rather than frills, are the currencies of the day.

“This area is for the people,” said Ernst Maczek-Mateovics, “lower prices, ethnic image, appreciation for vendors who live and work a tough job, long hours from 6:00 am to 6:30 in the evening – something to be valued. This is not meant to be a Naschmarkt or to attract tourists. What is being preserved is the real thing.

“Now we have a market manager to improve appearance of the stalls,” he went on. “With patience all will come…”.

Noi and An-do, two of the trendier café/bars on Yppenplatz, are perfect spots to hang out, serving breakfast, lunch or dinner, with an emphasis on vegetarian. And then there’s the Café C.I. (Club International), where the whole project began in a late night conversation back in 1995 when the Maczek-Mateovics’s and café owner Bernhard Weber hammered out their dream.

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