Maria Help Street


So I have been away and my suntan, the best one I’ve had since harvesting potatoes as a teenager, is fading faster than the career of the last winner of Austria’s Next Top Model. I have tried where possible to ignore Vienna for a couple of weeks and this being August, when normal life in the capital seems to take a breather as people shut up shop and the city is swarming with smartphone snapping visitors, there is not much else to write about anyway.

But as far as I can tell, the big local story, apart from the ramping up of rhetoric for the forthcoming general election and the billboard appearance of some of the most excruciatingly embarrassing political advertising ever witnessed (you shall not escape my critique Mr Strache), is the long-planned and contentious redefining (only as a test phase) of Vienna’s most famous shopping mile and a bit, Mariahilferstrasse, referred to increasingly as “MaHü”.

In his seminal totem to travels in Europe in the excellent Neither Here Or There, Bill Bryson describes his arrival on Mariahilferstrasse as thus:

“For a mile and a half, from the station to the Ringstrasse, the street was lined with seedy-looking discount stores – the sort of places that sell goods straight out their cardboard boxes – and customers to match.”

Although these words curiously sound like a contemporary description of Lidl, back in 1990 when Bryson was travelling through Vienna, MaHü was by all accounts a bit of a dump. This was almost certainly a result of the excavation work to allow construction of the underground line 3 far below (many shops took flight or closed during the building work allowing temporary business with dubious origins to spring up) and since then it has changed beyond recognition into a relatively smart, mass retail thoroughfare with a scattering of cafes (not many restaurants) and more ice-cream parlours than seems economically effectual.

But since the redesign and grand reopening on 16th August, Vienna’s most famous non-designer shopping mecca is seemingly beset by chaos. Interest groups abound are getting their collective Unterhosen in a twist (even in August) and the plan is causing so much confusion that the rules and regulations are seemingly changing everyday.

On the much cited and acclaimed Barratt Scale of Civic Prestige, such a project would normally register little interest. A gleaming new central station it is not. Redevelopment of a brown field site with integrated transport, low energy housing and all the trappings of the aspired smart city it isn’t. Nope, it is essentially a piece of road repainted, some architecturally placed benches of wood and concrete (soon to provide comfort and shelter to pigeon droppings, cigarette butts and sputum) and a clutch of new road signs – changing daily it seems – confusing the shit out of people.

So what is it exactly that is irking the sleepy, summer consciousness’s of the Viennese? In a nutshell the central part of Mariahilferstrasse, stretching from Andreasgasse to Kirchengasse is now a fully fledged pedestrian zone (known locally as the funky sounding FuZo – Füssgangerzone) with a big red strip down the middle for the 13A bus (cars are technically forbidden except to drop off guests at hotels or pick me up from the pub as I emerge into my own inculturerated sense of chaos). This is flanked at either end of the main street by something called a “shared space zones” which allows access by car – limited to a very agreeable 20 km per hour – and the free movement of people on the street in harmony with traffic. Also there are three “kiss-and-ride” areas where you can briefly stop to drop or pick up your loved one. In the words of the city it is about: “More open space, more life and added value.” Mmmm, Chihuahua.

The plan was to allow cyclists to use the whole thoroughfare in specially marked lanes to keep them out of trouble but seemingly even this is being reassessed by the day as this recent headline from Heute (if you remember the daily propaganda free newspaper sponsored by the city government) confirms, “MaHÜ new: Ultimatum für alle Radl-Rowdys!” which is somehow connected with the bad behaviour of cyclists and the Austrian German word for hooligans. Naturally, I chuckle at the word rowdy. For a native English speaker it has a certain harmless charm like ruffian or scallywag and it sounds like a slightly irked British gent gently chiding some young people in 1950. But in 2013 it means a resounding “Raus!” for undisciplined cyclists from the pedestrian bit, the two-wheeled fiends. Or that is now the plan.

The three MaHÜ Amigos: Thomas Blimlinger (head of the 7th district), Renate Kaufmann (head of the 6th district) and in the middle Maria Vassilakou, vice mayor of Vienna.

The other problem, apart from local puzzlement as to what is allowed and what is not, especially in the kiss-and-ride zone, is that Wiener Linien drivers on the bus route 13A, which cuts along the pedestrian area, are refusing to drive there because of safety fears. As such there is now talk of re-routing the buses back along Neubaugasse which in the past hosted the tram route many years ago. But since then the road has been significantly narrowed and now there is only enough space for one bus to pass (the 13A coming from the other direction). However, the head of the 7th district to the north, Thomas Bimlinger, also Green Party colleague of project instigator and vice-mayor, Maria Vassilakou, is having none of it (too narrow and dangerous apparently, the Neubuagasse resident opined) which is causing in any sense of traffic management or political relations a rather infelicitous impasse.

I am tempted at this point to adopt the posture of the Wiener and say with not so well disguised resignation, “Nah, Typisch.” Like the mismanagement of the changes to parking in the city earlier this year, we are once again confronted by a typical Viennese fudge. Conceive an idea, implement it at not inconsiderate cost to the city piggy-bank without really thinking about the consequences, and then either see if it works or ask people if they want it.

But there is no doubt it is cementing an image of the Green Party in local peoples’ minds as bumbling fools with costly prestige projects that bring very little. Then again they said the same about the Socialist inspired creation of the Danube Island back in the 1970s, and no one could now argue that was a mistake. (Although, this being Vienna, it wouldn’t be difficult to find some disaffected, impertinent, counter-cultural whingebag – probably an expat – with something negative to say about it.)

But to sum it up, I quote a local shopkeeper, “So a Bledsinn!” Which I fancy requires little or no translation. And that is where, as your humble servant, I leave you for now as I go in search of billboards of Mr Strache, head of the right-wing FPÖ, and his apparent determination, so his message proclaims, to “love thy neighbour” (but only if you are Austrian). Servus and watch out for those rowdys!

© RJ Barratt 2013

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