“My neighbo’hood has what it takes.” – 2 Ideas for a Marginalised City Quarter

by Valentin Schipfer

For six years now I’ve been living in Vienna’s 15th district and its image has not yet changed. People still react the same condescending way when they find out about my residence. Once I was even told that everything would be alright at the end! Most of them have never even been here, but still bear primarily negative images in their mind – similar to the ones described in that link . The sad thing is that these images aren’t completely far from reality. Before introducing you to my two place branding concepts, some words about the district.

Since my move to Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus I have been buying my daily food at the one and only supermarket or sometimes munching Vienna’s best Adana Kebap at a delicious place around the corner. These are the moments when I get to see my neighbours closer. Compared to the probably more comfortable district of my adolescence, I soon realized that there are happier and healthier faces in Vienna than here (Comment on the side: Rudolfsheim has the lowest life expectancy in Vienna). The combination of my research activities in the field of urban studies and my personal motivation made me look a little bit beneath the surface.

Vienna’s 15th district, called Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus, had its bloom in the second half of the 19th century. Due to the inauguration of the Westbahnhof (one of Vienna’s main train-stations) in 1859, a boom of hotel constructions, amusement-facilities and the textile as well as manufacture industry of Jewish entrepreneurs set in.  Around 1820 each fourth person was employed in the textile industry and 20 out of 38 big factories belonged to this branch of economy. 80 percent of these companies were placed in the hands of Jewish entrepreneurs. The district evolved to a dynamic (Jewish) working-class quarter whose amusement and party facilities even attracted parts of Vienna’s bourgeoisie from the inner-city. The textile companies which attracted Jews from all over Eastern Europe spurred on establishing religious and social facilities as well as the Israeltische Cultusgemeinde im Bezirke Sechshaus (Jewish Community of the district Sechshaus).

The two World Wars put a sudden end to this golden era. Just like the bars and ballrooms, most of the established industry closed down and the district’s Jewish culture has been buried completely in oblivion for decades. Instead, Turkish and ex-Yugoslavian contract workers moved in during the guest worker booms in the 1960s and 70s. Lately studios for thai massages and dubious gambling corners have mushroomed. Since then the 15th district has got the highest share of immigrants as well as jobless people, a high share of low quality housing and a high density of apartments without any recreational areas around and – on top of it – a bad image. I want to put end to that and turn it into a positive one again.

In order to turn this idea into reality, the strategy called place branding caught my attention. After reading books and papers by some place branding pioneers like Simon Anholt, Mihalis Kavaratzis or Gregory Ashworth, I came up with new ideas for the 15th district in my thesis. Being convinced that a bare ad campaign or PR-events were not sufficient to stimulate a neighbourhood’s image, I argued that its identity needed to be examined first. Then its identified potentials are to be combined in a new and unprecedented manner. Hmm, what does this mean? Actually it sounds more cryptic than it is. It just means that a city quarter should look into itself, reflect its strengths and weaknesses and then link and connect what it’s got. After having put some ideas into reality, the city quarter should start talking about it – showing its pride and achievements to the whole city.

I spent days and nights chewing over how to apply this to my problem child. Knowing well that in case of a real place branding I needed support from the district, city and European level, I invented two concepts for cooperations.

Abandoned leather factory in a (hidden) backyard.

Abandoned leather factory in a (hidden) backyard.

The first one is very similar to Inpolis’  NEMONA project  in Berlin-Neukölln. On one side Vienna’s current fashion designers need more local manufacturers. On the other many immigrants lack of formal work and are forced to do informal seamstress and tailor jobs. Fashion designers complained in interviews about long journeys to their seamstresses in Slovakia, Poland or Czech Republic and about insufficient control on their collection’s production process. On the other side the chairwoman of the Islamic Community of Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus revealed that many Muslim wives stay at home with the kids doing tailor jobs for friends. She told me about a group of women tailoring the uniforms for the whole school. Of course they got payed for this job but often they do it in exchange for other informal services, like child-care or cleaning flats. They don’t participate in the primary labour market due to their religious views or Austrian legal restrictions.

So why not putting these two groups together and installing networks? Besides bridging the gap between informal labour forces and the creative industry, the cooperation can revitalize the district’s textile history. It can engage as many informal seamstresses as possible to cooperate with fashion designers. As we’ve heard before, the 15th district was once the heart of Vienna’s textile industry and has left behind numerous abandoned buildings – mostly hidden in backyards (e.g. see picture above). The idea is to refurbish one of these vacancies by installing tailor and sewing rooms. Fashion designers will commission smaller or bigger jobs to the marginalized seamstresses and tailors. By doing so, the cooperation will stimulate the district’s identity from inside out. Important social capital will be created and will positively contribute to the immigrants’ integration into Vienna’s society. The fashion business will be fostered by local production and could label their collections with “Made in Vienna” tags – producing a positive country of origin effect. A cooperation which makes use of historic building fabrics integrating marginalised labour forces into the creative industry.

The second concept tries to make something new out of three different components: the Jewish past with its inherent anti-racist warning signals, the numerous youth-hostels around Westbahnhof with their curious tourists and the high share of school kids with various cultural backgrounds and high diversity. Unlike other Viennese districts the Jewish past of the 15th has been buried in oblivion for a long time. Quite recently a communication agency inaugurated a permanent exhibition and launched a documentary on the Jewish history and the Nazi past in the district. Besides that youth-hostels are blossoming and more and more  tourists choose the 15th as their stopover. In addition six public schools are located in the district with more than 1.000 students.

How to combine these three potentials? A cooperation between schools and youth-hostels could be set up: By attending the exhibition, watching the interviews with contemporary witnesses, reading the book, the students will examine the rise and fall of the local Jewish community, its religious and social facilities as well as its economic power in former times. After having absorbed all this information, the kids will then prepare short presentations and meet with (historically and socially interested) travelers from the hostels around the corner. The students will guide them to historic hotspots of the quarter: for example to the memorial of the destroyed synagogue (see image below), to the former Jewish orphanage and Zionist gymnastic club or to the religious house for Jews from Eastern countries. Being confronted with this historic facts in front of their school doors, the tour will have effects on both sides. The kids will be warned about and get sensitized to religious/ethnic persecution and racist movements. An effect especially important in local schools which show the highest share of students with different cultural backgrounds in Vienna.

The memorial symbolizes the synagogue's roof beams which have smoldered on the ground for days after the fire.

The memorial symbolizes the synagogue’s roof beams which have smoldered on the ground for days after the fire.

In the eyes of the tourists the district will become more than just a stopover. It will be a place where young students will have taught them about the “open sores” of local history. Facts which they will definitely not find in their Lonely Planets. Besides that the tourists would act, like Anholt uses to call them, as viral PR-agents by telling at home about this local project, the district’s history and Vienna’s way to overcome the past. A cooperation which generates respect, civic courage and an awareness of historic and urban environment.

Until now the theoretical basics for these projects have been examined and first contacts approved. I am counting, though, on somehow getting a chance to present them to a broader audience in Vienna soon.  Unit F – the office for fashion in Vienna, the Islamic Community of Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus are potential partners for the fashion project. The high-school Friesgasse, the Wombat’s Hostel and the communication agency coobra – cooperativa braccianti  could become partners in the local education project. I will keep you posted. Keep your fingers crossed!

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3 Responses to “My neighbo’hood has what it takes.” – 2 Ideas for a Marginalised City Quarter

  1. Daniel Zimet says:

    …this is what I call ” creative thinking”…..
    Naturally, me being Jewish means I am pretty much attached to the idea of “Jewish Rennaisance” which is part of Valentine’s plan for Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus district in Vienna. I am taking part at a similar plan of reconstructing the Jewish quarters of the city of Izmir in Turkey. Valentines challenging plan stimulates me to present the Izmir project to the knowledge of readers of this enlightning “podium” which I will practically do ASAP.

    • Ares says:

      Why not let us know about it and write about your experience in this blog? It sounds fascinating!

  2. Katja says:

    Very innovative Valentin! Like your idea! I wish you could luck. Kind of grass-root level social marketing! This could be a good contribution for a permaculture! The idea starts small but could even involve more groups in the future. Schools could also use urban space and grow vegetables. As we can see on the second picture, Rudolfsheim Fünhaus could need some more greenery!

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