Parlor and Kitchen by Gabor Gyani

In Parlor and Kitchen, Gabor Gyani attempts to study the booming urbanization of Budapest from its formation in 1873 until the interwar period through the lives of middle and upper class city dwellers and the lower or working class. His approach is to use the clear contrast between life in Budapest for members of the high and low classes to explain the development of the city, but also the relationship between different classes of citizens. Parlor and Kitchen presents an exhaustive study of life for upper and lower class Hungarians in turn of the century Budapest, but fails to tease out any mind blowing findings. Although Parlor and Kitchen made for an interesting and unique read – unlike anything I’ve read previous – it ultimately disappoints because its main idea is overwhelmed by the painfully meticulous attention paid to describing decor.

Gyani explains the dichotomy between the upper/middle and lower/working classes in Budapest by exploring in great detail the differences in living situation. The upper/middle class occupies 5-7 room apartments in beautiful areas of the city while the working class lives in cramped, squalid one bedroom apartments. Unsurprisingly, the upper class grows increasingly wealthy by purchasing land on which to build apartment buildings and in turn rented to the working class. The working class is caught in a downward spiral as rent increases outpaced the rise in wages; this required them to take in lodgers to make ends meet or to face eviction. Gyani notes that crowding more tenants into a small apartment had adverse effects on sanitation and health in Budapest and the evictions left many working class families on the street or dependent on the city to provide housing in city run developments.

Another important distinction between classes explored by Gyani is the décor of the apartments. Middle to upper class families have many rooms, which each serve a different function and are decorated according to social codes: the parlor room is for entertaining and usually has the nicest pieces of furniture that serve an ostentatious purpose, but are rarely used. Moreover, Gyani notes that possessions for the upper class serve the purpose of establishing hierarchy and a system of values. On the other hand, the working class families live in apartments with few rooms that are decorated sparsely and utilitarian; in many cases one room will serve many different functions. There is no room for ostentation, only purpose. This is the section of the book that bogs down and can frustrate the reader who is looking for substance amongst the infinite description of decoration.

This is not to say that Gyani does not raise some interesting points: he acknowledges the emergence of a boycott movement organized among the working class in response to higher rent and an increase in evictions. The boycott even enlisted the help of the banks that supplied the funding for the purchase of the apartment buildings to encourage the owners to lower rent. If rent was not paid, then the loan could not be repaid and the loan would default; thus no one made any money. In response to this the upper class landlords required tenants to sign an agreement saying they would not join a boycott and to make a security deposit that would be forfeited if they did join a boycott. This point is interesting because it contrasts working class struggles elsewhere in which the battle took place at the factory between unions and corporations. In Budapest, although it may have also taken place at work, the tension between the working class and upper class was played out at home. Gyani also raises the interesting theme of using the house to explore a class of citizens.

Gyani concludes his book abruptly and fails to adequately tie it all together. His effort presents an interesting look at Budapest and the distinct class divide and encourages the reader to use the home as a potential tool for interpreting history. Ultimately, however, Parlor and Kitchen bogs down in minutiae and the interesting concepts and themes are lost.

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