Vienna's History Lesson for American Cities: Embrace Instead of Erase


There’s a museum dedicated to Esperanto in Vienna—an archive and testament to one of the more ambitious movements to enter the world’s consciousness in recent centuries.

It’s presented modestly—an anteroom with a niche to one side and a hallway flanked by glass display cases on the other. The whole thing is about the size of the dining area in a typical fast-food restaurant in the U.S.

The Esperanto Museum has a fancier address than a typical burger joint, though, just down the cobble-stoned Herrengasse from the one-time palace grounds of the Habsburg dynasty.

A recent visit found the museum decidedly less busy than a fast-food counter, to be sure, raising the question of why it’s subsidized as part of Austria’s National Library in the heart of Vienna.

History offers insights on how Vienna came to be a center of archives and ephemera of Esperanto. The Habsburg dynasty grew out of the Holy Roman Empire and morphed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, eventually spanning all or parts of what are now 13 different countries. It recognized 14 official languages, with untold tongues that went unrecognized by officialdom.

The history and ongoing campaign to promote the would-be universal language—the 107th World Esperanto Congress drew 746 participants from 54 countries for a week in Montreal this year—point to some practical reasons for supporting the museum. It’s a fascinating niche of the city’s unique history, one of thousands of points of interest to be found in the wake of empire.

It seems Vienna has made good use of its history—rather than engaging in the selective recall of erasure—to pull off a return to vibrancy as a city.

The key to vibrancy for any city is its population. A growing population stirs cities, making them interesting to everyone from natives to ambitious migrants and fortune seekers, inquiring students and tourists. Population growth fosters demand, which is turn requires maintenance and inspires innovation. How to fit everyone who wants to be here? How to grow? How to best blend the new with the old? Those are practical and philosophical questions that are prompted by population growth and spark civic engagement, commercial development, and philosophical discernment.

Take away population growth and it will soon be a city’s fate to manage decline, or be undermined by it.

Growth doesn’t just happen. Vienna has had no guarantee of growth or vibrancy—and that’s saying a lot. The city, after all, is the world’s cradle of classical music—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven are just two of its native headliners. It gave us Sigmund Freud and his revolutionary school of psychoanalysis. It was the locus of Gustav Klimt’s metamorphosis as a painter.

All of that couldn’t hold off decline in the years after 1910, when Vienna reached its peak population of 2 million just as Klimt became notorious for an erotic style put on full display at the International Exhibition of Prints and Drawings.

It was only four years later that an Austro-Hungarian archduke was assassinated to touch off World War I.

That began a decades-long drain world wars, Holocaust and the Cold War hitting Vienna’s population.

The population dipped to a modern low of about 1.5 million 1982. It essentially stagnated there, growing by a total of less than 2% over the next 20 years.

Then things began to change.

Vienna started notching steady gains in population just after the turn of the century and has been growing at a brisk pace for the past two decades. It is now on the cusp of topping its all-time high of just over 2 million. That’s a gain of 25% in the last 20 years for Vienna—a period of time that has seen Chicago lose about 6% of its population, Baltimore decline by 10%, Cleveland shed 20%, and Detroit drop by nearly 32%.

How did Vienna stage its comeback from shrinking capital of a former European empire to bright spot of the European Union, a place regularly lauded as one of the world’s most livable cities?

There are many aspects that bear study and discussion, everything from big investments in publicly subsidized housing that extends into the middle class to a public transit system that offers everyone annual passes at about $1 a day.

Somewhere in the formula is a story of confronting population decline as a challenge to be overcome.

Can American counterparts do the same? Can metropolises built on industry reinvent themselves in the digital age? Might cities that grew as service centers for broad, outlying agricultural regions continue to grow in the face of the consolidation that has come with corporate farming? Will urban centers that count aging seaports as major economic engines find new life as global trade automates, infrastructure updates, and shipping patterns change?

Any city facing such questions should take a look at Vienna, where a return to vibrancy has been built of hundreds of parts and pieces, including the value of history as a tourist attraction and point of intellectual, academic and practical interest.

Somewhere in the mix is the Esperanto Museum, which makes perfect sense in the one-time seat of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It’s a lesson worth taking up in those American cities with chronic declines in population—even if some voices somewhere might cast Esperanto as a nefarious bid to erase various cultures, a linguistic statue to be pulled down. Perhaps those American cities that seem to have more past than future at the moment would do well to neither embrace nor erase the ideologies attached to historical facts and instead realize the value that comes with offering the history itself.

And every city facing year after year of population losses might note that Esperanto came from the pseudonym adopted by Ludovic Lazarus Zamenof, the man considered the founder of the language. He signed a pamphlet announcing its development as Dr. Esperanto—a pen name that means “one who hopes.”

Jerry Sullivan is National Managing Editor at The Real Deal. You can follow him @SullivanSaysSC

Photo credit: Esperanto Museum via Wikimedia under Public Domain.

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Vienna is White

Real, real White. Whiter than Minnesota, Whiter than Bernie's Vermont.

Easy to get along, easy to agree take care of each other and share things, when everyone looks, talks, and pretty much thinks exactly the same.


Has this been a factor in the 20 years of population growth?