Just another day in Bucharest, in the year 2006, in summer. My friend, an architect, who accompanies me on my visit to a “bedroom suburb”, feels shivers down his spine. Maybe it is because he doesn’t like “the poetry of concrete”. Or maybe he has a problem with the abundance of small parking boxes and their bedraggled look. But the most probable reason for his impatience is the fact that these places full of Romanian quality architecture (the best the 60s to 80s had to give) remind him of what most Europeans call “sensitive” / “hot”, that is dangerous, neighborhoods. Ten years ago it was difficult to find the so-called “sensitive” neighborhoods. There were, indeed, Ferentari (see Ferentari: Bits And Pieces by Dana Bălan), Pantelimon, Salajan and other places where guys were rapping behind the blocks, but those places were not comparable with the violence and conflict known for dozens of years in Western Europe. And what would be the reason? Maybe one of the “beneficial” results of the evil done in the glory days of communism was the social and cultural mixture, an element that was so desperately searched and studied by European architects and city planners. Well, in Romania this was done, and the West was proven that “it is possible”. The ones who were systematizing day-to-day life accomplished this at a time when others would build remote/ broken/ cut/ forbidden/ grungy neighborhoods. They are made of concrete, that’s true, they were designed badly, they are decaying, but they are ours. We all used to live (and yes, we have to use the past tense) in them, because it was the only place where we could live. Because that’s where we had been brought from our farmyards, from our domestic animals, or that’s where we had been thrown from our middle-class apartments, abhorred by the new social order. After the (R)evolution the state of affairs remained the same, not for any other reason but the fact that there was no place else to move in. We would all experience freedom from equal positions. After the years of transition (that, some say, aren’t over yet), a very important moment in the history of Romanian accommodation arises. It’s the time for big investments in urban accommodations. The outskirts, especially the ones in the north, explode under the burden of tons of houses spit out by several construction companies/ investors/ (sometimes even) architects. The sad thing about it is the fact that nobody takes issues like infrastructure, density, not to mention architecture, into consideration. The so-called ghettos for the rich arise in the north of the city, ignoring every regulation or common sense. Every morning the privileged crawl to the city on saturated roads, thinking happily about their 300 square meter houses, five bathrooms, no sewage, with neighbors three meters away, according to regulations. And then comes the second great moment (one that we had anxiously been waiting for): people understand that they have to build densely and (above all) as close to the city as possible, in “urban” situations. Perfect, we thought, because that meant that we would finally have quality architecture, innovations in the living typologies, urban renovation, well-thought insertions, in short: a higher living standard in this city. Well, it didn’t happen like this. Awful planning, floor plans that were drawn up worse than in the 80s, projects of tens of thousands of square meters finished in two days by just one person pressured by investors, disastrous construction sites, awfully organized, where only the builders who didn’t migrate to Spain and Italy remained to work. All this is happening in Romania, especially in Bucharest. Hundreds of projects are announced, yet only a handful are about to be finished/ get started. And still , in writing, they are already sold at prices that defy reality, sometimes competing with other European capitals, superior when it comes to living standards. But let us go back to our apartment buildings. People are starting to have alternatives, they are moving around. Either in the bad-taste villa in Pipera or in the very high and beautifully colored block from the brochure, or in another neighborhood, behind concrete as well, but more central. And the result of these movements is still imperceptible. But it will show soon. Paradoxically, the real estate market is also guilty of somewhat delaying the gentrification of the city: the prices are so high, even in the neighborhoods of the 70s, that we are far from leaving them behind completely. No matter how bad the lack of transportation, utilities, any other kind of infrastructure may be, the prices remain just as high, after a logic that is typical to Bucharest. But there are some neighborhoods in which one shouldn’t walk at night (in some of them, not even at daylight) if one doesn’t live in the area and doesn’t know it. And the number of these neighborhoods is growing. Thus, neighborhoods with the same type of apartment buildings (the famous “P + 4” ones, i.e. ground floor + 4 storeys, with 2 or 3 rooms, no elevator, 4 flats on the floor) can be found both in the Tineretului/ Timpuri Noi area and in blue-collar Berceni. Tineretului is a high class neighborhood and I am not exaggerating, since the prices have skyrocketed to absurd levels. You can find the same apartment building two metro stations further, in Berceni. But here the areas have become bad (although they are still not comparable with the “European model”). We have the same condo, the same apartments, the same interior arrangements, and yet there is a huge difference in price and context. The future is pretty easy to predict: slowly but surely, some neighborhoods will become extremely... “unpleasant” and others, in spite of their “sensitive” look mentioned in the beginning of the article, will become more and more desirable. The most relevant case for this phenomenon is the neighborhood of Vitan. Once the first shopping mall (a social phenomenon of great success with the Romanian public) arose in the area, the prices rose ten times. The population changed but the places remained identical, while the latest intervention only added up to the desolation of the neighborhood. The paradox of Bucharest can thus be found even in its ghettos. Not even these are as they should be. But it seems that immigration will solve this problem as well, just as it solved it in the West. The huge lack of jobs in certain fields, the permeability of the borders, the level of corruption and the state of affairs in Romania in general will encourage this unmanageable phenomenon. Adding Romanian society to the equation, which doesn’t exactly have a high degree of tolerance, we obtain a result that sociologists might appreciate, since they would have plenty of work to do in the future. At the other end of the scale, Bucharest was much more successful: the movement is complete; the ghetto of the rich is perfectly implemented and works at high speed. This “model” that exists everywhere in Europe has outclassed the one of the poor. You can find it at its best in the northern part of the city. Secluded areas, fences, fists shown to you by bodyguards, posters reminding you that you are walking on private ground, fences again, cameras and angry looks behind grey window shields. Anyone who has ever been to Baneasa, Pipera or the north of the city has experienced this feeling. The feeling that one is not welcomed, that the place belongs to THEM. A situation identical to the one from “da hood”. The death par excellence of the public space and the extinction of the city as a collective place, its turning into a collection of individual spaces. What is interesting about the comparison between these new neighborhoods and any other part of the city is, that among the people living in the city, there still are some who wish they had a normal city, while the ones from the outskirts have abandoned it a long time ago.
Let’s take a random Bucharest apartment, never mind the area, kind of accommodation and year of construction. Let us suppose that the owners are diligent people, have a bit of good taste and, as a key element, can afford to maintain their apartment. The result would probably be a fancy and fair surrounding. But if you asked the owner how he/ she felt in his/ her own home, he/ she would say it was perfect except for one thing: the fact that it was located in Bucharest. The fact that most inhabitants are unhappy about living in this city is not a secret. But what is more obvious is the fact that most of them do not care about the city that they live in. Once we get out of the ideal apartment we live in, we encounter problems. Where the private space ends and the so-called “common” space begins, a huge barrier arises. A barrier called “I don’t care”. After the year 1989, the word “common” was given extremely negative connotations by Romanians. Of course, there are others who like to blame this on the Latin-Balkan spirit. But they all agree that the city would be cleaner if the next door neighbor swept the floor from time to time. While throwing their freshly used napkins on the floor, people tend to forget that they are the ones who are paying those who are cleaning the streets. And it is them again, who are voting the “changes” every 4 years. Just as those who have left the city, many of them are more concerned with criticizing than with improving their relationship with it. As long as the apartment makes up most of the city and the state of the buildings depends on those who are inhabiting them (a meaning that the word co-property contains), the only chance of the city is for the people of Bucharest to realize the problems and to act accordingly. Since we don’t want to end the article in a pessimistic key, we can only hope that the civic organizations, whose number is growing, will manage to change something. Or that Romanians, who are tempted more and more to work abroad, will bring back at least a bit of what they will have seen there. But we know that, whatever we do, there will be parts of the city that will remain inaccessible to some of us, as part of a common scheme of any European urban settlement. Paris 2008 Translated by Iunia Martin

by Ştefan Tuchilă