Little Pariah

June 1, 2008 was election day for the local administration in Romania. The candidates for Bucharest City Hall and the six, relatively independent, “sector” mayoralties fought desperate wars to win.
Many people have a lousy opinion about Bucharest, formerly known as Little Paris, and some of their reasons are discussed in this issue. Others – especially tourists and temporary residents – are willing to discover the good parts, even in what Bucharesters think is the worst stain on the face of their city (but also the second-largest building in the world), the (in)famous so-called People’s House, which seems to turn into the long-sought symbol of the city, to the despair of its inhabitants. The most flattering impression I have heard about it, let alone the magnificence of the construction and its interiors, came from a young Russian woman looking at the colossus from about one kilometer down on Union Boulevard: “From here it looks like it hangs in the air.”
All the main candidates except one accepted to appear, two by two, on a TV show as boxers in a ring, with a host-referee, “coaches” and a split audience, each side supporting one of the candidates with howls and banners. Journalists speculated that elections have become so uninteresting in themselves after almost two decades of democracy, that only entertainment can give the campaign a jumpstart.

But wait a minute: we are talking about a city in crisis. A city suffocated by traffic jams that will take hours to beat during the best part of the day. Suffocated by chaotic construction the only criteria of which is massive profit, disregarding the environment, functionality and good taste (one may say that the ugliness of the city has evolved from gray to motley: from the frozen drabness of communist times to the dappled zing of burgeoning capitalism). Suffocated by dust (270 tons/km2) coming – in the absence of a long-awaited, promised green belt around the city – with the wind from the Romanian Plain, and wafting across a city depleted of its greenery by greedy entrepreneurs, Bucharest is the European champion: in the last 17 years, 20 million square meter of green were razed with permission from mayors (Academia Catavencu, 19-25 March and 26 March-1 April 2008), in a city with the lowest green area per capita in Europe: barely 10 m2 according to vice-mayor Razvan Murgeanu, quoted on (who admits that cemeteries were included in the calculus when they should not), or, in a more realistic appraisal (according to,, and other sources), 2.5 m2 (compared to over 30 m2 in Warsaw or 64 m2 in London), a far cry from European standards (26 m2), and the World Health Organization recommendation (50 m2). The official City Hall website ( puts forward a different estimate: 16 m2.
…And plagued by aggressive stray dogs (see A dogged presence in Gallery) roaming the streets and attacking people: not even a tragedy, by no means a singular case, that jeopardized the image Romanians care so much about, was enough to trigger a response from the authorities, when a Japanese businessman was bitten to death by a dog in front of the Government headquarters of all places. A neighbor of mine, a well-known actress, was almost killed by street dogs in broad daylight, a hundred yards from Parliament, in the very heart of the city. What happened next is typical of Bucharest authorities: armed with a medical certificate, she filed a complaint with the Bucharest City Hall authority in charge of “animals without masters”. After a couple of weeks of insistence on the victim’s part, they did send a squad to take the dogs (which I accompanied myself, turning into an unwilling dog catcher just to be sure they did their job). The problem was that three “specialized” catchers armed with an anesthetic gun were only able to catch one out of three sleeping dogs, and utterly refused to take those with a microchip in their ear, claiming (against all evidence, and even against the police, who were present) that, according to their regulations, these classified as “dogs with masters”, even if they roamed the streets on the loose. Several complaints and letters from lawyers have changed little. People who claim to love animals “adopt” these dogs, releasing them from the pound, then back into the streets, thus perpetuating a vicious circle impossible to break unless they are fined for their irresponsible deeds. This is further complicated by the fact that, in their case, the authority supposed to enforce the law is different from the one dealing with stray dogs. To crown it all, a new one-legged law stipulates fines and prison terms for people who ill-treat animals, providing for nothing when the victims are human.
Seen in this perspective, the city’s teeming with single-handed or organized beggars (about which Nae Caranfil made a telling film, Filantropica, 2002, see Them in Gallery), or the hundreds of buildings, many of them boasting beautiful classical or modern architecture, buried under huge advertising (including banners covering entire buildings, installed by would-be mayors of Bucharest – see Bannered in Gallery), which may perfectly illustrate a mongrel word like advertecture, look like minor inconveniences.
Should you expect a better prospective as a motorist, maybe? Perhaps for lack of a serious project, the newly-elected mayor promised during the campaign to build a suspended highway across Bucharest to ease traffic. Let alone the esthetics of such an enterprise, one must remember that Romania is “the country where five kilometers of highway are made in four years” (Academia Catavencu, August 27-September 2, 2008, on the inauguration by the Prime Minister of the first kilometers of the Transylvania Highway completed by Bechtel). That even a tiny attempt to draw a bus-only lane in the city center is disregarded by all the motorists (a mere traffic sign has so far proved unable to do the job of a responsible traffic agent). That epic battles are fought for a parking place, even for your own, the one in front of your house, paid for, year after year, to City Hall, which doesn’t even care to mark the spot. That the ridiculously anorectic ring road meant to deflect heavy traffic creates exasperating snarl-ups itself. That mayor Videanu, the one in office until 2008, took to the gargantuan task of replacing almost all of the curbstones in Bucharest, many of which were in perfect condition, while many streets, even in the center, are impracticable. Whether this smacks of corruption or sheer stupidity, one wonders what keeps us from picking up said dislocated stones to throw them at his institution.
But the overdriven, overstrained, overreacting Bucharesters are apathetic voters: on June 1, 2008, the voter turnout was 31.07 %, far below the national average
For all the aforementioned reasons and a dozen more, their life expectancy is four years lower than in other Romanian cities (the Romanian average being already the lowest in Europe at 71.2 years, according to; see also, also showing life expectancy in Romania among the lowest in 2006: 69.2 for males and 76.2 for females). This has by no means deterred 10 percent of Romania’s population (unofficial estimates are double) from settling in the battered city to illustrate Konrad Lorenz’s thesis: the overall lack of amiability that may be observed in all the big cities is directly proportional to the population density.
Seven years ago we published a narcissistic issue entitled Bucharest – A Sentimental Guide. Today we are bound to reveal what went wrong.

by Adrian Solomon