The “Black Hole” Historical Center

from left: Old Court ruins, Manuc's Inn, Lime-Tree Inn galleries, passageway on Lipscani St.
The other day I was wandering through the Historical Center of Bucharest, the capital city, that is, the place from where the sun rises for all of us Romanians. The name – Historical Center – seems correct, its southern border is marked by the respectable Curtea Veche (The Old Court) and Hanul lui Manuc (Manuc’s Inn), with Romania’s old banking center located just a few steps away. Here is where they came, here is where they went through, here is where they built, here is where they settled. Lords, merchants, swindlers. Descriptions of habits. Quotes from travelers delighted or not by this Orient with “Evropean” ambitions. This is what you get if you ask any historian or if you read the pages written by authors such as Bacalbaşa, Potra, or others like them. But if you carefully avoid the area, things are really OK. As I already implied, the fame of being a Historical Center is actually a huge irony, a dark metaphor invented by our fellow compatriots who stubbornly support the national claim that humor helped us survive throughout history. In fact, Bucharest expands itself out of control, with all sorts of dubious neighborhoods, while the much talked-about Historical Center has fallen within the past 30 years even more than it has since the time of Bucur the Shepherd (Bucur Ciobanul, the legendary founder of Bucharest). My recent trip on Blănari (Furriers), Lipscani (Leipziger merchants), Şelari (Saddlers) and other similar streets convinced me that The One Above destined this neighborhood to those in search of extreme sensations. If you nevertheless want to go all the way on this trail of despair, I can give you some suggestions. First of all, make sure you wear a helmet (a brick, a balcony or even an entire house may fall at any time and ruin your hair). A pair of boots with solid calks would also come in handy (sliding through the piles of garbage is dangerous from several points of view). You could also use a small backpack with a bottle of medicinal alcohol in it (usually for external use), some bandages, antibiotics and a pair of crutches. It wouldn’t be bad if you became friends with one of the doctors working at the “Victor Babeş” National Institute. You should wear gloves and carry some paralyzing spray. Don’t talk to local inhabitants – they have strange habits and long fingers. Run across the neighborhood during the day, and avoid it at night. Anyway, wear a mask, just in case (God forbid) one of your friends might recognize you. We’ve been told about this “pearl” of the Capital for years, we’ve heard all about its bright future and the rehabilitation of this blessed space. Like many others, just as gullible, I too dreamt of coquette passageways, sided with cafes and restaurants, buildings covered by ivy and the patina of time. Mysterious narrow streets with elegant ladies walking their kangaroos on a leash and tanned males looking for national specificity. All in vain. When mayor Lis was in office (1997-2000), they used to talk about an urban-planning contest, about financing the modernization by issuing municipality shares and other cock-and-bull stories which we (o, tempora) would believe with a lot of naivety. Nothing happened. The Historical Center is a favela, a shantytown on the Dâmboviţa River, a mall of illicit trade, a paradise for criminals, a magnet for earthquakes, the starting point of the next epidemic of plague. It’s hard for me to understand how the owners of rock and jazz clubs manage to heroically survive here. Young people may enjoy a little adventure alright, but is it worth risking your neck for Amon Tobin or Massive Attack? For how long are we going to protect this filth in the middle of Bucharest? We have plenty of top quality architects, unfortunately, money will continue to come (with very few exceptions) from our new financial elite who wants tiled facades, Asian pagoda towers and golden door knobs. Public funds are spent on the People’s Cathedral, on the statue of the typewriter, on the hide-and-seek game called the National Library. Let’s be honest – the rehabilitation of the Historical Center is nothing but an illusion. Its decay, started decades ago, is definitive. It’s been said that it represents a stone chronicle of our history. It does, indeed. It displays a lot of specificity – neglect, slapdash work, kitsch, incompetence, electoral jokes. If I were mean, I’d say that the Historical Center is a metaphor for Romania, with all of its implacable fate. But I’m not mean. So I suggest the town council should buy a new division of bulldozers. Instead of a Disneyland for rats, we’d rather have a field of blue poppies, as deputy Razboiu would say. Or we’d rather have nothing. Just a plastic sign saying “Here there used to be …” Dilema veche, 31 October-6 November 2003 Translated by Daniela Oancea

by Dan Goanţă (1955-2006)