When three years ago I visited Bucharest, I gained a not very favorable impression about the city. It seemed gray and the streets, the buildings, the people were also gray – as they beared upon themselves the burden of the totalitarian past, 70 years of Soviet dictatorship had not definitely stood back.
Maybe that’s why the new visit I made to the city, in the past 9 to 12 June, has caused me much surprise. This was a field trip, within the project New Europe – Cities in Transition, in order to visit locally based projects that promote the city as an area of inclusion, sustainability and participation. We were welcomed by members of Zeppelin and, in addition to the Citizenship Academy, were present organizations from Berlin (Mörchenpaprk), London (Paddington Development Trust) and Amsterdam (Pakhuis of Zwijger).
Three days have come to realize how Bucharest had radically changed over the last three years. There is a new movement to emerge throughout the city that brings good ideas and makes it more democratic. The course gave special attention to the south of the city. Not only because this was the urban area that was most ignored during the last decades, but above all for being where today develops the highest number of citizen initiatives. There are still huge buildings of the time of the Soviet Union, mostly former factories, now abandoned and in decay. Many of the projects that emerged have been served to take and give life to these buildings.
Soviet buildings after all serve some purpose
On October 30, 2015 there was a tragic fire at Colectiv Nightclub, that killed 64 people. Occupying an old shoe factory, the club did not have any safety conditions. Following this sinister event, several protests took place, with the participation of tens of thousands of people demanding ministerial resignation and, above all, greater control by the state of the security conditions of utility public spaces. Since then, the authorities have been really paying attention, requiring to new spaces a strict compliance with safety standards.
La Firul Ierbii. Community space to promote citizen participation.
This is the case of the initiative we visited on the first day, La Firul Ierbii, which translates in English to “Grassroots”. Occupying part of an old cotton mill, this is a community space that has the mission to activate the exercise of citizenship. By providing permanent public access space to the whole community, for meetings or public debates, this initiative intends to promote dialogue between government institutions and citizens, as well as a direct interaction between society and companies , particularly those of the creative industries. Because of the obvious similarities between La Firul Ierbii and Citizenship Academy, I was interested in knowing the actions already developed, but in fact the project had just begun (the space was still under construction), with only planned future activities. A strong reason to return to Bucharest.
Ateliere Fara Frontiere. Reuse, recycling and social and labor insertion.
We got to know the Ateliere Fara Frontiere (Atelier Without Borders), which also occupies a former factory. When entering the huge building, the first thing I noticed were the metal shelves multi-storey overcrowded by electronic material and, deeper, old outdoor advertising signs rolls. Only then I could notice the workshops, which were being developed around the central space, occupied by young people: the young men, devoted to electronics, were repairing old appliances (computers, displays, mobile phones, printers, etc.) using parts of other objects – the parts that they could no longer use would to be sold for recycling, the electronic appliances put to work were donated to schools, hospitals, prisons, NPOs, etc; the girls, sitting in front of sewing machines, turned the huge posters canvas on all kinds of items, such as purses, bags, beanbags, etc. But Ateliere Fara Frontiere became for me a great idea when I realized that all the people who worked there were actually inserted into a rehabilitation and social reintegration program, promoted by the Ateliere itself, in partnership with various institutions such as, prisons, treatment centers for drug addicts or educational centers. Benefiting from a contract of employment, and receiving as salary the national minimum wage, each one of those people were developing personal and social skills, relationships with others and employability. As I found out, the people that had passed through there, most were reintegrated in fact, developing their life independently and without criminal recidivism.
Changing the city through art and innovation
Another visited great idea was Modulab, a multidisciplinary platform that promotes research and development of new means of expression through technology. It first major creation, in 2009, was a holographic projection, and in 2012 it took to the streets scanning and 3D printing, during the festival “Street Delivery” where people could scan their faces and print their portraits in plastic. In the same year it co-produced the Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture. Currently, it collaborates with public and private institutions, designing interactive objects, where technology and art meet and complement each other. In addition to the artwork, this collective also conducts workshops, conferences and other meetings, promoting near the public debates related to the themes of art and new technologies. It was worth it to know the platform inside, visit its nice studio, completely planned and built by the members of Modulab, and meet this group of highly heterogeneous people: artists, philosophers, engineers, designers, activists … It goes without saying that the group consists of only three people.
Modulab. Research and action using art and technology.
And when it’s Nature that changes the city?
One of the major impact visits was the one made to the Parcul Natural Vacaresti. This is a 184 hectare area that is in the middle of the city of Bucharest, a huge land abandoned since the time of the dictator Ceauşescu and where, in recent times and in spontaneously way, emerged a series of pure water lakes from springs and with them, hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, etc. This provoked curiosity in many environmental experts and nowadays there is already at least one association, the homonymous association to the park, which carries out studies to this ecosystem that looks like miraculous work. About three months ago the Romanian government recognized this area as a nature reserve. Today, the park is guarded by that association, helped by two families who live there. The incredible experience of performing a real safari through this kind of fairyland lit in everyone the certainty about the immeasurable power of nature and its ability to constantly renew.
Parcul Natural Vacaresti. When Nature wins to industrialization.
A matter of opportunities
Bucharest is in rapid and great development. This city, which has 2 million inhabitants, is clearly benefiting from a wave of social innovation and optimism that has crossed Europe, which comes in response to the social and financial crisis of recent years. The economy of Romania is, in Europe, one that has the fastest growing (4.2%), with the unemployment rate steadily down, standing currently at 6.4%. It is a country where apparently corruption is being combated and where people seem to be having an increasing active participation in society. Also the state and public and private institutions (which includes, for example, the Bank of Transylvania) have an interest in this participation as they provide all kinds of funding to support citizenship promotion initiatives. It is a country that has also been attracting foreign investors.
On the other hand, 70% of Romania’s rural population lives below the poverty line and more than half of the overall child population (51%) are at risk of poverty. The main reasons pointed out are the lack of access, by families, to universal and basic social services such as health, housing or education. In 1995 it was passed in Parliament a law that allowed state buildings return to families that had them before the communist dictatorship. This meant that, in Bucharest alone, more than 50,000 people living in social housing were thrown into the street. In 2013, there were still about 1800 families looking for a place to live. In 2009 it was asked for a 20 bilion euros loan to the IMF to recapitalize the National Bank of Romania.
In short: there is now a (small) slice of Romanian society, especially urban and with higher education, which has been increasingly involved in public life, seeking to improve not only theirs, but also the lives of others around; on the other hand, there is a (large) slice of Romanian society, whom opportunities are still not coming, suffering from poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, exclusion. There is a gap separating the two. The challenge will be to destroy this gap, and to ensure that the good examples I’ve visited over the three days can be replicated with increasing frequency.
Photos and text: Joana Dias