Ferentari: Bucharest’s Post-Socialist Ghetto

Romania is a country with a long socialist planning tradition that evoked in mass urbanisation, leaving a tremendous footprint on the current urban structure of virtually every Romanian city. The first years after the 1989 revolution, however, caused a clear break with this blueprint planning and state controlled housing system, and ushered in an era of, among other, predominant building freeze and decreasing maintenance funds. This new era, in the planning and geography literature specified as transition, had a disproportional impact on those who were dependent on government aid, among them many Roma. This article will discuss the case of Ferentari, Bucharest’s most feared neighbourhood and one of Romania’s notorious Romani ghettos. Empirical data in this article is based on a 2012 ethnographic fieldwork of three months.

Rubbish Livezilor Alley

Rubbish Livezilor Alley © Dominic Teodorescu

13 sq metres apartment Livezilor Alley  © Dominic Teodorescu

13 sq metres apartment Livezilor Alley © Dominic Teodorescu

Ferentari is an apt example of a former socialist blue-collar compound, where now many Roma are living segregated, in 13 m2 one-room apartments. My stay in Bucharest helped to have a sounder grasp of the resident’s perception to planning and housing policy in Ferentari. This was very much needed as Sector 5, the city district in which Ferentari is located, does not publish any housing or planning documents on Ferentari. Other findings were that the cadastre is not up-to-date and so Sector 5 does not have data on e.g. how many dwelling Ferentari boasts or where constructions take place. The search to existing policy for possible housing improvements was shifted to Bucharest’s master plan, planning programmes for housing improvements, and Bucharest’s urban structure plan of the City Hall: ‘Conceptul strategic Bucureti 2035′. The latter acknowledges the poor state of Ferentari and demands large scale interventions. Also expert’s interviews with urban planners showed that the actual state of the housing stock and public spaces in Ferentari is very well known at the local authorities and that instruments, intended for urban regeneration, exist. Yet, lack of transparency between the two institutional bodies has resulted in a non-purposive approach to the many post-socialist housing difficulties in Ferentari. The rare implications of the district (e.g. poorly tarmacked roads and car parks, new playgrounds, new, randomly placed street furniture) are executed just before elections, being regarded by the experts as tactic attempts to satisfy the electorate.

The ethnographic study provided the local perceptions on the outcomes of housing policy and planning.The neighbourhood has five types of accommodations: detached houses, condominium apartments, social housing, squatted apartments, and slums. The worst areas of the neighbourhood were along the Vâltoarei street and Livezilor Alley in South Ferentari. The first interesting finding was that owners of detached houses are happy with their type of accommodation. Flat-dwellers also stress that a detached house is the ultimate form of housing in Ferentari. Moreover, the condominium-dwellers tend to dissociate from the harsh areas in Ferentari, which accommodate, according to them, the lowest stratum of society. Dissociating is done by fencing. Except for the many technical problems, such as flooded cellars and the mildew problems, the entire neighbourhood is confronted with the social problems that originate mainly from one street: Livezilor Alley. Due to the street’s disproportional issues, the entire quarter is saddled with the same social problems: neighbours’ quarrels, drug dealing, burglaries, robberies and so on. In the blocks of flats on Livezilor Alley, the technical problems are even more harrowing, as buildings do not have front doors, corridors lack balustrades and lighting, block 36 has started to lean, and all corridors are sprinkled with syringes. The social problems are mainly caused by drug dealers and addicts, squatters,and an organised crime gang the Cămătari with activities in drug dealing, prostitution,and sublease of squatted houses.

Extended balconies Ima ului Street

Extended balconies Ima ului Street © Dominic Teodorescu

Due to the lack of financial vigour, and the absence of any residents’ associations, Ferentarians on Livezilor Alley are unable to improve the housing situation themselves. The absence of support from the local authority is only emphasising this impotence. According to the Ferentarians, the reason for this absence is clearly linked to their ethnicity: not so much with them being Roma, but the high proportions of, what they call, gypsies who chase the authorities away. According to them, not all Roma are seen as gypsies in Romanian society – only the Romani instigator is the “real gypsy”. To illustrate the Sector’s distrust towards Ferentarians, the newest playground on Tunsu Petre Street has been closed until elections and is supervised day and night. According to the residents, this was done to help the playground survive, at least, until the elections. Thereafter no guards were spotted any more and soon the playground started to fall into disrepair. Ferentarians complain about this lack of perseverance and underline that this is the municipality’s biggest shortcoming. Additionally, the lack of social assistance is seen as an obstacle. If they would receive more aid from the government, it would be easier for them to invest more money in their own stock.

Privatised car park Livezilor Alley  © Dominic Teodorescu

Privatised car park Livezilor Alley © Dominic Teodorescu

The fact that these phenomena persist in Ferentari is, according to the people, a proof of non-planning. Fencing strategies as a means for protection appeared as a consequence. This can be recognised in the high fences, intercom systems, massive doors in corridors and parking cages on the streets. The illegally privatised areas on public spaces, and illegally built balconies illustrate the neglect of local authorities in the neighbourhood. These makeshifts, and the collaborations that preceded and enacts them, are fine examples of‘rational choices’ to improve housing standards.

Ethnography has demonstrated the discrepancy between the aims of planning instruments and the actual state of Ferentari. The strength of ethnography is that it proved to be a fitting method for discovering the needs and wishes of residents, while also gaining a deeper, and more sensitive, understanding of the local culture. Therefore, I argue, this approach would be fitting for local policy makers in urban renewal programmes. Through ethnography, policy makers can proceed effectively as they can anticipate real local problems and receive rapid, accurate feedback: the community does not only need playgrounds one month before elections!

All photos in this article are by Dominic Teodorescu.

Dominic Teodorescu

About Dominic Teodorescu

Dominic is currently a PhD candidate at Uppsala University and as part of his PhD programme hewill continue with research on post-socialist planning issues in Romania. Therefore, more reports on urban and planning issues in Romania will follow.

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Posted on by Dominic Teodorescu in Urban Planning & Design

5 Responses to Ferentari: Bucharest’s Post-Socialist Ghetto

  1. Jorn Koelemaij

    Very interesting to read about your research Dominic, thanks!

    There are a few things I was still wondering about after having read your article. First of all, what was the condition of Ferentari during Ceaucescu’s socialist era? Was it already a place that accomodated many Roma? And how do the current older residents generally look back to this period? In other words: did only the state of Ferentari deteriorate? Or the position of Roma people in Romania in general? Or maybe both?

    Then, I was also wondering about the social interaction between the residents of the neighbourhood: is there any social cohesion or collective efficacy visible, or did you find a lot of mistrust among them and tensions between the ‘gypsy and non-gypsy Roma’?

    Hope you are able to answer these questions to some extent, I would definitely be happy to further follow your project!

    • Dominic Teodorescu

      Hoi Jorn,

      Dank voor je vraag!

      This article is based on a 80 pages master’s thesis. Hence, many information is indeed missing. Yet, I’ll try to answer your questions as good and concise as possible. Firstly, Ferentari is built next to a big factory and the dorm-style blocks were built for the blue-collar workers and armymen. Immediatly after 89 the army withdrew, and the factory failed to privatise. As a result many of the apartments were abandonned and subsequently a magnet to poor, and dispelled people (due to the housing restitution programme). A disproportionally high percentage of the poorest Romanians is Roma and therefore many dispelled or impoverished Romani Bucharesters seeked for shelter in Ferentari. I only had one interview with a lady that lived before 89 in the neighbourhood and she was, so to say, lyrical about pre-89 state of Ferentari. It had no drug gangs, no criminality, streets were cleaned, and maintenance programmes were executed on regular base.

      Seeing that the south of Bucharest has been traditionally a poorer part of town, it always had a higher percentage of Roma. Yet, the austarity programmes after 89 disproportionally affected them by lower employment opportunities. Nevertheless, as a result of this economic slump it’s fascinating to see how the local informal economy is flourishing in Ferentari .

      Lastly, there is indeed an interesting and inventive collective approach in most parts of the neighbourhood. These social interactions take place both in formal and informal way. The formal houseowner associations can be found in the better parts of the neighbourhood, whereas in the most decayed part, Livezilor quarter, it’s somehow impossible to have a collective when a large part of the residents are squatters. Here, you can see that residents colleborate on ‘corridor level’ by placing heavy metal doors and collectively subscribe to power companies. My initial answer would be ‘yes’, there is a dichotomy between the impoverished, though benevolent residents and the more obscure trespassers (gangsters, squatters, drug-addicts).

      In the coming months I will continue research on the latter, also from a gender perspective.

      Cheers,
      Dominic

  2. Barend Wind

    Hi Dominic,

    Thanks for your interesting article. Looking forward to your first articles on post-socialist Bucarest! I’m wondering what you see as main causes for the sociospatial situation in Ferentari. You state that the government neglect this area, but from my travels to Romania I have the idea that there is a general neglect for spatial planning in Romania general. There iron cages to park cars in, and all kinds of private solution to ‘improve’ housing quality can be found in various neighborhoods for example. It seems that it basically is the economic situation of the residents that gives the Ferentari its current form – distinct from other localities – facilitated by the absent planning system. So, what happened to the situation of the Roma after 1990?
    Then, do you see any neighborhood upgrading in Bucarest? I’m wondering, because I have the idea that Roma in socialist times were merely clustered in the city center (because the newer blocks in the outskirts were much more attractive than). These central locations have the biggest chance of being upgraded. Do you have the idea that the Roma profit from these developments?

    Good luck with your project!
    Barend

    • Dominic

      Hoi Barend,

      Indeed some good questions. To start with your first question, one could say there’s a general neglect to urban planning. Yet, if you step away from the Dutch planning perspective and start looking at the nuances, you’ll find, at least in Bucharest some significant differences. The first, to start with, is the fact that all districts should make the zoning plans public. For most of Bucharest you can even find zoning plans online. Ferentari has no zoning plan and officials at Sector 5 (Ferentari’s district) refuse to provide any insights (thereby breaking the law!). Second example: city districts invest considerable amounts of money in e.g. cleaning work, tarmacking, or maintenance of public spaces. Moreover, since 3 year, city districts are investing in refurbish programmes of socialist blocks of apartments. Nonetheless, no finance exists for Ferentari and many streets are still unpaved. I argue that the core of the problem lies in the high budgetary autonomy city districts have. The richest people live in the northern parts of the city, and therefore most tax money is collected there and subsequently spent on urban planning.

      I reckon these are obvious examples of failing planning which affect Ferentari disproportionately. Regarding the iron cages, you might have seen them before in Romania but I doubt that you’ve seen them in such big numbers on a public road or on public gardens. Indeed, Bucharesters tend to fence their properties but what you see in Ferentari is that public space becomes a blurred conception.

      Nevertheless, you’re completely right that you can find examples of non-planning in all parts of the city. Pockets of poverty can be found i.a. in the centre, Pantelimon (East), Colentina (North-East), and next to Ferentari in Rahova but I would argue that nowhere you find such a significant concentration of poverty and makeshift solutions (which are often brilliant in their own way).

      I have to admit that I am unable to come up with an answer to your last question. At least, I don’t know if Roma profit from gentrification that takes place in some central areas. Still, many Roma left the centre after 89. In short, most houses in the centre were nationalised after 1947 and many Roma were lodged in these because they were spacious and considered ‘too big’ for only one household. After 89 most of these houses were restituted to the former owners and many Roma were dispelled. I hope this’ll give you an answer on why so many Roma lived in the centre before ’89 and why they moved after 89 (Although this is not the case for Timișoara). Anyway, the centre of Bucharest is indeed gentrifying, but still many dilapidated houses are squatted by Roma. This is a part of the town where I spent most of my time, but where I only know little about.

      Thanks!

  3. Shawn

    Hi Dominic
    I want to thank you for your insight into Ferentari, notably the Ghetto at Aleea Livezilor. I was interested in your research from pre to post 1989, the time of the Ceausescu regime, and subsequent demise.

    I have had first hand experience of the issues you have raised, from this area of Ferentari. I spent nearly a month living with a family, in June 2013, in a 30 square metre, one bedroom apartment, at the intersection of Aleea Livezilor, and Strada Valtoarei.

    In that time, I saw and heard a lot. From the tirade of arguments and fights, from children (boys against girls)as young as 8 years old fighting tooth and claw in Strada Valtoarei, to people who would stay up all night drinking and fighting on the street corners. Even the family’s 11 year old son was set upon by a gang of boys (he called them “Gypsy”), younger than him, and robbed him of 5 Leu, when he was retuning to the apartment from the shop, which was only about 80 metres away from the front door of their apartment block.

    This Ghetto end of Aleea Livezilor is a very busy thoroughfare both during the day and at night (for obvious reasons, which you stipulated in your text – gangsters, drug users and squatters).

    During my time there, I walked through the ghetto a couple of times, and luckily, I made it through without being approached or set upon (maybe because I am big and scary looking). On my second trip there, I was spotted by one of the family’s friends, and she told me not to go in there alone.

    I can understand why the family would tell you they are from Ghencea, instead of Ferentari. This is not they are ashamed of the apartment they live in, but the stigma that is associated with living in Ferentari. They did not choose to live in Ferentari, it was forced upon them by circumstances beyond their control. I fear for their existence and their safety everyday.

    I wonder about the ability (or lack of) of the Sectorul 5 Council. Are they being proactive in the cleaning up of this area? NO, they are not. The only thing I saw of the council’s activities there was the street sweepers, who do their best each day to keep the streets clean. The state of the neighbourhood; the rubbish, the filth, the smell, and the discarded syringes, etc. are terrible to say the least. But this is all these people know, and this is all their children know. How many more generations will it take for the people in power to be proactive in rejuvenating this area, and also for the people in the ghetto to clean up themselves, have some pride, and make their neighbourhood a happy and safe place to live in. It has to work both ways.

    Thanks again Dominic for the article, and hope the thesis is a success.

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