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.
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.
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.
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.