A comment piece on Bucharest’s northern district Baneasa, published in English and Romanian in Jug
Before the financial crash of 2008, Bucharest’s northern zone of Baneasa wanted sex appeal.
Real estate agents targeted citizens living with their parents in Communist high-rises with the dream of a home that could be secure, fashionable and seductive.
Adding the name ‘Baneasa’ to the address could allow them to double the price.
These new apartments and villas sported English names evoking a suburban paradise – Zenith, North Lane, Green Lake, Green Gate – a place suspended from its surroundings, an elite compound rising from the city of beggars, dogs and the stink of steaming cabbage on the stairwell.
The idea was that if you were a man and you lived in Baneasa, you could score a girl in a club.
Baneasa made the heart race. The wallet restless. The lips moisten. An elite quartier on a cloud of satin and sushi.
Move north – the posters told us, again and again – yes, up there…
…to the factories, the forest, the swamp.
The redevelopment took place during the Romania’s fake boom between 2004 and 2008 when Bucharest’s real estate prices eclipsed those of Vienna.
During this time of collective self-deceit, someone believed that a zone ‘far from the center’ and ‘near the airport’ could be exclusive.
However Baneasa is cut off from the city by a network of lakes, rivers and fenced-off runways.
This is a zone of failed industry, abandoned by the city to the south by water and to the north by barbed wire.
Most cities build warehouses, abattoirs and septic tanks near their airports – but Bucharest was re-imagining Kensington and Chelsea under a flight path.
Baneasa has no public space. The green zones are strewn with beer cans and discarded masonry and concrete. Patches of earth and guardhouses are reclaimed by the homeless as picnic areas and hostels.
As one walks the streets, dogs throw themselves at fences, barking at passers-by and crushing their snouts between iron bars.
Vast stretches of road have no pavements. I wander for an entire morning. I see more crows than people. It’s an allegory for the city – where the only citizens with rights are those with four wheels.
Fragments of half-built villas remain. Their developers bankrupt. Resembling Cold War bomb shelters that line the borders of the iron curtain, these concrete shadows are occupied by squatters. The ghost of a king-sized bedroom, now a toilet for tramps, the reception room a pasture for chickens.
Romania is a nation of bodyguards. In Baneasa, armed with batons in cheap uniforms, these bruisers protect the entrances to gated communities from burglars or rusty factories from scavengers of copper and steel. Standing legs apart, arms folded, they dart a psychotic glare to me as though I am a potential criminal – because if you walk in Baneasa, there must be something wrong with you.
Bespoke modernist and baroque villas rise from soiled roads, surrounded by heaps of bin-liners and ditches of trash. After wandering through Baneasa for four hours, my boots are caked in mud, sticks and crumbs of concrete.
Baneasa explains the irony of Romania – why is a country of such riches so cursed with poverty?
When you wanted to do business in this country in the 90s and 00s, the only way to make money was dealing with the state – either directly or by paying off some official. A class of white-collar plunderers emerged. They sapped cash from the people and redirected it to the elite. They bought land in Baneasa. They built villas.
But because the Government had no money left, it could not afford to build roads to these new homes. Hence a row of mansions on a street of mud.
Stray dogs are here. Chasing you down a country lane. Jumping in and out of the back of a chain-link fence around an abandoned manor. In other parts of Bucharest, the mayor’s office continues his canine holocaust. Gangs of dog-catchers rip strays from the embrace of crying children and dispatch them for slaughter in a militarized industrial compound.
In Baneasa, behind the HQ of TV station Antena, next to the market and on the avenues of palaces, fat mongrels wander free.
The zone is unplanned, anarchic, unshapely. If you live here, you never know what could be built next to your home. New blocks have balconies with a view onto a new office block. Mansions rub against mansions, where inside you sit on the toilet and look out of your bathroom window and, two metres away, you catch the eye of another person, in a mansion, sitting on the toilet, looking out of their bathroom window.
One can walk for hours without finding a coffee shop or a bar. Only fenced off blocks. Fenced off manors. Anti-social housing. All that is open are salons, spas, beauty clinics, saunas, solariums. There is nowhere to meet, chat and laugh – only to shape, tone and burn the body with radiation. Baneasa wants you to lift the skin, not the spirits.
But there is the mall. A silver box of treats. Isolated from this segregated zone beyond an airport. Boasting Ikea, H&M and Carrefour, a simulcra of every other aluminium cuboid from Tel Aviv to Glasgow. If a city has no impulse to invent, a mall will appear.
Inside bald men in leather jackets drag their scowling wives with their cesarean bumps. Foreigners plug their faces with Starbucks’ muffins, while debating the Romanian ‘mentality’: “Why are people so friendly here?” / “Why are waiters so rude?” / “Why is home-cooked food so good here?”/ “Why are the restaurants so bad?”.
Each corridor has names such as ‘Style Street’, ‘Trend Street’ and ‘Glam Street’. Posters loom down from a carousel of natural light – a young woman, lipstick, black hair tumbling over her shoulder, exposing the skin of her neck, a Cosmopolitan to hand – stretched out on a billiard table – the tagline: ‘Snooker – Baneasa Style’.
Malls are not evil. They satisfy. They relax. They offer a predictable pleasure at a competitive price. This is the best place in Baneasa. But there is no delight. No joy. One rarely hears laughing inside a shopping mall.
One industry growing in Baneasa seems to be laser tag arenas – ex-warehouses turned into dark mazes where people shoot each other with plastic guns, simulating warfare.
Yes, the only fun to have in Baneasa is pretending to kill your friends.
Bucharest is a big city of small miracles. Despite a bungling leadership bent on developing a pastiche of Communism or Capitalism in design, planning and governance, its people’s informality and embrace of new ventures facilitate moments of genius – such as an artist, a friend, an attitude, a bar, a shop, a festival, a film, a night out. A structure built by fools allows shafts of light to slip through its cracks.
But there are no tiny miracles in Baneasa, because there is no dialogue, fellowship or community.
Here is what happens when greed goes unchallenged. Boxes of money on a carpet of trash.
Luxury nesting in filth.
Michael Bird is a journalist and writer based in Bucharest and editor of www.theblacksea.eu