The Tenants of the Old Town

September 1, 2021   •   By Emanuela Grama

IT WAS A sunny Saturday afternoon in May 2016, and I was strolling the streets of the Old Town neighborhood in Bucharest. The entrance to one shabby building had the door wide open, and this is when I noticed her. She sat on a plastic chair in the interior courtyard, smoking a cigarette, and looking aimlessly toward the street. She appeared to be in her early 20s, thin, with black hair drawn back in a ponytail. I said “Hello” and waved. She responded with a nod. I decided to step in through the door and see if she wanted to tell me more about the building. The first question she had for me was: Are you from the city hall or from television? I told her that I was doing research about her neighborhood and that I wanted to talk to some people who lived there. She did not tell me her name, but she agreed to talk.


“Everyone wants to come to the historic district,” she said, “but I am sick and tired of the historic center.” She began telling me about the house across the street that collapsed overnight a few years earlier. It had been abandoned, so no one was hurt, but, she said, “now you see all of the rats from that house running across our courtyard.”


This run-down building was the only home she had ever known. Born right before Romania’s communist regime collapsed in 1989, she had grown up in the one-room apartment that her parents rented from the city hall. When we spoke, 30 other families lived in this now dangerously decrepit building, which in the late 19th century and throughout the interwar period used to be a middle-class hotel. The utilities the building provided during that time (running water in each room and a common bathroom at the end of the corridor) did not change much after 1948, when the hotel was nationalized and the rooms and apartments were rented to poorer people as state tenants. Only the apartments facing the street were more spacious and had their own bathrooms.


At the time of our conversation, her building was still government-owned housing, but city authorities had stopped investing in it. Carmen, as I will call the young woman, told me that she did not remember the last time any repairs had been done, because “the state [was] at war with the [former] owner,” a “war,” she said, that had started more than six years before our conversation. According to her, the owner continues to be in litigation with the state about the building. “She keeps sending letters from America,” commented Carmen, “telling us that she does not guarantee for our lives. The state did not bother to even send such letters.” The building was officially on the national list of historic monuments, but no one seemed to care about its shabby look — and its fate is shared by many other houses that currently form the compact urban tissue of the Old Town neighborhood in the center of Bucharest.


Although relatively abandoned by state authorities during the late communist period and throughout the 1990s, the Old Town district came back to life when local officials suddenly viewed its eclectic architecture and its narrow cobblestone streets as material proof of Bucharest’s European history. In the mid-2000s, with funds from the European Union, local authorities launched a refurbishment of the area meant to attract tourists, consumers, and investors. The revitalization project entailed not only a thorough overhaul of the underground infrastructure and new pavement for the streets but also a change of name. In different historic periods, the district was known among Bucharest’s residents as the Old Town, or Lipscani, from the name of the main commercial street that runs through its core. Starting in the mid-2000s, the authorities branded the district the “historic center,” a name intended to make it more appealing to Western tourists. But this rebranding of history enabled the authorities to further disavow their responsibility to the poorer tenants of the Old Town. City hall invoked the uncertain legal status of many of the historic buildings to stop sponsoring any repairs on these places, while continuing to cash the tenants’ rent. The authorities pointed to these tenants as being solely responsible for the dire state of their homes.


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The multiple lives of the Old Town under different political regimes and at distinct historical moments offer a window onto the convoluted history of a city and a country that have undergone manifold transformations. The district that later came to be known as the Old Town emerged from the buzzing economic life that developed around the first princely palace of Bucharest. Established in the 15th century, when the principality of Wallachia fell under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire, what later became known as the Old Court had functioned as the new residence of the rulers of Wallachia. Starting at the end of 17th century, the court became further extended and embellished under the reign of Constantin Brâncoveanu, a Romanian prince who sought relative political autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. His intent to launch a local cultural renaissance made him suspicious to the Ottomans, however, who convicted him of treason and imprisoned and killed him together with his family. By the mid-18th century, the princely palace that impressed foreign visitors with its large halls decorated with marble stairs and colonnades, surrounded by lush gardens, was destroyed in a fire and eventually abandoned.


Around that time, the Ottoman Empire stopped appointing local rulers from among the Romanian boyars and brought instead a series of rich Greek merchants from Constantinople — the Phanariotes — to stand in as their political proxies. The abandonment of the Old Court after the fire and the construction of a new princely palace up the hill might have also been politically motivated: an attempt by the new rulers to create symbolic and spatial distance from their predecessors and thus signal their unwavering loyalty to the Ottoman Empire.


The mid-18th to the early 19th centuries were a time of acute political upheaval, as the Ottoman, Russian, and Habsburg empires vied for control of the principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia. As the capital of Wallachia, Bucharest was caught in the middle of this political storm, becoming an uncertain territory prone to attacks by the various factions, and even by the rebels who fought against them. In May 1802, in the midst of one of these attacks, the Phanariote prince appointed by the Ottomans fled Bucharest together with his court and army. Part of the city’s population took flight as well, leaving the town totally abandoned.


An empty town offered the perfect moment for the city beggars to make it their own. They entered the abandoned princely palace, took the princely hat and the Ottoman tughs and flags, and began marching in the streets bearing these symbols of power and mimicking a coronation ceremony. But the beggars’ “rule” lasted only two days. Alerted by the fleeing prince, the Ottoman troops came into the city and ended the revolt by hanging all of the culprits. The episode of the vagabonds becoming temporary “kings” of Bucharest entered the local lore as a symbol of widespread disorder, culminating in the radical reversal of power — the ragged ones turning themselves into the rulers. To erase the memory of the revolt, the prince then in power ordered that the ruins of the Old Court be leveled and the land auctioned to merchants. Throughout the 19th century, the Old Town quickly expanded, with Greek, Armenian, Polish, German, Turkish, and Jewish merchants opening shops that traded goods from as far away as Paris, Padua, or Leipzig (hence the name of the main commercial street, Lipscani).


Despite this concerted effort to erase its memory, the legend of the kings of the Old Court was kept alive by rumors, urban myths, and literary accounts. The writer Mateiu Caragiale drafted his novel Craii de la Curtea-Veche (Rakes of the Old Court) at the turn of the 20th century but published it only in 1929. (The book is now available in English from Northwestern University Press, in Sean Cotter’s superb translation.) The novel became a much-circulated epic of a “Levantine” Bucharest at the end of the 19th century. Echoing the modernization debates between “traditionalists” and “Europeanists” that dominated Romania’s interwar scene, the book revolved around the adventures of some local aristocrats (boyars) who straddled two seemingly antagonistic worlds — the purportedly modern and civilized West and the morally lax Levant. Forced to make a choice, they eventually disavowed their Western manners and immersed themselves in the debauchery and depravity thriving in the Old Town’s “cramped lanes, with houses stuck one to another.” In the novel, the district is depicted as a symbol of fin-de-siècle decadence in a city undergoing a rapid economic expansion as well as an increasing social polarization.


Mateiu Caragiale located the Old Town’s depravity in its own place of birth: the site of the Old Court. In his depiction, the Old Court was dark and ugly, matching “the wickedness of a ruling clique made of all foreign scumbags, with much nomadic blood running through their veins.” This overtly xenophobic description echoed other negative perceptions of the place as a seat of dangerous transactions and transgressions. The city’s economic nucleus during the late 18th and 19th centuries, the district was also a social magnet, attracting people from all social and economic strata. The site became renowned not only for the luxurious goods displayed in the shops along Lipscani Street or the money absorbed by the new banks but also because of the black market and prostitution that flourished there. The district came to be perceived as a deep moral morass, but one that still exuded a fatal magnetism, enticing and ensnaring visitors.


It is thus not surprising that the urban elites of the early 20th century sought to “tame down” the place and alter its aesthetics so that it would better fit the development of a modern Bucharest. But this call for modernization had nationalistic undertones. For centuries, the Old Town had been a thriving transit zone but also a place where many chose to settle and make a home. Jewish merchants had been living in the Old Town for generations, alongside Hungarian and Romanian bakers, Serbian pastry makers, Hungarian and Czech musicians, Venetian jewelers, German clockmakers, and Austrian, Greek, and Bulgarian teachers and traders. By the 1920s, however, with antisemitism growing rampant, the Old Town’s social and ethnic heterogeneity became increasingly invisible, and the area was instead associated exclusively with a Jewish middle class.


In 1931, Martha Bibescu, a writer of aristocratic origins and a socialite celebrated for her literary soirées, sent a letter to Bucharest’s mayor offering suggestions for a “beautification of the city.” Among other comments, she decried the “ugly and unsanitary market houses” that abutted the southern side of the Old Town. Bibescu saw the market as emblematic of “the lack of respect and of common-sense” that accompanied “the conquest of Bucharest by the triumphant vulgarity,” which made “Romanians lose their sentiments for their own history.” Otherwise, she asked, alluding to the historic significance of the disappeared Old Court, how could they have allowed a market to be built on the site of “the palace of the Romanian princes”?


Bibescu was not the only one who viewed the Old Town as an eyesore. In 1939, Nicolae Iorga, a highly esteemed historian and politician, presented the district as quintessentially Jewish and asked his (presumably ethnic Romanian) readers to “cleanse the capital […] of all of the worthless elements that we have received [in the country].” He described the “denationalization” of Bucharest’s population as an effect of the “invasion of the Galician Jews.” In Iorga’s view, the Jewish traders in the district allegedly made the Romanians poorer and emptied the Romanian churches. Such outcries led Bucharest’s city officials to attempt to “Romanianize” the Old Town, culminating with the confiscation of Jewish property under the pro-Nazi regime between 1940 and 1944. What the interwar elites had begun was paradoxically finished by the communist authorities.


Once the Communist Party officially came to power in Romania in 1947, the new regime initially made their mandatory bows to the USSR, but soon after Stalin’s death in 1953, state officials turned to nationalism. They collaborated first with archaeologists and then with architects to make the Old Town into a symbol of the city’s Romanian past. These experts decided to unearth the ruins of the Old Court, the 16th-century palace that had once dominated the district, and rebuild it as a national historic site signaling the Romanians’ fight for independence against the Ottoman Empire. In parallel, and especially following the emigration of many Romanian Jews in the late 1950s and early 1960s, these same experts excised the district’s Jewish history from the official historical narrative.


The Old Court palace was officially opened to the public as a museum in 1972. The museum brought a new visibility to the district, but that was temporary. During the 1980s, the district was relatively abandoned by the state authorities, but it continued to attract Bucharestians. For some bohemian artists and painters, it became a place to make art in the buildings’ sunlit attics, to drink vodka and throw wild parties. For black marketers, the sinuous and narrow streets of the Old Town offered the perfect geography to tempt potential customers with promises of hard-to-find cigarettes and coffee — but only if those customers were willing to follow the dealers into dark hallways without knowing if they would receive their goods or be tricked and robbed. By the late 1980s, there was so much shoddy business happening in the district that one of the streets became known as Kent Street, in honor of the much-coveted cigarettes sold there by the dealers.


After the end of the communist regime in 1989, the allegedly new authorities opposed proposals made by foreign architects to restore the historic buildings in the district, downplaying the cultural and economic value of the historic buildings of the Old Town. Their strategic disregard of the neighborhood was, in fact, a maneuver to retain control of the undervalued real estate in this highly central location. The houses and commercial venues of the Old Town played a key role in these politicians’ consolidation of economic power, as they became the first millionaires of the post-socialist transition. In the 2000s, however, when Romania sought to be included in the European Union, city officials suddenly acknowledged the value of the Old Town’s eclectic architecture, presenting it as material proof of Romania’s historical links to Europe. But their attempts to rebrand the Old Town as a cosmopolitan “historic center” of a European city also relied on a strategic erasure of many of the district’s residents.


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Carmen told me that if I wanted to hear more about her building, I should talk to the administrator, who lived on the second floor. He was not at home, but on the narrow corridor I saw a woman smoking. The door to her apartment was open. I noticed that the wall near her door was painted a different color than the rest of the corridor and asked her if she had done it herself. Yes, she said, she had painted it, but now she regretted it because no one cared. “You want to make your own home beautiful, but the hallway? Why would I invest in the hallway? Are we the owners? City hall is the owner, but they do nothing.” And then she added, looking straight at me with an angry intensity, “We work, too, you know. We work very hard!” She and her husband paid a monthly rent of “one million for two rooms” (the equivalent of approximately $30). If they found themselves three months behind, however, they would have to pay one extra month’s rent as a fine to city hall. I asked if she remembered the last time that authorities did any repairs. She shrugged and said, “The business owners [of the bars in the district] fixed the facades. Our client, our patron! But here? Who do you think would come? No one. They will come only when we are all under the ground.”


In the neoliberal logic that measures the value of a person by how much she or he can afford to pay for their home, Carmen and her neighbor were as invisible to the state as their meager rent, which would barely pay for dinner in a chic restaurant a few blocks down the street. “City hall kept telling us that they would move us somewhere else,” Carmen told me. “But if they want to evict us, they should give us compensation, right? A year or so ago, there had been talk about some apartment buildings where the mayor planned to relocate us. Then I saw those apartment buildings on TV — they were selling them for €30,000 each!”


At the end of our conversation, Carmen remarked in jest: “Every time it rains, small pieces from the ceiling begin to fall off. Everything is old here!” She paused for a second, turned to me, and emphasized, “Too old!” To Carmen, the gap between “old” and “too old” was a gap between a historic house still valued as an architectural monument and a run-down building that was no longer safe for anyone to call home. It was a radical threshold between beauty and doom, between life and death.


Juxtaposed with luxurious boutiques and chic cafés, the Old Town’s decrepit buildings have a powerful sensorial effect. These heightened contrasts — freshness coexisting with morbidity; wealth being made right next to ruins — visually capture Bucharest’s increasing social polarization. The poor tenants like Carmen living in a run-down building do not fit the image of cosmopolitan European consumers that the local authorities have envisioned as the new residents of the Old Town, recently rebranded as Bucharest’s “historic district.” But despite the authorities’ efforts to invoke their poverty to deny them dignity and decent living conditions, these tenants have fought back through small gestures: by painting a hallway in a degraded building, by talking about their hard work, by telling their stories and acting as witnesses in a city that no longer seems to want them.


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Emanuela Grama is an associate professor of cultural anthropology and modern European history in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. This essay is adapted from her prize-winning book, Socialist Heritage: The Politics of Past and Place in Romania(Indiana University Press, 2019).


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Featured image: “The usually crowded old town” by Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.