Living on the Edge

The quest for a better life at the outskirts of Bucharest

Photo Story by Petrut Calinescu

05 February 2018


Barcelona Residence, Scandinavian Residence, American Village, French Village, Soho Apartments, Mediterranean Residence, Oxford Gardens - these are the aspirational names of developments on the outskirts of Bucharest, the capital of one of the poorest countries in Europe.

Yet after almost 30 years since its Communist leadership fell, Romania still struggles to achieve a quality of life taken for granted by its partners in the European Union.

During 2016 and 2017, I focused on documenting the margins of Bucharest, where the city develops its own identity, free from a masterplan by the authorities. This periphery is a space of micro-universes, many crafted to perfection, but often isolated.

The neighbourhoods are rich in stories reminiscent of a fairytale - citizens cross frozen wastes searching for food, kill beasts in the wide open, herd sheep and goats, visit witches versed in spells and charms, and befriend strange creatures.

Many homes lack the necessary infrastructure to connect homes to the city. Houses are often built with no access to running water, electricity, asphalt roads or pavements. But residents have the same goal - to achieve a western standard of living.

Bucharest is a new city, and was only first mentioned as a settlement in the 15th Century. In 1862, it became the capital of a union of the Romanian-speaking principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, which remained vassal states of the Ottoman Empire until full independence in 1877.

The city grew in the second half of the 19th century and boomed between the two world wars, when rich and eccentric art deco and modernist buildings emerged throughout its centre.

But the Communists destroyed much of the city’s neighbourhoods, and added a new layer of identikit concrete apartment blocks, which now dominate the cityscape.

‘A flock of about 500 sheep and goats at a farm near apartment complex Confort City. The farm has been at the edge of Bucharest for decades. The apartments were built ten years ago, and the residents complain about the smell and noise of the farm, which they have tried to shut down. Today the farm is almost closed, because its owner is old, and no one else wants to look after the flock.

When the totalitarian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled in 1989, there were hopes of a new beginning for the city and its inhabitants.

At that time, those who triggered the regime change were known as the ‘Generation of Sacrifice’, who shelved their dreams to build a better future for their children, and they looked west for their inspiration. Today, these children are adults, and many work for European corporations, NGOs and IT firms.

According to Eurostat, Romanians have the highest rate in Europe for owner-occupied dwellings: 96.5 per cent in 2015. In the cities, the bulk of these residents are small, Communist-era apartments.

But the adult generation now want what they were promised: a Western life. For Romanians, this means owning a house.

However there are risks for home-owners in Bucharest.

Although Romania has seen an upswing in growth to 5.7 per cent per year, many analysts believe this is based on a high consumption rate and Government-stimulus programs, rather than sustainable economic activity.

Bucharest is also one of the most polluted capitals in the world, but the major fear is seismic. The city was hit by the effects of a major earthquake in 1977 of 7.2 on the Richter scale, which killed over 1,400 people. Another tremor is due - which could wreck the historic and dilapidated buildings in the city.

These concerns have inspired people to move from the centre to the periphery, to build small houses or live in new developments, where they have fresh air, space and security.

But into this no man’s land comes a clash between a middle class looking for a new life, and an underclass who struggle to survive at the edge of the city.

This Project is financed by the Romanian Cultural Administration Fund (AFCN) and the Romanian Order of Architects (OAR)

It is winner of the first prize for photostories at the Balkan Photo Award, Sarajevo, 2018

Opening picture: ‘Green Vista’ residential complex on a misty morning: a block built for the upper-middle class in Pipera neighbourhood, north Bucharest

‘Green Lake’ high-class residences, north Bucharest

Fishing in a small lake in Tunari, north Bucharest.

‘Palladium Residence’ new blocks for the lower-middle class. This development is close to a former factory at the edge of Bucharest. Almost all the industrial facilities surrounding the city collapsed after the fall of Communism, and their platforms transformed into residences and malls. These industries were connected to the city center by the underground Metro, making them a good location for shopping and living.

Pensioner Ion Tudose breeds pigeons on the balcony of his communist-era apartment. ”My pigeons were my only chance to create something by myself. They are 100 per cent the result of my work. They are brave and determined. I have made a deal with my wife: when we move, we need two balconies: one for her, and one for my pigeons.”

A football match in the lowest division of the Romanian league. In the background is Bucharest’s main rubbish dump.

A Bucharest man making his own house at the margins of the city takes a break from construction to cook a barbecue for his family. Until the house is completed, his family comes here each weekend, where they build a little bit more, and then fire up the grill. For the moment, the house is not part of a street, and has no running water or electricity. If they want to access the grid, homebuilders have to pay the entire costs of connection. As these expenses are higher than those of the entire house, people wait for years for the city hall to help out. Depending on the location of the plot, this may take decades, or could never happen.

A communist neighbourhood from the 1970s in south Bucharest. Although often run down, these old apartments maintain the same value and almost an equal price to new builds. Buying from a new apartment project is a lottery: it may turn out fine, or the developer could go bankrupt and never finish the project. It may also stand on a piece of land which the developer has no right to use, and could be subject to a lengthy and costly litigation process.

Three homeless men warming themselves by a fire. They make a living by rifling through garbage, and sorting out glass and plastic to sell for recycling. They live in a forest a hundred meters from the new houses and blocks in west Bucharest’s Drumul Taberei. When the temperature drops below freezing in the winter, they sleep next to hot pipes in Bucharest’s sewers.

A woman sunbathes next to the Arges River, under a bridge leading to the city’s southern exit. Due to the low rainfall, the river is almost drained in this summer. There are days when this area, called ‘The Seaside of the Poor’, is packed with bathers and barbecues.

Ice fishing on the surface of the largest artificial lake in Bucharest, Morii Lake. The reservoir was designed by communists in the 1980s to protect the city against floods. To build the lake, cement was poured over a residential area, which included a cemetery and a church. For this reason, locals consider the lake is cursed, although many swim in its dirty waters or sunbathe nearby.

Every afternoon after work, this man bathes in the Morii Lake. "The water is clear, the temperature’s perfect,” he says. “This is how I get rid of my dark thoughts.”

The largest gated community in Bucharest, Cosmopolis, on the city’s ring-road, includes villas, small blocks, shops and a kindergarten.

A boy wearing a bear-skin and mask walks through Bucharest’s Piata Sudului in mid-winter. He is part of a group of 20 youngsters, who travel 300 kilometres from the countryside near Bacau in Moldavia, to perform the Bear Dance. This ritual symbolizes the death and the rebirth of the bear, which links up with the significance of New Year’s Eve.

A Romanian real estate developer known as ‘The Shogun’ searches for a place to build a new project.

Alina speaks with her friends, using a hands-free phone, while surfing the Internet. Her family lives between railway tracks in an industrial warehouse for electrical equipment. They have no legal status and no running water. The railway maintenance crew allow them to stay in the shelter in exchange for small amounts of cash. Alina and her family get by by selling scrap metal.

A self portrait of the photographer working at the periphery, driving through a new residential area in Cernica, south Bucharest.

Andrei controls his drone using First Person View in Google. Amateur pilots gather at the outskirts of Chitila in north Bucharest to fly home-made model planes and drones.

Elena sells vegetables in a newly built residential quarter in Rosu, Bucharest. Rosu was a village of farmers who provided vegetables to the city’s markets. Now their houses and land have been sold to developers, and the vegetables are mostly imports from Turkey.

A young couple, living in a ten-storey building in the background, have bought a piece of land to build their house. They plan to move soon, but still don’t dare to do it, as their new dwelling has no road, electricity or running water. When homeowners start a new construction, they have the most optimistic scenario regarding how it will connect to the rest of the city. But the City Hall often delays linking them to the capital’s infrastructure.

Maria Campina, the self-proclaimed ‘Queen of White Magic’, is one of the oldest and most well-established witches in north Bucharest. Politicians and TV stars seek out her services to solve their personal issues.

A family poses in front of their house in Bucharest next to pig killed in a ritual for Christmas. The animal arrived dead, as the blood on the left comes from a murdered chicken. This ancient pig-slaughter ritual is common in the Romanian countryside and the outskirts of the city, which still has strong ties with rural society.

An estate agent and a young couple sign a contract in front of a model of a high class residential development for north Bucharest, at the capital’s Real Estate Fair.

“Get the barbecue done before midnight!” shout the girls out of a window of a third floor apartment. This is New Year’s Eve in a new residential development for the middle-class, Militari Residence, at the edge of Bucharest.

New Year’s fireworks at the Militari Residence complex.

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