When his spirits were low, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu would visit his fellow tyrants. A trip to Pyongyang – so the story goes – inspired him to bulldoze his capital. Between 1984 and 1989 a third of the old city, an area of some six square kilometres, was destroyed, and 57,000 families were relocated.
The centrepiece of the rebuilding effort was the presidential palace, the House of the People. Today, the House dominates the fractured detritus of downtown Bucharest. It is the seat of the post-Communist legislature and has been renamed the Palace of Parliament. The building remains mostly empty.
When I first settled in Bucharest, I lived in a depressed neighbourhood on the periphery. But the city centre, within view of the House, was worse. It felt like looking inside a madman’s head. I never wanted to live in that razed and rebuilt area, but I have, since 2009. One evening I was drinking in a bar and offered to walk a girl home. I spent the night and never left.
Until the twentieth century, Bucharest’s urban development was unplanned. ‘Oriental’ and ‘Byzantine’ were the words often used by visitors. Most of Ceaușescu’s demolition took place along a five-kilometre east–west axis. The Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism – the driveway for the House of the People – was built on the ruins of the old city. It is just over three kilometres long, eight lanes wide, is lined with apartment blocks and has been renamed Unification Boulevard, though it shears the city in two.
My home, in Strada Negru Vodă, is about two hundred metres north of the boulevard. The residential blocks here and throughout the reconstructed area were built for Party members. The apartments are more spacious than those in the brutally utilitarian socialist blocks elsewhere in Bucharest. The exteriors feature crude decorative features in unpainted concrete – bizarre pseudo-pillars, alarming zigzags and squiggles. Structurally, these buildings will resist a serious earthquake, but the facades have not aged well. Chunks regularly detach and crash onto the street below; handwritten signs warning you to mind your head appear after the fact.
Today, Strada Negru Vodă is the route for trucks supplying a mall. The street to the north goes to a Carrefour supermarket and its multi-storey car park. The pavements in this ‘residential’ area are occupied by parked cars, so pedestrians must walk on the road. By contrast, much of the area to the east has remained empty since the demolitions; a series of vast parking lots.
My home is comfortable, central, well heated and earthquake-proof. But my neighbourhood has no name. I tell people I live in one of the streets behind the mall.
An alley runs behind my block. Its far side is formed of the backs of the buildings of the next street. These are old; two hundred metres of one side of the street somehow escaped destruction. This strip of buildings gives an idea of the area’s pre-demolition architectural mix: town houses with wrought-iron balconies from the end of the 1800s and art deco buildings from the 1930s.
Each month, I go to the administrator’s office on the top floor of my block to pay for the utilities. From there, you can see the Star of David on the roof of the synagogue behind us. It dates from 1851, and is now the city’s Jewish Museum; my neighbourhood was once at the heart of Bucharest’s Jewish quarter.
The museum contains relics of hundreds of years of Jewish-Romanian life. The exhibit I like best is an 1871 map of the area that shows naively drawn churches, synagogues and other significant buildings in the streetscape. I find the street where the museum stands – Strada Mămulari. A little to the north of Mămulari were Strada Palestina, Strada Sinagogi and Strada Israelita: streets that no longer exist.
Continuity in place names can be misleading. My own Strada Negru Vodă is situated in the approximate location of the old Negru Vodă, a serpentine street that passed through a square and had roads and alleys spinning off it. One of those streets – now rubble beneath Carrefour’s car park – was Strada Spaniola. A Sephardic synagogue called the Great Spanish Temple, dating from 1819, once stood on the old Negru Vodă.