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“I’m cold without my hat”: When buildings are more important than people

On 13th February 2013, over 300 people from Timişoara protested in front of Muehle House, a villa which was originally owned by an Austro-Hungarian imperial florist. In a petition requesting that the Ministry of Culture expropriate the villa, the former owner was described as “the man to whom Timisoara owes its fame as the city of flowers.” Presently, the villa is owned by the Cârpaci family, who are Roma. Given permission by the city to carry out repair work on the villa, the Cârpaci family removed the roof of the building, leaving the building exposed during the winter season and allowing it to be badly damaged. As a result, protesters occupied the sidewalks surrounding the villa, lit candles and left messages on surrounding fences. Although this was not an authorised protest, the police did not intervene.

In Timişoara many buildings of public interest have been given back to their former owners, in this way schools and hospitals having problems in their functioning while waiting to be moved in their new locations. Further, Timişoara’s entire industrial area was privatised and then artificially bankrupted. As a result, buildings which should have been part of the industrial heritage of the city were torn down. Given this context, why did protests occur in the particular case of Muehle House?

The reaction has multiple elements. On one side, the protest is a natural continuation of the one-sided blaming of Roma people regarding the real estate speculation in Timişoara. This is despite the fact that the large majority of Timişoara’s real estate is owned by non-Roma families who obtained these properties in the dubious context of the dismantling of the socialist industries in the transition period. The protest also portrays Timişoara’s Austro-Hungarian history as a mythical period of “western civilisation,” of a superior culture and civilsation that the city used to share, of which the Roma are not worthy. Finally, if the grounds for protest had been strictly cultural (that is, anger or resentment about the degradation of historical buildings), then other protests should have taken place at some of the other buildings facing similar situations.

The real reason for the mobilisation of the protesters is the ethnicity of the owner. This becomes clear when one reads the titles of the local media articles related to the protests: “Muehle House, heritage transformed into ruins,” “Muehle House, historical villa from the Mihai Viteazul Boulevard in Timişoara, almost torn down by its owners, a clan of Roma.” Racism also explains how expropriation can be offered as a solution (“the Ministry of Culture is ready to expropriate Muehle House from Timişoara, in order to serve the public interest”). This solution would sound completely absurd if the expropriation of the present owners of the socialist industrial areas came into discussion, even if these people did tear down examples of Romanian modernist architecture.

Also among the messages that the protesters left on the villa’s gates were the following : “I’m cold without my hat” and “indifference even kills buildings.” The humanisation of the building reflects a trend that is not limited only the case of Muehle House. The owner of the building is a rich man and the villa’s degradation is connected to real estate speculation. However, as is often the case with historical buildings which are left to fall apart, both in Timişoara and in other cities, it is the people living in the buildings (most often below the poverty line) who are blamed for the destruction.

There are many reasons that people live without authorisation, in these ruined historical buildings. Some of the inhabitants were housed in these buildings before 1989 exactly because the living conditions were worse in historical buildings than in socialist-built apartments. For example, most of the historical buildings did not have central heating, the bathrooms and kitchens were shared by multiple families, etc. These people were relatively marginal in the socialist period too. But after the buildings they used to live in were given back to their owners from pre-socialist times, they ended up living illegally in these buildings or being forced to leave.

Another category of people living in these historical buildings are those who illegally occupied the spaces after 1989, due to the new conditions of the market economy. The new system made it completely impossible for certain categories of people to have a home (rented or private). Most often, destitute Roma are part of both these categories, affected by systemic racism which limits their access to education and jobs. Behind the plans proposed by cities to culturally restore historical buildings, there is often an impulse to “cleanse” the historical centers of the unwanted ones, of those who are poor and marginal. In this way the disenfranchised are pushed into an even deeper poverty. Most often, buildings are more important than people.

Precarious living. Forced evacuations.

On 17th December 2010, 56 Roma families (including 270 people and at least 106 minors) were evicted from Coastei Street in the centre of Cluj-Napoca. The families were taken to Pata-Rât, an area at the margins of the city, which is also the location of the city’s rubbish dump. The evictions were illegal, since the families given just one day’s notice. Further, evictions are prohibited by law during the winter, when temperatures reach minus 10 degrees Celsius. Both the houses and all the personal possessions that the residents were not able to remove before the eviction were destroyed by bulldozers. The land on Coastei Street was given to the Romanian Orthodox Church. A wing of the Theology Institute will be built there.

Municipal authorities provided accommodation for the evicted families in modular shelters. The rooms are less than four square meters and bathrooms are shared by at least 17 people. Some of the units have no electricity and none of them has hot water or proper conditions for cooking. Most of the modules are infested with mold. Only 40 families received units. The members of the other 16 families were given no accommodation and had to stay with families who had received accommodation, greatly increasing the overcrowding.

The situation of the evicted families still has not been solved. They haven’t received proper housing, nor did they receive any compensation for the personal belongings lost during the evictions. The evictions deeply affected the people from Coastei Street, who used to live in an well integrated community, where they had jobs and where their children went to school. These people now live in a polluted and dangerous area of the city in horrendous conditions, with severely limited access to their working places, to schools and hospitals. The rate of unemployment and poverty rose rapidly, along with the number of school dropouts. Although the evicted families are self-organising around the issues of heating, building shelters, schooling of children and transport to the city, the future of these people, whose lives were completely uprooted and changed for the worse, is in jeopardy.

The situation of the families evicted from Coastei Street is not unique, neither in Romania nor in the rest of Europe. There have been several situations in which local authorities moved groups of poor Roma away from areas where they were integrated in the life of the city, to the polluted peripheries, areas with high toxicity and without access to utilities and services.

On the 1st of June 2012 in Baia Mare, 38 Roma families from the Craica neighborhood were evicted and moved to a building on the perimeter of the former CUPROM chemical plant. At the new location (substandard, without proper living conditions), 22 children and two adults became ill after ingesting toxic substances found in their new homes, and subsequently needed to be hospitalised.

Before the evictions of Roma families from the Craica neighbourhood, the Mayor of Baia Mare, Cătălin Cherecheş, decided to build a wall around the neighbourhood’s buildings. The Roma families had been living there since the buildings were deserted by former factory workers who used to live there. The extreme poverty of the people were hidden, first by the wall and then by moving them further away, to even worse living conditions. These people, completely marginalised, were hidden away from the gaze of the “majority”.

The fact that most Roma live under the poverty line in Romania has multiple causes. One reason is the dismantling of the socialist industry, which led to thousands of people losing their jobs. The Roma were integrated into the socialist industry, but after 1989 systemic racism and high unemployment rates led to difficulties finding new work altogether, or ending up in the most precarious jobs.

Another factor in the housing problems of Roma people can be explained by the massive privatisation of the housing system. On one hand, privatisation meant that those who had lost their properties during the communist nationalisation got these properties back, while on the other hand the residents of blocks of socialist flats had the possibility to buy their apartments. Also, the state completely withdrew from the building and administration of housing, making space for the “free” real estate market. In these conditions, after 1989 many Roma families lost their homes. Most who had lived in socialist apartment units could not afford to buy them. Others who lived in nationalised homes were evicted when the former owners claimed back their properties. Thus, Roma people often come to live in historical buildings or derelict apartment buildings without any legal authorisation, eventually getting evicted. Many Roma live in shacks on the outskirts of cities, below the poverty line, in conditions which do not meet minimum standards and where there is always the danger of eviction. Land on the outskirts of cities is becoming more and more valuable as developers buy it up for office buildings, hypermakets and new residential complexes, threatening to live many Roma people without homes once again.

References:

Eniko Magjary Vincze, “Rampa de gunoi: spatiul marginalitătii urbane avansate rasializate în România de azi”

Eniko Magjary Vincze, “Zidurile rasismului si eliminarea ‘pungilor de saracie'”

TAKEN FROM THE CITY: A Report by the European Roma Rights Center

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