Romania: a country of contrasts and juxtapositions

Newsroom 23/12/2015 | 10:21

It’s now been six weeks since the horrendous fire at the Goodbye to Gravity album launch, and the heart-breaking stories have stopped. It seems that we are back to focusing on our lives and the Romanian landscape appears to have changed: journalistic investigations are forcing the government to give answers for the lack of transparency regarding the public health system and what happened to the victims during their treatments, legislation for fire safety regulation has changed and the horeca players are willing to offer protection to their clients. But is anything different since October 30?

Oana Vasiliu, Andreea Tint

 

Once upon a time

For several years now, Bucharest has been promoted as a cheap city break for those who want to enjoy nightlife in all its aspects, from food to drinks, beautiful women and clubs with live music which remain open until sunrise or even non-stop as well as good bargains for bed & breakfasts.  But, it wasn’t always like that.

Between 2007 and 2011, the Old City was effectively a no-go zone, with minimal street lighting and gaping holes in the pavement, papered over by unstable plywood bridges.

In 2010, there were around 80 pubs in the historical center. By 2011, an analysis of the market put the figure at 110. A year later, in 2012, the number was estimated to have grown by 36 percent, though in 2013 it returned to the 2011 level, according to Ziarul Financiar. Currently, there are around 130 bars and pubs downtown.

In 2013, Bucharest’s Old Town covered an area of 57 hectares, of which Lipscani Street occupies about 15 hectares. A total of 527 buildings – of which about one third are clustered in the Lipscani area – occupy the space delineated by six major roads: Regina Elisabeta and Carol Boulevards to the north, Hristo Botev Boulevard to the east, Calea Victoriei to the west and Splaiul Independentei and Coposu Boulevard to the south. Half of these buildings were built before 1900, and the other half before 1940.

Currently, in the Old Town, there are nearly 520 buildings, which have different surfaces, from 50 sqm to 2,500 sqm, and the majority are between 100-300 sqm, explains Liana Dumitru, Associate Director, Retail Agency Colliers International. “Taking into consideration the sustainable value of the rent and an average return, we evaluate the whole Old Town at about EUR 500 million,” sustains Dumitru. When it comes to rent, the prices differ. For example, Lipscani Street has an average value of EUR 40-60/sqm/month, while Selari, Smardan, Covaci Streets are smaller prices, starting from EUR 20-40/ sqm/month, shows the data provided by Colliers International. Asked by Business Review how much the rehabilitation of the Old Town would cost, the specialist said that they estimate an average price of EUR 400-600 per sqm.

Before the tragedy that happened in Colectiv Club on October 30th, the only existing and outstanding problem with the pubs in the Old City Center was the consolidation of the buildings. In the past two years, several buildings collapsed and fortunately no one was hurt – the authorities managed to close the streets just before the walls fell. Many other structures in the Old Town are in similar conditions, despite the recent improvements in the area. Since the demolition of historic buildings is not allowed by law, owners prefer to let structures fall apart by themselves, before building something else on the land. This consolidation problem still remains, but many other questions have risen: do they have proper authorizations? is it safe to go partying in the area? are they ready to prevent another tragedy?

 

Changes in the legislation

The Colectiv fire sparked Romania into action as the country turned its attention to the laws dealing with fire safety and their applicability, putting pressure on both the government and the Inspectorate for Emergency Situations (ISU) to take action. In the month since, close to 40 clubs, restaurants, pubs, and other such venues have been shut down in Bucharest and throughout the country, bringing to light the many shortcomings of implementing fire safety regulations, according to Mediafax.

On the 3rd of November, when the death toll had reached 32, former Prime Minister Victor Ponta was saying in a government meeting that “we cannot leave tough measures only to the local authorities because they do not have the capacity to implement them,” referring to the lack of proper enforcing of existing fire safety laws, according to Digi24. What Ponta’s government did following the fire, was to adopt an emergency decree “through which we give power directly to the ISU, not local authorities, not anyone else” to implement extreme measures, including sealing the venues, until they meet legal conditions, said Ponta at a government meeting on Nov 3rd.

From a legal point of view, law no. 170/2015, which entered into force in July 2015, already provided the inspectorate with the power to fine and shut down those public venues that do not follow fire safety regulations and endanger the lives of their occupants, according to the Official Gazette.

The Colectiv fire led almost immediately to fire safety checks being made by the General Inspectorate for Emergency Situations (IGSU) at a national level. Subsequently, 37 venues were shut down and sealed off from further use because “in their current state, they were endangering the safety of their clients,” reported Mediafax. Firemen and policemen conducted close to a thousand checks in clubs, bars, cinemas, and other such venues between November 9-16, and found 3,218 deficiencies, of which 432 were removed during checks, according to statements made by IGSU for Mediafax. The total amount of fines given out during the checks amounts to more than RON 8.5 million (EUR 1.9 million,) reported the same source.

Following the checks done by firemen, buildings considered national monuments, such as the Peles Castles, Ateneul Roman, and the main building of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, were found to be operating without fire safety authorization, stated Mediafax. Furthermore, a few days after the Colectiv fire, the interim Prime Minister at the time, Sorin Campeanu, former Minister of Education, had stated that “93 percent of Romanian schools are operating without the ISU notice,” according to Mediafax.

 

Let’s party. But where?

Debbie Stowe wrote in Expat Eye section for Business Review that “nightclubs crammed with revelers, crumbling old town buildings in an earthquake zone, basement dive bars accessible via one narrow entrance and staircase, the lack of emergency exits and fire extinguishers, the prevalence of smoking – it all adds up to an accident waiting to happen.”  And she is right. Has anything changed from October 30th until now in the Old Town? Is it safer? We went downtown to find the answer.

It’s way past midnight in the Old City Center and quite cold. It’s Friday, December 4th, and we are looking for a place to warm up a bit. On Lipscani Street, there are only a few groups of people, mostly expats, speaking in English and Spanish. They are in a hurry and it seems they are looking for taxis. At the junction with Selari Street, the music is so loud that we can barely understand each other. Barbero bar has the door wide open and inside people are crazy dancing. Across the street, a nice hostess invites us to Jack’s Pub – where another wild party is happening. We move forward and go to Bazaar, on Covaci Street, a place where people usually go for food and drinks, but the space has its own DJ, so it could easily pass as an all-in-one kind of space. Inside, everyone was chatting at their tables. We went upstairs for some drinks. The generous space has no exit sign and no visible evacuation plan, as the law demands. But in the basement, where the toilet is, there’s a green exit sign that can be spotted. We left the bar around 4 pm, and, while going to Calea Victoriei, it seemed we were the only ones on the streets.

On Saturday, we returned much earlier – it was about 10 pm. On Facebook, everyone seemed to be at the Bucharest Christmas Market, and the crowds from the Universitate passage confirmed our newsfeed. We rapidly passed the area and we went straight forward to Blanari Street. The first club on this street, Maraboo, was open, but we didn’t enter as we weren’t properly dressed for this premium club. The club is situated in the basement, so probably some controls were made here during the past month. Then, we discovered Argentin bar closed – it used to be the cheapest place from the Old Town. On the other part of the street, Club A, one of the oldest underground pubs from Bucharest, was open and the party was about to start. Right at the entrance you could see the evacuation plan and a second door was properly flagged. Still, the club is considered a building with level A seismic risk and currently the owner has a dispute with City Hall regarding the building’s expertise.

Then, we crossed Selari passage, where we discovered that El Comandante club has moved right on the corner from a basement. The rooms were flagged with the exit signs, but unfortunately, there were no customers, although the music was quite good. We entered to see the atmosphere in The Drunken Lords, and right at the entrance, a fire extinguisher was flagged. They didn’t have room for us and we couldn’t even stay there longer because of the cigarette smell. Back on Lipscani Street, the atmosphere was exactly like the previous night: loud music, but the two bars, Jack’s Pub and Barbero were almost empty. But we saw the green exit signs, which probably means someone from ISU was previously there.

Gabroveni Street, one of the most vibrant streets of the city center, was almost desolate. The big surprise was to see Mojo Club closed. The club used to be very popular among locals and expats, for its upstairs location where people could karaoke, and for their basement, where most of the live concerts had taken place. The other surprise came from Biutiful by Fratelli, the restaurant, which was also closed. On their official website, they announced that they moved to Golden Street, in the same building as the club. “It is also true that at this present time, regardless of our plans, it is also a matter of new legislation in force regarding the Old City Center seismic rehabilitation projects. This is not an action we can undertake as it envisions the entire building, not the actual location rented space. Therefore, we are now relocating Biutiful Downtown in a new home, in 1-3 Glodeni St.,” it informs us. But on the restaurant’s door, there’s no mention about this new location. Further on the street to Selari Street, we entered Fire Club. Last week they announced that the club, situated in the basement, will remain closed, although they have a second exit and all the authorizations to run the place. Still, the bar and the restaurant are open and at 10:30 pm, every table was booked. Seller Street was more alive than ever, with hostesses inviting us to their clubs. Grand Prix, Old City, Mulanruj, Bordello’s, Trinity College, The Bankers and Vintage were open and the parties were about to start. Previously interviewed by investigative reporters, the owners of these bars declared that they have everything in order and safe. In all honesty, we did see the exit signs and evacuation plans.

The second most famous street, Smardan, received us with four closed clubs: Goblin, whose owner is one of Colectiv’s shareholders currently under prosecution, Nomad Sky Bar, Pals and Laboratorul de Cocktailuri. Nomad Sky Bar had an interesting explanation on the door, arguing that “because of a change in laws overnight and with no time for implementation, we are forced to close the location until we update the security measures. […] Any proposed complementary measure, including collaboration with a private firefighter company with rented fire truck in front of our location to prevent risk of fire 100% was refused. […] See you in December.” Open, and probably safely ready for fun are Cliche, Bound, Freddo, Les Bourgeois, Storage Room, The Barrel, Black Jack, St. Patrick and Tan Tan.

Overall, the scenery in the old town is quite unusual. Every street has 4-5 restaurants/pubs/bars closed and visible “to rent/to sell” advertisements are on their windows. It seems to me that locals are avoiding the area – there wasn’t so much public for a proper Saturday night – considering also the fact that it was Saint Nicholas day, so people were probably celebrating their names. We completed the “investigative walk” at about midnight and the streets were again almost empty, with small groups of expats and very few Romanians.

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