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Bucharest Planners Inherit Potholes, Grandiose Buildings From the Ceausescu Era

REUTERS

Town planners in Bucharest have inherited a city that Nicolae Ceausescu was developing into his concept of a capital worthy of the “New Socialist Man.”

Despite its reputation as the “Paris of the Balkans,” Bucharest is showing the strain of years of austerity imposed by the executed former dictator.

The streets are full of potholes and virtually unlit by night. The battered transport system can carry barely a fifth of the city’s commuters.

The dozens of cranes on the skyline are only slowly meeting housing needs and the planners are realizing that they cannot afford to abandon Ceausescu’s grandiose but uninviting building schemes.

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To the southwest of the city center, near the Dimbovita River, the former dictator knocked down thousands of houses and a number of historic buildings to create a concrete Civic Center, grouping apartments and public buildings around the massive Palace of the Republic.

A public appeal was launched for ideas on what to do with the huge white marble building, modeled on the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, which dominates the paved Boulevard of Socialist Victory.

According to the mayor of Bucharest, the palace, a brainchild of Ceausescu and one of the world’s biggest buildings, will probably be turned into a conference center.

Dan Predescu told the daily newspaper Tineretul Liber that the white palace is a “Ceausescuesque folly” but cannot be demolished.

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The palace was built as an all-embracing complex bringing the government, Ceausescu and the administration under the same roof. It has 450 offices and 50 conference halls.

“We have had a lot of suggestions about what to do with it, but the best appears to be to turn it into an international conference center,” Predescu said.

The vast three-tier palace looks like a square, unadorned wedding cake towering over the city, flanked by row upon row of identical apartment blocks.

“We simply can’t afford to do without the housing,” said Sorin Gabrea, the city’s deputy chief architect. “We’re leaving what’s already complete and studying how to make the rest more attractive and comfortable.”

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The rest of Bucharest is a more modest Balkan jumble of French and Mideastern styles and Third World shantytown concrete, all coated with a thick layer of grime.

In the diplomatic quarter, ivy-clad villas stand pockmarked by bullet holes from the fighting in the December revolution that toppled Ceausescu. The fighting spilled over from the nearby television station.

The planners’ other priorities include 200 schools to cope with the birth boom that followed Ceausescu’s ban on abortion and contraception.

Gabrea’s office wants to reclaim the former dictator’s properties, such as the Cotroceni Palace, a former royal palace and then a youth center, where the dictator planned to live.

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He also hopes to replace some of the 29 churches torn down in the city. Some, like the 16th-Century Church of St. Spiridion, can be reconstructed and it is hoped to build churches in the newer suburbs where there are none.

The city is 50,000 apartments short, a problem exacerbated by the lifting of regulations on where people can live. Building capacity is only about 16,000 a year.

“I don’t know how much patience people will have when they are homeless and we tell them we have to make plans and not just build haphazardly,” Gabrea said. “It’s a huge task.”

Meanwhile, army guards are posted at the entrance to the town hall to turn away citizens bringing their complaints. “Otherwise we’d never get anything done,” Gabrea said.

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