The Development Lesson

I say “Rroma”, a Romanian next to me on the bus screams out “thieves”, “dirty” – says another one – “smelling”, “utterly poor”, “animals” … and the adjectives are flooding. How can I tell them that I have been there, I have been in the Rroma communities, and people are not like this. I got to Cetateni on a Saturday morning. The people were in their homes as it was cold, but at our arrival they all came out. We spoke about our project and then the crowd took us from house to house. They think sharp and understood that we just wanted to get to know their situation and pass it to others.

I spoke with the women, and my two collegues who were men spoke with the Rroma leader; “bulibasa”. They keep the distinction. The women were open, but, at the same time carefull with what they were saying. They were traditional Rroma, very beautifull, with long folded skirts with flowers. They had long hair and golden coins around their necks. Most of them had two golden theeth, made by a shomaker who comes from time to time to the village. Yes, a shomaker – I was myself surprised. They told me it looks “proud’. The houses were just as beautiful as they were. They were taken care of, with paitings on the outside made by some woman. The house I liked belonged to a chuby woman who had four children. There was a hallway by the entrance painted in green and with flowers. The house had two rooms. It was a large house, as most of them have only one room that hosts all the family members. The house was covered with metal, and there was a model at the margins.

A Continuous Motion

The image that captures best the Rroma communities is abundence, and business. There is a mass of things gathered and piled in the yards – never or very rarely separated by fences. Nevertheless they know very well where the yard of one starts and where it ends. The room is also a kind of deposit of everything: beds, pillows, blankets on the beds, blankets on the walls, plastic flowers – in the wealthier houses – tables, little stoves, some wood to put on fire, pots, and a small washing tab. No matter how poor or rich they are, they clean and paint the interior of the house every year. They clean in turns in the house, they wash outside at summer, there is a continuous motion: one cooks, another one brings water, another one smokes a bad cigaret. They are not lazy at all, not dirty, by no means. A little girl was washing some laundrey with the exact movements of a grown woman. They are forced from too young to learn some things, and school is too boring. They know it all … but I will save this for a later argument.

As for the other side of the coin, just a few houses away is the one room house of a poor woman left by her husband. The walls are about to fal apartl, there are holes, and rats going in and out. The house, as most of them, is on land, and the windows barely resist. Inside there is only one old mattress and a blanket. There is a stove, but the woman has no wood to put on fire, so she goes from house to house all day long, but at nights she has to go back there.

The Rroma comunities are very diverse and cannot all generalized. The biggest distinction is between the rural and the urban area. Within these two there are communities in the center of the city/village. For example, in the large cities, the Rroma settled in the central historical areas. The houses they occupied were empty and in very poor conditions. Being positioned in the center of the city they find small jobs easily. Along with the development of tourism, the state aims to move the Rroma “to where they came from” (if anyone remembers), and gentrify the areas. In the villages, once the ‘Sasi’ (population of German origin) left in the 1980s for Germany, the Rroma took over the deserted houses.


Picture: Catalin Berescu, Bukarest

The other types of communities are the ones placed at the outskirts of the towns / villages, and also the ones totally separated from the town / village, and belong to it only administrativelly – such as the ones next to the ‘garbage valleys’. The presence of large Rroma communities in towns is due to the forced industrialization and the need of labour force. Therefore, they were brought in towns and in appartment buildings that they found to be totally unfit for their life style.

A Grassroot Approach

Therefore, this research simply sets to unfold the typology of settlement patterns and dwelling conditions of the Rroma and offers principles of intervention built on the particular life of the Rroma that live under severe poverty. Furthermore, this grassroots approach is not identical for all the members of the poor communities. It proposes a project that responds to individual needs. In other words, it regards one’s needs in the terms of a stairs evolution. Each person goes up the stairs at its own pace, because a too large step would bring the person backwards at the same level as before, or even worse.

Based on the fieldwork in the above-mentioned communities, we identified characteristics of the Rroma several specific residential behaviors. One would be the creation of closed enclaves. Another one refers to the unexpected by some of cleanliness. The poor houses are very clean, and there appears to be even an obsession about it. An important distance is between the private and the public space. While the private – the inside of the house – is the only one that is worth being tightened, the public – the space between houses without any barriers – is very disordered with many objects piled up.

The reminiscence of the tent

Regarding the functional differentiation between rooms in the house, it is practically absent. On the one hand due to the absence of more rooms, but on the other hand, even when there are more rooms they tend to create one large fluid space. In an article of Patrik Williams from 1982, entitled „The Invisibility of the Kalderash of Paris: Some Aspects of the Economic Activity and Settlement Patterns of the Kalderash Rom of the Paris Suburbs”, the anthropologist considers this to be a reminiscence of the tent. There is just a temporal differentiation, the same space being used for different purposes along the day.

The space of the room is mainly dominated by a bed. Only those that are “better off” possess a box to store clothes. Other things are not stored, nor are there places for storing.
A particularity is the strong sense of property. In the older communities (over fifty years), people know very well where starts the property of someone, and where it ends, although there are no papers to prove this.

The predominant way of living is the mono cellular house. Even when a young couple moves out of the parents’ house they build a house (made of one large room) that is separate from the house of the others. Rarely, if ever, are the houses connected to each other, in spite of the fact that this would be cheaper, and it is easier to warm the house at winter.

Another dimension is the organization of the house. Regardless of the change of materials from which the dwelling is made – wooden planks, plaster blocks, tarpaper for roofing that replace the canavas tent – the pattern of building and organizing the space of the dwelling remains the same of the tent, says P. Williams. In the house, they tend to recreate the space they used to have in the tent; i.e. they knock down the walls separating bedrooms, dining room, kitchen to obtain a single large room.

To all these I shall add the observations of Williams on the Kalderash Rroms from the outskirts of Paris that are truly valuable. The ways the Rroma build their communities correspond to the way they rapport themselves to the outside world of the non-Gypsy. The Rroma communities seem to be led by “ideal camp of tents”, ideal guides their efforts to preserve their communitarian manner of living. The camp of tents is ideally under the form of a circle. P. Williams makes a parallel between the Rom camp and a wall: the openings of the tents are visible from any of the other tents. The interior of the circle constitutes the space of the communal life, the world charged with Rroma values; i.e. closure vis-à-vis the outside; transparency and immediate communication within.

Taking little steps

The Kalderash Rom in Paris always refused relocation proposals that did not offer a private dwelling, but instead, had to do with an apartment in a public housing project. There are two types of residences. First, there are the large buildings grouped into projects – majority of tenants are workers, and most Rroma living there that live in these project houses are mix couples or Rroma that are marginalized in their own home communities. The places most frequently inhabited by Rroma are modest individual houses. The same situation was to be found in Romania also, when the Rroma have abandoned the apartments offered to them through a project, just because they did not correspond to their specific of living.

The hypothesis is that if a family is taken from a very poor dwelling and moved to a house fully equipped, due to the lack of a place to work and therefore, the lack of any resources, that person (family) will take the dwelling to his/her (their) economic level. Therefore, the two concepts central to the suggestions that the paper puts forward go along together. It is not only that people should be “supported” to start a process of upwards mobility, but also the step should not be that big, so that they can adapt to it. Moreover, studies is psychology have proved that a larger step upwards is hard to be accepted by the individual, and therefore disorders could appear.

The communities themselves are the solution

Solutions … the entire world is looking for ways to identify valid, and adequate solutions for the problems it deals with, be it poverty, ethnic relations and so many more. What is the key that it would lead in time to development? And more than this, who knows and is able to identify the right way to act? Aiming to propose principles of intervention in the Rroma communities to fight severe poverty we started working on this project along with a larger team of three architects, one economist, one ethnologist, and one sociologist.


Picture: Catalin Berescu, Bukarest

We looked at the houses they build, we assessed the programs that the others did for them, we assessed also the foreign experience with regard to severe poverty, and put on paper some principles of intervention. What should there be done? But, should there be done anything? Have not the poor given us a lesson already? They are living in the worse conditions, but they are living, while we would probably succumb. Therefore, the aim of the present article is to show that the communities themselves are a solution, and if we want to “help” them we should respond to their needs, and not to what we consider to be their needs, and in fact are false. We should not offer them education programs and force them to go to school to learn the national poets that do not have any relevance for them and their future. From my point of view, the answer to upward social mobility resides in the living conditions. During one interview a man said:

“They took us to school, and told us that they will teach us a new job, but my children die at home of hunger. I need to go get a job now, not in two months. And more, how can I go to a job interview when I cannot take a shower and I smell? No one will hire me.”
Young man, 35 years old, Zabrauti – urban apartment building community in Bucharest, May 2004

To conclude with, the research shows how this population found the answer to a problem. These communities are the solution, and the only way for us to help them is by adjusting our solutions to their needs. Apartment buildings are not a solution. Treating them all as if they were the same, and at the same level of poverty is again not a solution. Offering them educational programs, but not a house will not take them out of poverty. In order for them to go up the social mobility ledder, they need to receive personal help. Houses should be built for different possibilities, and different levels of income. In time, as they move upwards, they can also change the house they live in. Otherwise, by moving them to a house with all utilities, the step would be too large, and furthermore, in the absence of any income they will bring the house to their own level – in other words, it would look like the initial house that they were moved from.

*The paper is the result of a larger interdisciplinary research entitled “Dwelling Typologies among the Rroma Population”. The research is conducted by the University of Architecture “Ion Mincu”, Bucharest, and requested by the Ministry of Transportation and Public Construction from Romania. The members of the team are: architect Mariana Celac, architect Catalin Berescu, architect Marius Marcu Lepadat, ethnologist Cosmin Manolache and sociologist Ruxandra Oana Ciobanu.

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