For whom is the city along the banks of the river Bega?
About the right to the city and our own group with the same name. This article was first published in the magazine "Cărămida" edited by "Căși Sociale Acum! (Social Housing Now!)" from Cluj.
This article is a translation from the original version in Romanian which can also be found in the online version of Cărămida #4 — Muncă capital și Locuire. Or here on our own website.
As a note to the translation, “the city along the banks of the river Bega” is a well-known local way of referring to the city of Timișoara.
“Capital has made and makes money out of our cooking, smiling, fucking.” — Silvia Federici
“We must valorize the city not as it is, but as it could be. We must infuse the idea of citizenship with new meaning and call for radical citizenship based on participation within the municipal community, and not upon a state’s bureaucratic approval.” — Eleanor Finley
A few days ago we were talking to a couple on the banks of the Bega river. They live nearby, in a small run-down house. Even though they are renting, they have no amenities. Their extreme poverty is immediately visible. They are Roma. They tell us of the hardships they endure when searching for a job; he works in construction from time to time as a day laborer. They make some money off of recycling, reconditioning and then selling what others throw into the garbage.
A few cyclists zip by; the bike lane extends close to the Serbian border and is heavily used, especially when the weather is nice. Timișoara is a wealthy city, and this translates into a high standard of living for some. Concerts, festivals, nightlife. The city of flowers. New construction is bustling. An idyllic tableau.
A bit further down, also on the banks of the river, a few friends opened up a cultural center in the old cigarette factory. Their goal is “revitalizing the old Iosefin neighbourhood through art”. They want to draw attention to the “value of the neighbourhood and its touristic potential”. A textbook recipe for gentrification. Timișoara is readying itself to become the European Capital of Culture in 2021. It’s the main talking point, and the Iosefin and Fabric neighbourhoods — the old and poor neighbourhoods of the city — are the subject of the discussion. Not long ago we witnessed a local council meeting called specifically on this topic. There were financing issues and a proposed solution was diverting sums of money from the local budget for social assistance. Timișoara — European Capital of Culture, but without the poor.
We are a handful of people. Our desire for political struggle stems from the realization that the disillusionment towards the world and the alienation we feel at a personal level are products of the same system whose more direct, brutal and violent symptoms are evictions and dispossession, the oppression and silencing of large swathes of people — mostly those belonging to the downtrodden social classes. We’ve set out to document the reality behind this mirage of wealth and prosperity. We’ve discovered a rich geography of marginalization, oppression and neglect once we stepped a few feet outside the central part of the city. We realized that the urban milieu we usually witness is, in fact, a sanitized and aestheticized one, thought out for the gaze of tourists, one in which homeless people can no longer be seen in the city center, one in which the poor are slowly pushed towards the periphery and, in the end, excluded from the social life of the city. We’ve discovered that for many, life in the city becomes impossible. And all this against the backdrop of a continuous discourse about development and urban regeneration which seeks to hide these realities.
Our aim in editing the magazine “Strada” (en. “The Street”) is, on the one hand, to create a platform which gives a voice to people who are usually unheard or unseen; and on the other hand, an opportunity for us to learn, understand, and develop a critique of the dynamics that produce these geographies of marginalization.
Next to the old sugar factory, at the edge of Timișoara, there are a few apartment buildings used as social housing. Nicoleta is sixteen years old and talks how everyday she has to commute to school, one hour to go, one hour back. There is only a single bus line she can take, and it drives every half an hour. If she misses the first bus she’s late for school. She lives with her parents and sister in a single room apartment. In the evening she can’t go outside because it’s too dangerous and she doesn’t feel safe. Not long ago a person was murdered. Some other time a car burned for an entire night.
The fundamental question is: whose city is this? Is Timișoara Nicoleta’s city? Of her parents, and her neighbours? Who has rights and claims to the city’s resources? Who has the right to make decisions for this city? Experts? Politicians? The urban space is a social product: the built environment, the culture of the neighbourhoods, the nightlife, the parks, are all produced by us all, and this production represents a form of labor. We contribute to it when we work our jobs, we contribute to it when we walk through the park and when we interact with our neighbours, we contribute when we spend our evenings in a public square, when we work the small patch of land in front of our apartment buildings, when we sit on terraces in the summer or when we bike on the bike lanes. The moment the product of this labor is appropriated by private interests, or when a narrow social class is a disproportionate beneficiary of it, then we are dealing with an injustice.
The majority of infrastructure projects initiated by the municipality serve the interest of large private investment. The city is being reshaped for the extraction of profit. Projects like European Capital of Culture are no exception to this, even when these aim to be inclusive and responsible from a social point of view.
Those who are most affected by these processes, are exactly those whom through their jobs produce and reproduce the social infrastructure, those who, through their labour , assure that our lives go on unchanged the next day: teachers and educators, tram conductors, public functionaries, medical staff, construction workers, trash collectors, etc. Some of these professions are more vital for survival than others, but all of them are required for society to continue its existence (to be reproduced). This are exactly the people whose salaries are stagnating, those who work overtime without pay, those who have to make longer and longer commutes to their workplace, those whose life is marked by stress and chronic uncertainty, people whose standard of living is in continuous decline in the present economic system — despite the empty assurances of the system’s acolytes that this is not so because “at least people have mobile phones now”.
And if we talk about domestic, maintenance, and care work: child rearing, cleaning, taking care of family members, keeping friendships alive and meaningful, a significant part of this work is hidden in the private sphere and is not even acknowledged as such, as a legitimate form of work. No society which cannibalizes its own work can hope to endure.
The right to the city represents the right of access to and control over the material and immaterial wealth of a city. The concept itself, however, is an empty signifier. It can be claimed, for example, also by investors and renters, as can be largely seen today. Its redemption by the many for the many can be done through various forms, from organizing political actions, to creating alternatives spaces and solidarity networks and — if necessary and timely — even participating in local elections. It is first and foremost a way of framing the problem, in which the struggle for accessible housing, the struggle against pollution and for parks and larger green spaces, the struggle for participatory budgeting and other forms of democratizing decision making, all can be seen as manifestations of the same struggle, that for the city. This is the reason we named our group after this concept.
The city, as Lefebvre says, is an ouvre, a collective work, and the right to the city means, beyond everything else: the right to make and remake it according to our hearts’ desires.