The Fragility of Memory (Op-ed Simona Niculae)

Simona Niculae, sociologist, initiator of the Peninsula Civic Initiative Group

Starting with 2012, the Peninsula or the historic center of Constanța was a construction site for over two years. The most visible transformation was the changing of the hole filled, patched and cracked asphalt, with the pavement that we know now. I followed the progress and that is how I saw appearing, from under this layer, the old pavement, made of manually carved granite, still nearly intact. On all the streets, except Ovidiu Square, even on Elisabeta Boulevard and the parking lot in front of the Tribunal, everything was uncovered, the stone was taken out and disappeared. I thought of it then as a colossal waste, and now it seems to me like the greatest loss the Peninsula suffered  in the last decades. I was standing on Titulescu Street, upset by the machinery, watching the massive dislodged curbs and the cubic stone and I was thinking that I will never again see the physical tracks of painstaking manual work on such a large scale. From time to time a nostalgic quote of Cella Serghi about Constanța and Mării Street, on which she lived her childhood at the beginning of the 20th century, goes viral on the internet. But very few know that a part of that Constanța was still present under broken asphalt until several years ago. Is evocation enough for us, can we continue cultivating nostalgia? Would we have experienced the city differently stepping on the old pavement?

In the middle of the transformation period, I moved to the Peninsula. Several years after the finishing of the works, one evening, in the parking lot opposite the Palace Hotel I was about to pass by two stones in a parking spot. Although it was full of mud, I saw on one of them a kind of sculpted model. It was a small marble crown, with leaves, which, later on, at the museum, proved to be a fragment of a column from what historians think was an episcopal church from the 6th century. The words of the historian were that, from time to time, a new fragment emerges. Constanța is a place where you can literally stumble upon history while taking a walk.

During a visit to the Central Graveyard, the guide I was following told me about some complaints for the grave of Petru Vulcan to be cleaned of weeds and to not be forgotten. Yet who still even knows who Petru Vulcan was, I asked myself, and the route is very devious, nearly impossible to find alone. And yet, someone was thinking of the memory of Petru Vulcan. In the Graveyard of Heroes one can pass through different sectors, the German one, the Russian one, the Turkish one, there is even a French one, from another war. Two ground sweepers are listening to us, then they inquire: “But we, the Rroma, where are we?” A simple question is enough to understand that cultural legacy can be one that perpetuates exclusion until our present day.

I carried out two surveys about the ambitious real estate plans, with roots in the Mazăre era, which are being prepared for the coastal area of the city. I called it “sloppy”, but maybe that was not the best term. I asked people what their opinion was, what should be put there. Dry percentages can’t tell the stories that started pouring out: “but it is the place we have so many memories about”, “I can’t even imagine that it could look any other way”, “what do we leave for our children?”. This is how we realize that a green coast can be a cultural legacy.

One morning I discovered Ghiocelul bakery near Lupoaică . When I made my way in, the place looked like a time capsule, more precisely from the 70’s and 80’s, even the shopkeeper’s haircut, bulki and with large curls, a typical wedding hairdo of that time. I got a kettle made coffe and I remarked that at the tables, also serving coffee, were older, elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen that were coming back from the large mosque. This modest place was a meeting spot of the community. The bakery disappeared, a hair salon took it’s place, then a restaurant. Where are those people meeting now? Maybe in a tourist coffee shop, without them even realizing. But this discretion makes me wonder, what do we know about those we wish Ramazan Bayram to? Some more, some less, but in the public space, nothing more than this saying and maybe a general article emerges.

There is much to say, for instance, the fact that not knowing the personal histories of the residents who came to the new neighborhood during the socialist era, we don’t know, actually, the city’s history. How much do we know about these neighborhoods of this spectacularly developed city? How much do we know about the residents who came here from all over the country? How much do we know about the city’s life then, besides what we see in the pictures of new, modernist apartment blocks?

From an exhibition at the County Library I found out the history of the railway built by the British, which linked Constanța and Cernavodă, and so, the Danube and the sea, thus bringing the city into the modern era. There were pictures of the remains of the old railway from 1860 on display. I identified a small building, an old halt, which was still on Brătianu boulevard. Shortly afterwards it was demolished.

All these years, since I started looking at Constanța with more attention, I realized that it can be very easy for the authorities to talk about patrimony and cultural legacy. The speech will be superficial, but full of pride, Ovidiu and the ancient Tomis will be evoked, the tourist potential will be emphasized. From the experts, what affects me the most is when, talking about saving the patrimony, the community that “should get more involved” is mentioned. But the regular people have learned through experience that, one after the other, buildings in a protected area which receive authorizations for “the consolidation of existing walls”, end up entirely demolished. No matter how many complaints were made, nobody succeeded until now, to my knowledge, to stop one of these demolishings. The responsible institutions don’t work during the weekend. You’re told that nothing can be done and you’re sent from one authority to the other. In a concrete situation, it happened that, standing in front of the demolished walls of a protected building, a local authority declared that it is actually being consolidated. The citizen always hears that the authorizations were in order, that there’s no structural engineers for old buildings, that it’s too expensive to conserve, that it’s not worth it, that “the owner has every right, let’s be thankful investitions were made, it’s only natural for them to want more”.

With the disappearance of the fragments, which make the identity of the city, it will become harder and harder to define ourselves. And ignorance and lick of care for what we pass on leaves an emptiness that we have nothing to fill with. The surrogate is a praetorian guard, on watch duty in front of a statue offered by the Italian state. If the problem is the “lack of a brand for the city” Ovidiu is chosen. If Ovidiu’s work is unknown to the general public, maybe a building to evoke him will suffice instead of understanding him. Or maybe it is enough to dedicate the city to tourists and then you can just place down an entertainment wheel.

“Is there any hope left” we will ask ourselves. “The simple act of trying to look ahead in order to discern possibilities and offering a warning is itself an act of hope.” said the writer Octavia Butler. Only 3-4 years ago there were nearly no citizen groups to take a public attitude, to discuss the problems of the neighborhoods point by point. Even a garbage gathering campaign would have had almost no success. Meanwhile, a group of journalists saved the Royal Palace of Mamaia, and citizens put a brake on the sloppy construction projects, at least for now, at a time when this subject was in the attention of the public.

Writer Rebecca Solnit states: “Hope resides in the premise that we don’t know what will happen and in the vastness of this incertitude there is space left to act in. When you recognize incertitude, you recognize that you could influence the results- you alone or together with other dozens or even millions of people. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and of the unknowable, an alternative to the certitude of optimists, as well as pessimists. Optimists believe that everything will be alright without our involvement: pessimists take the opposite position: both excuse themselves from action. It is the conviction that what we do matters, even if the way and time in which it can have an impact are not things we know beforehand. Actually, we may not even know afterwards, but it matters anyway, and history is full of people whose influence grew stronger after they went away.