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Nicolae Ceausescu would roll over in his grave if he could see the booming commerce in Bucharest today.
When the late Communist dictator and his wife, Elena, were executed on Christmas day in 1989, Romania began the slow and painful process toward a capitalist democracy. But with glue-sniffing orphans and stray dogs getting more international attention than state politics, and with the “Little Paris of the East” looking in some areas more like the Beirut of the West, few could envision the progress the country would make until ultimately being integrated into the European Union in January.
Though the deconstruction and gradual reconstruction of Bucharest has been, and continues to be, a thorny process, it’s the dichotomy of past and present, moneyed and lacking, that makes the city such a dynamic destination.
“The first time I came to Bucharest, everything was so broken and there were millions of dogs on the streets,” recalls Leslie Hawke, actor Ethan Hawke’s mother who lives and works in Bucharest running Ovidiu Rom, an organization she founded that helps get and keep impoverished Romanian children in school. “But every year it’s getting better and better. There’s a real energy, and there’s not much that you can’t do here.”
This is no longer the Bucharest of Soviet-era clichés. With outside investment pouring into the country and a rising middle class eager to spend, Bucharest is rapidly becoming a post-Communist melting pot of Romanian bougies and extravagant expats. They spend their days cashing in on Romania’s burgeoning economy and their nights indulging in haute cuisine, sipping cocktails and being entertained at a vast array of new and reborn nightclubs, performance halls and music venues.
“The change over the past few years has been spectacular, especially in the arts and entertainment,” says choreographer Razvan Mazilu from inside one of the grand upper chambers at the Art Nouveau performance hall Odeon, known for featuring avant-garde works. “I was a teenager in ’89, after which I felt I had that liberty to express myself here. I’ve worked here and I chose to stay here because I thought the challenge would be greater, as an artist.”
But despite Bucharest’s rampant revitalization, a certain tension still exists for the city’s citizens, who continue to grapple with all the changes.
“I love Bucharest and I don’t like Bucharest for all the same reasons. It’s a love-hate relationship,” says Cristi Puiu, the director of the critically acclaimed 2005 film Moartea domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu). Puiu grew up in the city’s dilapidated Communist neighborhoods and the success of the film—a condemning tale of the Romanian medical system—emphasizes the paradox of life in Bucharest, that often being substandard is what makes it so interesting.
“[Bucharest] could become a true European city or it could become an outpost for the Russian mafia,” reflects Puiu offhandedly. “Anything is possible.”
Navigating the streets of Bucharest, one is overwhelmed by just that—a sense that this is a city teetering between success and shortfall. Along the uneven cobblestone streets of the historic center of Bucharest, Lipscani, soiled Roma (the ethnically accurate term for gypsy) children play in construction sites just outside the chic cafe concept shop Market 8.
Doru Frolu, a local architect and entrepreneur, is one of the city’s most outspoken advocates and critics. He has played a significant role in reshaping modern-day Bucharest, ranging from helping found the pioneering Amsterdam Grand Café, a restaurant, bar, nightclub and event space, to his urban revitalization projects, such as EUranus, an outdoor urban lounge that launched in May with the 10-day European Film Festival.