Politics and culture are closely entwined in Romania, with a strata of (largely, but not exclusively) young, engaged, creative and deeply frustrated people perennially pitted against an avaricious and cynical ruling elite and the conservative older generations that keep them in power. The country’s running anti-corruption protests, which erupted again last weekend, are a reminder of this schism; another is the huge number of excellent independent cultural and political hubs that have been set up around the capital in the last few years by the same progressive people who crave change in Romania.
These places — bars, discussion spaces, art hubs, co-working initiatives and the like — range from the overtly political to the overtly apolitical, but they’re unified by an unshakeable energy and independence of spirit borne of the sure knowledge that their activities are a cultural and political necessity, rather than a luxury. Bucharest has many such hubs, some so informal that they don’t even have names, but here we have picked out a few of the most prominent and active.
Strada Viitorului 154
Casa Jurnalistului (Journalists’ House) was started in 2012 by a group of reporters who had decided that working in conventional media in Romania was pointless, and that they needed to start something of their own to do the work they really wanted to do. Funded purely through donations from readers, the House is now a thriving community of journalists specialising in long-form pieces on social issues in the region: superbly researched and written stories on fracking, horrific medical malpractice and Romania’s “sewer children” have rightly garnered international attention.
Anyone can visit the house (just drop them a line to let them know you’re coming first), and there are regular events and launch parties when new pieces are published. “The house functions like a commune,” co-founder Vlad Ursulean says. “We knew there were good journalists in Romania, but previously they were very isolated, so our main aim was and is to bring them together and encourage them to do their thing. The area we’re in is not so artsy,” he laughs. “It’s kind of like a ghetto, but the whole street comes when we have our launch parties, and the atmosphere is amazing.”
Strada Strada Theodor Aman 42
Run by the endlessly kind and engaging Corina Șuteu, a cultural policy expert and author who was Minister for Culture in Romania’s technocratic government until last January, Insula 42 (Island 42) operates out of a residential apartment, a characteristic it shares with many of the best cultural hubs in Bucharest. Insula has the comforting feel of a home — when I visited I stayed for hours eating cake, drinking coffee and enjoying the company of Șuteu and Cristian Neagoe, organiser of Street Delivery — but it also has a packed schedule of events and activities. In the apartment, organised and impromptu creative meetings happen almost constantly; there are readings, lectures, networking meetings and other events organised in conjunction with Street Delivery and ARCEN, and the building also hosts Elvira Lupsa’s UNICAT art agency. FilmETC also happens here, which organises two film festivals: fArad in the western Romanian city of Arad, and Making Waves, in New York, where Șuteu lived and worked for many years.
“Ad-hoc gatherings of creative people are needed everywhere, but it’s particularly necessary in an institutionally rigid environment such as Bucharest,” Șuteu tells me. “The aim is to grow connective communities, create a context for original encounters and fuel inspiration. The true outcomes will be seen in years to come, not now.”
NOD Maker Space
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Located in a former Cotton Factory on the banks of the Dâmbovița River, NOD is Romania’s biggest “makerspace”: a place dedicated, simply, to enabling people to make things. NOD was set up in 2014 by a group of multidisciplinary creatives; 25 of them worked for six months to transform the space. NOD’s Tamina Lolev tells me that the makerspace is “a dynamic ecosystem that welcomes designers, artists, engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs. Anyone who has an idea, an invention or a prototype and aims to develop it will find the tools and the manufacturing equipment to make any project come to life.”
The space includes an open co-working space, 15 private studios and manufacturing and prototyping workshops, and its equipment ranges from cutting-edge electronics to wood and metalwork tools via just about every other creativity-enabling tool imaginable. The space runs workshops and other community events on a continuous basis, and much of the extraordinary hive of activity within is visible from the street outside, with the aim of inspiring passersby. As if all that wasn’t enough, NOD also houses MATER, the first materials library in south-eastern Europe: a constantly renewed collection of samples that aims to harness the inspirational power of physically touching materials from around the world. As one line in NOD’s mission statement states, “the more passionate people in our community are, the more they want to share.”
Strada Stelea Spătarul 12
“The place where the planets seem to align” is how architect and co-founder Daniel Petrescu likes to describe Manasia Hub. Judging by the disparate array of creative-minded Bucharest friends and acquaintances who happened to be kicking around its lovely beer garden when I popped in on a balmy night last summer, that doesn’t seem far from the truth. Petrescu sees Manasia, a refurbished former police station in the heart of the downtown area, as an urban regeneration project, as well as the best way to support the local design and art scene. In addition to its bar/cafe, Manasia houses and helps nurture a carefully curated list of creative local startups: the Vira Foundation (documentary producers); Linia 1 (recording studio and record label); Lisseau (graphic design lab), Studio Est (architecture studio); District of Screen Composers (theatre and film music production); Jamscheck & Sons (product design studio); and the Carta Foundation (theatre rehearsals space). It also hosts club nights, is an excellent place to go for a beer, and in the course of this year Petrescu and his team plan to start serving food, turn the basement into an art gallery and add residential rooms for artists in the building’s attic.
“The creative community that has gathered here is so diverse but still so glued together,” Roxana Munteanu, one of his collaborators at Manasia, tells me. “Every day we have filmmakers and critics, musicians, architects, designers, art curators, philosophy and political science academics and so many other kinds of people here — it’s a place for real people with real stories.”
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Macaz, a centrally located bar and theatre space, was opened in 2016 by a radical-left group who had previously run an anarchist social centre. “A lot of the group were working crappy jobs and we were really frustrated by that, so we wanted to start a project that would be a hub for the left in Bucharest and also give us employment,” explains Macaz’s Veda Popovici. “We decided a bar would be the most fun thing to do and would also pay the bills. We run it as a co-operative — everyone you see working behind the bar is also a co-owner, and there’s no hierarchy in terms of tasks. So everyone cleans the toilets, everyone takes out the trash, and so on. And we have a strict policy of not tolerating any racist, sexist or homophobic behaviour — we’ve thrown lots of people out of Macaz for breaking those rules.”
Aside from being a highly regarded bar, Macaz has a programme of club nights and live music with a specific slant towards booking women and queer performers, and hosts political debates, book launches, film screenings and various events organised by other leftist political organisations. Its theatre programme, meanwhile, consists of both in-house and outside productions, and is similarly dedicated to the promotion of radical leftist ideas. “I had my doubts about the value of opening a bar in the beginning,” Popovici continues. “But soon I realised that a bar can be a dynamic social space in which people exchange ideas and influence each other. It’s opened our ideas up to a far broader audience.”
Bulevardul Carol I 53
Another hub with a huge amount of space (1000 square metres over four floors) and based in a residential building, Carol 53 is partly an architectural project and partly a cultural one. The house, which lies on the main east-west artery that slices through the middle of the city, was built over a century ago in the Beaux-Arts style popular with Bucharest’s Francophile elite at the time. In 2012, the young architect Lucian Sandu-Milea and a group of friends moved into the crumbling building, creating private rooms for themselves in the attic and turning the basement, ground floor and garden into a creative hub hosting art and architecture exhibitions, experiments and performances, book launches, concerts, workshops and music events.
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In a country where corruption and the peddling of resoundingly alternative facts are central strategies of the ruling elite, it’s hard to overstate the value of an organisation dedicated to strengthening democracy, which is where Funky Citizens comes in. Operating out of a house/hub named Colivia (“the birdcage”), the group is behind a variety of research-based, data-driven online advocacy tools, including factual.ro, Romania’s first fact-checking website, and the anti-corruption whisteblowing sites piatadespaga.ro and maricorupti.ro. “By aggregating and educating youth around a series of tools, we believe we can build the understanding and human capital necessary to influence more participatory, responsible and transparent democracy in Romania,” the group says. “Ultimately, our user base should empower citizens to influence public-sector reform.”
A prominent cultural force as well as a political one, Funky Citizens collaborates with Casa Jurnalistului and Carol 53 to organise Noaptea Caselor (“Night of the Houses”), an annual celebration of the many underground social and cultural hubs in Bucharest based in residential houses. “The houses that participate in Noaptea Caselor change every year as some close and new ones open,” explains Funky Citizens’ Cosmin Pojoranu. “But the trend arose because people didn’t have public spaces in which to build alternative, underground cultures. So the solution was to combine public and private spaces, to create and grow these cultures in the places where they also lived.”