BUCHAREST — A cadre of artsy young professionals moonlighting as online “influencers” is trying to reinvigorate the Romanian capital’s cityscape — and make it chic again.
Armed with cameras and curiosity, these urban storytellers and cultural influencers are crowdsourcing tips and using Instagram and other social media to share their appreciation for landmarks and their histories, and hopefully save some architectural treasures in the process.
“My goal was, in fact, to turn houses into celebrities on social media,” Ana Rubeli, a trained actuary and senior insurance executive, tells RFE/RL’s Romanian Service. “I’d like it to be possible for culture to have a place on this stage, and I think there’s room for all kinds of influencers. I wanted to contribute to the growth of the cultural area on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok, and I see that slowly, slowly I have succeeded.”
Romanians arguably have a lot of catching-up to do.
Proud inheritors of a country shaped by the essential roles in European history of the Danube River and the Black Sea, they spent the better part of a century watching their national heritage crumble under communist neglect before the Iron Curtain fell in 1989.
In the democratic decades since, Romania’s capital has slowly crept up the prosperity ladder.
But its cultural and architectural rejuvenation remains hampered by austerity, untransparency, uncontrolled development, and plain old abandonment, according to experts.
‘Cultural,’ Not Just ‘Influencer’
A passionate amateur photographer and prolific sharer online, Rubeli lives in her great-great-grandparents’ former home in one of Bucharest’s “slums,” where since childhood she has been fascinated by the memorial plaques attached to many of the facades. Her interest has expanded to landmarks all around the country.
“Initially a lot of people wrote to me, ‘Ana, you’ve become an influencer, you launched an invitation to a museum and people came,'” Rubeli says. “It seems like a heavy word to me.”
Around the world, “cultural influencer” more commonly evokes images of a prodigal Kardashian, 7-year-old Russian-born YouTuber Like Nastya, or South Korean boy band BTS.
So Rubeli says she set out to repurpose the moniker to benefit cultural heritage in Romania, which she says “went through several dark decades, decades of communism, in which the focus on heritage was extremely precarious.”
In May, Rubeli and her husband founded a digital “cultural storytelling” project called Aici a Stat (Here She Stood) to raise public awareness about Romanian landmarks and the personalities behind them.
They describe Aici a Stat as a “virtual museum of collective memoirs” to “capture the beauty of old places,” and promote tours and cultural events alongside occasional nods to sustainable local brands.
“What do we need to save something? First of all, knowledge,” Rubeli says. “You can’t save what you don’t know. If you’re not aware of the value of the house you pass on the way to the office every day, you don’t even know that you need to save its wooden carpentry, its original plaster.”
The result is a rich cache of stunning photographs with painstakingly researched explanations of Romanian heritage objects and, frequently, a history of neglect. It’s got nearly 26,000 followers on Instagram and another 7,000 on Facebook, in addition to readers of the Aici a Stat website.
They hope to attract domestic and international funding for national heritage objects and other aspects of local culture.
The Art Deco home built by Silvia Serbescu, one of Romania’s first internationally renowned pianists
The Council of Europe (CoE) describes Romania’s cultural heritage, with a staggering 30,000 listed historical monuments, as a victim of “wars, earthquakes, political decisions, and neglect.”
It estimates that around 60 percent are “in bad condition.”
Nationally, the Culture Ministry’s National Heritage Institute (INP) is responsible for researching, protecting, and restoring Romania’s cultural treasures.
The Press House Compound (former Spark House) in northern Bucharest. “This massive 1950s project shares a universe with the Seven Sisters in Moscow, Prague’s Hotel Druzba (today’s Hotel International Prague), or the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw,” Cristi Radu says.
It described public, commercial, and volunteer heritage-preservation efforts in Romania as understaffed, and noted that the INP itself had “lost half of its staff in the last decade.” It also said EU funding helped but the public sector was “severely underfinanced,” and that the public and private sectors faced “a shrinking body of knowledge and personnel able to create and manage knowledge” in the field.
It noted that Romania’s government has so far failed to ratify the so-called Faro Convention, a CoE framework for protecting cultural heritage and the citizenry’s access to it that was signed in 2005 and came into effect in 2011.
But the country is “gradually embracing” broader participation in its attitude to preservation, it said, instead of the “expert-led, top-down, institutionalized, and centralized” approach of the communist era.
Leading The Charge
Cristi Radu is at the forefront of that change.
He’s been pioneering postcommunist “urban storytelling” about Bucharest online for nearly two decades.
“In 2021, there are still people who look strangely at people posing [for photos] in front of buildings or posing on the street,” Radu says.
He says he was drawn in after seeing a collection of vintage photographs of prewar life that was published in 2000, called Interbellum Bucharest, Victoria Avenue.
In 2007, he launched Urban Resistance, “a game that quickly turned into an online platform followed by a community with attitude,” to promote Romania’s capital. Now it’s got about 59,000 followers on Facebook.
His more recent projects include a crowdsourced photo project called Bucuresti Realist, drawing more than 11,000 followers on Instagram.
But these days, Radu’s biggest audience comes for the eye-catching images of facades and other cityscapes on his raidenbucharest page on Instagram, which has more than 1,000 posts and 27,000 followers.
Radu called this 1920s complex “hands down one of the most stunning places I ever uncovered in Bucharest.”
He has harnessed a community of similarly minded individuals — architects, urban planners, historians, even anthropologists — to help identify and document topics, including through films shot in Bucharest or archival photos that are increasingly available online.
“The documentation involves an in-depth analysis of the urban fabric — maybe of a plot on the street, the buildings that line a street, a square, or a shed — and noticing exactly what’s changed there,” Radu says. “I’ve learned to ‘read the city.'”
With the country and much of the world stuck inside in the coronavirus pandemic, Radu’s group tracked the quiet demolition last year of a familiar Bucharest landmark, a 100-meter tower built in the 1980s to test elevators.
Many of Bucharest’s residents were unaware of the plans.
He cites “mutilations and modifications of absolutely odious buildings” in the so-called “Zero zone” around the Kilometer Zero monument and St. George’s Church in downtown Bucharest as emblematic of the problem.
“Beyond any level of involvement of the administration, a lack of interest by the general public can jeopardize the fate of [city] heritage,” Radu says, adding, “If you barely have money to put food on the table, dress the children, or buy them school supplies, you won’t be very interested in the fact that a historic-monument house has been mutilated or demolished.”