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The Anatomy of Decay

The New Town – Ribcage wide open

The New Town is the impersonation of the traumatic experience of a most unfortunate implant onto the coast of The Semenic Mountain. Setting off from the narrow basin of Anina, one will quickly get confronted with the steep hill, for about three kilometers, along a winding road, which is so hostile that it looks like it was bombarded. The tranquility and cool air of the forest will somehow relieve your suffering. As soon as you leave the clearing behind, you will remark in the distance the fore row of apartment buildings. They seem to have been absurdly erected in the lap of the mountain, looking abandoned and ill-omened.

The slum was built on a barren hill, in the middle of nowhere. If it weren’t for the people, increasingly lessening in number, you might get the picture of a ghost town. Built in the late ’80s, it had never been inhabited in its entirety and it had only partially achieved its designation: to function as a residential area for those working at the power plant of Crivina. In the higher area, buildings have been abandoned, and you would run into stray farm animals, looking for shelter on the ground floor. While doors and windows have no frames, the stair railings and fences have been ditched to be turned into scrap iron. Unwillingly you descend into an uncanny alternative reality of the otherworldly kind: cattle sleep on streets or in the apartments on the ground floor, donkeys ruminate freely between the blocks, and stray dogs wander in snatchy copulating packs.
People do whatever they can. Those who still live in the neighborhood stick to the basic living conditions, cramming the already tight area of the apartments. They live on welfare – pensions, social benefits, sometimes on their children or grandchildren’s supporting benefits. Some do not even have electricity, let alone central heating. Life is harsh, especially in winter, when they heat themselves burning the wood they can gather from among the blocks. The working class hero enthusiasm was replaced by the fight for survival. The luckiest of them have gone abroad, from where, at times, the send occasional aid to those at home, if any. Pushed by a more enterprising drive, some others have set up small farm to raise animals or to till the land. The few remaining youngs have no permanent job and no place of entertainment. In their absence, they are forever playing cards and drinking beer in the heat of the day. At the end of the week they also play football on a hillside that was fitted to accommodate a pitch.

Despite all these, people are friendly and hospitable. They have been grown familiar with the astonished gaze of strangers who happen to come on a visit. They would just ask you where you are from, and never what you are doing in the area, well aware of the fact that you came to photograph or film this oddity entitled The New Town. Some find comfort in religion; many are sick and you will see them eerily moving among the blocks. Others have retreated into an alienating solitude, such as “The Colonel”. Formerly head of the military unit near the power plant, he is now living by himself, given the overcrowded conditions, in the last block in the upper part of the neighborhood, a no-go zone for many. His only next door neighbour is his son, while the rest of the flats are deserted. On the balcony he is proudly flying the Romanian flag.

Hanging up on the hillside, the neighborhood is forcing you to go back to the primeval elements: food, sleep, lust, death… There is no room left for negotiation. Life would never ask for a second opinion from the wretched ones. In The New Town, the overrated industrialization got on collision course. The quickened technological failure called forth an architectural and social disaster. And in the absence of any powering source, the ribcage of this societal body is wide open.

Crivina – Petrified slumber

They thought they were gods; therefore they cut, drilled and crumbled an entire mountaintop, just to nourish their pride, namely the one of a would-be enlightened society. Disregarding any resource, cost and consequence, the Communists decided that an oil shale power plant was bound to produce electricity, in the vicinity of Anina. Official figures mentioned 4.5 million cubic meters of hard rock that were to be displaced, only to replace it with 160,000 tones of metal.

Built with great pomp, on the left side of the road that connects Oravita with Anina, roughly 10 km away from the latter, the power plant was due to include three power generators, 330 MW each. Out of those three, only the first was destined to produce electricity, yet within wrong parameters. From 1984 to 1988 it had been unevenly working only for 8,000 hours, before it was brought to a halt. As for the second generator, only part of the equipment was brought, while the third remained for ever a blueprint. A billion dollars, which is the total cost of this so typically ambitious socialist enterprise of megalithic proportions, was wasted with no real use. Erected foolishly and in haste, the industrial stronghold next to Anina eventually proved to be not only a disaster for nature, but also an epic technological failure.

Almost three decades after the power plant stopped functioning, a few concrete structures are the only remaining upright structures. One of the cooling water towers is on the verge of collapsing, as it was thoroughly drilled in order to extract scrap iron. The conveyor belts supporting pillars protrude against a backdrop of wilderness, and the former office building has been engulfed in vegetation. Personal effects, namely helmets, clothing, and equipment, are scattered almost everywhere, mingled with technological remains. At times, one can hear rattling sounds, which means that there is still something left to destroy. The collapse is overwhelming and there is nothing heroic about it.

Behind the story of concrete and metal, there is also a story of the people who have been identified today as “collateral damage” of the project. The colony once hosted over 2,000 workers. To fill the vacancies, entire segments of populations were displaced, coming from all over the country. They were uprooted and made to wander about from one site to another, lured with the promise of a heavenly life. And heavenly indeed it seemed at first. The people were accommodated in some wooden barracks, fitted with central heating and hot water, bathroom and kitchen, while canteens, a kindergarten, a school, a health center and shops were also built. Groceries were purchased with food stamps, but one could get all they needed and the wages were above the standard; for instance, a regular worker was earning four to five times more than a doctor in Bucharest and Timisoara.

But the truly peaceful and plentiful existence lasted only a matter of years. Today, Crivina is the painful image of a former princess turned beggar, the epitome of a delusional society that thought too highly of itself. If you pay a visit in the former colony, which today hosts about 25 families, you will clearly find yourself in another paradigm. Man, animal and vegetation intermingle, each on their own account. Left behind, people move about slowly and they look lost. Most of them are old and their spouse is the only support, if they are fortunate enough to have one. Silently, with frail health and submissive, they are getting back into their houses. Outside, goats are resting on the porch of a shack, while a hint of modernity lies opposite them: a Mercedes that must have once landed here on a visit or to some wedding ceremony in the colony. You find yourself in a surreal tragicomedy. The contrast is stunning, but also paradoxically comforting: vital impulses still emerge from Crivina. As for the rest, the colony is dozing off slowly towards death, deprived of any hope and perspective.

Whether we like it or not, nature will eventually regain its lost territory. That would be a chance to get again in tune with the Darwinian flow of life. Nature will prevail in the end, as it always does whenever it is called upon to fix the human insanity. Until then, life is slowly plunging into a deep and tormenting petrified slumber.

essays by Florin Șipoș