The art of exclusion
A wall that segregated a town's Roma becomes an “art project”—which still segregates the town's Roma
Feb 20th 2015
“THIS is a wall built to hide our poverty,” says Alex Banta (pictured), a 53-year old Roma from the northern Romanian town of Baia Mare. To its detractors, the wall is also a clever example of how governments can use ersatz urban-renewal projects to get away with discrimination. In 2011 Baia Mare erected a concrete wall around a Roma neighbourhood. Later that year, Romania's national anti-discrimination body fined the town 6,000 lei ($1,530) and ordered it to take the wall down. The mayor, Catalin Chereches, paid the fine, appealed the ruling, and lost. But last November, instead of demolishing the wall, he invited art students to paint graffiti on it, and then claimed he could no longer remove it; it was now a work of art.
The wall encloses three apartment buildings. The one in the middle has been ruled unfit for habitation; it has no heating or running water, and rubbish lies piled up to the first floor. Mr Banta lives on the third floor of this building, with his wife and 14 children. Some families have been moved to better housing conditions, he says, but only after paying bribes, which he refuses to do. The mayor argues that the wall was erected to protect Roma children from being run over by cars, but Mr Banta says this was unnecessary. The community has only one use for the wall: "When we wash our carpets in the summer, it is perfect for drying them.”
Poverty, illiteracy and discrimination are the main obstacles facing Romania's Roma, who number 621,600 out of a total population of 20m, according to official statistics. (Demographers think their real numbers are at least twice as high, as many Roma prefer not to declare their ethnicity.) In Baia Mare there are around 1,500 Roma families, says Mr Chereches, a 36-year old arts lover who likes to describe himself as an “administrator, not a politician”. In his spacious mayoral office in the centre of the old mining town, a wooden sculpture of a pig sits on the desk; paintings by local artists line the walls.
There is nothing discriminatory about the wall, he says. In his view the National Council for Combating Discrimination issues fines for “anything that has to do with Roma, Hungarians and other minorities, no matter whether you were wrong or not.” The mayor claims that the street in front of the Roma neighbourhood saw 20 victims of road-traffic accidents per year, and that the wall has put a stop to them. The town has built several housing projects to de-segregate Roma communities, as well as an education centre, complete with a kindergarten, which runs adult literacy courses. Mr Chereches says that Mr Banta's building, the one declared unsafe, is slated for renovation this spring, and that the families living there will be re-housed in non-Roma neighbourhoods.
Mr Chereches was regarded as having clean hands when he won election in 2012 with 80% of the vote. That image has been tarnished by a corruption probe launched against him in 2013 for allegedly taking bribes from firms that won public tenders. (The mayor would not comment on the corruption allegations.) He has also fallen out with the Arts and Design University in the nearby city of Cluj, whose students were enlisted for the graffiti project—unwittingly, the school says. The project was organised by a teacher who sits on the Baia Mare city council.
The arts university has since reprimanded the teacher, and erased its logo from the graffiti wall. Its deputy dean, Mara Ratiu, says the graffiti project tainted the school's image, but that she was pleased by the civil-society criticism that ensued. "From now on we will be extra vigilant in selecting partnerships with public institutions,” she says.
Istvan Szakats, who runs an NGO that helps integrate Roma families in Cluj, says the problem of the Roma wall is not one of backwardness or corruption. Baia Mare is seen as a well-managed, civilised town, he notes. The problem is "latent racism". When the town administration evicted Roma from a local shantytown, Mr Szakats expected a public outcry; instead, the mayor's popularity increased. “With the wall, it’s like this: people like it," Mr Szakats explains. "Not only in Baia Mare."