Illustration by Cristina Barsony
“It Was Beautiful, Eventually!” Nature and Ruins in Văcărești Nature Park
From the late 1700s to 2016, when it became an urban nature park, Văcărești Pit was a mixture of wastelands and modernization projects on the southern fringes of Bucharest. While always integrated in the productive and power circuits of the city, the area was also a spatial and temporal gap: created by invoking, dismantling, and re-appropriating parts of the past, as well as imagining different futures. Around Văcărești Pit, real estate developers, people displaced from their homes, ecologists, politicians, visitors, passers-by, scientists, hopes, fears, fantasies, “casino capitalism,” wild animals, and plants have gathered from all over the city. All these formed a more-than-human “contact zone,” where wild nature and industrial ruins coexist in direct, intimate contact.
Călin Cotoi is a sociologist and professor at the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, Department of Sociology, University of Bucharest, where he teaches courses in Classical Sociological Theories, Social History and Anthropological Thought. Areas of interest are history and sociology of science, environmental history and anthropology, ethnography of the state, and political anthropology. He had research grants and affiliations at: Collegium Budapest, Center for Advanced Studies Sofia, New Europe College, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Central European University, Oxford University, Indiana University, etc.
Last published book: Inventing the Social in Romania: Networks and Laboratories of Knowledge, Brill, 2020.
Last article: We Should Have Asked What Year We Were In! Wastelands and Wilderness in the Văcărești Park, Antipode 53(4), 2021.
Cristina Barsony works as a freelance illustrator specializing in book illustration in London. He made illustrations for several books for children and not only. She is fascinated by Japanese Ukiyo-e prints and the botanical gardens where she finds her inspiration, but also by the interconnectivity between the plant and human worlds. When he is not drawing, he works on porcelain miniatures in the form of jewelry. www.cristinabarsony.com
Daniel decided to become an actor so that he could experience feelings and events that otherwise won’t fit in one’s lifetime. He collaborated with Bulandra Theatre and the Monday Theatre @ Green Hours and attended many national and international festivals. Since 2013 he plays in projects written, translated, or directed by himself and produced by his Doctor’s Studio Cultural Association which he also founded. Daniel doesn’t know if this is the way to approach new forms of artistic expression, what’s certain is that he distances himself from the old ones.
The area has long existed as an urban interstice, a wasteland in the present center of Bucharest (it is only two metro stops from Piața Unirii). I used to pass by that place—surrounded by a green metal fence—and it remained for years somewhere in my visual range, peripheral yet persistent.
The idea of a systematic research began to take shape after discussions with members of the Văcărești Park Association and people from the surrounding area that used to work, live or just wander in and around Văcărești. It is hard to say, in retrospect, how ethnographic research begins. People, conversations, photographs, personal obsessions, funding, half-missed opportunities, readings, anxieties or intellectual and academic fashions, they come together somehow to create long-term research.
Sometimes, there is a kind of breakthrough moment in one’s research. How authentic or reconstructed later on, it is hard to say. For me it happened in the summer of 2017. I was with a few students inside the Park. We spent a couple of hours there, talking and walking along the dry paths created on the Park’s cement foundations, now covered with a thin layer of soil and grass. We were admiring the network of puddles and wild birds, when a man with a large raffia bag sped past us, following an unexpected trail. On the elevated border of the former lake two cyclists were pedaling, high-rise buildings in the background. After climbing, with some difficulty, the northern embankment of the Park, through brick and glass rubble from the surrounding construction sites, we met a group of people smoking and repairing an old car. A small neighborhood of older blocks of flats and a few new houses formed a kind of buffer zone from the hustle and bustle of Olteniței Road. After greeting them, as we were approaching the boulevard, someone in the group exclaimed: “We should have asked them what year we are in!”
Suddenly things made sense! After many visits to the Park, nagged by the feeling that I was missing something important, things seemed to fall into place. Leaving Văcărești, it felt like a post-apocalyptic movie. Rusty pieces of iron, cement blocks, graffiti, plastic bags, discarded beer and soda cans, plants, wildlife, all framed by an ever-changing urban landscape. The large buildings of the Asmita real estate development, car dealerships, a big hotel and shopping mall, abandoned army buildings and towers, they all seemed to embrace and oversee the new wilderness. To the west, there was a semi-deserted area with summer gardens in bloom, a newly built house, goats, dogs, and two huge blocks under construction. It looked like a Hollywood version, concentrated and spatialized, of recent Romanian history. Historical debris and ruins, alongside contemporary buildings, indicated trajectories and failures of urban development—overlapping projects and natures.
As visits, discussions and interviews became more systematic—with environmentalists, NGO people, scientists, the Park’s managers, and neighbors—the moment of “enlightenment” turned out to be more complicated. Not because it was wrong, but it seemed inadequate. One sunny day in January 2018, I was standing in the south-eastern corner of the Park when the same northern embankment suddenly lit up. The winter sun made all the pieces of glass and pottery that littered the Park glow dazzlingly. The place seemed overloaded with emotions, temporalities, materialities, and fantasies that resisted any single and general closure.
This is the moment when a bit of theory can save and undazzle you. Not as a pre-formed and clear answer, but as a way to make room for more actors, interpretations, and layers. Science and technology studies, phenomenology or ethnomethodology see infrastructure as the invisible, “taken for granted” layer of our individual and collective lives, which allows the world to unfold along predetermined paths. Bowker and Star introduced the analytical trick of the “infrastructural inversion,” which would allow the hidden parts of the background to become visible.
In Văcărești, this inversion is freely available, materially and sensorially. Nature displaces and makes visible the infrastructure. This embodied, naturalized theoretical achievement is possible because the inversion also works the other way around. There is an “ecological inversion” in which nature becomes possible and visible only through the infrastructure, the ruin of the failed socialist lake, and its postsocialist avatars. People living around the Park, fish, birds, snakes, foxes, trees and shrubs are, intermittently and ambiguously, citizens of both urban-modern landscapes (as urbanites, pets, pests, invaders or refugees) and wild nature.
Shifts between ground and figure index are also a form of meaning transformation. Văcărești is not just a theoretical place, but also an artistic one. Sometimes, as Roy Wagner discovered, figure-ground inversions can create semantically saturated places similar to works of art. The artists seem to be drawn to the wastelands of the metropolis. In a text on urban photography, Ignasi de Sola-Morales Rubio claims that this artistic interest began with the fascination with terrains vagues—urban areas where movement and oscillation combine with the absence of clear function and uncertainty.Văcărești is, from this perspective, a “terrain vague”; it functions in a logic of porosity as both a place of passage to something else and a place of aggregation, where heterogeneous beings gather, interact, and re-frame each other.
Any ethnographic research begins—and often continues—with geography and history. In this case, hydrology was also important. Văcărești was part of a Bucharest slum that grew vegetables and fruits until the 1960s and 1970s when most of the population was absorbed into the new socialist industrial sector, and real estate development dramatically transformed the whole area. The place was marshy, with intermittent springs which were modified both by the systematization of the Dîmbovița River and the construction of the subway. In the 1980s, Văcărești became part of a large hydrological plan, involving the construction of a network of reservoirs for special events (earthquakes and floods), but also for industrial and recreational uses. All these inside the even larger project of connecting Bucharest to the Danube River. After 1989, socialist hydrology disintegrated, and Văcărești became the ruin of a lake.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the empty reservoir turned out to be the site of postsocialist projects and fantasies: a racing circuit, a real estate development area, a golf course, a recreational lake, a leisure complex, or a luxury hotel. Unregulated, the dry lake bed was overtaken by garbage from the nearby areas and rubble from new buildings or renovations. In the mid-1990s, a shepherd from a village nearby, and his flock of sheep, occupied part of the space. At Easter, it would turn into an apocalyptic landscape, a slaughter site littered with dead and dying sheep, ready to be sold for the Easter traditional meal. During the weekends, neighborhood teens went drifting on the concrete embankments of the Pit. Using makeshift traps of tree branches and glue, young kids, and the odd drug addict, caught singing birds and sold them at the nearby market. From time to time some young ecologists would fight the bird catchers inside and outside the Pit. The reeds would sometimes be set on fire, smoke billowing above the whole area.
Things were not only taken out of there, some were brought in, in order to be put out of sight or quickly transformed and reintroduced into the growing local production circuits. During the 1990s, the Pit was rhythmically filled with garbage and construction work debris, animals (from pets to sheep), plants, as well as more fantastic entities such as thieves’ caches, human and non-human corpses, only to be emptied out of iron scrapped from concrete slabs, copper from burning stolen cables, and slaughtered lambs. What belonged inside vs what constituted “matter out of place” was a historical dynamic threshold, managed with various degrees of success by local horticulturists, socialist engineers, fishermen, politicians, real estate capitalist developers, and middle-class ecologically minded groups.
The transformation of Văcărești into a protected natural area had to do with the emergence of new forms of governing nature. Romania’s accession to the EU and the adoption of new forms of environmental management constitute the more general background to this dramatic transformation. But the Pit only morphed into the Park when it became interesting for the new Bucharest middle classes, in the 2010s. An article in National Geographic Romania that presented Văcărești as “the Delta between the blocks of flats,” spectacular wildlife photographs, scientific speeches, environmentalist groups, “greening” actions, protest movements against cyanide mining in other parts of the country, all played a part in the transformation.
Semantic and material inversions appear everywhere once you enter the park area proper: nature and ruins; water infrastructure and nature; wilderness and recreational nature; socialist industry and contemporary wildness; nature lovers and absent state; nature lovers and uncivilized people; tall structures (blocks, towers, furnaces) and horizontal wetlands; aesthetic delight and despicable ruins.
The Văcărești Pit may have become part of the protected nature area and landscape the urban middle class identifies with and cares about, but the attraction that this place exerts does not reside solely in its wild nature side. Although we can easily see the Park, in its entirety, from anywhere on the high banks that surround it, there is an incompleteness to the place, a boundary that always seems to elude attempts at closure.
While walking through the Park I often noticed groups of people coming down, walking around for a while, climbing up the observation towers and, as they emerged from the Park, saying to each other, as if to make sure they saw the same thing: “It was beautiful, eventually.” It is always nice “eventually,” when you are almost out of the Park, or when you go up into one of the wooden lookout towers. Aesthetic consumption here concerns not only wilderness but, even more, the difference between urban landscape and wilderness and the material-sensory inversions between socialist, postsocialist, and neoliberal epochs. The beauty of Văcărești is always a complicated one, in which histories, ideologies, and theories unfold at the level of the senses, of seeing and hearing, of the movement of bodies through the new wilderness.
Văcărești has always been an absence, a pit, lacking the social and physical material necessary for regular urban functions. But this absence has been a productive one, attracting individual and collective desires, and promises of their fulfilment. In the socialist period, the Pit was levelled and the lake raised above ground, in a spectacular effort to modernize the area and connect it with the Danube River. The lake, however, never came to exist as such.
After 1990, it became a wasteland again, concentrating fears, hopes, and new ways of coping with the traumas and losses of postsocialism. In the 2010s, as a nature protected area, it made room for wilderness, without however being able to evacuate older historical layers and ruins. The ruins of the failed Văcărești lake have become a place where the middle class can experience not only nature, but the differences and transformations at the border between wilderness and metropolis.
In the last couple of years, the City Council has constantly pushed away the group of ecologists and environmentalists that created the Park, to jealously take over the position of sole administrator of the area. As Văcărești wasteland morphed into a recognizable and possibly prestigious entity—“urban nature park”—local public administrators became interested in it. Ironically, at the same time, because of climate changes and prolonged draught, from a lush wetland, Văcărești has been turning into some kind of urban forest disturbingly similar to a wasteland.
Although nature has become the only legitimate inhabitant of the Pit—and is probably going to stay this way for some time, if only because of administrative complications—Văcărești stubbornly persists as a place of ruins, overlaps and inversions of different spaces and times, and theoretical and aesthetic revelations.
We would like to thank Ioana Miruna Voiculescu for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.
 Akhil Gupta. “The Future in Ruins: Thoughts on the Temporality of Infrastructure.” Pp. 62–79 in The Promise of Infrastructure, Hannah Appel, Nikhil Anand, and Akhil Gupta, eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.
 Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff. Millenial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001
 Mary Louise Pratt. “Arts of the contact zone.” Profession (1991): 33–40.
 Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting Things Out: Classifications and Its Consequences. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1999.
 Roy Wagner. “Figure-Ground Reversal among the Barok.” Pp. 56–62 in Louise Lincoln, ed. Assemblage of Spirits: Idea and Image in New Ireland. New York: George Braziller, 1987.
 Ignasi Sola-Morales Rubio. “Terrain Vague.” Pp. 118–123 in Cynthia Davidson, ed. Anyplace. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995.
 Mary Douglas. Purity and Danger. New York Frederick A. Preager, 1966.