Crișan Neighbourhood Resilience, Timisoara
Ana Kun, 2023
These descriptions of forms of resilience resulted from many conversations with my mother-in-law and her neighbours, from the Crișan neighbourhood in Timișoara, and for which I am grateful. These forms of resilience have been practiced in the Crișan neighbourhood from the time of its establishment up until the present day. Against the backdrop of world wars, fiscal crisis, regime changes and living consistently within a patriarchal system, practices such as gardening on public and private land, animal husbandry, community crafts (for housing construction), domestic and everyday labor, with the occasional addition of working in one of the city's factories, show the ability of people to form a viable community, against the backdrop of world wars, bank debts, regime changes, and a continuous patriarchal system, in an ever changing place. In illustrating these stories, I will refer to three periods: keeping in mind that the transitions between them were gradual and that more general practices were not always found at the level of the neighborhood: colonisation (starting in 1918, in 2 waves), the Dej and Ceaușescu regimes (around 1947-1989) and present-day (post 1989 revolution). For the colony these transitions between these periods and the impact of the changes in political periods was felt very gradually.
Geographical and Historical Positioning
The Crișan colony, as it was originally called, was attached to Timișoara together and the Plopi neighbourhood, were incorporated into Timișoara after the Second World War (post 1945). Plopi was named in 1940, by the local sculptor Romulus Ladea. Back in 1930 the colony was called I.G. Duca (after the liberal prime minister assassinated by right wing extremists in 1933). Before that it was called the Kardos colony, and before that, in 1918, the land of these two colonies belonged to a count who sold it off as housing lots for settlers. Going back even further, the area was known as the town's rice field plantations. This was a failed agricultural experiment initiated by count Florimund de Mercy, a military and civil governor of the Banat of Timiș, after the Austrian occupation of the city in 1716.
The Crișan neighbourhood is also known as New Ghiroda (not to be mixed with the nearby old commune of Ghiroda), and Plopi is attached to the Kuncz neighbourhood, know as Plopi-Kuncz. Crișan and Plopi-Kuncz are situated in the eastern part of Timișoara, each one on one side of the Bega river, with the water plant between them. Since the establishment of the colony it has been important for the residents to be self-managed, and for local community cooperation to play a central role, having the effect that the colony sometimes ignores and reversely is ignored by the city administration. In recent years people from other neighbourhoods have started to launch their leisure boats on the weekends, overcrowding the river nearby, and ruining the fishing and swimming for everybody. Before this, many people learnt to swim in the river at their own leisure. My mother-in-law remembers how in the early 1960s older women would swim in their dresses, with tin drums strapped on their backs to stay afloat.
On the Levee
The Bega river’s water level is the same level as the neighbourhood is, so after several floods of the cob houses, the banks were raised with two steps of sand; the small levee and the large levee (dâlmă). The large levee soon became and still is a kind of promenade. The two levees are looked after by the levee master (dâlmaș) who checks the condition of the land and vegetation, and intervenes when needed. To prevent flooding in the neighbourhood, each street also has a partially open sewer system, with one person in charge on each street. On the small levee next to the river, local inhabitants who live on or close to the levee, have set up gardens, fishing spots, pontoons and bathing spots. Some areas are fenced off, others not, such as the bathing areas, but all are maintained by neighbours (the land belongs to the state, however, there are no contracts and no rents are charged). On one of these gardens I found a sign on which was printed that we should use, maintain and preserve the Crișan biosphere. These refuges, some cultivated some not, appeared after 1989. Before the revolution it was part of the levee master’s duties of the levee master, to eradicate any use of these areas, and ensure they were not used.
In almost every neighbourhood before 1989, community gardens on public land were a common practice before 1989 in almost every neighborhood, the most famous being in the Antenna Area (where my grandparents used to have a garden), which is now occupied by a shopping mall. However, in Crișan and Plopi, there were no community gardens, only private ones near housing or on specifically purchased plots, and hence the practice of gardening was extended informally onto factories premises, terraces and flat roofs, where vegetables were mainly grown; tomatoes and peppers in raised beds for example. In many of the green spaces in the factories' yards, the employees planted and harvested fruit trees. Today various crops are grown on the levee, from tomatoes to corn, in combination with fruit trees and raspberry bushes, either for immediate consumption or conservation, but also for exchange between neighbours. Whilst talking to my mother-in-law’s former neighbours who moved out of the area 25 years ago, we were invited to adopt a piece of the land for gardening. Apparently the best tomatoes grow on the levee, thanks to fish waste. Not all the land is cultivated and fenced off and there are also many spaces on the banks that are open to everyone, furnished with chairs, benches, sofas and shade, where birds, dogs, frogs, snakes, insects and people take refuge. Annexes or new houses are now being built on the sites of the old gardens between the houses, and the cultivated space in the neighbourhood is getting smaller by the day. Being able to walk on the river banks during the pandemic was a great consolation for all who were fortunate to have local access to them.
Income, Food and Work
Before 1989, most of the inhabitants of Crișan and Plopi worked in one of the many factories in the surrounding area. The reason for the two colonies creation was to house the labor force for the factories, ensuring a stable local and available labour force. In their private gardens, before 1989, the women of Crișan, especially those who did not have a formal job in the factory, who raised children, cared for the elderly and did the domestic work, used to grow everything for their households, trying to be as autonomous and self-sufficient as possible. The surplus was exchanged or sold informally in the neighbourhood. Families were not completely self-sufficient and had several sources of supply (garden, neighbours, market). The gardens were partially cultivated with fruit trees bought from the surplus of the Republican Station of Young Miciurinists established in 1956 (Miciurin for short, after the name of the Russian biologist who created several hybrid species), and which is now known as the Station of Young Naturalists. My mother-in-law remembers the pineapple-apricot and greengage plum very fondly.
Every year families who had vineyards contributed grapes towards the Grape Ball at the Cultural House. Each family donated sandwiches and cakes, which were sold to raise money to pay the musicians. Crișan does not have a patron saint’s day (rugă), so the Grape Ball was a version of an annual neighbourhood fair, held for many decades until a few years ago when it degenerated into drunkenness and violence, and now has been cancelled.
Up until the 1980s some women raised pigs and poultry for consumption for their families, and would sell livestock products to the neighbourhood too. Erszi tanti, my mother-in-law's mother, also raised geese for feathers and down. Another woman sold cow's milk to her neighbours, on a type of pre-order subscription basis. Rozsi tanti crocheted miles of wool and knitted flannels, other women cut patterns and sewed clothes, and many other items for their neighbours. Rudi baci had a private taxi service with a feacher, a kind of carriage with one horse. On the side he raised what was called “meat rabbits”, for his own consumption. My mother-in-law's father was a photographer for the surrounding villages, before he was employed by the County Hospital, so part of the family garden was occupied by his photo laboratory. Gosza baci fished on the Bega river for his own consumption and to sell to the neighbourhood. Other people worked as day labourers, doing field work, digging, carrying sand for the levees, washing bottles at the brewery, or occasionally as musicians. Nobody relied on just one source of income, or one source of food, and everybody tried as hard as possible (especially the women) to use their skills to ensure some sort of stability.
During the 1980s, exchanges between employees of different factories proliferated, the most popular being Comtim, which specialised in the sale of pork. New recipes with fewer fresh ingredients and more substitutes became popular, and as the gardens grew smaller, fewer people raised animals for meat consumption. Since its invention in 1959, the Croatian Vegeta, a flavour enhancer consisting of dehydrated vegetables, spices, and salt, was used primarily as a substitute for poultry, and has become one of the staple ingredients in the regional diet. A very popular Sunday soup with poultry and fine pasta, now has a vegan spinoff using Croatian Vegeta. One kilo packets of Vegeta were recently found together with turbo chewing-gum and bluejeans in metal boxes, in various markets in Timișoara, sold by Serbian citizens.
These days the majority of people are employed in the new factories on the Buziaș platform, with a few of them employed by the private ecological gardens of a rich family in Timișoara, which is built on the site of fish ponds of a former cannery.
House and Garden Plots (plațuri)
In the interwar period, the entire Crișan-Plopi area was parcelled off and sold off for the construction of houses for the inhabitants of the nearby villages. Land was purchased with bank loans, and they built cob houses, with the help of neighbours. After the Second World War, the first brick houses appeared, which were also built by the collective efforts of neighbours. None of these properties in Crișan were nationalised after 1948, unlike other neighbourhoods in Timișoara. The bricks used to build the first houses were not only from the factory in Kuncz (which closed in 1945), but also from a group of Romani brick makers, who formed and fired them in a kiln on the large levee, built at the entrance to the neighbourhood. They used the clay removed from the Bega after it was dredged. Neither the kiln nor this practice exists in the neighbourhood today.
The Old Cemetery
With the formation of the area, a lot of land was donated to the community for a cemetery. The old cemetery does not belong to any church or sect, and is maintained by the locals who have family members buried there, free of any charges. After 1989, an Orthodox church was built with an adjacent cemetery; this cemetery is taxed by the church. The old cemetery is also a place to socialise; during the period of preparation for the Day of the Dead, on November the second, families come to do maintenance work and socialise together. The walnut and mulberry trees at the entrance are leftovers from the time of the rice plantations, and are harvested by the neighbours. I still pick purslane for salad from the old graves, and I hope that my partner and I can be buried here, when the time comes.
The Bridges between Neighbourhoods
Before 1989, there was a dispensary and a school in Plopi, along with a coal depot. Residents crossed the Bega river every day, but there wasn’t always a bridge. Until the 1950s, upstream from the exclusion zone of the water plant, there was a braided wire-rope and a floating raft/platform, called a komp (similar to a small ferry), which was pulled by a crank by Dinu baci; after his death his wife, Dinu neni, would work the ferry. It would cost 15 ban for a trip. It was a private initiative, which was taxed by the state, and which was discontinued after the death of Mrs. Dinu. When the Bega froze during the winter, the komp was pulled out and people could cross over with sleds, holding onto the braided wire-rope. There was also a komp operating similarly to this, in the south of Timisoara, in the Iosefin neighbourhood.
During the 1960s, the first wooden bridge was built, which after rotting away was replaced by a metal bridge made by UMT (Mechanical Plants Timișoara), and which was altered in the 1980s, to raise up in the middle. This is the same bridge that connects the two neighbourhoods today, maintained by Aquatim, the regional water and sewage operator, although there is less need to use it to cross over these days.
In recent years, the gardens have expanded significantly on the river banks, probably in part because of the new houses constructed on the former gardens, but also because of the revival of grow-your-own food initiatives. In another neighbourhood in the west of Timișoara (Ronaț), a private plot of land (which was historically used for gardening) was transformed by the owners into a community garden with free open access to neighbours. Pandemic gardening has also led to a proliferation of gardens in and around apartments, balconies, on the tops of blocks of flats, parking lots, or in my case in the bedroom, where I've secured a pretty nice crop of basil and mint to eat, share and write about.
Research, text and illustrations by artist Ana Kun
A text commissioned by tranzit.ro, as part of a mapping of resilient practices in Romania and Eastern Europe, in the frame of C4R project.