Visiting Scholar: Liviu Chelcea

Published on May 17, 2018

Liviu Chelcea is a visiting Fulbright scholar from University of Bucharest, Romania. A social anthropologist who earned his PhD at the University of Michigan, Chelcea focuses on issues of or urban anthropology. His interest in property disputes over nationalized housing in Romania led him into an interest in plumbing systems and in water infrastructures more general.

He explained to us that in Romania, plumbing became a politicized issue for Bucharest residents after the country’s transition to democracy from communism in the early 1990s. Some housing that had been public under the communist government got restituted to the pre-communist owners. However, residents didn’t want to leave their apartments after they had worked to upgrade those apartments – not just cosmetically, but infrastructurally as well. Some families had changed their plumbing system and used that upgrading as a tether to the property. Intrigued by this situation, Chelcea developed an interest in larger issues of urban interest – roads, water, piping, and sewage systems. He and some of his students in the sociology department of the University of Bucharest worked together with the water company in Bucharest to explore water related issues.

Ready for a change of pace, Chelcea is now a visiting scholar at the Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs studying the culture of tap-water hospitality in the New York City restaurant scene. This deceptively quotidian topic reveals a myriad of insights into how water culture, usage, and norms differ between societies. First of all, Chelcea notes, being offered tap water upon arrival in a restaurant is an American anomaly! Back home in Europe, he says, water is available for sale. It doesn’t make sense to him why restaurants trying to make the most profit possible per customer would ply them with free water – which fills them up and prevents them from purchasing other beverages! In addition to tap water hospitality culture in restaurants, Chelcea is also looking at the usage of filtration systems, and bottled water’s cultural implications.

Chelcea is interviewing waiters, including some who worked at a number of upscale restaurants in New York, asking about their experiences with customers and giving water as a form of interaction. He also observes serving customs, water containers, the social interaction facilitated from the water exchange, standards of service, and signs of respect. The interviews with waiters, but also residents of New York, alerted him to the issue of filtration – he has found that people pride themselves on abstaining from bottled water and using home filtration systems. Yet in restaurants, patrons throw caution to the wind and consume filter-free tap water. Why? Chelcea thinks this implies an implicit trust in the restaurants, although quite often the tap water in restaurants is not filtered at all.

One of his informants, a waiter at an upscale restaurant in upper Manhattan, reported that tap water drinkers are better tippers. Parties who oscillated between tap or bottled were less likely to tip well – or behave nicely in the restaurant. More amusingly, this waiter reported that born-and-bred proud New Yorkers often refer to tap water as “Bloomberg Water,” “New York Number One” or “New York’s Finest”. New Yorkers are exceptionally proud of their water, I pointed out. We even point to it as the not-so-secret ingredient to our famous bagels and pizza! “It’s true!” Chelcea responded. He had noticed an attachment to tap water as a sign of city pride. Additionally, it has a sort of morality attached to it – we assign cultural and moral value to choosing tap. Even so, Chelcea points out, our conception of our tap water as clean and healthy is connected to our perception of the city itself, of buildings, and to fears of contamination.

And in his free time? Chelcea is working on a side project about pollution, green infrastructures and sewage in Newtown Creek, but said he would spare me the gory details. Curious? You can contact Liviu to learn more about his work at liviu.chelcea@sas.unibuc.ro.