Rome Travel Guide

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Monti, Gentrified

Most of our readers will know of Monti, the enchanting neighborhood (technically, a rione) located between via Nazionale, the Coliseum, and via dei Fori Imperiali. And most would agree with Monica Lamer, writing in Business Week in September, 1998, who described Monti as "the most authentic and tourist-free district in the modern city." "The district," Lamer continues, "has maintained its flavor and today attracts people looking for affordable homes in a unique neighborhood." Monti has long been one of our favorite haunts; in Rome the Second Time, we've introduced readers
to two of our favorite places: the jazz club Charity Café, on via Panisperna, and Al Vino Al Vino, a busy wine bar around the corner on via dei Serpenti (photo at left).

Monti still has picturesque streets and atmosphere to spare, but our views on the area have changed just a bit after reading Michael Herzfeld's Evicted from Eternity: The Restructuring of Modern Rome (2009). Despite the general subtitle, the book is all about Monti's recent history.

Herzfeld, a Harvard anthropologist who did field work in the rione over several years in the 1990s and the 2000s, argues that Monti is not what it used to be, fifty or even twenty years ago.
Monti no longer is home to ordinary, working-class Romans plying their crafts and trades in small shops; it no longer sustains a local, working-class culture; no longer densely populated, it cannot sustain the sort of local market for food, clothing, and household items that serve and sustain so many Rome neighborhoods--that, in a sense, define them as dynamic neighborhoods.

Monti has been gentrified. Hotels and short-term lets for tourists. Trendy shops.

The process of gentrification began in the 1950s and 1960s, when, as Rome's population grew rapidly, Monti's fell. In the 1980s, as the area became more popular, rents turned up, and some locals were forced to find accommodations in cheaper, new housing developments on the city's outskirts. Still, until the late 1990s, renters were protected from eviction by a legal requirement that owners demonstrate "a pressing need" for the property. That legal protection was eliminated in a 1998 housing law, supposedly designed to protect property owners from squatters. Under the new law, owners had the legal right to evict tenants for any reason. And they did. The 1998 law had support from the right, who thought the old law gave too much protection to tenants and, more remarkably, from Mayor Francesco Rutelli's (1993-2001) leftist coalition.

Herzfeld is critical of Rutelli, who lived in Monti for a time as a child, and whose wife was born there. He labels Rutelli a "bourgeois leftist from Parioli."
He links Rutelli to powerful construction companies that were building inexpensive housing outside the city, and he laments Rutelli's neoliberal vision of the city," sustained by "market logic," that included support for gentrification and for turning Monti into a mecca for tourists and living quarters for Rome's wealthy. Interestingly, this critique of Rutelli was shared at the time by Gianfranco Fini's right-wing Alleanza nazionale. "We do not wish," Fini said at the time, "for [Monti] to be deformed into an open museum."

As you walk around Monti, you can judge for yourself whether the area has been "deformed into an open museum." One place to engage that question is via degli Ibernesi, a short and narrow street at the southwestern end of the district.

In Evicted from Eternity, Herzfeld narrates in fascinating detail what happened on that street at #23, over a period of two decades beginning in the mid-1980s. In essence, 10 long-term residents of the 18th-century palazzo on the site fought a long, bitter, public battle against eviction, first against the Bank of Rome, then against Pirelli Tire, and a series of other owners, until 2006, when the remaining 5 residents were finally forced to leave the building--and the neighborhood--where most had lived for decades.

For those unable to visit the street, we offer this virtual tour of via degli Ibernesi; #23 is at the opposite end of the street, on the far right.

Today, a Google search for via Ibernesi 23 brings up the Roman Forum Residences website, on which one can book a room in a luxury hotel. A description on the website reads: "A unique luxury accommodation created to evoke sensations: an intimate residence full of delightful surprises where traces of ancient Rome cohabit perfectly with the modern comforts that the most discerning travellers require."


1 comment:

Jessica said...

Hmm, while I wouldn't describe Monti as a mecca for tourists quite yet, it's definitely been gentrified. I've been working in the neighborhood for 5 years and spend most of my time there and even in that short time I can see a difference. However, there is still a core of Monti that exists and a close knit quality between the long time residents and people who work in the neighborhood. It's definitely an area that feels "lived in" and not given over to people passing through on holiday. Let's hope it can hold on!