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Monday, April 13, 2015

Global Rome: Changing Faces of the Eternal City. Book Review.

Foro Italico, one site of the 1960
Olympic Games
Is Rome a global city?  That's one of the claims--it's right there in title, Global Rome--made in this edited collection of 17 essays, subtitled Changing Faces of the Eternal City.  As Bjorn Thomassen and Piero Vereni point out in the first of the essays, it's certainly not a global financial city, or a global industrial city, but it is, arguably, the most "imagined" city in the world.

And, as the editors, Thomassen and Isabella Clough Marinaro emphasize, it's global in its tourism, as a locus of international diplomacy and, especially, in its growing number of immigrants, who now make up about 1/8 of the city's population.

Moreover, as Simon Martin's essay makes clear, Rome has been, and to some extent remains, a global sporting city, hosting the 1960 Olympic Games and the 2009 World Swimming Championships (in contrast, Mark Dyal's essay on romanità argues that the term's application to soccer was part of a larger effort to hold on to an older, traditional Rome threatened by multiculturalism, modernization--and globalization).

In a new shop near Piazza Vittorio, an Asian
family eats lunch
Curiously, there isn't much in the book about tourism or diplomacy or the imagining of Rome, and Michael Herzfeld's contribution makes the point that despite its increasingly global population, Rome as an immigration center is also characterized by "extreme localism"; Romans resent the newcomers.  Still, treatments of immigration are the focus of at least six of the essays.  Pierluigi Cervelli looks at several groups of new arrivals and at what he calls their "spatial practices."  The Chinese have prospered by buying property in the Esqulino--the area surrounding Piazza Vittorio--where they predicted property values would rise over time.  Bangladeshi settled a bit further out, in the near suburb of Torpignattara.  Romanians and Albanians occupy areas even farther outside the center, near and beyond the GRA to the north.  And the Roma have survived by being "invisible" to the authorities, living in underpasses and along river banks--and moving often.

Cinema Impero closed in 1983, before
the Bangladeshi arrived in Tor Pignattara
We were particularly interested in the experience of the Bangladeshi in Torpignattara, because we "discovered" and wrote about the area a few years ago and have since returned several times to explore its art galleries and its substantial array of graffiti.  Alessandra Broccolini presents the community as a "frontier," where over two decades the Italian population has been partly displaced and forced to accommodate an influx of Bangladeshi---about 5,000, most living in what is known to older residents as the  Marranella--that has led some to call the place "Banglatown."  As of 2007 about 25% of shops were run by the newcomers.  Lest one assume that the new immigrants led to the decline of the area, Broccolini points out that the area was hardly prospering before the Bangladeshi arrived--the striking, modernist movie house, the Cinema Impero, closed in 1983.  After the population influx, the crime rate declined and the crime rate declined and the street lighting improved.

Carlo Pisacane elementary school--the site of conflict
between Italians and Bangladeshi
Herzfeld's "extreme localism" appeared in Torpignattara in the form of the "Piscane Affair," a series of events swirling around the Carlo Pisacane School, attended by Bangaldeshi, Chinese, and Egyptian students--together, 115 of 140 students in one survey. The change led school authorities to cap foreign enrollment at Pisacane at 30% of the total.  As author Piero Vereni notes, the assignation "foreign" applied even to children born in Rome and fluent in Italian.  The Pisacane affair, he concludes, was about what it meant to be "Italian."

Via Boccea, one of the areas where Roma "settled".

The Roma are doubtless Rome's most despised immigrant group.  Tourists protect their wallets when they approach, and to most Italians they seem incapable of the hard work and community-building that would bring them into the mainstream.  They come off somewhat differently in two essays in this collection.  Marco Solimene presents the Xoraxanè Roma, immigrants from Yugoslavia beginning in the 1960s, as a determined and responsible group, one that cultivated relationships with the Italians who offered services the Roma needed: bars, Internet points, tobacconists, and the Trastevere train station, which served as a meeting place.  Some settled in the via Boccea area to the northwest, others out via Nomentana to the north, and the largest number in Rome's southwest, in Trullo, Corviale, Tor di Valle, Muratella, and especially Magliana, with its concentration of scrap iron dealers to whom Roma scavengers could sell.

Trullo's self-managed community center, "Ricomincio
dal Faro," operated by squatters.  Once a movie house.
In our more innocent days, we explored the massive housing project at Corviale and, more recently, spent an afternoon in Trullo, watching trash cans burn and admiring what we learned--from this book--was a self-managed community center created by squatting (occupato) in an abandoned movie theater.

And, having lived in the Marconi district and across the river in San Paolo, we were eager to learn
Squatters still live tucked away on the grounds
of the now-defunct Testaccio slaughterhouse.  
more about the Roma who had been living nearby.  Ulderico Daniele and editor Marinaro tell two stories involving the Roma, both about evictions.  One features Roma living under Ponte Marconi and on vicolo Savini in Ostiense, both evicted and moved by the city to Pomezia, 25 km away and far from their closest community settlement.  Another group, evicted from an unauthorized camp in 2011, took refuge in the Basilica of San Paolo fuori le mura--and, for several days, refused to leave.  That group ended up at an authorized camp in via Salaria, on the other side of the city.

For Daniele and Marinaro, these episodes are typical of authorities' efforts to clear areas deemed valuable--such as vicolo Savini and the Testaccio slaughterhouse--and give them over
to private developers.  Cristina Lombardi-Diop tells a similar story, and a similarly depressing one, of some 2,000 Senegalese immigrants, happily and productively renting apartments in 5 buildings in "Residence Roma" near Forte Bravetta, yet forced to relocate--to Ladispoli, Pomezia, Centocelle, and Torpignattara--to make way for single-family villas.  The mayor at the time was left-center Walter Veltroni, who wrote the foreword to our first book.

This account of evictions is one of several in the collection that deal interestingly with the ugly Rome politics of housing and homelessness.  One the one hand, the city's interest in cultural heritage protection--argues Valerie Higgins--has emptied central Rome of Italians (only 100,000 live in the Centro Storico, a term that didn't exist until 1960), marginalizing locals and making the core "more like a museum" than a living community.  To find an authentic Rome--that is, areas inhabited by Romans--she adds, you have to go the suburbs and even the periphery--the subject, we self-servingly add, of Rome the Second Time and Modern Rome and, especially, of this blog.

On the other hand, failure of the city authorities to develop a reasonable and coherent housing policy has led to something of a frontier mentality in areas distant from the center and has played into the hands of unscrupulous or short-sighted developers.  Carlo Cellamare labels Rome "The Self-Made City" because so much of its periphery has undergone "development by improvisation"--housing made by squatters in abandoned buildings or on public land, or just plain illegal building, sometimes on a grand scale.  The Valle Borghesiana, between via Prenestina and via Casilina and about 7 km beyond the GRA, is typical: a lot of building but no public space and minimal services--a few bars that take on a quasi-public function as meeting places.  Young people have only the mall.

Miles away on the coast sits the tiny community of Idroscalo, in recent years a symbol of Rome's dysfunctional housing policy.  Located just around the corner from the memorial to Pier Paolo
We've never been to Idrascalo, but it's just a stone's
throw from this small park, a memorial to Pier
Paolo Pasolini.
Pasolini (see our post, which has directions), this illegal, unauthorized "town" of 300 homes, all built on public land, continues to vex authorities, who have both allowed it to exist and expand and yet regularly threaten its residents with expulsion--presumably so that this valuable property could be "developed."  In the meantime, as Ferruccio Trabalzi writes, Idroscalo plugs along, its residents pleased to be on the sea, enjoying the sunsets, yet lacking shops, a library, city offices, a community center--even a piazza. In his essay on the Porta di Roma shopping center on Rome's periphery, Cellamare offers another case of service-deprivation, describing the enormous mall as a "black hole," sucking the life out of nearby housing areas.

Pierpaolo Mudu is equally critical of Rome's housing history, arguing that the failure to build housing--and better housing--is a matter of policy.  He dates the problem to l924, when the term "borgate" was coined and Acilia was built, far from the center.  Housing developers became key players  in the postwar era, building projects that were poorly constructed and, again, lacked services--like  Magliana, constructed along the Tevere in the 1960s.  A
The shopping center  in Torbellamonaca, a suburb
constructed as an "episode."
1962 housing law--housing law 167--produced Spinaceto, Corviale, Laurentino 38, and
Torbellamonaca--all constructed, writes Mudu, as "episodes," rather than as integrated parts  of Rome.  With the withdrawal of the public sector from the housing market after 1970, illegal (abusive) housing became common.  Rent controls were abolished in 1998.  In the 1970s and 1980s, Tufello, San Basilio, and Trullo became sites of resistance to these policies and practices, resistance to the "refusal of the political class to take on any responsibility."

Rome's dysfunctional policies on housing and land use have likely contributed to the inclination of Romans to abandon the public sphere for an insular retreat to the private sphere and family life.  Nonetheless, there have been
An occupied social center in Ostiense.  The facade is now
fully painted--by street artist Blu..  Inside, a cafe serves
tea, apertifs, and snacks.  
counter-developments, efforts to fashion a community experience.  Beginning in the 1970s, young people began to create social centers, many of them by occupying--that is, squatting in--unoccupied buildings.  As Mudu explains, most of these were created by the left (Angelo Mai, Garage, and Rialto), but a few--notably Casa Pound--were established by the right.  Today, some 34 social centers exist in Rome, and about half are legal.

Likely an illegal private garden, in the Parco della Cafferella--
that is, on public land.  
Other Romans have taken to farming without permission on public land; in 2011, there were
70 public gardens in Rome, and many communal gardens--all created in the absence of a coherent city policy.  Not to make money, as Ferruccio Trabalzi notes, but to foster community. 

Global Rome is a remarkable collection, a complex yet accessible mix that sheds light on little-understood aspects of a city whose cultural patrimony can overwhelm efforts to appreciate and understand its nuances.  It will have special appeal for scholars of modern Rome and for those interested in exploring beyond the historic center, and beyond the suburbs into the periphery.  Rome the third time, perhaps.


Global Rome: Changing Faces of the Eternal City, ed. Isabella Clough Marinaro and Bjorn Thomassen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), is available through Indiana University Press [$32 paper, $27.99 eBook] and amazon [$27.56 paper, $16.40 eBook].

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