Rome Travel Guide

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Monday, October 28, 2019

Gentrification: Rome's new Problem

We're familiar with a variety of Rome social movements, but until the latest trip we had not encountered the latest variant: opposition to gentrification.  It might have been there for years, and we failed to notice--because we generally rent in middle-class neighborhoods (Monteverde, Piazza Bologna, San Giovanni) where residents appreciate the amenities of gentrification: a sleek, modern coffee place, an art gallery, a (dare we say it) wine bar.

Gentrification involves investment in shops and housing.  The irony is that the neighborhoods that most need investment--poorer neighborhoods that today feature a mix of native Italians and immigrants--are precisely those where resistance to gentrification is strongest, judging by what's written on the walls.  These neighborhoods are Quadraro, not far from the center, on both sides of via Tuscolana; Tor Pignattara (just north of Quadraro, off via Casilina), and Pigneto (not far from Porta Maggiore, and between via Prenestina and via Casilina).  Tellingly, all of these neighborhoods have a strong street art scene.  We also found anti-gentrification sentiment at Laurentina 38, a massive public housing on the city's outskirts.

We first encountered hostility to gentrification--and hostility to one of the symbols of gentrification-- on a walk from Pigneto, where we were living, to Tor Pignattara.  We had just seen for the first time Etam Cru's "Coffee Break," 2014, the tallest piece of wall art in the city, located between via del Pigneto and via Ludovico Pavoni.

Nearby, another large piece attracted our attention.

But the words below it were of more importance, for they served as our introduction to the problem: "muralismo = gentrification," followed by the sign of an anarchist/feminist group.

The word "murales" (murals), from the Spanish, is now commonly used in Rome to refer to wall art; the English word "gentrification" is the word most often used by Italians to label the phenomenon.  And the message was clear: some people believe that wall art is a sign of the arrival of gentrification, or anticipation of it.  We don't know that that's true, although the area between Tor Pignattara and Pigneto might seem an ideal setting for the young, rising middle class: some large and ordinary apartment buildings, but also many smaller houses, tucked away on quiet side streets, ready to be bought up and redone.

There are no wine bars in Tor Pignattara, though the area has been home to a premier small art gallery, Wunderkammern, for several years.  And we did find one development that deserves the term gentrification.  It's not far from the intersection of via Casilina and via Acqua Bullicante, and next door to a defunct art deco style theater.  There's a sign for "Conti Suites," a sales office for the apartments above.  And a mural designed to appeal to the more-or-less upscale folks who might want to live there:

Pigneto does have a wine bar--indeed, there are at least four of them, including the famous Necci dal 24, where Pasolini hung out 50 years ago--as well as several coffee bars designed to attract the upwardly mobile--so maybe the horse of gentrification is out of the barn.

Even so, some of the locals don't like what's going on. The poster below states "La gentrificazione [an attempt to Italianize the word] distrugge la vita del quartiere" (gentrification destroys the life of the neighborhood).  The illustration is a reference to Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" (1942).  It looks like the self-satisfied life of the gentry, relaxing at the cafe, has been disrupted by a violent demonstration--perhaps against gentrification.  Other interpretations welcome!

Quadraro has a long history of anti-fascism and a shorter, though distinguished one, of street art.  For about a decade, street artists have been welcomed.  They've decorated the sides of elevated via Tuscolana, which splits the town; the ends of a tunnel that runs under the highway; and dozens of walls on side streets.  There are no art galleries that we know of in Quadraro, no wine bar, and--with an exception or two--not much redevelopment.  Below, one of our favorite pieces of Quadraro street art:

For whatever reason, there is growing opposition to gentrification in Quadraro, and particularly to the street art that has given the community its contemporary definition.  The photo at the top of the post, of the side of via Tuscolana at it runs through the community, illustrates the conflict:  On the one hand, a 2011 note celebrates the street art tradition: "art pollinates Quadraro/l'arte feconda Quadraro."  On the other hand, more recent scribbling, on top of some of the original art, has another message: "Il quartiere non e' il vostro museo" (the neighborhood is not your museum).

Not far way, around an entrance to the tunnel, insulting comments about street art ("fanculo la street art"/fuck street art), gentrification ("gentrifica sto cazzo"/gentrify my ass!), and dislike of "hipsters," whom the writer identifies as the agent of gentrification:  "Barbe strappate"/"occhia i rotti"/"ve sfondamo" (plucked beards, smashed eyeglasses, hipsters [beware] we're going to kick your ass).  Nota bene: we got some translation help from a Roman friend, who adds: "The Italian sfondare (=smash), used in Rome, refers to not very pleasant activities, such as 'sfondare di botte' (=beat you to a pulp) or worse, 'sfondare il culo' (=break your ass)."  Thanks, M!

The anti-gentrification statements above are all by one person (which to some extent vitiates their importance as evidence), and are sited just to the left of one of the elaborately decorated tunnel entrances.

And then there's Laurentina 38, the failed housing project, its architecturally significant bridges now populated by immigrant squatters--a complex, and a neighborhood, that could use new money, whether that of hipsters or anyone else.


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