Monday, December 3, 2012

The Oltrarno of Florence: Disneyland of the Renaissance or a Living Community?

Living in Florence's Oltrarno district provides a fascinating opportunity to see the forces at work creating, destroying and recreating community life.

Like most major European cities, Florence has an old district in the centre - the "centro storico" - and a large area of suburbs around which few tourists get to see.

The old district, within walls which were mostly torn down in a rampage of modernization in the late 19th century, is quite large and is mostly located on the north bank of the Arno River, with a smaller part on the south bank, called the Oltrarno, "beyond the Arno".

The north bank, better known to visitors, appears on the surface to be a bustling district: museums and monuments next to lively shop windows, elegant hotels and an endless catering system, ranging from restaurants for VIPs to pizza and kebab sellers.

Visitors are hardly aware that the resident population has almost entirely been driven out during the last three decades; shops catering to residents have almost all closed down, replaced by dealers in made-in-China souvenirs, banks and insurance companies.

Seen from the point of view of the Florentines, the whole north bank has become one divertimentificio, a "fun factory", where discotheques, pubs and night clubs serve a mixed crowd of tourists, non-resident students and visitors from other quarters of Florence. 

One element that has changed the life of the district has been the liberalization of the sale of alcohol, which has led to what they call "pub crawling" - agencies organize tours for young Americans, excited to discover a country where legal restrictions on alcohol consumption seem astonishingly lax. Drinking hard liquor, from pub to pub, many of the crawlers find themselves lying in the street early in the morning wondering why; as everywhere, locals tend to forget that not all Americans are that way, and that the agencies and pubs are run by Florentines.

The Oltrarno is almost the last corner of the old district which still has a resident population and a community structure.
Inhabited first by medieval workmen and craftsmen, then by the labourers who built up the new city a century and a half ago, the population today is very mixed: at the local elementary school, over half the parents were born abroad, a term which includes such diverse places as the USA and Ghana, Lithuania and Brazil, Germany and Albania.

The rest of the population still consists largely of workers and craftsmen, with a sprinkling of respectful intellectuals.

This ethnic diversity is hardly perceptible to those living here: living in the same buildings, sending children to the same schools, going to the same shops makes everyone quickly forget cultural differences. And this in turn leads to relationships largely based on sharing: families babysit for each other, plumbers fix the apartments of the English teachers that teach their children.

Though much changed through time, community life has been able to survive due to a range of factors. 

Strict regulations make it difficult to modernize old buildings, and this keep rents down.

A "limited traffic area" keeps non-resident traffic largely out of the district at least during the day.

A network of schools and kindergartens, with very committed teachers and staff, and involved parents.

The presence of local health care offices, where the elderly can go for medical visits without having to cross the city.

The survival of small shops, which serve residents at reasonable prices.

And the possibility for residents to park their cars near enough home, in the tight streets of the old town.

Things become more difficult in the evenings, when the area is opened up to general traffic, and the residents, who have no hope of finding a place to park, have to stay at home or move only on foot. Though not yet on the same level as the north bank of the Arno, the area is full of pubs and restaurants which attract a - mainly Italian - public of night-time viveurs.

However, things are going to change radically: the public authorities are gradually selling off the local health care offices, and the aging population will have to go directly to hospitals, none of which are near the Oltrarno.

Schools, a crucial place of community integration, have been hit by drastic financial cuts, and are able to provide less and less hours and services. The excellent kindergartens are being abandoned by the town government and handed over to improvised cooperatives.

Having killed the golden goose which made many a fortune on the north bank, speculators have decided to take on the south bank.

All at once, residents have woken up to find themselves the target of various interlocking projects.

The first concerns an unusual item of industrial archaeology, the Gasometer, located just outside the old city walls.

The town government has decided to make it a private fitness center and restaurant. The feasibility project speaks of bringing more tourists into the district, and gives a frank explanation of what is going on:

“A geographical analysis of the distribution of catering activities [...] shows that most are concentrated in the centro storico [actually the north bank of the Arno], while the market area involved in the project of recovery of the former gasometer [...] is less saturated and can be better exploited, both by people residing in the same area and by those residing in neighbouring towns, who find it hard to reach the centro storico".

At the same time, a large building just within the walls, in Piazza de' Nerli, has been bought by the city's richest hotel owner.

In September, Confesercenti, the powerful shopkeepers' lobby (which many small shopkeepers feel unrepresentative), launched "Progetto Oltrarno", to "bring out the soul of fiorentinità".

According to newspaper reports, the first problem, they said, was that Oltrarno is the only district of the old town where the majority of shop customers are local residents.

Tourist buses - which roar by the hundreds every day up and down the narrow Via de' Serragli and Via Romana, making coffee cups dance each time in the overlooking flats - must also be allowed to park and load and unload their customers in the district.

Hence the solution:
"A recipe for Florence's «rive gauche». More parking lots and wider kerbs, planning quality events and identifying places to board tourist buses  in piazza Tasso and Porta Romana."

The words "Rive Gauche", applied to the Oltrarno, sound sinister in view of what has happened to Paris, a city where the old popular communities have been almost entirely expelled into the outskirts.

Local residents fear a "Borgo dei Greci effect" - the name refers to an area of the Santa Croce district in the old town which has been completely abandoned by its residents and taken over by the tourist business.

The mayor, Matteo Renzi, sees it differently: he says the "Borgo dei Greci" effect 

"would not be negative. The proposal by these shopkeepers of the Oltrarno come from a difference with those of Santa Croce, who over the years have been more able to attract tourists".

The deputy mayor, Dario Nardella, adds that the town government aims at bringing in rich tourists and involving "luxury hotels and antiquarians" in the colonization of the Oltrarno.

This summer, a place was identified to fit all the new traffic expected to come to Oltrarno.

An underground parking lot to be dug into the medieval remains and underlying mud and water of Piazza del Carmine, replacing the current 250 free parking places for residents with 209 places for transitory clients paying three Euros an hour.

A costly work in times of crisis, which will make the area unlivable at least for the three officially scheduled years it will take to dig and build. In an swampy area of ancient buildings, many built without true foundations, even the feasibility plan for the parking lot admits that there are dangers, not only to neighbouring houses, but also to the thirteenth-century Carmine church, with its annexed Brancacci Chapel and cycle of frescoes, considered by many to be the cradle of the Renaissance.

Though perhaps some shops will profit in the long run by adapting to the new tourist market, many others will be forced to close during the works; and residents will be left without any possibility of parking their cars during the works (the project generously sets aside 35 parking places for residents at 65.000 euros each, more than most residents of Oltrarno earn in several years).

Firenze Parcheggi, the company which drew up the plan for making the parking lot on public soil, is officially private, but 49% of the capital belongs to the town government of Florence. And the chairman of the company, Marco Carrai, is a businessman who organized both election campaigns of Matteo Renzi: first his successful one to become mayor, then his more ambitious but failed bid to become the premier of Italy through the primary elections of the center-left coalition.

The banking institute of the Florence local government, Ente Cassa di Risparmio del Comune di Firenze, on whose board Marco Carrai also sits, recently decided to invest 10 million Euros of local government funds in Algebris Investments, a company initially established in the Cayman Islands and calling itself a “boutique assets management company”. A few days after pocketing the amount, the founder of Algebris Investments, Davide Serra, officially joined Matteo Renzi's political campaign.

It is interesting how the idea of opening the Oltrarno up to traffic is in a way the opposite of what is happening in the already-dead part of Florence, where large areas have been turned into pedestrian zones serving the great fashion shops along the streets.

The Piazza del Carmine parking lot, though it seems to be a mere local traffic measure, will sound the death knell for the last community within the walls of old Florence.

Residents will go elsewhere, splitting up according to their financial possibilities: some will move to what we might call "all white" districts, others to ethnic ghettos, with all that this means in terms of stunted cultural growth and costs to society.

Local residents are mobilizing and putting all the pressure they can on institutions to save the Oltrarno.

However, we strongly hope for solidarity from all who know and love Florence around the world.

At the very least, please get this article around and give us a link!

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