Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Florence mayor Matteo Renzi takes stand against Oltrarno residents

Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, dropped out of local politics for several months to run in the center-left primary elections, where he came second.

Soon after coming back to Florence, he gave an interview to the local edition of Corriere della Sera (Corriere fiorentino). The interviewer asked him his opinion about the revolt of the Oltrarno district against a proposed underground parking lot in the historic Piazza del Carmine.

The Town Council had unanimously voted to put the project on a back burner while awaiting the outcome of consultations with the citizens. Apparently uninterested in this decision, Renzi comes out clearly on the side of building the parking lot:
"As soon as possible, I want to organize a public meeting to see those who say no in the face, and hear why. This scanty group [sparuto gruppo] of residents evidently does not know that, with 250 places for parking cars on its surface, one of Florence's most beautiful piazze will continue to be spoiled by a carpet of cars. This way, parking time for cars is definitely longer than it would be in an underground parking lot, where residents could enjoy reduced fees. My tongue is itching: the Town does something after forty years of talking, and all I hear are protests".

In other words, the mayor of Florence believes that opposition is limited to a "scanty group" of residents, apparently so ignorant as to be unaware that there are currently cars parked in Piazza del Carmine; and the fact that there are too many cars parked there leads the mayor to say that it is necessary to tear up the whole square and dig an underground parking lot into it, so as to attract more cars.

The "scanty group" are 1.400 residents who put their handwritten names and addresses (no dubious clicks on a website) on a petition against building the underground parking lot.

How scanty a group is that actually? The district directly involved in the parking lot project (between Via del Campuccio, Via de' Serragli and Porta San Frediano), in 2007 had 3.167 inhabitants altogether. Though not all petitioners come from this district, the vast majority certainly do.

In ecologically sensitive times, the mayor tries to make the residents look as if they were selfish people who prefer cars to monuments. 

Actually, on December 12 - the same day Renzi gave his interview - residents submitted no less than three different projects aimed at freeing the piazza from the cars currently occupying it, without however having to dig an enormous pit in the middle of it, which could damage the artistic heritage of the square, unsettle the weak soil below the unsteady foundations of the ancient buildings around, and would certainly block life in the whole district for years.

The issue is not therefore the "carpet of cars".

The issue is a proposal, submitted in May 2012 by Firenze Parcheggi - a company whose chairman just happens to be Matteo Renzi's main sponsor during the recent primary elections - which calls for replacing today's 247 surface parking places, currently reserved to residents, with 209 quickly revolving places designed to attract more traffic into the area and to take a large part of the district out of the restricted traffic zone.

The real issue is the one we have already explained in detail in this blog: the attempt to transform the last popular (and happily multi-ethnic) quarter of old Florence into a show window of banks and luxury boutiques during the day, and noisy pubs and discos during the night.

Oltrarno's residents will be happy to make sacrifices to have less traffic in the area, not more. Which is why they area asking for restricted traffic in the district 24 hours a day, no more large tourist buses roaring up and down the narrow Via de' Serragli and Via Romana, and the installation of pollution monitoring devices.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Cartoonist Sergio Staino supports the Oltrarno

Sergio Staino is one of Italy's best known cartoonists. 

This is his contribution to our struggle against the attempt to build an underground parking lot in Piazza del Carmine, in the heart of the Oltrarno district.

The scene is taken from the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a fresco painted by Masaccio around 1425, in the Brancacci Chapel of the Carmine church.

"They didn't just drive us out of the Garden of Eden... Now they're even destroying our piazza with the underground parking lot".

Monday, December 10, 2012

Oltrarno, the meaning of NoScav

Visitors these days to the narrow streets of Oltrarno will be struck by banners everywhere hanging from windows, with the words Carmine and NO SCAV written on them.
Carmine refers to the Chiesa del Carmine, the thirteenth-century church which stands at the very heart of the San Frediano district of Oltrarno, where speculators plan to dig a two, or possibly three, storey deep underground parking lot to bring more traffic into the district.

No Scav means "No allo scavo", "No to the dig", but chopped off in such a way as to rhyme with the well-known No TAV movement, opposing the digging of a 57-kilometer long tunnel through the Alps for the High Speed Train (Treno ad alta velocità) line - thus implying a free kinship of spirits with all those who oppose devastating waste of public funds in times like these.

However, the term also has other implications - "don't dig into our lives", "don't dig us out of our quartiere", a feeling strongly shared by the many kinds of people living in this district.

Just before the slogan gets out of hand - it was invented in October 2012 by Concetta, a lady of Oltrarno who has led an adventurous life around the world, especially in India, but has never forgotten her roots.

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!