Reimagining American Community
Jan
16

Comments on what happened in Paris have been heavily skewed towards discussions on “religious fundamentalism”

Actually a killing spree by three individuals in a city area of 12 million people, however horrible, is not statistically significant.

What is significant is background of these individuals, which is also that of millions of French citizens: the banlieues, the ugly sprawl one can see from the train, with their visibly “non-White” population, which surround the centre of Paris where, in the evenings, everybody seems to be “White”.

This is the result of countless decisions taken by businessmen, town councils, government agencies and real estate dealers, none of whom are likely to be “Islamic extremists”.

It is the perfect environment for growing generations of resentful youths, well described in this article, who wear their vague religious identity as a chip on their shoulder, while finding role models among gangsters they watch on TV. The real cost is not so much the occasional “religious terrorist” sought after by the media (in all of 2013, there was just one episode of “Islamic terrorism”, when a deranged homeless youth wounded a French soldier with a knife).

The opposite way of life is that of the Oltrarno district in Florence, where I live.

It is not a “model” anybody designed – it just happened that way, as organic growth does. In fact, for over a century, institutions based on the other side of the Arno river have been launching half-hearted attempts to revamp, or simply destroy, the Oltrarno.

Historically, it was a poor district, mostly inhabited by craftsmen with large families crammed into small, dark and unheated houses, whose children would play in the streets when not working themselves.

This hard life created a unique solidarity. Craftsmen could use time in their own way, and this made it possible for many to read books, think about life and develop strong and independent opinions. This lifestyle has almost entirely been swept away in recent decades, in a city where politicians are only interested in courting the large scale fashion and tourist trade.

Cars moving through the streets have swept the inhabitants off of them.

New inhabitants have come in from all over the city, Italy and the world, and descendants of traditional residents are now a minority. Yet, incredibly, the very way our quartiere is has generated a new community, which brings together the “traditional” minority and new residents.

Communities are not born around fathers – as xenophobes imagine – but around children: enjoying the heritage of the past without crying over spilt milk, and learning to work together to raise one’s offspring in the best way.

The basic issue is the survival of this model through a storm of gentrification in times of economic crisis. No chance of counting on institutions, which see Florence as a showcase where smiling Dantes and Beatrices wave the tourists into big boutiques. We not only have to defend ourselves, we also have to think how we can keep the neighborhood alive, and this resistance has given rise to a surprisingly successful movement.

The symbolic focus of the movement is an enclosed garden with some buildings, Il Nidiaci. The only place where parents can be in peace, away from the traffic, talking to each other and building community, while their children play safely. Until recently, there was also a ludoteca, a building where children could play after school, away from the rain and the cold, before going out and exploring the trees in the garden. A garden where one could touch the back wall of the Carmine church, where Masaccio, in the Brancacci chapel, gave the world Renaissance art. A forgotten but inspiring episode: in the seventeenth century, a family which had grown rich on the slave trade wanted to buy the chapel, “modernise” and turn it into their family chapel, but were stopped by a revolt of the people of Oltrarno.

One day, the “Nidiaci” simply disappeared, being taken over by something called Amore e Psiche Holding (Cupid and Psyche, no less) which had decided to revamp the buildings to sell off to very rich clients from abroad. Awaking from the shock, the inhabitants began to try to understand what had happened. We went to the town archives, and slowly began to unravel a fascinating story, written in the difficult hand of notaries and scribes.

During World War One, the American Red Cross carried out extensive, and now entirely forgotten, social work in Italy. Just after the war, Colonel Edward Otis Bartlett, Rhode Island patrician and commissioner of the ARC, provided funds to buy the area and provide the people of Florence’s poorest, tubercolosis-ridden district, with a life-saving oasis for children and young people. The Italian lawyer, Umberto Nidiaci, entrusted with carrying out the project, opened the place to the public, but over decades, his descendants pocketed the title to the property and sold it in 2008 to the speculators.

We don’t want to bore readers with details, but one part of the garden became public property, and a group of parents got together and made an association to keep at least that open, organising birthday parties, football matches and free violin and English lessons, even though there was no water, no roof and no toys for the children.

Keeping the garden open, and watching the building where children had played being revamped – through the wall the speculators had put up – became a living school for people of every generation.

We began to understand how remote government institutions are from the people; what “gentrification” means; how natural and rhetoric-free integration can be – the Senegalese mother who won the competition for the best cake, cheating a bit by bringing wonderful salty meat rolls.

Thanks to the violin and our excursions with the children around the district, it also became a school on the beauty of music and art, on trees and plants, on the unexplored history of our district. And on architecture and town planning – we began for example to understand how craftsmen have been evicted from their small shops, which are rented out at incredibly high prices to alcohol dealers (euphemistically, “pubs”) who rake in thousands of euros per night from tourists and rich Florentines.

Through the families, we began to make alliances with a young and active parish priest, with the surviving craftsmen and with the Bianchi.

The Bianchi or “Whites” of the Oltrarno are one of the four “colors” of Florence which, on every feast of Saint John, play a game based on Renaissance rules, a kind of soccer match, fought out by muscly shirtless men wearing colorful Medieval trousers and with no holds barred. Though it was revived as a tourist attraction, all the “traditional” families of the Oltrarno are involved as players or fans: generous, unschooled and with a tendency to get into brawls a little too easily, but with a great capacity for organising and a flair for any kind of craftsmanship.

At the same time, help came from young people who had occupied abandoned houses in the district without falling into a “squatter ghetto” mentality, and who provide a lot of youthful energy and creativeness.

Though nothing the people can do moves the important town politicians – who only listen to major investors – , we have made those elected in the district council, whether they belong to the majority or the opposition, accountable to the citizens (easy, we meet them in the streets every day).

We work on different levels: on our institutional side, we have convinced the Regional government of Tuscany to fund a “participation process”, where an architect, a psychologist, and an agricultural engineer work together to help the children explore how they would like the garden to be.

On our more rebellious side, we organised a demonstration last Saturday, marching through the whole district, involving a large part of the population. The Bianchi (and their friends from the stadium) with their drums, shouting rowdy opinions about the government of Florence, children dressed up in sheets as medieval warriors with cardboard swords and ringing doorbells, mothers with their strollers, grandparents, all of us marching behind the symbol of our district, which since the fourteenth century has been the Green Dragon: the banner made by a skilled seamstress, the bronze shaft by Lamberto, who has been working for 68 years in the same bottega.

A demonstration for a little garden, for the Oltrarno and for every neighborhood in the world.

About the Author
Miguel Martinez, half Mexican, one quarter Irish-American and one quarter British-American, a translator by profession, is the father of two children growing up in Florence's Oltrarno district, where a motley group of violinists, Albanian domestic helpers, unemployed young people, retired cabinet makers, unreconstructed Communists and a priest patiently taught him what the Commons mean. He would be happy to show Solidarity Hall readers around this part of Florence (any tourist agency can show you the rest). Beware though, we will be stopping every two or three minutes on the way to chat with someone.