Rome’s ’Possible City’ and the Gentrification Battle in San Lorenzo
In 2018, the Roman neighborhood of San Lorenzo hit the headlines when a young girl was found dead in a derelict building. The media focused on the area’s decline, ignoring its long political and cultural history. Known as a “red” territory, San Lorenzo was one of the few districts to resist Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome. Built in the late 19th century to house a working-class population of artisans as well as rail and factory workers, there’s a gritty feel to the neighborhood, defined by remnants of its industrial past and buildings that still bear the scars of Allied bombing in World War II. This small, centrally located neighborhood is wedged between Termini, the main train station, Verano, the monumental cemetery opened in 1812, and the Città Universitaria La Sapienza (La Sapienza University).
In the 1960s and ’70s, San Lorenzo was home to radical left-wing and student groups. Artists and writers began to move in, followed by students. Soon bars and restaurants, lured by low rents, opened to attract young people. Today, the center of Rome’s nightlife has become a flashpoint between real estate speculators and community activists. Developers have bought up land and disused buildings. Many have constructed expensive (and ugly) apartment towers, while others allow empty buildings to decay, causing safety hazards and generating a sense of fear that gives them an excuse to demolish and build new. Meanwhile, prices have escalated for long-time residents.
But San Lorenzo boasts an unusual social mix. A number of older residents and artisans have remained, co-inhabiting with a more middle-class population. Although this is not always a united group, many take pride in San Lorenzo’s long history of anti-fascism and continue its tradition of activism. No other district in Rome nurtures such a vital and diversified alternative scene. Over the last few decades, a proliferation of self-financed citizens’ cooperatives have emerged to construct what activists call “a possible place,” a system based on mutual aid. In opposition to privatization and speculation, the groups have taken over and renovated disused buildings, promoting independent culture and offering social services to those in need. This network of collectives is coordinated by the Libera Repubblica di San Lorenzo (Free Republic of San Lorenzo), an association founded by a group of residents and activists in 2013 to compensate for what it called the “incapacity of the local government.”
With Italy’s extreme right-wing government in power, San Lorenzo’s battle for community-led urban regeneration and social justice could not be more timely. Recently I visited the neighborhood, accompanied by Emilia Giorgi, a resident activist at the Libera Repubblica, writer and urban planning Ph.D. candidate. “San Lorenzo is an urban laboratory that we experiment day by day, a work in progress,” Giorgi says. In this densely inhabited “village” (roughly 9,000 inhabitants in just .05 square kilometres), one of the goals, she says “is to start to reappropriate public spaces, with small interventions, what’s called tactical urbanism, whether it’s informal gatherings, painting the roads to pedestrianize them, or organizing events with residents, artists, activists, booksellers, and bars owners.”
We stop at the square, Piazza dell’Immacolata, enveloped by a geometrical multicolored ground mural, Fantasia in Piazza (Fantasy in the Square), conceived last year by the artist, Lorenzo Crudi, and supported by the local municipality and the Libera Repubblica. Unfortunately, the square is still occupied by drug dealers. “Nevertheless, the mural is part of a broader project to empower residents and encourage them to grow together as a community,” Giorgi says.
Piazza Sanniti is a large central square and home to the Nuovo Cinema Palazzo (New Cinema Palazzo). In 2020 its occupants were evicted, but the Palazzo remains a potent symbol of San Lorenzo’s battle for “a possible place.” In 2011, a group of residents, activists, and performing artists occupied the former cinema to prevent a developer from converting it into a casino. Over the next 10 years, actors, musicians and volunteers provided the city with a rare experimental music and theatre hub, offering rehearsal spaces to performing artists and hosting readings and debates, activities that transformed the large piazza, previously a desolate parking lot, into a safe public space. The former local government had planned to buy the building and return it to the neighborhood but, for now, Cinema Palazzo remains walled up.
Fortunately, down the road, other collectives are equally determined to journey to the “possible city.” Esc was born nearly 20 years ago, when a group of students and post-grads at La Sapienza took over an abandoned public building. Intent on dissolving the division between the university and the neighborhood, Esc has become a community clearing house and includes self-managed information desks run by volunteer lawyers, psychologists, and social workers. Support is available to immigrants and women victims of discrimination and violence, and a labor union supplies free legal assistance and help to the precariously self-employed. Active workshops animate the huge entrance hall. But, according to Emanuele de Luca, a young activist and political science graduate, “Esc also faces eviction. The local administration, that had previously offered rent concessions, is reclaiming back payments at market price, an unaffordable request.”
Nearby is the controversial site, Borghetto dei Lucani, the place where the young girl died, a 10,000-square-meter complex of workshops (many derelict), shacks and illegal constructions. The former local administration had approved the Libera Repubblica’s participatory design scheme that would have revamped the Borghetto as a public and green space, with sports facilities, social services, and artisans’ studios. However, the administration failed to authorize the expropriation of land from private developers, who formed a consortium to advance their own project that includes more luxury housing and parking garages. Negotiations are at a standstill.
In 2013, students and activists occupied a derelict warehouse in the Borghetto, explained Alessandro (who provided just his first name), a Ph.D. candidate in architecture at Omnia SuntCommunia (All Things in Common). The building was restored through a fundraising campaign and now houses an atelier run by immigrants, a library containing 7,000 donated books, meeting-places and rare study-rooms, managed by Sharewood, a students’ association. There are plans to help the vulnerable with their shopping and for volunteer osteopaths to offer free treatment to San Lorenzo’s elderly. “Even the police describe Communia as an enclave of safety,” he says. “Its presence prevents drug pushers from operating in the vicinity.” Notwithstanding, the collective could face eviction, as the building has been auctioned recently to a U.S. private equity firm.
Meanwhile, around the corner, on Via Dei Lucani, the artists’ collective Ombrelloni has rehabilitated a former umbrella production workshop to set up artists’ ateliers. One of the artists, Alessandro Calizza, has co-founded the website SALAD (San Lorenzo Art District) to connect the numerous artists’ studios and art foundations and map the 50 street-art murals in the neighborhood. Opposite Ombrelloni is NoWorking, the headquarters and laboratory of the architecture-research collective Stalker. Their studio is open to everyone and furnished with a kitchen and long dining table. Stalker says, “It’s a place to construct a possible future in the present, a space of discovery, care and hospitality, of oneself, of others and of the world.” Today many of San Lorenzo’s “spaces of freedom” are up against the forces of capital. It’s an all-too-familiar story. Via dei Lucani is emblematic of that battle. Giulia Fiocca, at Stalker, calls it a “border road.” On one side lies an inclusive new idea of a town, on the other, a world of gated communities and corporate power.
Featured image: Piazza dell’Immacolata. Photo by Alessandro Vitali, 2022.