Every bar in Pigneto, the neighborhood in Rome where I live, has the same picture on the wall: a German tank patrols its streets. Directly beside this, as though to counteract the tank’s presence, photos showing Pigneto’s liberation from fascism are framed as well. In a neighborhood originally built for rail workers, that fearsome wartime image still stirs the conscience of a part of Rome stuck in a time of rebellion and resistance. Here, after all, is where Anna Magnani filmed the most famous scene in Italian cinema, from Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City, when she runs after her husband as the Nazis take him away to be imprisoned and tortured. That street, today sadly occupied by a bingo hall, seems still to resound with Magnani’s screams and the report of German machine gun fire.
A war rages on. Stolpersteine on every street corner remind us of the partisans and Jews sent to die in the Ardeatine Caves or the extermination camps. Pigneto’s ongoing gentrification, characterized by speculation and shady business deals, makes it impossible to fully grasp the social significance of our predecessors’ pain. Everything has been sold off, from the broader history down to our everyday rituals. It’s easier to find any kind of cocktail you can imagine than seeing a store where you can buy a pot or twine.
In the mornings, those who live here will tell you the neighborhood still feels normal, but absolutely nothing we see is deserving of the name. Fortunately, Pigneto is still largely multiethnic. How long will that last? The people, not only migrants but anyone trying to make ends meet (no one is swimming in gold) live in constant fear of expulsion. It’s no accident that home prices have shot up lately and those who could once afford an apartment – from Bangladeshis to Moroccans (and, more generally, various segments of the working-class) – now find themselves pushed further east, to the outskirts. This is how the neighborhood has gradually moved over the last few years toward a stunning, near-total bourgeoisification. It should be noted, though, that despite all that, pockets of social and tenant pushback persist. A multiracial resistance, visible in the faces of Pigneto’s residents, is doing something to this neighborhood that gentrification hasn’t entirely snuffed out.
Lockdown was suddenly enacted against this backdrop as the coronavirus wreaked global havoc and blew through our lives. Initially, the people of Pigneto felt like they were suffocating. No one was used to the silence. Everyone missed the joys of the racket young people in love made when they first quarreled and late-night conversations about the last film someone saw at the Cinema l’Aquila, a movie theater built with money seized from the mafia. We all missed the noise, even me, who never liked it before. The arguments between drug dealers and buyers that sometimes ruined our nights were also gone. We were nearly destroyed by the realization that the lives we’d had until February 2020 were slowly but inexorably slipping through our fingers. It was an awful feeling. Early on, friends evoked the specter of the German tank that had watched us menacingly before the lockdown from colorful bar windows.
If only the enemy was clear-cut, a Nazi like the one driving the tank we see in the bars. We’d at least know what to do if it were a Nazi instead of a virus. How do you fight an unknown disease?
After these kinds of reflections, people began using the telling phrase: We’re at war.
I am a Somali and Italian woman who knew all too well what a war was. I knew the one that had engulfed Somalia since the 1990s, a fratricidal war spoken in the singular language of AK-47s. Don’t call this a war, I wanted to shout at my neighbors. This isn’t war. It’s hard, but it’s not war. War is a word that thickens more than it clears the mist of worry that besets us. We’re worried for our health, our finances, our parents, our children who were abruptly made to cut their social ties and rely on distance learning.
It only took a few days before the neighborhood understood that calling a public health emergency a war was idiotic. One song that spoke of war (and invaders), “Bella Ciao,” which we sang at the top of our lungs from balconies, made it clear that we didn’t have to become the heroes of a story, simply its spine. The fight would be won with the love we had for others and the creativity that we were using more than ever to stave off an economic tidal wave. It was at that moment, when our minds were coming back to life, that the neighborhood examined itself and for the first time in many years did not like what it saw.
In silence broken by finches and chirping sparrows, we were coming to accept that this neighborhood of Pasolinian and neorealist memories had been sold to the highest bidder for some aperitivos and kiss-and-fly tourists. This wasn’t supposed to be, couldn’t be how things were done, socially or economically. We asked ourselves whether the coronavirus had given us a chance to change for the better. It probably wouldn’t alter everything, like we were hearing from other parts of the globe. One thing is certain: everywhere, other neighborhoods like ours are wondering if the world still thinks, after so much death and anguish, it can go back to being a free-for-all like it was before.
Personally, whenever I strolled through Pigneto with my groceries before the lockdown, I was alarmed by the rows of identical businesses, especially the bars, which had the same menus, the same people, a single color, a single thought. How long could a migrant live in a gentrified neighborhood that was becoming a playground for the rich? How much longer could anyone from the working-class stand their ground? How many would have to be thrown out? These questions had been bothering me for a while. They floated through the air even when people pretended not to see them.
In a time suspended by Covid-19, after telling itself so many lies, Pigneto finally considered whether another kind of life was possible. A quieter life, more humane, defined by relationships, colors, close-knit businesses and a shared culture. A smaller life, perhaps one more true. No one, in fact, had answers for the neighborhood’s problems, but the question was moot, full of possibilities, and the days passed in disquiet.
Then May 4th came. I’d been nervously looking forward to this day. I had faithfully adhered to the government’s directives, leaving the house only to get groceries or stop by the pharmacy. During this period, confined within my four walls, I tried staying loose by being active around the house. A stationary bike, posture exercises, abs workouts. It got to the point where, seemingly contrary to the rest of the world, I was actually losing weight. This did not alleviate my anxiety. I longed for my friends, my family, my lovely walks.
Those who write for work need to walk. Without an outlet, the energy that builds up in your chest, the jitters, the contradictions that are the daily bread of the writer’s life have no way of getting out. You can’t make yourself into written word. Walking serves mainly to unwind that mechanism which fills our hearts with trepidation and despair. It gets the blood flowing again and awakens dormant ideas, letting them come to fruition. I thought of many of my novels and articles while clocking miles throughout the city. I’ve always walked a lot. Putting one foot in front of the other has calmed me and, over time, brought internal balance. It shouldn’t trouble us to admit that those who write for a living are, deep down, always a bit crazy. Often refined, certainly, respectable and educated, but as off the rocker as Don Quixote.
I’ve never denied my madness, my conversations with ghosts (writing is nothing if not phantom speak), and with time I’ve learned to live harmoniously with a skill that is, on occasion, a curse. Walks have always been the perfect remedy. I’m very good at them. The lockdown, though with exceedingly good cause, has nonetheless taken away this necessary pleasure. For two months, the loss of my walks made my writing something of an orphan. I saw how the quality of what I produced wasn’t my best. I was constantly dissatisfied. Getting to May 4th was really a question of survival for me. I had big plans for future walks. I’d go to the Colosseum, then make my way over to St. Peter’s Basilica. Places that weren’t exactly near me, but which I dreamed of visiting with the resolve of the teenager I hadn’t been in decades.
But when May 4th came at last, I stayed in Pigneto, within its familiar borders. I started walking everywhere around the neighborhood like a pioneer. Lanes and alleyways I’d never gone down before. In the days that followed, after racking up miles and seeing people at a distance, wearing our masks, I realized the only people in Pigneto were the residents. This hadn’t happened before! Even parts of the neighborhood away from the main tourist routes had usually brimmed with visitors staying in the numerous Airbnbs. Romans from other neighborhoods had vanished along with the tourists. Both groups were drawn to Pigneto’s nightlife, the bars, the binge drinking, the drugs and street fights. In fact, the lockdown’s first casualties, besides car traffic, were the wild altercations that unfolded right under our windows, punctuated sometimes with swearing and punches.
I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I missed the mix of languages the tourists brought, just as I missed how Pigneto was so popular even among other Romans. But no part of me mourned the decline in drug dealing and alcohol-fueled disputes. From May 4th onwards, we saw that Pigneto had become a village. Everything was scaled down to the level of the individual. We still had to stand in line, entering supermarkets, perfume shops, bookstores and laundromats in small groups to prevent crowding. But although there were concerns for the future – the thought of the impending economic crisis disturbed everyone – we quite liked that the neighborhood, placid with spring, was finally ours alone. Of course we missed the bars – especially Sunday brunch at Necci’s, Pasolini’s bar – and sitting around the little tables at Tuba Bookstore, where the women went to talk philosophy and feminism. Everything was still gone. It was immediately evident, however, that the normal of the pre-Covid era wasn’t necessarily normal at all, but rather part of the problem.
Could there be a spacious, welcoming, and diverse neighborhood, we asked, that wasn’t also gentrified? One that wasn’t hurt by real estate speculation, or occupied solely by those with capital and other resources? Could our neighborhood be one for everyone, host of a different sort of tourism, less cannibalistic?
At the same time, we were receiving alarming news from Rome. During lockdown, drones had photographed the city’s lasting beauty. Seen from above, Rome’s emptiness was spell-binding and painful at once. Without its people, Rome was practically dead. Only in the days after May 4th did we recognize just how empty Rome was even before the coronavirus. Downtown Rome shared the same fate as other cities renowned for their art like Venice and Florence. Years of speculation had driven residents out. The stores of the historic center, even the pharmacies which thrived elsewhere in Rome, were desolate. The city that once throbbed with life was now dealing with the age of Airbnbs: illegal rent houses, dubious hotels, restaurants with trashy menus and other places where tourists went to get duped.
Some of the abominations (not unlike a chocolate ball I’d seen in a Venetian store spewing melted chocolate) defaced the view so thoroughly that I can hardly remember how. Those who once lived in places that had since become horrific circuses were driven out without much ado. My teenage years can testify to that. At the end of high school I moved with my family to a neighborhood called Primavalle, a difficult but ultimately hospitable suburb of Rome. It was far from everything. When we were there, there was no metro to speak of. I remember getting to university took me at least an hour and a half on a good day, accounting for Rome’s perennially awful traffic, or a couple of hours on the worst.
One holdover from that time is my habit of reading on public transportation. On Rome’s giant ATAC buses, I studied Cervantes, García Lorca, Rafael Alberti, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. I did well on exams. Primavalle had a gorgeous library that was popular among women going into UNITRE programs. They were lively and talkative. I still recall the things they said, how they felt like deportees. They used that strong language, deportee, to describe themselves.
If you kept talking to them, you’d learn that they all lived in the historic center. I lived in Campo de’Fiori, or if not that, Piazza Navona or some other famous square. Their graceful way of speaking made me think of scenes from Dino Risi’s movie Poor But Beautiful (1957), where one of the characters walks out of a doorway in the same Piazza Navona, where she lives with her large family. The piazza didn’t only attract tourists; the place was alive, inhabited, buzzing. The stories of the “deportees” all ended the same way: They raised my rent. Absurd costs. I couldn’t afford to stay. But I’ll always be a downtown Roman. My heart’s not in Primavelle.
That was the problem. Residents were pushed out of their neighborhoods, downtown in this case, which let speculators squeeze more out of every square meter. Those conversations taught me that without residents, without people to give a place a sense of stability and banality, the place isn’t a city. And if this was true of downtown, empty and acutely silent, the same was becoming true of my outlying neighborhood, whose nickname – the “Greenwich Village of Rome” – was starting to get to our heads.
Covid-19’s ugliness forced us to confront our own: a failed capitalistic city run on profit, at the expense of residents’ welfare, or those who simply came to the city as guests. Even people outside of Rome wanted to know if its neighborhoods could be rescued. What about the city as a whole? And Italy?
On one of my walks, it occurred to me that what the government was calling “phase two,” during which we’d learn to live with the virus, was creating a new and temporary order together. The roads swelled with cyclists and people riding scooters, or carrying groceries and children, albeit at a distance. They finally had room to move without needing to zigzag between waiters bringing aperitivos to one of the hundred tables pushed together in the area reserved for pedestrians. You often couldn’t tell whose table belonged to who. The bars were so tiny and sticky that most people didn’t know what to do with themselves.
The onset of Covid-19 gave residents their space back. Small shops that sold bread and other food, and businesses that had closed after competing with larger shopping centers and nightlife, experienced an unexpected resurrection amid lockdown. More than one person recalled a time when you could find tailors and haberdasheries on Via Macerata (where there used to be a platoon of stores) and Via Ascoli Piceno. A yearning for diversity after May 4th was spreading among Pigneto’s people, who were stating without hesitation that the “normal” of before was problematic. That same diseased “normalcy” is laying claim to certain places. It’s happening everywhere. I read in one paper that some people in Venice are already buying the homes a handful of superstitious residents are selling because the coming crisis is scaring them. I messaged a friend and asked, “Is it true what they’re saying about Venice?” “Sadly, yes,” she replied. “Let’s keep an eye on things.”
I can still hear her response’s dull, frightening echo. Perhaps I and every other person here should be keeping an eye on Pigneto like they’re doing in Venice. The saplings and derelict benches of Pigneto’s pedestrian hub make me feel like I’m in a kind of a historical Eden. One would do well to remember, though, that a picture of bucolic beauty doesn’t reveal the pain that hides underneath it. I don’t want to think about pain. I’d like to be proactive, creative, alive. I close my eyes and try to imagine what Pigneto would be like were there a concrete plan to bring our cities to life.
In my daydream, instead of a thousand identical cafes I envision a rec center, a library even bigger than the one that’s already here, more bookstores, a theater. There’d be a museum too. I’ve long believed that the story of a city as great as Rome can’t only be told downtown; its suburbs have plenty to say. A couple miles away, two tram stops from Pigneto, is Rome’s majestic Porta Maggiore, one of the city’s most poorly kept monuments. Surrounding it are the ruins of ancient aqueducts. The area is enveloped by the 20th century’s troubled legacy of battlescars, resistance, and cinematic dreams. For a while, Pigneto was used for major film shoots. It’s where Visconti filmed Bellissima and Nanni Loy shot An Average Little Man. The neighborhood preceded neorealist Rome, later becoming Pasolini’s Pigneto (commemorated in murals on Via Fanfulla da Lodi), which gave the place a mythological aura.
All of this should’ve been told in Rome in museums and other spaces. Today, unfortunately, all you see are bingo halls and clubs. Even on Via Monteccuccoli, where Anna Magnani shot the famous scene from Rome Open City, there’s a bingo hall. I must open my eyes, stop fantasizing and ask if we can truly change Pigneto. Is there still time? When the dreams end, at which point my feet would usually take me to one of Pigneto’s fabled locales, I return home despondently. Not even a figment of what I dreamed has come true. Each time I return to the fold, I pass a couple of people on the street, say hello, and behind the masks discern the usual friendliness that Rome hasn’t lost in some two-thousand years.
My dreams hound me at home. The apartment I live in was built in the 1930s. The German tank that winked at everyone in the bars had probably brushed past countless times. I lived somewhere that had experienced history, a small place without a balcony like all the Pigneto homes meant for the rail workers, and with walls high enough for me to create a loft. One day I’ll move, but during the pandemic, Pigneto hasn’t abandoned me. Its sounds, my neighbors’ conversations, the perfume store beneath me, the Piedmontese boy who works in the grocery store, the friends I come across standing in lines that are never too long, its green leaves, its history braided through my own, its gentle hand that never set me apart from the neighborhood’s spirit – all of it has comforted me. Being here kept me sane. In any other place, even another part of Rome, it may not have been the same.
Perhaps it is this sense of being a country within a city that should be preserved, not sold. It’s impossible to say what life in Pigneto will be like after the coronavirus, just as no one can predict the fate of Rome, New York, Mumbai, or Venice. Many are beginning to hope for a place more fit for humankind. Not an escapist village, but the transformed fragments of a city, a city made of self-sustaining, connected villages. A place where no one is alone, as when we all looked out of our windows belting “Bella Ciao.”
The virus isn’t an enemy like the one driving the German tank, nor is it our ally. All it has done is given us powerful lenses, which before we had lacked, to see the vast fortune before us and save it from unbridled exploitation – the enemy that was there all along.
Translated by Aaron Robertson
This is the second of five Coronavirus reportage texts (one per continent, symbolically) commissioned by the Center for the Humanities and Social Change at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice to prominent international writers. The first of the series is: Lives upside down written by Stanley Gazemba; the third: Split Screen Life, written by Elie Gottlieb.