Based on more than a decade of ethnographic research in Genoa, Italy, Creative Urbanity argues for an understanding of contemporary urban life that refuses scholarly condemnation of urban lifestyles and consumption and casts a fresh light on an oft-neglected social group—the middle class.
2016 | 248 pages | Cloth $65.00
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Chronotopes of Hope
Chapter 2. Genoa's Magic Circle
Chapter 3. Gentrification Without Teleologies
Chapter 4. Cultural Bricoleuses
Chapter 5. Touring the Hidden City
Chapter 6. Utopia with No Guarantees
Cities are a combination of many things: memory, desires, signs of a language: they are sites of exchange, as any textbook of economic history will tell you—only, these exchanges are not just trade-in goods, they also involve words, desires, and memories.Clad in a bright green suit, Beatrice, a tall woman in her forties, is leading a walking tour entitled "I misteri di Genova," Genoa's mysteries. Her group comprises eleven people, all of whom are local; the setting is this city's centro storico (historic center). For the occasion, the medieval neighborhood is bathed in a sallow moonlight. Through the evocative power of Beatrice's words and the suggestiveness of the built environment, we encounter sinful nuns, murderous aristocrats, and medieval mass burials. The highlight of Beatrice's tour, however, is one of Genoa's most recent ghosts: the vecchina (little elderly lady) who haunts Via Ravecca, wandering about with a lost expression on her face on her quest for an ancient vicolo (alley) that no longer exists. Beatrice informs us: "The vecchina began manifesting in 1989. Those who saw her claim that the elderly woman would ask passersby for directions to Vico dei Librai, and then she would vanish. Vico dei Librai no longer exists: it was razed to the ground during the project that destroyed part of the centro storico in the late 1960s to build the Centro dei Liguri complex."
—Italo Calvino (1972)
Widely publicized by local newspapers, the ghost's appearances immediately struck a chord with Genoese publics: as a phantom presence that transmits affect through the materialities it haunts (Navaro-Yashin 2012), the vecchina posited an implicit denunciation of the alienation of modernist architecture and of what had been ruined by industrial progress (Benson 2005; Johnson 2013). Yet the ghost's timing also presaged an urban reenchantment process (Ritzer 2010) and an aestheticization of the cityscape that were meant to foster this city's visitability (Dicks 2004) as an alternative to its declining industrial economy. Celebrated in books and websites, the vecchina has now become a staple in local lore. During this walking tour, her presence is effectively channeled through Beatrice: the adept enchantress who, using her personal talents and professional expertise, mediates access to an esoteric facet of urban experience.
Drawing on her evocative words as well as the suggestive settings of the tour, Beatrice allows glimpses of a long-gone Genoa to emerge within the imagination of her audiences, thus conjuring the hidden out of the familiar. Yet Beatrice's tales are not just commodities. Instead, they are also the creative results of her own scholarly interests (she is a published author of urban history books) as well as her passion for the occult. A few days after the tour, Beatrice will be walking around Genoa's centro storico with a subtle energy sensor in her hands. A tremor of her biotensor will indicate a ghastly presence; Beatrice's task, then, will be to use her spells to bring it to the fore. As it leaves its hideout, the ghost may become a story in Beatrice's rich repertoire as a professional teller of tales about all that Genoa hides. Original though her craft may be, Beatrice is hardly alone in her endeavor of shaping new experiences for urban publics eager to view their city through new eyes. Working along with her in revitalized Genoa are scores of fellow walking-tour guides, artisans, shopkeepers, festival organizers, artists, and poets who, since the early 1990s, have contributed to what is now Genoa's culture industry. This book explores how, working in the shade of Genoa's revitalization process, creative individuals like Beatrice have turned their education, interests, and sensibilities into a source of income, thus helping craft urban imaginaries (Cinar and Bender 2007) that reflect their own experiences as passionate explorers of the urban everyday.
The Explorer of the Urban Everyday
The most popular trope in the scholarly analysis of urban experience and the leisurely exploration of a city's social, cultural, and material landscape is that of the flâneur (Kramer and Short 2011). First celebrated by nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire, the flâneur was the prototypical urbanite: the painter of modern life and the man of the crowd (1964). His passion and his profession were
to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of the movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite . . . thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life. (1964: 9)As a malleable allegory for the description and analysis of urban experience, the image and the experience of the flâneur were soon to become objects of intense critical debate (Kramer and Short 2011). Writing in the early twentieth century, German philosopher Walter Benjamin deprecated how the commercial phantasmagorias of consumer capitalism had transformed the flâneur into the badaud: the gaper as a passive consumer of images whose observation skills had gone stagnant (Benjamin 1973). Benjamin's critique became immensely influential for urban studies across disciplinary boundaries. Resonating with the Marxist suspicion of consumption as well as with the elitist disdain for the tastes of the masses and the masculinist contempt for shopping as a female practice (Featherstone 1998; Morris 1993), in the late twentieth century the condemnation of the intensely aesthetic commercial enchantment of the contemporary "voodoo" or "fantasy" city (Dicks 2004; Hannigan 1998; Harvey 1988; Ritzer 2010; Zukin 1996) became synonymous with the allegedly mindless "enjoyment without consequences" (Welsch 1998: 3) of the crowds. While ranging considerably in disciplinary paradigm, methodological approach, and level of empiricism, these studies share a critical focus on the all-powerful role of corporate capitals in shaping the urban everyday. Their core argument is that what ensues from the commercial aestheticization of the urban experience disempowers city dwellers, seducing them into surrendering to the material and ideological might of corporate capitals.
Yet, while much of North Atlantic scholarship indicts consumer capitalism for the loss of truly democratic public space (Mitchell 2003; Harvey 1991; Zukin 1991, 1996), it bears remembering that not all revitalized cityscapes around the world are organized along the lines of the same social, spatial, and above all capitalist criteria as U.S. cities (Soja 1996; Featherstone 1998). In distancing herself from the political economy paradigm that has long been hegemonic in the study of cities, Aihwa Ong (2011: 2) recently argued that the attempt to posit global capitalism as the singular causality of all urban dynamics worldwide inevitably reduces remarkably different cities to the role of manifestations of the same, and globally homogeneous, economic template. Drawing on Michel de Certeau (1984: 159), one may also argue that such analyses are at least partly concocted through an observation of the "concept city": a view from "above" that is enabled by focusing on a "finite number of stable, isolatable, and interconnecting properties" while neglecting the intricacies of the city's everyday. The view from "down below" (de Certeau 1984: 158), instead, allows for an ethnographically inflected approach to the varieties of urban practice that can help produce more nuanced analyses of how urban worlds are made both through the top-down intervention of states and capitals and through the bottom-up creative practice of city dwellers. The latter, as this book suggests, may use their skills not only to navigate and consume the city (Richards 2011: 1229), but also to shape the kind of experiences that punctuate its quotidian. Instead of reducing urban aestheticization to a crass consumerist spectacle engineered by corporations, here I seek to offer a more nuanced exploration of forms of production of highly symbolic and experiential goods that are both material and intangible (Featherstone 1998: 916), and that are designed and commodified by the very same city dwellers who are also adept at consuming them in the first place. As the "artist who doesn't paint" and the "writer who will one day write a book" (Featherstone 1998: 913), Baudelaire's flâneur limited himself to a close exploration of urban life that was fundamentally unproductive; soon enough he became a gaper trapped in a commercialized urban space (Benjamin 1973). Even though they are themselves adept at consuming various aspects of city life, the protagonists of this book, instead, are neither idle voyeurs nor are they passive gapers. Rather, they are both purposeful explorers of the urban experience and creators of a range of material and immaterial cultural goods and services capable of enacting an aestheticization of the city that is largely independent from corporate dynamics.
Urban Anthropology and the Middle Classes
The contemporary, purposeful, and creative flâneuses and flâneurs portrayed in this book are mostly members of the urban middle classes whom social scientists have consistently classified as the predominant consumers of revitalized cityscapes and of their cultural products (Richards 2006: 266; Smith 1996; Zukin 1989, 1996). As such, they are uneasy subjects of anthropological inquiry. On the basis of the implicit division of scholarly labor that assigned the study of modernity to sociologists and the investigation of traditional cultures to anthropologists (Wolf 1982: 12-13), for a long time the latter eschewed the issue of class. When they began expanding their horizons to urban societies, most anthropologists still limited themselves to studying down, thus focusing their attention exclusively on the marginal and the downtrodden. It is only in recent years that anthropologists have overcome the "Marxist 'embarrassment' of the middle class" (Wright 1989: 3, in Heiman, Liechty, and Freeman 2010: 11) to pay an increasing attention to these social groups. Recent ethnographies of middle-class life range from the former Soviet Union (Patico 2008; Richardson 2008) to India (Dickey 2012; Srivastava 2014) and Nepal (Liechty 2003); from Vietnam (Leshkowich 2014) to China (Hoffman 2010; Zhang 2010); from the United States (Heiman 2015; Low 2003; Newman 1999; Ortner 2003) to Italy (Cole 1997; Molé 2011; Muehlebach 2012) and Egypt (de Koning 2009), and from Barbados (Freeman 2000, 2014) to Brazil (Caldeira 2001; O'Dougherty 2002) and Argentina (Guano 2002, 2003a, 2003b, 2004). And yet, influenced by the Marxist paradigm (Ong 2011) as well as by anthropology's traditional emphasis on the "other," the vast majority of ethnographies with an explicitly urban agenda still focus on the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised. While such scholarship has the merit of shedding light on dynamics of downright oppression and resistance, it also reiterates the anthropological invisibility of the middle classes—almost as if, as Nick Dines (2012: 18) put it, these often remarkably large social groups "did not require investigation or were simply not anthropologically interesting."
While it would be incorrect to claim that urban anthropologists have consistently disregarded the role of the middle classes in the production of urban space worldwide (see, e.g., Low 2003; Caldeira 2001; Guano 2002, 2007; de Koning 2009; Richardson 2008), several of the exceptions zero in on these social groups' known urge to reinforce social boundaries (Bourdieu 1984; Liechty 2003; Ortner 2006), thus highlighting middle-class contributions to the spatialization of prejudice and social fear (Caldeira 2001; Guano 2003a, 2003b; Heiman 2015; Low 2003; Srivastava 2014). Taking a somewhat germane stance, geographic scholarship portrays the middle classes as agents of gentrification and the displacement of urban working classes. Even though they may differ on whether the urban middle classes operate on the basis of culture and taste or whether they are simply the dupes of top-down capitalist dynamics, such approaches classify these social groups along a continuum that ranges from the limited agency of marginal gentrifiers (Beauregard 1986; Rose 1984) and the contradictions intrinsic to liberal middle-class subjectivities (Ley 1996) to the downright racist and classist revanchism of yuppies (Smith 1996).
Suggesting a strikingly different perspective, in 2002 urban theorist Richard Florida targeted an audience of urban administrators and policymakers with his argument that cities experience growth only when they are successful in attracting highly educated and creative people—a feat at which they can only succeed by fostering an atmosphere of diversity and tolerance set against the backdrop of easily available advanced technology. Florida's thesis drew a considerable amount of criticism for its hyperbolic advocacy (Peck 2005: 741) as well as for its elitism (Gornostaeva and Campbell 2012) and its tendency to obscure the potential implication of the "creative class" in exclusionary forms of urbanism (Markusen 2006; Peck 2005). On the other hand, a cautious reading of Florida's work calls for a reflection on the urban life of social groups that have often been neglected by anthropological inquiry. Utilized as an analytical category rather than as a tool for social engineering, Florida's notion of the "creative class" helps sharpen the focus on the role of middle-class individuals not just as consumers, but rather and above all as producers and marketers of goods and services (see also Freeman 2014; Hoffman 2010; Leshkowich 2014). As such, it invites a reflection on how mid-level processes of cultural production participate in urban revitalization by intervening at a capillary level in a city's everyday. This agency is precisely what, in recent years, anthropologists have called "poiesis" (Calhoun, Sennett, and Shapira 2013) or "worlding" (Ong 2011) as ways of making the city through a quotidian practice that may unfold against the backdrop of large-scale interventions on the cityscape.
Placing an explicitly Marxist emphasis on class struggle, anthropological analyses have frequently cast the dichotomy of structure and agency as one of domination and resistance (Ortner 2006: 137), thus forgetting that opposition is only one out of many possible forms of agency (Ahearn 2001: 115; Mahmood 2005: 155). This is part of the reason why the agency of those social groups that may at least in part benefit from neoliberalization has rarely been addressed (Brash 2011). Along these lines, the agency of the creative middle-class individuals described in this book does not arise as a form of downright opposition to urban revitalization: a "system" (to co-opt sociological terminology) that, while controlled by the local administration as well as by private capitals, is usually experienced by the subjects of this ethnography as a potential source of opportunities rather than as exclusively oppressive. While certainly not devoid of the challenges and the frustrations that characterize the encounter with the public administration and its bureaucracies (Guano 2010a) and of the anxieties brought about by an increasingly stifling corporate presence, the "system" of Genoa's revitalization can still, in some cases, be navigated in a fairly fruitful manner by those who have sufficient cultural capital and initiative to do so. Hence, the latter's agency manifests in its most basic form as a "socio-culturally mediated capacity to act" (Ahearn 2001: 112; Rotenberg 2014: 36), and as a form of "action and control" (Cassaniti 2012: 297) that tweaks and modifies existing circumstances in order to carve productive niches at their margins. The arena and medium of their practice is a rich public urban sphere where experiences are formed along a continuum of sociability, sensoriality, and consumption whereby city dwellers strive to define their relationship to each other through the spaces they share (Moretti 2015: 7).
Italian Urbanity: Sociability and Sensuousness
"Each time you walk into the piazza, you find yourself in the middle of a dialogue," wrote Italian novelist Italo Calvino (1972: 37), thus implicitly underscoring how, in the face of a suburbanization that has segregated North American cityscapes, the piazzas of Italian cities have retained their role as stages for an intense practice of relating to others, often through nonverbal performative means (Del Negro 2004; Guano 2007). It is in these piazzas that one is constantly confronted with the physical presence of others—and, along with it, their experiences and subjectivities (Moretti 2008, 2015). Yet Calvino was hardly the only writer to comment in the public life of Italian piazzas. Walter Benjamin, too, expressed his amazement at how, in Italian cities, private life keeps bursting out of the domestic sphere to be negotiated publicly. In this environment, Benjamin argued, houses are "less the refuge into which people retreat than the inexhaustible reservoir from which they flood out" (1986: 171). "Place of promenades, encounters, intrigues, diplomacy, trade and negotiations, theatricalizing itself" as well as a "vast setting where . . . rituals, codes and relations become visible and acted out": thus Henri Lefebvre (1996: 236-237) described the intense public sociability of towns and cities all over the peninsula. Out of the multiple practices conducted in the piazzas of Italian cities, one in particular attracted scholarly attention: the passeggiata, or urban stroll (Del Negro 2004; Moretti 2015; Pitkin 1993). As an only approximate translation of flânerie, the Italian passeggiata entails an exploration of the urban everyday that is not just visual but multisensory, as well as a performance of one's own classed and gendered identity, in a practice where walking is purposeful (Richardson 2008: 148) and being seen is just as important—and socially foundational—as seeing others (Del Negro 2004; Guano 2007; Moretti 2015). Yet, as a form of "being together of strangers" (Young 1990: 234, 256), the passeggiata also opens up the possibility for affective dimensions of this public practice. The proximity with other bodies can trigger responses ranging from repulsion to fear, from mistrust to pleasure, and from curiosity to a desire (Hall 1966) that Calvino thus epitomizes (1972: 24): "The people who pass by each other on the street do not know each other. As they see each other, they imagine a thousand things: the encounters that could take place between them, the conversations, the surprises, the caresses, the bites. Yet nobody acknowledges anybody else, the gazes cross paths for a moment and then they escape each other, seeking out other gazes, they never stop." Calvino's description of the erotic potential fostered by infinite possibilities of city life highlights an Italian urban sensorium that involves not just sight, but also touch, hearing, and taste as essential components in communication (Howes 2003; Jackson 2007). This multisensory communication, I suggest, involves not just the encounter with fellow urbanites but rather also that with the built environment and the materialities of commerce.
Writing about the corridor streets of Italy's Renaissance cities and their role in framing social practice, James Holston (1989) observed that, in relatively narrow streets where architectural solids prevail over voids, ornate façades may be visually organized in the likeness of both an aristocratic interior and a stage for the performance of elitist spectacles of identity whereby, as Guy Debord put it, "a part of the world represents itself in front of the [rest of the] world, and as superior to it" (1984: 21). Hence, according to Holston, the publicness and openness of the corridor street provides only a fiction of participation. As a fundamental form of public sociability in Italian cities, the downtown urban stroll may well have originated as the practice through which local aristocrats showcased their privilege to each other as well as the commoners (Pitkin 1993). Yet, since Italy's economic miracle of the 1960s and the rise of the local middle classes, the competent performance of taste and appropriate behavior during a democratized version of the urban stroll has become a means to claim one's participation in the relatively more inclusive local and national collective imaginaries that materialize against the backdrop of the city (Del Negro 2004). Indeed, in the 1960s the popularization of the passeggiata went along with the increased wealth available to Italy's new middle classes as well as their willingness to consume the plethora of goods displayed in shop windows. Much ink has been poured to describe the badaud mall-goer who, immersed in a pleasurable substitution of reality (Friedberg 1993: 122) and bedazzled and overwhelmed by its cloistered commercial phantasmagorias, "purchases the part for the whole" (Baudrillard 2001: 33, in Friedberg 1993: 116). Yet, if such claims obviously fail to exhaust the actual range of possible practices in U.S. suburban shopping malls such as walking, people-watching, and socializing, they are all the more inadequate to define the experience of Italian urban strollers. Immersed in a complex street environment that little resembles the sanitized seclusion of malls, the latter constantly juggle multiple tasks. These range from the performative enactment of one's own classed and gendered identities (Del Negro 2004; Guano 2007; Moretti 2015; Pipyrou 2014; see also Liechty 2003: 23) to the competent evaluation other people's performances; from assessing one's own safety in the midst of a heterogeneous crowd to navigating an often challenging physical environment and an unruly traffic; and from appraising the goods on display in the shop windows to running necessary errands. The Italian passeggiata may, indeed, encompass the experiences of both the flâneur and the badaud; however, it also and most certainly exceeds them. The Genoese urban stroll is no exception.
Genoa's Middle Classes and the City
Like most Italian cities, Genoa, too, has been a traditional haven for the intricate—and formerly elitist—pleasures of the Italian passeggiata. Writing about his travels through Europe in 1867, Mark Twain (2010: 103) observed that "the gentlemen and ladies of Genoa have a pleasant fashion of promenading in a large park on top of a hill in the centre of the city, from six till nine in the evening, and then eating ices in a neighbouring garden an hour or two longer." Twain's "gentlemen and ladies" were members of Genoa's oligarchy: a class that, in the early 1800s, had emerged out of the assimilation of entrepreneurial families with the local aristocracy (Garibbo 2000: 38). With the complicity of Italy's economic boom, however, a century later the practice of the urban stroll extended to a larger segment of the local population: the middle classes that emerged in the 1960s as a result of Genoa's industrialization and the tertiarization of segments of the local workforce (Arvati 1988).
Middling sectors come into being not only through relations of production, but also and just as importantly from economies of discourse and practice that mold the ever-shifting boundaries with the lower and the upper classes (Bourdieu 1984; Freeman 2000, 2014; Heiman 2015; Hoffman 2010; Leshkowich 2014; Liechty 2003; Ortner 2006). Their identities are predicated among others upon taste (Bourdieu 1984), affect (Freeman 2014), and the competent use of things and places (Guano 2002, 2004; Heiman 2015; Zhang 2010); however, they also draw on cultural capital both in the form of educational credentials and as the proficiency in socially hallowed forms of cultural consumption (Bourdieu 1984; Bourdieu and Passeron 1990). Fostered by the relative democratization of the public education system but also by the expansion of the administrative sector subsidiary to their city's industries, Genoa's new middle classes mainly comprised white-collar employees and small business owners. Their aspirational models were not just the local elites, but also the professionals and the high-ranking administrators who had enjoyed a life of relative privilege at least since the mid-1800s (Garibbo 2000: 41). Cultural consumption and educational credentials quickly became fundamental markers of middle-class status. Children of upper- to middle-class families often pursued an education in the classics—preferably at the prestigious Liceo Classico Andrea D'Oria, a rigorous public school where they would rub elbows with the children of the local elite. As they did so, they also complied with the still-prevalent belief that a knowledge of Latin and ancient Greek language and literature is the prerequisite for a superior mind. The prestige attached to classicist education helped draw a wedge between Genova bene (well-to-do) offspring who could spend their time pondering issues of Aristotelian metaphysics in preparation for a brilliant career as physicians, lawyers, or administrators on one hand, and the lower-middle-class and working-class youth who had to learn a practical trade on the other hand. The propensity for a highbrow style of cultural consumption was not the only aspirational characteristic of Genoa's middle classes, though. Genoa's aristocracy had been known for its reluctance to flaunt its wealth publicly, preferring instead to cultivate subtler tastes that, during the second half of the twentieth century, came to be compared to those of the British gentry. A middle-class lifestyle emerged in Genoa that was characterized by sobriety and by a fondness for quality consumer goods that withstood the test of time. This preference pitted the sober consumption practices of Genoa's middle classes against the fashion-conscious flamboyance of their Milanese counterparts (Moretti 2015) as well as the stigmatized styles of the local working classes. In a city that, more than others, had known the ravages of war, frugality and chicness became mutually compatible, and the discrimination and poise required to select and wear even plain clothes with debonair elegance came to be appreciated as much as the possibility to shop at expensive stores. As a skill that in fact "classifies the classifier" (Bourdieu 1984: 6), taste was thus somewhat democratized.
In the 1960s, with a rise in blue- and white-collar employment rates as well as in consumption standards, more and more Genoese became eager to participate in the formerly aristocratic ritual of the urban stroll during which they would perform their proper personas while enjoying the sensory, social, cultural, and commercial stimuli provided by fellow passersby, the cityscape, and local businesses. Strolling practices were established that are still popular today. During the warm season, the seaside promenades of bourgeois Corso Italia and Nervi began to brim with smartly dressed crowds enjoying the view and the sea breeze as well as the sight of their fellow Genoese while eating gelato or sipping a soda. In fall and winter, much of the passeggiata practice was—and still is—conducted downtown, especially in the very central (and conveniently porched) Via Venti Settembre, where the windows of some of the city's trendiest stores provide additional entertainment, and the coffee shops delight the crowds with the aromas of espresso and fresh pastry. Lurking under the porches like paparazzi in Federico Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita, in those years professional photographers used to take flattering shots of passersby who would then purchase the photos as mementos of their apt urbanity. Local slangs emerged defining the passeggiata as fare le vasche—literally, to "do laps" by walking back and forth from one end of the street to the other—as well as fare lo struscio, "to do the rub": a phrase that hints at the sensuous experience of bodies fleetingly feeling each other in a casual mutual acknowledgment. The popularity of this practice went along with the rapid tertiarization of Genoa's workforce and the rise of its middle class.
Deindustrialization and the Rise of a New Sensibility
Tastefully clad and equipped with a newly found knack for proper forms of consumption as well as, in most cases, a working knowledge of high culture, in the 1960s Genoa's middle classes were poised to enjoy their city the way local elites had done before them. Yet the arena where they could see and be seen even as they pursued their urban pleasures was somewhat sketchy. Their sensuous fruition of their city was limited on one hand by the lingering ravages of World War II bombardments and a considerably degraded centro storico, and on the other by the prioritization of industrial production and the modernist rationalization of urban space (Avila 2014; Lefebvre 1978) that had been conducted for much of the twentieth century at the expense of residents' needs and their quality of life (Gazzola, Prampolini, and Rimondi 2014). As Genoa's mechanical industries, its port, and its steelworks continued to expand, forms of pollution emerged that ranged from toxic fumes and sludge to coal dust and airborne particulates. Yet, while its nefarious effects were naturalized as an inevitable part of life in a modern city (Mirzoeff 2014), the distribution of industrial discomfort was hardly class-blind. Most of the problems caused by Genoa's metropolitan expansion and its industrialization were concentrated in the working-class peripheries. While bourgeois Albaro and Castelletto remained pristine, the city's western outskirts were forced to host the factories, the port, the airport, the city's garbage dump, and a highway—Genoa's first—built right between rows of apartment complexes. The destructive effects of Genoa's modernization extended to its downtown, too—though there they only affected the historic center that had been progressively abandoned since the nineteenth century. In the 1950s, a first swath of the centro storico had been bulldozed to give way to Piccapietra, a commercial and administrative district. In 1965, an unsightly junction known as sopraelevata was installed between Genoa's historic center and the port, thus finalizing the disconnection between this sparsely populated working-class neighborhood and an already barely visible sea. Between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the area of the centro storico known as Via Madre di Dio was razed to the ground and replaced with a modernist conglomerate of office buildings known as Centro dei Liguri. Immediately populated by pushers and heroin addicts, the adjacent park was dubbed "Giardini di plastica" (Plastic Gardens) and proactively avoided by everybody else. The early 1970s was also a negative turning point for Genoa: the steep decline of its port as well as its steelworks and mechanical industries ensuing the rise of global competition and the energy crisis of 1973 brought about the demise of thousands of jobs. The rise of hopelessness went along with a steep increase in drug abuse and crime as well as politically motivated violence even as protests and strikes lacerated the city's quotidian. Angry, dangerous, and ravaged by an ailing industrialism, Genoa became a "ghost city" (Ginsborg 2003: 17) where the leisurely fruition of public urban space had to yield in the face of a rapid decline, and an everyday life often marked by fear and despondency began to erode the urban pleasures of the Genoese.
In the 1980s, a rising critical stance vis-à-vis the logic of industrialism and its consequences for the environment and the lives of people spread all over Europe (Beck 1997: 38). This sentiment rose in Genoa, too, going along with a more reflexive stance toward an urban environment that, as the revitalization process began to take its first steps, intensified its role as not only an object of sensuous, material, and cultural consumption, but also as an arena and a tool for the creation of self-narratives involving lifestyle choices (Giddens 1991). During the late twentieth century, cities in Europe and North America developed an increasing focus on leisure and consumable experiences that blended high culture with the popular and the spectacular (Featherstone 2007: 94). In Genoa, too, this process drew on urban consumers' growing hunger for experiences, their desire for self-development, and the appeal of skilled consumption and self-expression (Richards 2011: 1229) to further shape the middle-class habitus of exploring and enjoying the city purposefully. The latter began to unfold along an experiential continuum that ranges from the pursuit of leisure and sensuous fruition to aesthetic and historical appreciation (Richardson 2008: 148). Driven by the desire to replace this city's ailing industries with a new economy of tourism, the partial reversal of some of the projects carried out in the name of industrial modernization and the recovery of Genoa's premodern architecture began in the late 1980s. By then, the Italian media had begun to describe tourism as an "industry without chimneys," thus pitting it against a faltering industrialism for its allegedly low environmental impact and its high economic potential. Furthermore, in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, internal tourism to Italy's cities of art (Florence, Venice, and Rome) had grown exponentially, fueled by the rising educational standards and the newly found cultural tastes of Italy's middle classes (La Francesca 2003). A new urban habitus (Bourdieu 1977) emerged as a set of dispositions, tastes, and sensibilities that further honed middle-class subjectivities increasingly keen on assembling reflexive self-narratives (Giddens 1991: 54). With place being integral to the very structure and possibility of experience (Malpas 1999: 31), the city became not just the canvas on which people live their lives (Rotenberg 2014: 29), but also a privileged arena for the negotiation of their self-narratives (Richardson 2008: 167).
With the rise of cultural tourism in the 1980s, many Genoese, too, became more eager to exercise their own urbanity in novel ways. They became willing to look at their own city through new eyes, consuming it the way they had learned to consume the sites and sights of Florence, Venice, and Rome. As the nexus of place, memory, and self-identity (Malpas 1999: 176-181) became more prevalent, many of them sought out new ways to enjoy their city. What drove them was not just the pursuit of leisure, but also the pride they had long been denied as residents of an "ugly" industrial town as well as the keen curiosity for their own cultural and historical "roots." Yet even though the new urban model introduced in Genoa pivoted on the production of visitability as a source of revenues (Dicks 2004), its material benefits were not limited to the municipal coffers, the deep pockets of developers, and those of the administrators who earned kickbacks in return for lucrative contracts. Instead, they were also reaped by considerably smaller, and largely middle-class, players. The purpose of this book is to explore the lives and experiences of those middle-class Genoese who, seeking to escape consistently high unemployment rates, invented self-employment venues for themselves: the walking-tour guides, the street antique dealers, the artisans, the small businesses owners, and the festival organizers and participants who creatively established ways of making a living in the shade of a broader revitalization process.
Genoa's Creative Class
Succumbing to the global fascination with Richard Florida's tenets, in recent years Genoa's administration utilized his measurements to quantify intangibles such as "talent," "innovation," "diversity," and "tolerance toward homosexuals." The municipality thus classified its city's "creative index" at "23.99%," claiming that Genoa is the "second-most creative city in Italy after Rome." Yet what the municipality failed to mention is that the differences between Genoa's "creative class" and its U.S. counterparts as prospected by Florida are remarkable. First and foremost, in spite of its newly found cultural vibrancy—its symposia, its festivals, its theaters, and its public events—Genoa is not a city to proactively attract or nurture a highly qualified, talented, and creative workforce. As a matter of fact, for much of the twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries, Genoa has suffered a deep demographic decrease: though, in 1971, Genoa's population peaked at over 800,000 and was expected to reach one million in a matter of years, by 2012 it had shrunk back to 580,000: that is, its 1920s level. This change was largely due to a steep decline in birth rates as well as to an emigration that often takes the form of a brain drain. While early twentieth-century Genoese emigrants usually belonged to the peasantry and the proletariat, over the last forty years educated individuals have become much more likely to move to other Italian cities or even abroad in order to find a job that matches their qualifications (see also Gabaccia 2000). This is largely due to the limited opportunities locally available in the university, the scientific and high-tech sector, museums, the arts, and the media, where the few jobs available are frequently co-opted through the clientelistic logics of political parties as well as through the nepotism and the cronyism of powerful individuals and families. Hence, what I explore in this book is a creative class that is in many ways residual, in that it frequently consists of those individuals who, often for lack of better prospects, engage in creative practices as a way to support themselves through forms of self-employment that may require a considerable cultural capital but only a shoestring budget. In spite of the professional gratifications (and in some cases the prestige) afforded to them by their entrepreneurship, the majority of the individuals featured in this ethnography live hand to mouth. Many—though certainly not all of them—are women: a social category that is traditionally marginal to Italy's job market. Put at a disadvantage by patriarchal gender politics, women often have to think creatively in order to find ways to earn a living; their flexibility and their aesthetic and affective expertise make them ideally suited for participation in a neoliberal economy of experience (Freeman 2014). Yet Genoa's creative sector is also a product of the precarity (Butler 2009) that began in the early 1970s, hurling many of Genoa's blue- and white-collar (and mostly male) workers into a state of redundancy and vulnerability. Additionally, as I argue in Chapter 1, Genoa's creative sector is a child of deeply ingrained social inequities that, with their corollary of cronyism, nepotism, and clientelism, curtail the professional hopes of highly educated and talented individuals. Last but not least, it is also a close relative of the precariousness that, with the labor reforms of 2003, maximized the flexibility of a large share of the Italian workforce while minimizing its rights (Molé 2011), leading some to envision self-employment as preferable to the vagaries of contract work. Yet, as a frequent middle- and working-class strategy in the face of unemployment, the small-scale entrepreneurship of the creative class described in this book is not new, either. The industrial crisis of the 1970s induced many a Genoese to start a diminutive business to make ends meet. Laid-off workers would open hole-in-the wall stores, often subsidizing them with their severance package: the layoffs and the high unemployment rates that began in the 1970s brought about a proliferation of newsstands, dairy and coffee shops, tobacconists, and the like. If many Genoese always regarded self-employment as the last resort, however, what has changed since the late 1980s is the nature of their businesses. What stands in stark contrast is the profusion of tangible though highly symbolic cultural goods and the intangible and equally symbolic experiences that are being sold in contemporary Genoa—from handmade pottery to ghost tours. Not only does such production fulfill the requirements of a global hierarchy of value (Herzfeld 2004) where more and more Italian cities occupy a peculiar place as objects of cultural consumption, but it also follows the increasingly pervasive substitution of wage labor with a constellation of immaterial labor practices spawned by the commodification of heritage (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009: 144). It also responds to the skills, experiences, and sensibilities of individuals who are themselves adept consumers of urban cultures, and who, in producing and selling symbolic goods and experiences, are exercising their agency in shaping the urban experience of their publics.
A Confession and the Plan of the Book
Just like Baudelaire's flâneur, I, too, cherish losing myself in the crowd, soaking in the impressions of the urban everyday even as I seek to track the experiences of those around me. I do this for pleasure, and I do this as a professional ethnographer. This passion of mine accounts for the itinerant, multi-sited (Marcus 1998; Peterson 2010) quality of this book, with several of its chapters presenting a different creative community through their experiences and the kind of urban imaginaries they seek to shape. While this ethnography does not claim to exhaust the range of creative individuals and communities commercializing aesthetic and cultural experiences in Genoa, it seeks to offer a few glimpses into this city's nature as a fluid assemblage coming into being through the work of a variety of actors as well as a plethora of events (Farías 2010: 15). The temporal depth and the emergent quality of several of the ethnographies in this book stem from my own biography as a diasporic Italian. Genoa is not only my field site; it is also my hometown. Like many fellow Genoese, I left Genoa in 1991 to pursue an academic career from which I would have otherwise been precluded. This is why my account of the transformations in how middle-class Genoese experienced their city initially unfolds against the backdrop of my own formative years as a local. As the narration approaches the decade of the 1990s, however, my attention to Genoa's urban processes becomes a diasporic gaze whose discontinuity kindles a keen curiosity for the transformations at work not just in Genoa's cityscape, but also and above all the everyday of its residents. This is where the "ethnographic I" begins to blend with the "ethnographic eye" (Ellis 2004): it is only in 2002 that this curiosity is formalized as an ethnographic project, one that renews itself on a yearly basis with each trip home. My continuing connections with Genoese society set the tempo of my research, allowing for an enhanced awareness of its diachronic dimension. Ethnographies are usually based on the conventional one- to two-year field projects that, once the ethnographer returns home and begins the write-up process, may allow for the crafting of truth claims that are frozen in time. Geographical distance becomes temporal remoteness, thus immobilizing a culture, a society, and a country in the authoritative meshes of the ethnographic present (Fabian 2002). Being ensconced in a thick web of relationships that preexisted my ethnography, and returning to Genoa several times a year, year after year, for a range of purposes that include, but also exceed, scholarship, I never had the luxury of regarding my ethnographic research as a completed project. In fact, at times the dynamics and conditions I was observing kept shifting so fast that the attempt to write about them generated anxieties. I often started tackling a topic only to realize that the realities I was analyzing were no longer quite as current, and something new had already entered the scene. My way of overcoming this impasse was to destabilize the ethnographic present by incorporating temporal depth whenever possible.
Furthermore, given my own identity as a diasporic Genoese who has lived and worked in the United States for more than twenty years, mine was not quite the "going back to the field" that characterizes the work of many anthropologists who "leave home" to go "elsewhere" (Reed-Danahay 1997). Instead, it was a form of circulatory migration whereby "home" was, more than anything else, an ever-shifting center (Baldassar 2001: 6-11): a modus vivendi based on shuttling back and forth between two countries while never really leaving either home or the elsewhere behind. As time went by, my ethnographic research both unraveled and intensified multiple affective threads, which in turn opened up new areas of investigation before my eyes where the personal was never divorced from the anthropological. As several of my friends became my informants, many of my informants became my friends: I started intellectual collaborations with some of them and volunteered to help others with their businesses, sharing their enthusiasms and their worries as they sought to preserve their livelihood in the face of a fluctuating economy. In all of this, Genoa always loomed large as the city that never ceased to intrigue, charm, and disappoint me. It tantalized me with memories of my youth and with the changes it superimposed on them; it also tormented me with its imperviousness, and, most importantly, it marked my personal life through its refusal to host my future and its simultaneous unwillingness to let fully go of me. My decision to conduct this project in Genoa was a way of deepening my connection to this city even as I looked for answers whose relevance was both anthropological and personal. Hence, this book is the labor of love: a contrasted love where an intermittent distance intensifies both longing and disappointment, and whose bitter breakups are often followed by the temporary pleasures of a renewed romance.
In this vein, the first chapter of this book is a semi-historical excursus set against the backdrop of my own experience. Moderately autoethnographic, this chapter is steeped in the assumption that our own stories are more than just personal experiences (Ellis 2004: 37), and that my own narrative has received its words from other voices (Bakhtin 1982: 202): those of the family members, friends, acquaintances, and mentors who contributed to my formative years, who walked with me through innumerable experiences, who helped me process them, and the many more who, in recent years, volunteered to take on the role of ethnographic informants. My stories are never fully mine, in that they are also implicitly interwoven with the voices of all those who provided me with critical perspectives even as they helped me shape my own (Bourguignon 1996). The latter category includes the historians, the sociologists, the anthropologists, but also the writers whose musings provided a springboard for this work. Due to the hybrid quality of the story I set out to tell, I opted for replacing the sanitized, objective, historical contextualization that is required of any book-length ethnography with a chapter where I provide chronotopic perspectives on the urban everyday starting with the 1970s—that is, the decade when Genoa's deindustrialization process and its decline began. Drawing on formal histories and personal stories, on my own memories and those of people I met and interviewed, but also of those with whom I grew up and grew older, as well as on the works of local poets, novelists, and songwriters, Chapter 1 explores how, in the 1980s, the promises of neoliberalism led many a Genoese to hope for a better future. These promises hinged among others on the gradual but radical process that, by the end of the decade, had begun transforming Genoa's cityscape, flashing glimpses of optimism for what had become a ghost city—or, in the words of local novelist of national renown Maurizio Maggiani (2007), a city of shattered mirrors. Unfortunately, even these promises were destined to be broken as—with the complicity of the recession that began in 2008 and deepened in 2011—Genoa's newly found tourist vocation failed to provide the deliverance for which many had hoped.
Chapter 2 interrupts the narrative of local middle-class urbanity to present a different kind of aestheticization of the city: one that, unlike the other ethnographies in this book, does not emerge from the residents' creative practice but rather from the transformation of Genoa into a stage for the performance of a global political drama in which the state played a paramount role. The Genoa that hosted the 2001 Group of Eight summit was one in a series of great events meant to contribute to Genoa's revitalization by, among others, showcasing the city to global audiences. Yet in spite of the promise it allegedly held, this event was characterized by the exclusion of the local population through a top-down intervention on the cityscape at the hands of state representatives as well as by the ensuing backlash by a resistive multitude. As it shows what may happen when mutually antagonistic social groups lay a symbolic as well as a material claim to a cityscape, this chapter is a reminder of the potentially highly contested nature of urban revitalization—even when what is at stake is neither the commercialization of public space nor corporate profit per se, but rather the very same role of the urban as an arena for political performance. Just as importantly, this chapter outlines the contours of a collective trauma that marred the collective hope in the face of a state violence that had no antecedents in post-World War II Western history.
Written against the grain of political economy scholarship, Chapter 3 is an ethnographic analysis of the gentrification that has unfolded in Genoa's centro storico since the early 1990s, thus repopulating a neighborhood that had been largely abandoned in the nineteenth century. This, however, is not the same phenomenon as described by much Anglophone scholarship. To date, most scholarly approaches to gentrification have cast cities as playing fields of planetary capitalism (Farías 2011; Ong 2011; Roy 2011), thus engaging in a "sameing" process that not only disallows difference through the universalization of North Atlantic modernity (Blaser 2013), but that also reduces cities to arenas for the class struggle between globalized bourgeoisies and the poor (Ong 2011). While there is no doubt that the gentrification of Genoa's centro storico served the speculations of developers even as it increased the municipality's revenues, this chapter approaches this phenomenon as a more complex reality whereby capitalist dynamics are just one component of the story. More specifically, this chapter tackles gentrification as an assemblage of people, logics, and materialities (Farías 2010; Collier and Ong 2005): one whereby a nexus of neoliberal rationality, the built environment, and old and new neighborhood residents and users contribute to making a world whose emergent dynamics may at times unfold along the lines of the well-researched template of the capitalist "spatial fix" (Harvey 2001)—and yet, at other times they are considerably more complex. The protagonists of this chapter are marginal gentrifiers who, unlike the revanchist yuppies described by much Anglo-American literature, are neither part of a fleeting stage of gentrification nor upwardly mobile. Instead, they are residents and small business owners who, keen on consuming and producing culture on a budget, have found a modus vivendi with the local crime scene, and negotiate their daily lives along the increasingly thin line that separates them from poverty even as they seek to resist the crushing pressure of corporate commerce with its new spatialities.
Chapters 4 and 5 delve into the experiences of two social groups whose poiesis (Calhoun, Sennett, and Shapira 2013) has made substantial contributions to Genoa's public image as a "city of culture": street antique dealers and walking-tour guides. Chapter 4 describes how, since the mid-1990s, a proliferation of antique fairs have given chronically under- and unemployed middle-class women an opportunity for self-employment. This chapter explores how middle-class women antique dealers draw on their gendered and classed skills such as their aesthetic sensibility to stake out a place for themselves in an urban economy of culture, even though the domestic and decorative aura that at times surrounds women's endeavors may still undermine their efforts. Drawing on an ethnography of how Genoa's walking-tour guides describe and present the city as well as on the analysis of their professional histories and experiences, Chapter 5 suggests that these protagonists of Genoa's newly found tourist vocation are agentive cultural intermediaries who mediate between high and popular culture as they shape the urban experiences of their publics. Acting independently from the political and corporate entities that traditionally drive the transformation of postindustrial cities into consumption hubs, Genoa's walking-tour guides draw on their own creativity, their talents, and their educational background to generate venues of self-employment by spinning tales of concealment and discovery around the master narrative of Genoa's industrial decline and its tourist potential.
While Chapter 4 and 5 focus on the experiences and biographies of some of Genoa's creative individuals, Chapter 6 dwells on the kind of worlding practices that may emerge in the shade of revitalization. This chapter is an ethnography of the Suq (Souk): a multicultural festival held in Genoa every year under the supervision of two women who, since the late 1990s, have used their background in sociology, political science, and theater to further the cause of diversity in Genoa. Multicultural festivals have been frequently denounced as opportunities for the consumption of "other" cultures that are added as commoditized and politically irrelevant "spices" to the otherwise allegedly "bland" everyday life of mainstream groups (hooks 1992; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1991). Yet these critiques often fail to explore how such events articulate with sensuous modalities of constructing dominant identities. This chapter seeks to contextualize the Suq within the broader politics of representing and consuming selves and others in contemporary Italy, and it argues that the Suq's specific brand of strategic orientalism attempts to penetrate the Italian sensorium for the sake of challenging hegemonic representations of culture, identity, belonging, and roots. Just as importantly, this chapter suggests that, in a society where small businesses are a fundamental source of livelihood for both natives and immigrants, the Suq supports an alternative to forms of consumption increasingly shaped by the shopping malls and the big-box stores that, since 2000, have proliferated in Genoa's deindustrialized peripheries, bringing about blight in formerly thriving neighborhoods.
As an ethnographic analysis of those aspects of revitalization that often go neglected in urban studies literature, this book argues that tourist guides, small business owners, artisans, festival organizers, and street antique dealers have given, and continue to give, a fundamental contribution to the process of transforming Genoa into a city of culture. Yet, in seeking to explore facets of this revitalization that range from the ever-present voracity of corporate commerce to the poiesis of the self-employed, this book also acknowledges the impossibility of experiencing—and analyzing—the city in its totality (Cinar and Bender 2007: xii). Hence, neither does it attempt to represent the city as a bounded and stable entity (Farías 2010: 9), nor does it claim to exhaust the range of creative practices that unfold in the shade of revitalization. Instead, it approaches the city through the exploration of some of the subjectivities, practices, expectations, things, logics, and the built environment that contribute to its emergent formation: a process whereby neoliberalism is, I suggest, only one of the forces at work (Farías 2010; Ong 2011).