Migrant Lives

Benvenuti To "The City Of Joy" - Rome's Hidden Shantytown

Rome's Roma camp
Rome's Roma camp
Flavia Amabile

ROME - Refuse from the shacks float by in the river's brown, putrid water. There is mud everywhere and the acrid smell of burning plastic lingers in the air. Chickens crow and dogs bark, rusty chain-links act as fencing and a gate.

It looks like Manila, but this is Rome. Welcome to the “City of Joy,” a slum on the banks of the small Aniene River, which flows into the Tiber.

For the past 20 years, entire generations of Filipinos have lived here, working in the beautiful homes of the Parioli neighborhood, in northern Rome.

They spend long days cleaning the big villas and taking the priveleged children to school. At night, they return to their homes – if you can even call them that – shacks on the bank of a muddy river with tin roofs and wooden walls. Water, for some of them, comes from nearby fields and sewers don’t exist; electric power is divided between the houses because there isn’t enough for all of them.

From October onwards the weather is freezing but as soon as May comes around, the heat is torrid. If it rains a lot, and often it does, it becomes dangerous. This winter there was a lot of rain and, luckily, the inhabitants of the slum were evacuated, otherwise they would have ended up in the river, like their shacks that are now floating in the water.

This is Rome’s black hole, a place where the contradictions of a metropolis in the 21st Century blend together, crushing every certainty. Nineteen Filipino families live here, many of them with young children, and then there are Peruvians, Colombians, Roma gypsies, as well as some Italians.

The access road is quite hidden and unknown, leading down from Rome’s Olympic Stadium towards the Aniene River. The asphalt quickly turns into a dirt track, which runs along a junkyard with old cars and an authorized Roma camp – a dirty urban forest that is uncultivated and sinister. The first homes begin to appear halfway down the road. They have numbers painted on plates and mailboxes with names written on them. Flowers grow here and there, wherever they can – because living for 20 years in a place like this, you need something beautiful to look at.

No water or stoves, but there's wi-fi

It is totally official yet unauthorized. The children go to school like any other Italian child, the fathers go to work as builders and the mothers are domestic workers or nannies in Parioli, a rich neighborhood a stone’s throw away. Their names are in the telephone book and every two months the bill for the trash arrives – they don’t recycle here. Non-Italians all have the permesso di soggiorno permit visa, and they’re all legal.

Among the residents there are men and women who were born and raised here, as well as people who will soon retire. Some of the inhabitants have returned to their homelands and offered their shacks to other people. There are Italians who inherited the land years and years ago, when this estuary was just untamed land. Then there are the Roma gypsies, who have chosen to leave their nearby campsite to live here, in a place where front doors are locked at night and guarded by dogs – so that you know you are getting robbed.

This Roman neighborhood has grown through the years in total indifference – and lack of alternatives. For years, it has been hidden in plain sight, under everyone’s nose. On the other side of the river, there are people playing football and tennis. Here, the shacks keep piling up but services have not improved to offer a decent existence to the shantytown’s residents.

Mariam, 43, lives in one of the last homes on the street and she has four children and eight grandchildren. She left the Roma camp to come and live among the Filipinos. She built her refuge here: “It’s much quieter. I stayed in the camp for 20 years but I was tired of cleaning up after the others.”

Life here is absolutely normal, yet completely surreal. The road ends at the railway bridge, where there is an open dump created by the residents of the Roma camp – an enormous mountain of trash that gets thrown into the river, bit by bit, every day. Not everyone has a boiler, some people boil water in the middle of a street in a pot on an open fire. They use wood-burning stoves for heating because wood is easy to come by. However, there are satellite dishes to watch TV and anyone who wants to install Wi-Fi can do so easily.

Alfredo Ciotti, who has lived here since 1970, says that he likes it there: “The problem isn’t the Roma who live in the camps, but the Romanians who live in the plastic shacks on the river, who come to steal at night.”

The Lopez family has lived here for ten years; there are four of them – mother, father and two boys. For them, everything is good; they wish the riverbanks were safer. “They need to re-enforce them, this winter they just collapsed under our home. Luckily, the boys were in school and we were at work. They made us leave but after two months, they said we could come back to our home and that they would find a solution.”

It's a solution that for 20 years no one has really been looking for.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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