ROME - Silvio Berlusconi’s sentence to seven years in prison and a life ban from public office signals the end of his political adventures. More generally, it also marks the end of Italy’s so-called "Second Republic": the political era that began in 1992 of which the ex-prime minister has been the ubiquitous figure, just as former seven-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti was the symbol of the "First Republic".
Il Cavaliere ("The Knight", as Berlusconi is known in Italy) has become accustomed to unexpected falls from grace, and sudden resurrections, both in the past, and also more recently: Take, for example, his modest comeback in the national elections on February 24.
But this time it’s serious -- and he himself already knows it, or at least is starting to understand it, even though his predictable first official reaction yesterday vehemently denied it.
Twenty years ago, when Bettino Craxi, Italy's prime minister from 1983 to 1987, was hit with his first prosecution notice, his subsequent decline was far from presumed at the time. Only a couple of months later, once the Socialist party leader had already been swamped by a string of prosecution notices, did his political demise become clear. Before the arrest warrants were issued, Craxi chose the path of exile. Events followed a similar course when Andreotti was accused of having connections with the Sicilian Mafia, and many laughed off the unlikely image of him exchanging a kiss with boss of bosses Salvatore "Toto" Riina. Although he never resorted to exile, and avoided prison, Andreotti's political career -- and historical legacy -- were forever stained by the prosecutions.
It is clear that the judiciary has reserved the same fate for this ex-prime minister. The lessons from 20 years ago tell us that it is useless to pretend otherwise: this is the way it is.
The Milan judges who let the guillotine fall on Il Cavaliere will be put under discussion – indeed, they must be looked at closely. There can be no doubt that politics came into play. The signs are many and unmistakable: The judges opted for a harsher sentence than the one requested by the prosecution, and they chose to apply the more serious interpretation of extortion.
Moreover, the court imposed further sanctions by banning Berlusconi from public office for life, as well as by taking the surprising decision to ask the Public Prosecutor’s Office, a department of the judiciary which represents the interest of society, to charge the defense with perjury.
Appeals court judges recently upheld Berlusconi’s sentence of four years in prison for the Fininvest slush fund case, taking just three months to reach their decision, and soon - very soon, if the previous turnaround time is any indicator – this new verdict will follow in its footsteps.
"Demolition by judiciary"
Berlusconi now has very few cards left to play: he could choose flight, as some have begun to predict; or, the more extreme option -- although somewhat more legitimate -- of taking his case to the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation. It would be rather naïve, however, to hope that such harsh sentences, one of which has already been upheld in a court of appeal, will not influence members of the Supreme Court. Instead, they are likely to weigh down the defendant with a heavy criminal record that can but foreshadow the final judgement of any further appeals.
The end, or better, the demolition by judiciary, of the Second Republic leaves a void even greater than that which was left by the collapse of the First. It should be acknowledged that this has been on the cards for a while, not only due to Berlusconi’s misadventures but also the general wave of corruption that has hit local and regional administrations.
When the First Republic fell, the deluge provoked by the Tangentopoli bribery scandal fueled the flames of widespread indignation. The public demanded an overhaul of the political system and used the 1991 and 1993 referendums to say so. The subsequent introduction of the first-past-the-post electoral system and single-member constituencies offered citizens the opportunity to directly choose their government and radically change the Parliamentary representatives. Unfortunately, this opportunity was short-lived.
The political transition which started at that time unfortunately ground to a standstill not long after, leading to the confusion and constant disagreements in which Italy has been wallowing for almost 20 years. Today the political system, rendered weak and incapable of self-reform, has succumbed to a strong judiciary -- indeed, a judiciary made stronger by the very lack of reform that has weakened the political system so much. In practice, it is the only power to have survived the crisis of the institutions.
For those who have always idolized him, and entrusted him with their highest dreams and greatest fears – half of Italy once, now barely a third – Berlusconi’s fall from grace has erased all hope. For the moment, the center-left is not capable of offering a feasible alternative, while Beppe Grillo's insurgent movement loses steam. Multi-party governance, which should favor peace-making after the infinite era of internal feuding, may survive in a state of almost dormancy for a little while longer -- but with no hope of conforming to political norms, and without the strength required to confront the severity of the situation. And yet there will be many who cling to this type of governance like a raft in the middle of a storm.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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