Memories Of ‘B’: A Personal And National Obsession Named Silvio Berlusconi

Essay: As Berlusconi steps down as prime minister after 17 years at the center of Italian political life, one columnist who first covered “B” as a sports reporter long before the flamboyant businessman entered politics, tries to make sense of someone as f

video image montage (Seaan)
video image montage (Seaan)
Massimo Gramellini

Only now that he seems to finally be fading…ever so slowly…into the picture album of Italian history, did I find myself shuddering at the realization that I've spent half of my life following B"s every move. The same can be said about many of you, I'm sure.

In the beginning I was a young sports reporter, and he was a successful businessman, best known as the new owner of the AC Milan soccer club.

My first clear memory dates back to 1988. We were in an imposing hall inside the Vatican palaces waiting for Pope John Paul II, who would be arriving to meet the staff and players of AC Milan, recent winners of the Italian league championship.

A bishop approached B. "As we agreed, His Holiness will speak after you," the prelate said.

B had no idea what he was talking about, but smiled politely nonetheless. He then turned to his aides and gave them a quick and memorable tongue-lashing for not having informed him of the protocol. He had just ten minutes to put together a speech. I silently followed him walking along the corridors, curious to see how an important man like this would react in an emergency. I watched him pacing nevously, contorting his mouth and moving his hands. He was getting ready.

When the moment arrived to finally meet the Polish pontiff, B flashed his movie-star smile and began his speech. It would become part of the legend. "Holy Father, at the end of the day, you are like my Milan," he said, pausing, as some of the cardinals present fidgeted nervously. "Like us, you often must play away matches, to bring to the world a winning ideal: the ideal of God."

B had brought with him an enormous entourage, beyond the team: business associates, journalists, hangers-on: the Gruppo, he called it. And he presented each person, one-by-one, to John Paul. "This is Ruud Gullit, Your Holiness. Twelve goals this year, three in the Champions Cup."

He prompted a reaction from the pope when he introduced the editor of one of his magazines, boasting how it outsold the better-known "Panorama" weekly. "Panorama! I always read Panorama!" John Paul exclaimed. That may have been when B decided to buy Panorama's publishing house, Mondadori.

In any case, the papal audience was a tremendous success. I was 26 and already B entertained and frightened me all at once. He was the classic Milanese figure we call a "cumenda," a brash and successful man surrounded by servile aides. He used to arrive by helicopter to A.C. Milan practices. He would take off his coat and toss it behind him: there was always someone ready to catch it.

Berlusconi & Berlusconi

From the beginning there were two B"s: a sunny one, who was always smiling in public; and a mysterious one, who before turning 30 had somehow obtained multi-million dollar loans.

At the time, I was working for the Milan-based newspaper Il Giorno. When I moved to Rome to cover politics for La Stampa, I figured I would never again cross paths with B. Until one November evening, in 1993, when I was sent to the Parliament to get reactions to the rumor that he was considering entering politics. I met Massimo D'Alema, at the time secretary of the Social Democrat Party. "Stop spreading this nonsense. B will never enter politics. He has too many debts." Exactly, I said. D'Alema fired back a scathing glare. "So, I have to repeat myself: he will never enter politics!" I was beginning to understand that his arrival on the political scene was indeed unavoidable.

In the following months, Italy learned every detail about the man who would lead the country, on and off, for nearly 20 years. Italy discovered his ticks, and his titanic ego. In the videos, he spoke with a fake bookshelf in the backdrop, and with a nylon stocking over the lens of the camera to hide his wrinkles. He spread the legend of a paralyzed AC Milan fan who had walked again after hearing his voice. Everybody learned his party's jingle Forza Italia (Go Italy). His quotes were memorable. "Poor people don't exist," he said. "There are just those untrained in living well."

Readers told me to write about something else. But he was everywhere: in politics, soccer, television, advertising, movies, culture (more or less), money. Always him, him, him. One day, I bought a botanical magazine. There was a picture of B cropping the roses in the garden of his villa in Arcore, outside Milan.

Avoiding a B obsession was impossible. A friend and colleague reached his peak during a vacation in 1996. The center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi had just won the elections. We were taking in the evening along the seaside. There were girls, a sparkling moon, slow waves. I was soaking it all in until my friend approached me with a scowl. "You know, I was thinking that if Prodi doesn't make a law (to crack down) on conflict of interest within one week..." he started. "Please! Not now, not here!" I yelled back. But my friend was right. The new cabinet did not make that law. Maybe the ministers were on vacation too. B was going to keep being B.

I started to become personally involved. I wanted to persuade everyone else that B was not a supporter of the free market, but a monopolist who cared only about his business, not about Italy.

I would eventually give up this crusade after a chat with a worker of a moving company. "You know about politics, don't you?," he said to me. "Is it true that B is planning to sell his TV channels?"

"I don't think so, but I hope so," I answered. "We would finally become a normal country, don't you think?"

"Well, if he sells, I won't vote for him anymore," the man said. "If he has his TV, he is rich and doesn't steal…as long as he does his own business, he is forced to do a bit of mine. If he sells his TV, he will become a politician like all the others."

Man-on-street and your mother-in-law

The center-left was always wrong saying that the man of the street was a victim of B. No, he was a wannabe B, just a poorer version.

B"s name was the most cited, the most hated and loved. Think about how many times, my fellow Italians, you have thought about him in the last few years. Surely more than you have thought about your mother-in-law. No one else has divided Italy and Italians the way he has. Once, a guy wrote to the letters box of my column that he had broken up with his girlfriend because she had voted for B. Italy has become a country split in two, a democracy transformed into a neverending referendum on a single person, considered vulgar by one side, vital by the other.

We have grown old together. I went bald, he went and got hair transplants. In 25 years, I changed my mind about almost everything, except B. He still entertains and frightens me, though recently, I've been more frightened for sure.

He has never tried to convert me, though. He thinks I'm an unrecoverable. Once, he heard through a colleague that I was a believer in the free market. "But if he is not a Communist, why is he not with me?"

He sees only black or white. The current world is too complex for him. This is why he is fading away. Without him, I'm sure I will get bored sometimes. I will also have to work more. I will have to go back to covering so many different people: a politician, a businessman, the president of a soccer team, a carnival salesman, a comedian, a playboy. Before, I had all of them in just one person.

Read the original article in Italian

photo - Seaan

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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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