Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Review: Michael Herzfeld - Evicted from Eternity: The Restructuring of Modern Rome

published by The University of Chicago Press 2009

Michael Herzfeld's 'Evicted from Eternity' is an intimate study of the Roman district of Monti and the pressures it was under as the city experienced the processes of gentrification around the change of the millennium in the year 2000. The Jubilee, or Holy Year, would require large scale infrastructural changes in preparation for the anticipated massive influx of pilgrims. New accommodation and traffic planning would have long term impacts on the established residents of the historic rioni, aging and slowly dwindling in number as younger people continued to move to Rome's suburbs. Herzfeld describes a certain fatalism amongst the population of Monti, a worldweariness brought on by generations of endurance of the demands of the various authorities under which they live.

Herzfeld's narrative finds him embedded in the community of Monti, documenting the daily lives of local residents and small businesses clinging to a district surrounded by national and international interests. The interpretation of how these powerful neighbours impact on the residents, however, grows increasingly vague the more distant the motives of the organisations become. So in discussing the machinations of the Roman civic administration of Francesco Rutelli much telling detail is relayed. With the Italian national authorities the generally held view of the negative effects of bureaucratic inertia is taken as read. Lastly, the activities of the Roman curia are treated as generally malign and all pervasive, as if the events of 20 September 1870 had not taken place. In contrast the enthusiasm shown by the local priest for the physical fabric of his parish and its history is treated with particular sympathy.

Broadly, Herzfeld is skeptical of the Italian civic values identified by Robert D. Putnam, and contrasts them with a sense of civility, often the expression of a social obligation which can be far from benign, and which he ascribes ultimately to the pervasive presence of loan sharks. He is rather romantic about Roman working class life, and appears somewhat naive about the continued economic viability of artisanal life. The largely impoverished Eastern European visitors to the district, drawn especially to the Ukrainian church in the main piazza, do not fit into the ideal of a homogeneous community, and are observed guardedly.

The long suffering residents of a building on Via degli Ibernesi become the focus of the book's finale, as they struggle to avoid eviction by banks and property companies intent on realising the market value of a building adjacent to the ancient Forum. Herzfeld observes this conflict, unapologetically from a viewpoint sympathetic to the occupants, but keen to map the contemporary paradox where an ostensibly left-wing cause could embarrass a left-leaning city administration. Opportunistic right-wingers were able to step into the void in defence of these 'authentic' Romans and gain a short term political advantage.

The transplanting of local populations, a common feature of Roman life since the restructuring for Roma Capitale following 1870, is a factor which has changed the social mix in many European cities, and is likely to continue in the wake of the current economic crisis. The unique situation of Rome is not conditioned by the persistent influence of theological concepts like original sin to which the author devotes much space in the book. The city's fragmentation in urban form is a demonstration of its particular brand of eternity which has always accommodated change, its citizens embracing transformation as enthusiastically as they maintain its traditions.

Eamonn Canniffe

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