Arts & Culture

When gentrification occurs in City of the Seven Hills

4 min read

Anthropologist empathizes with plight of Monti’s locals

History and modernity collide in Monti, a neighborhood in Rome, and the local way of life is falling victim to the impact.

Michael Herzfeld, professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, explores the changing landscape of this ancient neighborhood in a new ethnography about this district within Italy’s capital city.

In this work, called “Evicted from Eternity: The Restructuring of Modern Rome” (University of Chicago Press, March 2009), Herzfeld explores the current social dynamics of Monti, which is home to some of Rome’s most venerable sites, including famous landmarks such as the Colosseum and the Santa Maria Maggiore church. Until recently, despite its celebrated terrain and history, Monti had remained a thriving community of local neighbors with a distinctive social character.

Today, Monti is facing gentrification as wealthier neighbors and profit-seeking real estate developers have moved into the neighborhood and raised both the rents and the cost of living to the point where the neighborhood is no longer affordable for its original inhabitants. The residents of Monti, while not necessarily impoverished, do not have effective means of fending off the forces that seek to displace them from their homes.

“An area like Monti, which is right in the heart of what the tourists who come to Rome see, is obviously going to be very attractive to people who want to have a pied-à-terre near the government’s offices,” says Herzfeld. “Suddenly, the property becomes incredibly valuable, and arguments develop over which aspect of the history of the city should be emphasized.”

In addition to the gentrification, Herzfeld also describes the unique characteristics of both Monti and Rome that contribute to the area’s social landscape, such as its architectural idiosyncrasies, and how the doctrine of the Catholic Church, particularly original sin, affects bureaucratic and civic life. In Rome, certain fines for violating the law can be reduced by declaring one’s violations and paying one-tenth of what is owed. This, Herzfeld notes, is similar to the Catholic Church’s practice of indulgences, in which time in purgatory can be reduced through the recitation of certain prayers or through paying a sum of money to the church.

The ancient sites located within Monti had remained what Herzfeld refers to as “lived spaces,” because they are a part of the day-to-day life of its residents. Yet, as the interests of the national government and real estate developers change the area, these areas and buildings are instead viewed as monuments, a shift in emphasis that alters the landscape of the community.

This monumentalization also contributes to a much more bureaucratic understanding of the past, says Herzfeld, who also premiered an ethnographic film about Monti in April 2007. That film, “Monti Moments: Men’s Memories in the Heart of Rome,” distributed by Berkeley Media LLC, began as a part of Herzfeld’s research for his book.

As the gentrification progresses, Herzfeld says, the people of Monti face dire consequences, such as eviction from their homes and the disappearance of the traditional livelihoods of artisans, shopkeepers, and tradesmen.

Of course, gentrification is not unique to Rome; Herzfeld’s previous research has explored the consequences of gentrification in Greece and Thailand, in addition to Italy.

“As an anthropologist, what I am concerned about is that local people see everything that they thought was important to them snatched and destroyed,” says Herzfeld. “Of course, there are arguments among them about what should be preserved. The tragedy is that those who are economically weaker have very little to say about what actually happens.”

One example that Herzfeld cites is the case of 10 families who fought eviction from an apartment block, or palazzo. After years of battling, the tenants were ultimately forced out. Herzfeld became personally invested in the plight of those who were evicted.

“I think of anthropological writing as an intensely personal as well as a scholarly activity,” says Herzfeld. “I think that good ethnographies are works of art as well as works of science. I allow my distress and anger at what is being done to my friends to show because I also think that it’s important for the reader of the book to assess my position in relation to what I am studying.”