Creative Urbanity, by Emanuela Guano

Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization by Emanuela Guano

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016; review by Cristina Moretti

Creative Urbanity is an in-depth examination of some of the recent changes in the North Italian port city Genoa, and of the lives, roles, and strategies of its middle class inhabitants. Taking the historic city centre as her key ethnographic locale, Guano follows city guides who organize walking tours, vendors who sell antiques at a street fair, small business owners, organizers of a multicultural festival, and “marginal gentrifiers” (Guano, 2017: 85). Precariously situated between the promises of an urban revitalization aimed at transforming Genoa into a city of culture and the disillusionment brought by recurring cycles of political and economic crisis, these creative actors and “bricoleuses” (Guano, 2017: 114) are able to profit from Genoa’s partial renewal, while at the same time remaining in a relatively marginal position. Through her work Guano invites scholars to pay attention to the complex, often contradictory effects of neoliberalism on middle class inhabitants who are “rich in cultural capital but little else” (Guano, 2017: 85) and to the ways in which they participate in local revitalization projects.

A particularly interesting aspect of Guano’s ethnography is her attention to the gender roles of some of her interlocutors, as the walking guides and the antique sellers are usually women. Both groups are able to use their supposedly feminine disposition and skills – such as an aptitude for relationships and a sensibility to beauty and art – to create a job for themselves in a context where female employment is hard to obtain and often frowned upon. The gendered nature of their occupation is what allows the guides and the street sellers to market their skills and wares in the public spaces of Genoa; this very “domesticity” (Guano, 2017: 122), however, can also constraint their choices and render them easy targets of critiques. Antique sellers, for example, are expected to work “for fun” and “not for the money” and thus to shy away from bargaining prices (Guano, 2016: 124), as their husbands are the ones who are supposed to support the family. Scholars investigating the dichotomies and relations between public and private realms will also find interesting how the antique fair dealers negotiate these boundaries – for example when bringing private heirlooms into the streets, as in the case of a vendor who sold valuable items from the home of a relative who had passed away (Guano, 2016: 125).

A keen and inspiring observer of the spatial dimension of culture and the politics of public space, Guano’s ethnography examines how Genoese inhabitants use and negotiate the terrain of their city – from their ambivalent relation to the centre’s narrow and supposedly dangerous allies, to alternative understandings of local urban forms, to the street battles between the police and demonstrators during the 2001 G8 meeting in Genoa. In particular, Guano’s book portrays very effectively some of the ways in which Genoa’s historic centre figures in the city’s everyday life and imaginary, and some of the changes it has witnessed. One of the latter is its partial gentrification, which resulted in refurbished apartments and buildings coexisting with significantly less valuable housing, and with degraded streets and allies. By highlighting the specificities of Genoa’s centre, Guano’s elegant analysis shows that North American studies of gentrification are not necessarily relevant to the Italian context, and urges urban anthropologists to pay attention to the different ways in which urban renewal processes are experienced and carried out in cities with which have very different structures and histories than North American ones. A peculiarity of Genoa’s historic centre, for example, is its vertical differentiation and its layered inequality, a pattern derived from the way the aristocratic class and its servants used the space of a building. As Guano describes (Guano, 2017: 91-92), apartment on the different floors of the same house can range widely in their ceiling height, their size, the light they receive, and their views – with some of the apartments being dark and narrow, and others featuring frescos and/or views of the sea. This vertical hierarchy (which exists in the Italian city of Milan as well, see Monteleone and Manzi, 2010) has limited the renewal of the centre and the effects of gentrification, resulting in a complex “assemblage” (Guano, 2017: 86) and a diverse population. The latter includes marginalized inhabitants and middle-class individuals on a tight budget who have started to look at the historic centre as a source of cultural and historical attractions.

Guano highlights Italian cultural and social specificities also when discussing local efforts at promoting multiculturalism and immigrants’ rights. The Genoa’s Suq is a yearly festival that showcases artisanal objects, foods, and recipes by immigrant communities, and hosts talks aimed at recasting Italy’s ‘others’ as active and integral parts of its social landscape. One of the central goals of the Suq is to invite its audience to experience cultural alterity through the senses. While this can easily become a way of commodifying and consuming difference without changing the disadvantaged positions of immigrant Italians, Guano argues that this strategy has to be understood in the light of Italy’s own marginality within the global economy and its difficult position as a “semi-peripheral (…) theme park where one may satisfy one’s desire for aesthetic and sensous pleasures” (Guano, 2017: 171). In the Italian context, where food and the senses have been key elements in the fashioning of regional and/or local identities, “learning to appreciate the food of the Others (…) is regarded to be akin to accepting them as part of a shared national imaginary” (Guano, 2017: 172). Guano’s interrogations on the practices and strategies aimed at creating a more progressive understanding of multiculturalism and migrant’s rights in Italy are a valuable contribution to current debates on immigration in Italy and Europe, and spark interesting questions on the meanings and roles of “culture” in Italian society (see also Muehlebach, 2012: 213).

Guano’s keen attention to the senses and performance also comes to the fore in her analysis of walking guides, and the ways in which they negotiate their presence and public personae in Genoa’s historic city core. The guides have to act as skilled leaders, knowledgeable researchers, sensitive commentators, and clever improvisers. While showing their clients that they can master the dangers represented by the centre, – a feat accomplished by “a topographical knowledge that is embodied and displayed through one’s confidence” (Guano, 2017: 143) – they must continue to portray the centre as at least partly inaccessible, mysterious and needing interpretation. Significantly, the guide’s movements, commentaries, and performance have to be understood in the context of neoliberal urban renewal efforts. As Guano poignantly remarks, the women’s emphasis on a “hidden” and “mysterious” Genoa (Guano, 2017: 136) is strategically aligned with the trope of urban change which sees in these concealed or under-appreciated resources “a potential that can be profitably tapped through revitalization” (Guano, 2017: 137).

By attending to the ways in which the guides participate in local urban projects and imaginaries, fashion their identities, and negotiate relations with Genoa’s pasts, with local history, and with lived city spaces, Guano makes an important contribution to studies of walking and city tours (Irving, 2010; Ingold and Vergunst 2008; Pink 2008; Richardson 2008). Creative Urbanity also contributes to studies of precarity, temporality, and hope in Italy and in urban settings (Knight and Stewart, 2016; Pipyrou, 2016; Schielke, 2012; Muehlebach, 2012; Mole, 2012; Doninelli 2010; Harms, 2010). Genoa is a city characterized by recurring cycles of hope, disillusionment, and loss (Guano, 2017: 25-27). As the author is researching her home city, and she can thus rely on her knowledge of Genoa spanning several decades, she is able to bring these alternating affects and realities to the fore. The author’s critical attention to the complex ways in which middle class inhabitants with limited resources engage with city spaces and histories and participate from the ground up in wider urban projects shows that ethnography can offer very valuable insights to studies of urban revitalization and change.

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