Torpignart: Street Art and Urban Regeneration

by Elisa Fiore

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Before I relocated to The Netherlands four years ago, I used to live and work in a neighbourhood of Rome called Tor Pignattara. This area, which counts around 50.000 inhabitants, stretches for about four kilometres south-east of the city centre. It is formally incorrect to define it as suburbs, given that it sits right next to the I Municipality of the City of Rome – the one where the Colosseum and the Imperial Fora are located, to be clear. Still, there is a certain feeling of distance attached to it, which cannot be explained solely by the chronic state of infrastructural “fatigue” the area is afflicted by – public transport is rather inefficient there, and so is general drivability.

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This perceived distance should also be read in connection with the demographic developments that have seen sizable groups of immigrants gradually settle down in Tor Pignattara since the early 1990s (Pompeo 2011; Priori 2012). The largest immigrant group in the area is the Bangladeshi, which counts around 2.000 people – according to official statistics issued by the City of Rome. Often dubbed as an invasion, the Bangladeshi community became the main attribute attached to this neighbourhood, which was soon labelled the Banglatown of Rome. This reputation contributed to figuratively push the neighbourhood farther out from the city centre; not just a few kilometres, but at least a couple of continents and five
seas away.

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Immigration soon became the scapegoat for the state of cultural, social and infrastructural impoverishment that the neighbourhood was going through – “immigrants do not vote” was a recurring leitmotif used to explain the institutional disinterest in the destiny of Tor Pignattara/Banglatown.

Since 2013, though, a group of active citizens decided that enough was enough: if local government institutions did not take the destiny of Torpignattara/Banglatown at heart, they would do so with a series of initiatives aimed at including the neighbourhood within the ranks of Rome’s historical centre and revaluating its contribution to the city’s cultural identity. Several cultural initiatives were undertaken in the past four years: to name but a few, “Alice nel Paese della Marranella,” a local yearly street event with buskers, music and food; “Karawan Fest,” a series of multicultural cinema nights; and the “Ecomuseum Sundays,” urban trekking events to discover the rich archaeological and anthropological [sic] heritage of the area. But there is one initiative that gained much more momentum than all the others: it is the “I Love Torpignart” initiative, a massive project of muralisation aimed at promoting street art and transforming Torpignattara/Banglatown in an open-air museum. As the map below
shows, in barely four years a remarkable number of murals have been realised in the neighbourhood.

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Many of the “blind walls” of Torpignattara/Banglatown have been turned into massive canvas and made available to those galleries and street artists who wished to donate a piece of their art to the local community. And the gifts are, indeed, truly beautiful (for more images, see here).

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As a result of this operation, Torpignattara/Banglatown has become officially part of M.U.Ro., the street art museum of Rome promoting
the ‘Renaissance of contemporary public art’ in the city.

The “museification” of Torpignattara/Banglatown appears to be successfully bringing the neighbourhood closer to the heart of Mamma Roma. Tourists are finally visiting the area and its artistic, archaeological and anthropological [sic] beauties; airbnbs are springing up at the same rate – or even faster – than that of the murals; small bars, microbreweries and osterie are finally attracting a younger and hipper crowd. If street art alone cannot succeed in regenerating an ‘anonymous and degraded’ urban area, as the people behind I Love Torpignart concede on their website, gentrification might instead well do. As Paola Soriga (2015) and Annalisa Camilli (2015) remark, the muralisation process that is investing Torpignattara/Banglatown as well as other “degraded” suburban areas of Rome – Tor Marancia and San Basilio – is often accompanied by rent profiteering mechanisms that slowly push the more vulnerable groups out of those areas. They also highlight how massive muralisation projects initiated by local organisations have been widely embraced by both local and central governments as very convenient – read, cheap – tools that give an illusion of “quick regeneration” while instead nothing is being actually done to solve the real problems the local communities face.

The promotional use of street art has been hotly debated in Italy as well as other European countries over the past year or so. To give an example, last year, the Italian street artist Blu – known as the Italian Banksy – blacked out his famous murals in Kreuzberg (Berlin) and Bologna as a form of protest against the appropriation of militant street art at the hand of ‘opportunistic lords and colonial powers’ (Wu Ming 2016).

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I think that these stories should have us seriously reflect on the uncritical use of planned commissioned street art as a supposedly innocent tool for urban regeneration. By triggering processes of gentrification and touristification, such projects can result in undesired exclusionary mechanisms damaging vulnerable groups and individuals. It goes without saying that I am not arguing for a whitewashing of the beautiful murals that punctuate the landscape of Tor Pignattara/Banglatown. What I advocate for is a serious politics of engagement capable to distribute gains and losses so as to promote more ethical interventions in the interest of the community as a whole. It would be a shame if, one day, we came to realise
that the colourful canvas of Tor Pignattara/Banglatown were actually complicit in the whitewashing of the local community.

References:

Images
1. Sign of the Tor Pignattara tram stop. Image credit: Wikipedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fermata-torpignattara-trenino.svg
3. Niccolò Berretta on Vice News https://www.vice.com/it/article/torpignattara-roma-settembre-2014-492
4. https://ilovetorpignart.wordpress.com/mappa-dei-murales/
5 a: Dulk; b: Etnik; c: Diavù, Lucamaleonte, Nic Alessandrini; d: L’Atlas; e: Aakash Nihalani.
6. http://www.internazionale.it/opinione/wu-ming/2016/03/18/blu-bologna-murales-mostra

Texts and articles:
Camilli, A. (2016). “Benvenuti a Shanghai”,
[http://www.internazionale.it/reportage/2015/04/10/roma-tor-marancia-murales-street-art]
Henke, L. (2016). “Why we painted over Berlin’s most famous graffiti[https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/19/why-we-painted-over-berlin-graffiti-kreuzberg-murals]
Pompeo, F. (2011). Pigneto-Banglatown, Migrazioni e Conflitti di Cittadinanza in una Periferia Storica Romana, Rome, Meti Editions.
Priori, A. (2012). Romer Probashira. Reti Sociali e Itinerari Transnazionali Bangladesi a Roma, Rome Meti Editions.
Soriga, P. (2016). “A spasso tra le meraviglie della street art di Roma”, [http://www.internazionale.it/reportage/2015/04/21/street-art-roma]
Wu Ming (2016). “Blu, i mostrificatori e le sfumature di grigio”, [http://www.internazionale.it/opinione/wu-ming/2016/03/18/blu-bologna-murales-mostra]

Websites:
I love Torpignart, https://ilovetorpignart.wordpress.com/

90 Volte Torpigna, http://www.90voltetorpigna.it/
M.U.Ro., http://muromuseum.blogspot.nl/p/m-u-r-o-f-e-s-t-i-v-l.html
Alice nel Paese della Marranella, https://www.facebook.com/MarranellaVillaggioUrbano/
Karawan Fest, http://www.karawanfest.it/