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Rome loses some traditional flavor

By Charles HawleyContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 11, 2004


It used to be that some residents of Trastevere, a traditional working-class neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber River, would boast they had never crossed the river into central Rome. What for, after all? The tightknit community had everything it needed - a butcher, a baker, artisans, and, on the central square, a large vegetable market for fresh artichokes, Parmesan cheese, and garlic. It had been that way for centuries.

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These days, however, Trastevere is changing. The area's new residents - young professionals, students, and, increasingly, American expatriates - go to the cocktail bar instead of the butcher and to fashion boutiques rather than bakeries. They not only scooter across the Tiber, but also jet across the Atlantic.

And the market in Trastevere, like many of the traditional open-air markets that define urban life in Rome, is threatening to disappear.

"The longer I had my vegetable stand, the worse business got," says Armanda Panichi, who recently gave up her stall and retired. "I get much more money from my pension than I was earning toward the end. You just can't survive on the couple of apples the tourists buy."

The changes Ms. Panichi succumbed to are affecting many neighborhoods in Rome, and larger cities across both Italy and Europe. Call it a collision of lifestyles or expectations: Young professionals, who are moving into the area enjoy the quaintness of the outdoor markets, but don't patronize them. They want a modern lifestyle, which includes large supermarkets.

As a result, centrally located neighborhoods are becoming more and more trendy and - in cities like London, Paris, and Berlin, as well as Rome - are getting expensive. So far, the development is one that many European cities are encouraging, says Rowland Atkinson, a gentrification expert from the University of Glasgow.

"In North America," he says, "the word gentrification has very much a negative connotation - people immediately think of the social dislocation that often goes along with the process. In Europe, that negative connotation isn't really there yet. In England, at least, it is seen as a very positive development, as a way to combat inner city blight."

The trick, of course, is to improve the city center without sacrificing those elements that make life there unique.

In Rome, many people feel the scale is tipping in the wrong direction. Rents in the central neighborhoods are rising 9.2 percent per year - the fourth fastest growth rate in the world, according to the international real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield. Even in outlying districts of Rome, rents are climbing at a 5.3 percent clip.

It's not just the cost of living that is changing. Rome, in contrast to most of its post-World War II history when Italians were leaving to work elsewhere, is becoming a city of immigrants. More than 17 percent of the 80,000 city-center residents are foreigners, and the area around the main train station is quickly developing into a Chinatown.