My name is Erika. With Luca, Jacopo and Alice we started Dynamoscopio (“those who observe change”). We are a strange mix of designers, researchers, and practitioners of urban transformation. We are anthropologists, architects, economists.
In 2012 we got interested in a neighborhood called Giambellino-Lorenteggio, in Milan. It was undergoing change, and a tension ran through it. Its eastern end is a heavily hipsterized area, with lofts and cool parties connected with the mighty Furniture Fair. To the west there are large industrial settlements (Vodafone Italia, for example). Line 4 of the Metro is under construction here. The value of real estate is going up, or soon will. But the neighborhood itself remains low-income, home to many marginalized people. 25,000 people here qualify for subsidized-rent accommodation. Many of them can survive only because they do live in subsidized housing. Many more would have a right to, but the city does not have enough apartments available. So they are stuck in a queue.
The neighborhood was (and still is) vulnerable to gentrification. It only takes a small increase in rents to price many people out of the neighborhood. We took a political stance that people should not be driven out, and moved in.
First we investigated the area, and put our findings into a documentary film (trailer). As we did so, we fell in love with the local market, Mercato Lorenteggio (henceforth ML). This market had a problem: in 2005 a large supermarket had moved into the area. Its competition was driving many local shops out of business – including several of those in ML. It was clear that the market was on its way out.
By then, we had figured out that the neighborhood lacked resilience. Nonlocal Milanese never go there, and why would they? And even the locals do not form the thick web of social relationships you find in a healthy community. We knew one thing: working in Lorenteggio meant spending most of our time dragging people out of their apartments.
We tried to draw a sort of map of desires and problems surrounding the market. We mapped the social actors around it: the local people, the municipality, the nonlocal Milanese, the shopkeepers. The shopkeepers seemed the most promising agent of change. They are local businesspeople: if the neighborhood does well, they do well. ML itself could serve as a focal point. If we could revive it, we could show the local community that it can work its way out of a bad situation.
So we did several things.
- With the shopkeepers, we redefined ML's unique value proposition. The supermarket would always beat us on price, and on opening hours. So we invented a brand we call DOP, Denominazione di Origine Popolare (People's Designation of Origin). This means local products – Milano is a farming city, with many farms to the immediate south of the city. It also mean "new local" products, for example we sell teff used in Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisine.
- We made it clear that these businesses are the natural allies of the neighborhood. For example, we have solidarity campaigns. One is called "Fai la spesa per la tua scuola" (shop for your school). Shopkeepers donate part of their income to the local elementary school. Other local partners expressed interest in participating.
- We mobilized the community on restoring the façade of the ML building. A Milan-based company donated the materials; the local people contributed manpower. Physical work on the space creates ownership and mobilization. Also, it was a great party (timelapse video)!
- We pushed the mixed use of ML as a place for culture and socializing as well as commerce. For example, we organize courses of Arabic languages (requested by many migrant families), knitting events, etc. The market has wide corridors, and can host up to 1,000 people.
- We moved in ourselves. Dynamoscopio runs a tiny cultural space (20 square meters) inside ML. We offer wi-fi too.
In general, we are trying to reinvent the physical space of ML and the kind of local commerce that it offers.
Who pays for this? We started out with grants. Milan is home to several charitable foundations, and some of them focus on the poorer neighborhoods. With time, we are moving towards a more sustainable mix of revenue streams. Even the shopkeepers, now, are chipping in: this is great, because it a sign of increased sustainability. Also, the work we do in Lorenteggio is good PR, and it helps Dynamoscopio get clients.
We think we are carers, in a way. We care for the community as a whole, rather than for any one person in it. “Taking care” in this context means keeping ML open and thriving; and that, in turn, means contributing to them getting income. The shops in ML are holding the line of the viability of the whole community.
We are not open by default, but we do use some of the strategies of the open source movement. Example: some migrant families from Arabophone countries wanted courses of Arabic for the children. We helped them set them up, and set them up in the market. The logic is this: if the market becomes an open platform for people to do stuff, more people will go there. This will create more business opportunities for the shops: you went for the Arabic lesson, it makes sense to do your groceries there too.
Considering, our work with ML is going rather well. In 2012 it was on its way out, with several shops closed: in 2016 all stalls are in use, and the market is thriving. The space has become more beautiful and welcoming.
Still, there are many things we would like to improve. For example, last year we organized two “swap markets”, and they failed badly. Both events were popular, with a lot of people in attendance. But these were people from outside the neighborhood, many of them hipsters. This created tension, because the locals see them as harbingers that they will be priced out of the neighborhood. Another pain point is that we are unable to monitor our impact. Shopkeepers are reluctant to disclose how much money they are making. We do not even have a system to count the number of people present in the market. We would love to have some kind of tool, but somehow this sort of work always gets deprioritized, there is so much to do.
Also, we are not sure how much longer we can afford to stay engaged with ML. But we worry. What happens when we stop pushing? Another example: for a while, a guy named Manuel ran a vegetable garden outside ML. People loved it. But when Manuel withdrew, the whole thing dried out. These dynamics look great, but they are not always sustainable.
Do you know of any similar experience? We would love to compare notes.