Going vertical in an urban periphery: winding through social housing skyscrapers in Brescia

by Sara Bonfanti

The post recalls some of my fieldwork days in S. Polo neighborhood last autumn: meeting with a Board of Residents and paying home visits to a senior tenant in Cimabue Tower. What’s the matter with (being sent to) dwelling in a ‘multicolored’ giant condo on the fringe of the city?



Figura 1_S.Polo, The Deserted Tintoretto Tower

Twin Towers seen from below _ I exit S. Polo metro station unsure of what to expect. I was here last month, played cards with some elderly men in a rusty ACLI coffee shop, which smelled of greasy dust and rotten grapes (be it their aperitif wine or not, most were contented with living in their bubble in a much contested urban area of Brescia, the Lioness City), and wandered around the abandoned Tintoretto Tower. Fenced on all sides, in order to block abusive occupation, Tintoretto tower looked like the caustic relic of failed urban housing: residents forcibly moved out, colored painting still bright on the walls. Its twin building, Cimabue Tower, though inhabited to-date, exhaled an aura of mystery and mischievousness; I had barely walked its ground floor, searched for the porter, when an aged vamp lady yelled out threatening to call the Police, charging me with violating her ‘privacy’ (or else her private space). I had hushed and walked off. Past an aisle covered with graffiti I could not quite decipher, I found refuge in the nearby ‘Casa delle Associazioni’, Common House of Civic Associations. It was through grey-haired Sabrina and blue-eyed Anna that I got the appointment with Cimabue Residents’ Board.


Figura 2_Cimabue Tower, Ground Floor: Entrance to ‘Casa delle Associazioni’

 ‘Placing people, first’ _ There they are, engrossed in conversation and waiting for me in a chilly meeting room in the common space that the City Council had reserved for hosting, on a round-basis, its over 200 voluntary social services.  A middle-aged duo, they stiffen a bit as I walk in, but my proverbial sloppiness helps loosening the atmosphere. I briefly introduce myself, and the research: qualifying as an anthropologist raises eyebrows, thus I resort to define my interests in their ‘place of living’ with a loose ‘sociological study’, a mandate that seems to appease all. Soon, we get down to deep talking. Carlo is in a hurry (heading to reclaim social welfare benefits for his mother in her 90s) and takes the lead in exposing all the issues he reckons I might find stimulating or he simply finds compelling.

This is not an interview nor a focus group, it is our first meeting and I do not feel like asking permission to record our conversation, so I just rely on the old pen and paper, and try my best at balancing listening and enquiring, jotting down and nodding with timely eye contacts… A younger committee member, in his early 40 I guess, comes in, after a minivan had come to pick up his stepson (struggling with autism) and drive him to a nearby special education center.

I have spent the onward journey resisting the dawn train lullaby, going through “Hotel-House” by Cancellieri. Anyway, Cimabue has never been a fancy ‘Mondominio’, not even in the mid-Eighties when it was planned and built, its only purpose was and still is to accommodate the city’s dis-possessed, in-visible, un-deserving of better whereabouts. “Scum of the world”: one of those local aged men had commented with grimace holding his poker of cards a few weeks earlier, while I shivered with reprimand and apprehension. For sure, today Cimabue residents are inaudible; the enchanted silence and soft buzzing surrounding the condo is hard to believe. A tall, dull grey building, damp against a pale dumb sky. There it was on a moisty Saturday summer morning; here it is on a rainy Tuesday fall one.

Yet, Carlo and Teresa seem to have a never ending array of condo-stories to share.


Figura 3_S. Polo, Cimabue Tower: hidden nests in a concrete tree

Voices of dissent _ Just like Tintoretto, Cimabue was erected in 1985, its apartments started to be allocated in 1987; Teresa herself, 78, who serves as Ms. President of the Residents’ Board, moved in on 21 March 1988. Her wet gaze drifts away as she recollects how she was assigned her disabled-friendly apartment, in order to care for her impaired husband (who had lost control of his limbs after diabetes took over his health and his job, and since passed away) and after having been evicted from their former family dwelling (which was to be knocked down).

The old woman’s flat is one of the 196 ones that compose the whole residence: both Committee members repeat as a refrain the counting that makes up the number, between pride and disbelief. “13 x 15 plus one”: 13 flats per floor, plus a large open space on the first floor, which hosts a day-care center and a gym for the elderly. At least, it hosted such a communal facility: the premise was closed down the previous month for alleged sanitary faultiness. Rat traps surround the building on all sides, and occasional piles of dumped litter spring up. Yet, in spite of electric wires dangling here and there, and of a not fireproofed case winding up the stairs (the arson in a London residence tower last July still looms), I do not sense the place as being threatening or disheartening. Teresa and Carlo, who have been living here for decades, and Dino, more recently arrived, recount their lived experience of inhabiting the Tower in different tones from the official version that well-meaning employees at the Town Hall had described to me.

From those in charge of the ‘Home and Inclusion’ Bureau (within the ‘Migration and Integration’ Service), San Polo neighborhood and its iconic skyscrapers were the quintessence of ghettoization and social havoc: an urban mayhem they frankly imputed to the measures adopted by the City Council in terms of social housing. The southeastern suburbia of Brescia was built in the mid-Eighties, under a conjuncture of demographic pressure, rampant immigration flows and lack of adequate housing for an increasingly composite and frail urban population. As ‘the needy’ were literally moved out of bleak decaying houses, with the historical center being gentrified (Contrada Carmine) and the western banlieu meant to be revamped (a project whose completion is still pending to date, P.ta Milano), a whole new residential area was planned in the borough of S. Polo. There, the working class who could afford it bought private flats in smaller estates. Most of those who could not, but abided to clearance and shifting, were allocated a place on rent in one of the giant condos. Many of these new apartments were in fact spacious and airy; some also complied with disability-friendly standards. Nonetheless, cheap materials and manufacture, overcrowding and time tore down the most ambitious Tintoretto Tower (which was evacuated 20 years after its grand opening). A consistent lack of maintenance and occasional wreckage following evictions left a mordant skeleton block behind. The Cimabue one still stands there, replete with a floating population of over 700 residents according to the Register (possibly topping 1,000 according to informal statistics, which I believe exaggerated, but symptomatic of a latent ‘fear of invasion’). Dino talks little, but his words sound prophetic: “People from Brescia would mend a wall even before the crack appears”, he argues,we are not from Brescia, here”.

In spite of public rental control, my interlocutors denounce that maintenance expenditures are higher than average, with a significant number of defaulted tenants that were given the chance to repay their arrears offering their hand labor in summertime to cleanse and renovate the common spaces. As they recount struggles with ALER (the Social Cooperative responsible for maintaining the place, which serves all the southern Provinces of Lombardy), Carlo dons the historical role of a trade unionist, linking Cimabue’s parable to Brescia’s dwindling status as a metropole of work and wellbeing for all.


Figura 4_Critical Writing on a wall in S.Polo: “Racism is not nice, but it’s becoming a necessity for ‘us’ Italians”…

R(a)ising a village _ As soon as Carlo leaves, Teresa and Dino shift to a different mode of narration. Cimabue stands as “a vertical village” (paesotto in verticale is the definition they agree on); the size and diversity of its ‘community’, yielded by (shoved) neighboring, make it an exceptional social workshop. While all the spokespeople of the Residents’ Board are Italian natives, there is no singular mainstream in the Tower’s populace. Households with a migrant background do outnumber local residents, but their diversity is such that there are no clear-cut minority-majority relations. My interlocutors interpret their contacts with neighbors on the basis of a continuous feedback between cultural stereotypes and daily interactions. Simplification is patent and gross, but it is motivated in concrete interpersonal relations: ‘colored people’ are more sociable, Pakistanis tend to themselves, Chinese are elusive, Maghrebi men deal with drugs in the dark (while their families are quite decent), and the alleged peril for coexistence comes from the Roma, their demeanor disrupting any proper home-place. There is no apparent criterion in assigning the flats, apart from the numeric scale ‘family members x square meters’. Tenants on the same floor might be totally unrelated to each other, with all the odds in grappling with other sounds or noises, scents or stiffs, habits or schedules that may turn into cultural misunderstandings (not easily solved across languages).

Yet, co-habiting the same mega-dwelling space also offer chances for open sharing in spite of mental closure. The concrete infrastructure of Cimabue Tower prods social relations (now mellow, then harsh, often plain): four large elevators transit people up and down 24/7, and all tenants access their flats entering one single wide hall (where a huge wall displays a complex array of names, puzzling local postmen in managing a throng of mail receivers under one address).

When I ask Teresa if she recalls some memorable events as a senior occupant, she offers me equally emotive stories. Two women took their lives throwing themselves off their windows. In one case, she vividly remembers hearing the sound of “a sack precipitating and crushing on the ground”. A smoky fag between his lips, her husband, then still alive, looked out and, though shocked, prevented her from approaching the sight. They called the emergency and waited for aid, with a hundred of neighbors murmuring. In neither case, murder was ever suspected, suicide files were soon closed. When life becomes unbearable, Teresa sighs, no other place turns more agonizing than home. Perceiving the jolt in my eyes, she invites me upstairs to have a coffee in her flat, and cheers me up with a funny episode. Last year, her arm had remained stuck in a windowsill, and only a neighbor who spotted her doing the laundry from the attic managed to get the firefighters to rescue her, half-roasting on a sunny summer day.


Figura 5_A serial landing on Cimabue’s 6th floor

Entering one’s home in no-one’s land _ Teresa’s flat is on the sixth floor; she leads me through the corridor, whitewashed with 13 entrance doors (all identical, but contoured with a color line, as if a rainbow ghost had sieged the interior design of S. Polo skyscrapers), and into her home. She fills the moka with ground coffee, and tours me around her apartment. The bathroom where they had installed a large shower (so that she could help her husband wash in his wheelchair). The master bedroom where she keeps souvenirs of long gone trips and memories of her children and grandchildren (with a plethora of family pictures and printed pillows, plaques and cards thanking her for being a wonderful mother and grandmother). The sitting room where she upholds pieces of furniture from previous homes (a sofa where all her offspring have dug their seats and a French buffet saved from a flooding). When coffee is ready, we walk back into the kitchen, and there she pats, piece after piece, the wooden pantry and marble shelves. I am startled at her evident affection for the place she inhabits. She takes out from a drawer a well-conserved folder: the kitchen plan designed by her daughter in law, and bestowed by all her three children when their parents moved in that flat thirty years ago. We take a sit and gaze out of the window from her dining table. The sight is remarkable, overlooking the hill Colle Maddalena, the Church of S. Polo and the tiny green allotments the city Council provides for the unemployed residents who want to start growing their crops.

As I express my wonder, she suggests she might ask the porter to take us on top of the building, upper than the fifteenth floor, where a large terrace overlooks the whole neighborhood and the sight wanders away beyond the horizon.

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Figura 6_Teresa’s cherished family-made kitchen

On top of it all _ Down in the hall, every six hours a porter ends his shift and another one takes over: a service established by the City council and implemented through a social co-operative. It used to run 24h a day, since last year, due to spending cuts, the night shift is vacant; minor black dealings get their way with no supervision.

This afternoon, Adel the porter is on duty. Adel was born in Tunisia and reached Italy as a political refugee more than twenty years ago. He has since done a number of jobs, married, had two sons and become a leader in the Islamic Community of Brescia. Since he was appointed as a public spokesperson for the liberal Mosque in via Corsica, the only time he can still devote to paid work, he takes up some shifts as a porter in S. Polo.

Adel reluctantly agrees to escort us “up to the sky”. Security reasons would prevent anyone from accessing the terrace, but he seems to trust Teresa’s confidence in my well behaving. It’s late September, yet, as Adel unlocks the gate, the sunlight blinds me for a moment, white pigeons fly away slightly bothered, off the satellite-TV system that screens other horizons for two hundred families down under. It’s like having an aerial view of S. Polo, and drifting over the entire cityscape. Stoney Brescia medieval castle seems within hand reach, glassy Crystal Palace (the skyscraper considered the financial center in Brescia 2) looks like a fake Lego construction, Tintoretto tower is blinking at us. From here, the metro rail draws a visible line on the urban cartography of Brescia. It connects the main S. Polo stop (known as ‘S. Polo case’, houses) to S. Polo Parco on the west (a green border zone that includes the disputed Ducos Public Park, dividing southeastern suburbia from the center), to S. Polino farther east. The latter is a second periphery sprawl, built in the early 2000s, where newer social housing estates began to accommodate subsequent waves of ‘frail people without a proper residence’, not least those who were moved out of Tintoretto. Looking closer, as this neighborhood was planned with no vertical drives, but more realistic horizontal spaces, only the Working Nuns’ residence and the newly opened ‘Pampuri’ recreational center are visible. Fringe estates and their marginal residents fade away in the plains.


Figura 7_A view from above: S. Polino spin-off suburb

Ground zero _ A ringing sign summons Adel back to work; we hastily return downstairs, time permitting on an elevator of the 80s that goes all the way down 15 floors, where a black young boy on a wheelchair has been left unattended in the hall. Adel makes a couple of phone calls, and, in a few minutes, an even younger sibling comes running to pick him up. As I am trying to thank and fare them all well, Houda’s voice drags my attention. Houda is a young mother of three, coming from Morocco, whom I had met the week earlier during a tailoring workshop for migrant women that takes place in ‘Casa delle Associazioni’ every Thursday. A parlor where I heard women teasing each other on their embodied shade: the light, dark, sun-tanned, the colored ones. We start to chat up, while Teresa and another neighbor join in.

After a few exchanges, since Houda needs to leave and collect her elder boy at playschool, she comments: “I live here, but if I could (do otherwise), I wouldn’t.” Then she adds, provocatively: “Would you, with your kids? When you know that your next-door neighbors are just of prison for theft, aggression or worse?” All ladies nod their head, each with their personal stories, dramas and dreams. That small talk made a thread and needle session in its own right. I was caught in the twirl. Ikea adverts may brag that ‘Every house is possible’, but not all can live in the house they would like to. If those women were given the chance to choose, most would not stay there. Homemaking takes way more than a roof up to the 16th floor.

As I close this brief ethnographic report, I acknowledge that I adopted the present tense for most of the post, first inadvertently, then deliberately. Historical present is a rhetorical device in writing ethnography, although it risks flattening the actual flow of life on the present moment. My report is based on fieldwork conducted in S. Polo neighborhood on 21st Sept. 2017 (and a few days before and after), but my tense choice wished to convey the immediate urgency of my interlocutors’ lived critique on their “here and now”. A sort of mindful meditation on their lives and dwelling experiences, for whom the past sounds lost, the future still looks out of sight.


Figura 8_Lingering in the hall of a vertical village, waiting for something to happen…