eipcp News
09 2008

Reggio Emilia. An open city?

Translated by Erica Doucette

Erika Doucette (translation)




"The rainbow, even being in a puddle of water, is poetry.
It is the poetry of the streets, but it is still poetry."

Since spring 2006, the Collettivo Sottotetto, a northern Italian collective in Reggio Emilia,* has taken on the task of making the right to housing--to having a home in the city--an issue of public discussion. The right to shelter is every person’s fundamental right, it is also an important aspect for building a life in dignity, which is not just a theoretical demand the collective makes, but it is also something that is put into practice here. Italy, too, has been following a "strategy of cleansing," and increasingly become more racist and intolerant and less social. As part of this development, one of the most important projects that is engaged in fighting against the social dismantling of this area, the Collettivo Sottotetto, is in danger.

There are presently over 100 empty, unused flats in the Compagnoni quarter, a historically symbolic working-class quarter in the region providing over 400 social housing flats for workers, unemployed, and social outcasts. Built in 1959, the social housing project was constructed in order to “cleanse” the city centre of “social cases” and relocate them in Via Compagnoni, which, at the time, was located on the city’s periphery. A quarter of the flats are now empty. Due to city plans to demolish the entire area and rebuild new, partially privatised flats they are not being rented out or put to use. At the same time, hundreds of people have been waiting for years to gain access to social housing or a council flat. In addition, one in 135 families lives under the constant threat of eviction, because they cannot afford to pay their rent.

The Colletivo has put a lot of effort into making a number of these empty houses livable. After cleaning, renovating, and refurnishing the flats, several are now occupied and filled with new life by Italian and migrant families as well as other people working under precarious conditions. The residents pay a symbolic fee, in place of rent, to the city’s housing company. Therefore, these flats do not create any extra expenses for the city and, at the same time, now many more people have received a basis for building their own lives in dignity.**

However, for Collettivo Sottotetto the concept of social, community housing does not mean remaining confined within one’s own four walls: a house does not merely function as a roof over one's head. The Collettivo Sottetetto living project is a concrete, imaginative, constructive response to the effects of neoliberalism and the growing precarisation of our everyday lives.

Collective action, solidarity, and intercultural exchange are lived here each and every day—with all the difficulties and differences that this entails—raw and uncut, real and lived. People who have found a home here, to name a few, are: a Tunisian family with two small children, a mother with her two children from Sardinia, an artist from Burkina Faso, a precariously employed man from Germany, and a three-headed family of three generations of women from Reggio Emilia. They have all have found a home within this quarter. There is also a common courtyard, where the residents can get together or enjoy meals together. It is a public space outside the home with trees and benches, a place to socialize without the pressure of having to consume. In most newly built housing developments, such spaces are extremely rare as they are excluded in architectural planning.

There are also collective art projects, such as Habitat and a museum for contemporary art, M.A.C.R.E., which opened in one of the empty flats on 6 August 2008. The museum’s opening event included a violin concert on the balcony, which residents and the audience comfortably enjoyed from old couches in the courtyard while the children played catch. Former residents of the quarter came and were very curios and interested in what was going on, while they listened to the music, enjoyed aperitivos, and told the people from the Collectivo stories about how it used to be way back when.

There is no video surveillance in this project and there are no legions of police and sheriffs constantly patrolling the area.

Since the Collettivo Sottetetto began their work here, the quarter has received new life and been, at least somewhat, restored to the lively place it used to be. People now socialize on the benches, and joint discussions and projects regularly take place here. This kind of social network is not possible in most of the newer, more sterile, consumer-oriented housing quarters. This is a place where collective memory is alive and where a portion of the city's history is not only preserved, but also lived.

This project is now in danger of disappearing. Now, the people living in the flats that had been abandoned for years have been declared “illegal” by the city council, which is now trying to force them to move out. The city has offered the occupants several “proposals,” for example, they offered to pay for the Tunisian family’s flight back to Tunisia or twenty Euros per day for other families to stay in a hostel, after which they receive no additional support.

For months now, there have been harassments from the officials, which has not only surprised the Collective. For example, the city began destroying all the windows, doors, and sanitation of some of the empty flats to prevent them from being squatted. At the beginning of August 2008, one of the family’s electricity was cut off although their contract with the electric company was still valid and all the bills had been paid. This family had a seven month-old child in the flat! In mid-August, a time when half the city including the mayor is on vacation at the seaside, a grotesque scenario reminiscent of a bad action film unfolded at the housing project. At five in the morning, a unit with hundred policemen in riot gear stormed the quarter and evicted an entire building, which was the home of three families and three other persons. Fully armed policemen carrying toys out of the apartments at dawn would certainly not have made a good impression on anyone who caught a glimpse of the scene. The evicted families are now out on the streets and, until now, the city has not even made any serious attempt to provide them with social assistance or any help to improve their living situation. That building is now being demolished ahead of schedule. Some of the flats in other buildings the Collective had squatted and renovated are also currently under the threat of eviction.

An international solidarity campaign supports the Collettivo Sottotetto housing project and condemns the actions that have been taken against them by the politicians in charge: there is an open letter addressed to Reggio Emilia’s mayor and city council that organizations, projects, and individuals from all European countries as well as from abroad, are able to sign.

Here is the open letter, online at http://www.globalproject.info/art-16860.html. If you would like to sign it, please send an e-mail with your name and the name of your institution or project and your location to soli_sottotetto@libero.it. If you would like to declare your solidarity as an individual, please send your letter to the same e-mail address. We will translate it into Italian.

Here is some further information on the web:
Homepage Collettivo Sottotetto (Italian) http://sottotetto.noblogs.org/summary.php

Abit-azione, puplication of the Collettivo Sottotetto, second issue, spring 2008
Article in "Il Manifesto" 8 August 2008, (English translation) http://www.globalproject.info/art-16648.html

Opening of the museum for temporary art in one of the empty flats in Via Compagnoni on 3 August2008 http://www.globalproject.info/art-16623.html

Photos from the museum’s opening

The eviction of one of the houses on 13 August2008

Photos of the eviction

Article in the German-language cultural politics journal Kulturrisse 4/2007: „Occupasi – Zur Wohnrechtsbewegung in Reggio Emilia“ (in German) http://igkultur.at/igkultur/kulturrisse/1199972006/1200659039

If you have any questions you can write in English, German, or Italian) to soli_sottotetto@libero.it.

Solidarity Comitee of the Collettivo Sottotetto
Reggio Emilia – Berlin – Bremen – Vienna – Stockholm