Rome’s rebel lake is a parable of the contemporary commons

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Earlier this summer activists in Rome won the right to self-manage a vast lake in the city’s capital, effectively expropriating a private company from prime real estate. From marches and public debates to concerts and open dinners their campaign is an inspiring example of a rebel city at work.

Jamie Mackay
25 August 2014

Protesters attach a banner to the foundations of an illegal shopping centre (Photo: Ex SNIA)

Pigneto is one of the most impoverished areas in Rome. Dominated by the modernist monstrosity of Via Prenestina and flanked by a Minoan labyrinth of roundabouts, this neglected quartiere has seemingly little to offer besides a quick gateway to Termini, Italy’s largest and most chaotic train station. The houses are wretched and bleakly utilitarian, the streets filthy and covered with litter. After dark the crumbling piazze are taken over by drug dealers and pimps who whistle and shout while nervous residents race around, their eyes glued to the pavement. 

This arid neighborhood, one of the most densely populated in Europe, is an unlikely place to find a single tree, let alone an expansive green space. Yet here, hidden between the tramlines and towerblocks, lies a lake of 10,000 square metres, bursting with vegetation, home to numerous species of bird, insect and reptile and, most remarkably, a committed group of residents who have fought for years against private contractors to keep the park in public hands, free for the use of all. Their story is a triumph for popular democracy, a defiant victory over both neoliberal individualism and the institutional conservatism of the left.

The people's lake (Photo: Ex SNIA)

What to do with a wasteland?

There was not always a lake in Pigneto. In the early twentieth-century this area was home to a large textiles factory, SNIA Viscosa, which specialized in producing rayon, a form of artificial silk used to make backpacks for fascist soldiers on the North Eastern front (the basement doubled as an airraid shelter for nearby residents). The land was barren but functional, ordered, well maintained and fit for purpose. By 1954, however, as the Italian economy moved away from textiles and fibres towards chemical production, the factory went out of business, offices were abandoned and entire warehouses left to rust, soon to be reclaimed by weeds and brambles. 

In the 1970s a large zone near the ruins was bought by the property tycoon Antonio Pulcini, who intended to build a glitzy six-story shopping centre on the neglected land. This project proved to be more problematic than it had first appeared, however, clashing with the state’s own programme of redevelopment in the East of the city. Rome's post-war Government had plans to move several administration departments closer to Termini rail station as a means of easing congestion in the centre. The infamous SDO [Sistema Direzionale Orientale] meant that several hecatres of land were ring-fenced for the possible expansion. Pulcini’s property and the still-contested area where the SNIA Viscosa factory had been were designated pink, which in Government argot meant "land protected for construction of potential ministry buildings". All other building on this land was prohibited until further notice. 

The lake as seen from Google Maps

Pulcini, though, paid little heed to the SDO regulations and despite them, builders barged in, and by 1990 began laying foundations for a carpark, digging a deep trench into the mud and demolishing several buildings. This was promptly declared illegal, the landowner faced potential charges and several of his engineers were sent to jail. Suddenly, however, and in circumstances that remain suspicious to this day, the state’s map changed colour. New documents were published in which the site at Ex SNIA was no longer pink but light blue, a very different code indicating that the land should simply be used to provide ‘services’. Through this elliptical about turn, consistent with a larger redefinition of ‘the public’ that occurred in other countries during the transition to neoliberalism, the works were allowed to continue. Builders returned to the land to lay down concrete, all in the name of the public good. 

In 1992, however, as builders worked to extend the carpark trench and secure the foundations of the shopping centre, they struck an unidentified water source. An energetic spring of aqua bullicante [Rome’s famous hill water] flooded into the overgrown land, submerging the works and rendering the machinery inoperable. After a few months the majority of the site to the North East of the old factory was under water, and by 1994 the small brook had formed a large basin measuring six metres in depth.

The lake fights back

An activist looks out across the water (Photo: Ex SNIA)

While Pulcini and the Comune of Rome debated the legal implications of the new lake, regular groups of surreptitious residents, eager for respite from their oppressive neighbourhood, began sneaking through the fence to swim.  The environmental committee in charge of looking after the area argued that the lake should become an ‘authorised’ leisure space, the landowner countering with the claim that the ‘pond’ was little more than sewage water and a threat to the redevelopment of the area; that the few rogue swimmers were trespassers and nothing more. 

In 1995 a more significant public presence was established on the contested land when a group of activists set up a communist social centre on one of the surviving corners of the old SNIA factory; just outside of Pulcini’s property. Their stated goal was to democratize the space, to create a cultural hub for the neighbourhood and to defend the park and lake from speculative investors. In practice it became a place to cook, to eat, to make art, to discuss the problems of the city and what to do about them. The activists used the old factory building to organise regular public talks about the history of anti-capitalist struggle, about the Paris Comune, the Zapatista and the philosophy of thinkers like Henri Lefebvre, Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno. As well as posing a direct threat to any construction work the social centre also provided a new radical education space for residents, many of whom may not have encountered such ideas elsewhere. In the late 90s the site was given temporary approval by the state, on the basis that negotiations with Pulcini were ongoing, and the land around SNIA was renamed Parco dell’Energia. It began to be used as a concert venue and was organised by an autonomous non-profit and managed in association with the social centre.

In the boardroom, meanwhile, Pulcini’s luck continued to falter. A potential deal between the Comune and La Sapienza University, which would have seen a portion of his land being used to house the new technology school, fell through due to questions about the landowner’s own interest in the deal (it transpired that he had attempted to bribe council members into signing off on sub-deals that would have enabled him to have sole rights to build student accommodation, shops and bars). The scandal went public, and La Sapienza withdrew from the deal. After one more attempt to manipulate procedings, this time involving a bid to build swimming pools for the world championships, Pulcini finally found his loophole: according to Italian law if no financial commitment to ‘construct services’ had been authorised by the state by August 2014 he would win uncontested ownership over the parkland and the lake. In such an eventuality he would be reimbursed for damages, could have the social centre evicted and build whatever he wanted on the land.

The half-built shopping centre (Photo: Ex SNIA)

This trump card came out of the blue, and despite widespread indignation from many in the local authority Pulcini’s firm suddenly looked set to start uninhibited construction on the land. By now, inspired by the London skyline, his vision had progressed to include skyscrapers and luxury apartments. The response from the social centre at Ex SNIA was appropriately swift. An organizing group of roughly thirty activists, the core team of the social centre, worked to galvanise a wider citizens movement in the neighbourhood and indeed the rest of the city, holding street demonstrations and protests, spreading posters, flyers and graffiti across the area to teach all Romans about the history of that land. “The idea of losing this space which has become so valuable to us is maddening”, a campaigner told me “this is a fight for something which is already ours”. Ten months later these events regularly gathered crowds of hundreds holding placards demanding that the state invest in their own proposed projects and so legally block the concrete. As Giulia Barra, a local resident put it “nobody knows it is there, or rather nobody knew. Now the entire quartiere has got it into their head that the lake is for everyone”.

At the centre of the campaign, and one of the ways in which it was able to obtain such considerable public support, was an audacious protest song born from an unlikely collaboration between hip hop collective Assalti Frontali and the folk group Il Muro del Canto. ‘Il Lago che combatte’ is a pompous and melodramatic track, filled with accordions and xylophones, and driven by a relentless snare drum. The chorus: “In the middle of these concrete monsters / this water reflects the sky / this is the struggle of nature / which makes the quartiere less dark”. This all makes more sense in Italy where such blunt musical protest has a long tradition, epitomized in the mythological struggle of the partisans. Indeed, the effort touched a nerve with the Roman public and within weeks the video had 75,000 views on YouTube. The song has subsequently been celebrated and lambasted, but as a fun publicity stunt it was an indisputable success. In the weeks that followed both La Repubblica and Il Manifesto ran features about the movement, explicitly supporting the activists.

At the height of this media buzz I visited Ex SNIA to hear the first live performance of the track. It was one of the final events before the court hearing and part of the last push to block Pulcini’s plans. Entering the park from the morose thoroughfare of Via Prenestina it was clear that something extraordinary was under way. Hundreds of people were seated together at large tables eating large plates of couscous and pasta all washed down with a cheap local wine. The contrast in body language from the street outside was striking; the hunched shoulders and bowed heads suddenly replaced by bodies smiling, dancing and touching. There was a book fair, people selling clothes and trinkets, local bands plugging their CDs. I asked one of the young musicians, a rapper called A.K, how often such an event might happen in the area “recently, once a week” he beamed “since this campaign has taken off things like this have been happening all the time”.

Entrance to the Parkland (Photo: Elena Dan)

The eating area (Photo: Elena Dan)

The bar and meeting rooms (Photo: Elena Dan)

Among the plastic plates and paper cups, there were anxious signs of Rome’s wider urban struggles. Balaclavas, shinpads and black hoodies were all on sale, a nod to the recent wave of violent evictions by the police. Looking around, though, it was hard to imagine the families eating here coming together to form a black bloc. The stage area on the other hand had a more explosive feel. One graffiti showed a zombie Pope squeezing blood from a disembodied brain, another a giant ant devouring a skyscraper. The crowd was diverse, the pit a hot swelling mass filled with a mix of punk, hip-hop and folk fans here. Assalti Frontali’s set was the undisputed highlight and saw an army of children spontaneously raid the stage screaming, laughing and toppling over a few expensive looking instruments. The group’s frontman ‘Militant A’, struggling to keep in character, abandoned his usual bravado in favour of some spontaneous proclamations about the Italian education system. By the end the entire stage was filled with dancing kids.  

Militant A and his enthusiastic backing dancers (Photo: Elena Dan)

Overwhelmed by the noise and summer heat I ended up sitting on a nearby hill with a small group of people behind the stage. The spirit was calmer here, populated by bickering pensioners and nervous teenagers smoking hash. Nobody could mistake this multitude for a homogenous swarm. Many of those present seemed to have had nothing to do with the protest or campaign (fewer still would define as ‘Communists’) but were there having heard about the history and out of a shared desire that the space should be owned collectively. “This is exactly the point”, explained a woman of about fifty, “we should be able to do this all the time, to sit with our friends and enjoy ourselves here in our neighbourhood without being pressured to buy shit”.

Populism and the rebel city

Two weeks after the concert, as I was looking through some old blurry photos from the night and wondering what to do with them, I received an email announcing that the campaign had won. I was astonished. In the back of my mind I had assumed that this was a lost cause, that Pulcini's influential contacts in local government would render useless the hard work of a still relatively small citizens movement. On 6 August, however, the unexpected happened: not only did the Comune ‘officially’ open the park to the public, pledging to work with the activists to enable it to be self-managed, they effectively expropriated Pulcini from a large portion of his land. The lake, and the immediate area around it, was declared 'common' property. Pulcini, who as of last week owns an ugly mound somewhere between the lake and Ex SNIA, was given no right to appeal.

The organisers celebrate the news (Photo: Ex SNIA)

The protesters have achieved a great victory, and while Pulcini may still choose to build on his sad allotment such a venture would, as an anonymous activist personally assured me, face mass opposition, picketing and vandalism. Even if he were to go ahead the neighbourhood is now in a far better position to make good use of the land and has won sufficient public support to defend itself politically. Alongside the €20k raised by the activists during the forum events, the Comune has pledged to spend €500k in fully equipping the area around the lake. The work will be carried out by a local engineering collective, which includes a number of the campaigners, and is appropriately called ‘Dauhaus’. The state, alongside, the occupants of the park and organisers of the Forum events are now inspecting where best to develop on the lake and what measures must be taken to ensure it is a safe place to bathe.

So why did they win? Or perhaps, in the context of a wider national repression of social centres, occupations and housing collectives, the question is better posed: why did the state concede in this case? A significant factor must surely be the unambiguous villainy of Pulcini himself. While the ethics of regeneration are open to debate, his conduct was unjustifiable even by the corrupt standards of a legal system sympathetic to neoliberalism. Crimes from the past, from suspicious changes to government documents, to backroom deals with the university and sporting bodies, may yet come to light and it is likely that local government will come off badly. Better, then, to anticipate this and save face through a radical change in direction. The state hardly loses much by doing so, of course; while emotively significant this land is not that valuable. It goes without saying that if the lake had been found 1km closer to the Vatican such a victory could never have occurred.

Much, though, can be attributed to the passion and organizational skills of the social centre and the way in which it so masterfully rallied such a large portion of the neighbourhood. For almost 20 years the occupiers at Ex SNIA have worked to shape the culture of the parkland, forging a small and sustainable eco-village. For Alessandra, who has been campaigning on this land for over ten years, the movement was not a single-issue struggle but "a long-term strategy, a vision of evolution in a political culture of short term proclamations". In Pigneto and beyond many people are suspicious of ‘activists’ and the language of ‘activism’, and often with good reason. Insofar as the imagination of such groups is confined to utopian proclamations or tired Marxist tropes they will never appeal to a broad base. The ten months of struggle that contributed to this victory were successful precisely because the rhetoric was grounded in everyday reality and a visible future.

Aside from these considerable virtues the campaign is noteworthy for two other reasons. Firstly, its exuberant commitment to direct democracy: alongside the philosophical discussion groups, planning meetings were held every Tuesday during the campaign to discuss tactics, a system that enabled all involved to learn about horizontal discussions and establish a shared voice.  Secondly, however, was a more sober pragmatism: the awareness concert I attended, for example, charged a modest entry fee of €6 and while the drinks were half the price of bars in the surrounding area they were still being sold for a small profit to be reinvested into a development fund for the space. The organisers, in short, were able to develop a practice of the commons without neglecting the fact that in the capitalist economy that we live in, it takes money to gain legal power. This was a deliberative form of organisation, suspicious of purism and yet driven by a genuine belief in the cause and a shared determination to win.

There is much to be learnt from this campaign but the most important analytical observation pertains to the composition of the group: the campaigners were not just students and journalists but families, migrants, the unemployed and the elderly. This is a point David Harvey makes in his recent book Rebel Cities. Today’s urban struggles are not just abstract calls for citizenship independent of class struggle, they are constitutive of a new popular resistance which defies old sociological criteria and prioritises participation and the production of ‘free space’ over normative identities (such as ‘the worker’). In these terms – interpreted as the paradigm of a successful urban movement – the case of Ex SNIA is not simply a local victory but an example of how seemingly disordered grievances can come together to make effective claims on surplus capital. This was a campaign for a lake, yes, but more importantly it was founded on a collective recognition that we produce cities together through our interactions and relationships and that these bonds, while facilitated through the accumulation of capital, are not dependent on it to survive.

This point is not confined to Pigneto and neither is it limited to parkland or lakes. While this specific movement consolidates its strength and moves on to address other problems in the neighborhood, from racketeering to drug abuse, international groups should take this as evidence against the widespread assumption that direct action does not yield tangible results. Rome is a violent city with a nervous local authority and a long history of effective public protest. The tactics that enabled this victory, though, are easily replicated and could fruitfully be deployed in cities like London, where public space is less plentiful and gentrification more ruthless.  

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