Monday, February 25, 2013

Salvatore Leggiero, the real estate dealer who took away the children's garden in the Oltrarno

 Oltrarno is the last surviving neighborhood still populated by mixed social classes in the highly gentrified city of Florence; and San Frediano is the informal name of the part clustered around the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, where in a sense the Renaissance began.
A building company with the unlikely name of Amore and Psiche Holding (“Love and Psyche”), belonging to a certain Salvatore Leggiero from Milan, has put up a wall which bars the residents of San Frediano from access to half of the only public garden of the area, in front of the Ludoteca Nidiaci, (Via della Chiesa 44, 46 and 48) the children’s play center, and which has been open to the local residents and their children for the last 90 years.
And while they were at it, Amore and Psiche also took the initiative of privatizing the slides, jungle jims and playhouses of the ludoteca after they took possession of the space a few months ago. Perhaps the managers of the company plan to use the children’s slide to train for some competitive sporting event?
Now in San Frediano people don’t normally go about shooting one another, even though some of the older residents mumble that they should shoot those who are depriving the residents of a public utility. So, different from the Berlin Wall or the wall constructed by the Israelis in the Palestinian Territory, this one is only a wooden fence over 2 metres high. 
And since the Oltrarno is still a vibrant and lively neighborhood, someone quickly sounded the alarm, a little girl climbed up on the wall and snapped a photo, while others called the City Hall and notified the press.
Just think of a neighbourhood pulsating with life but with no space for the children to play other than the traffic-ridden streets or the narrow pavements, so narrow that only one cat at a time can fit - the second has to sit in the street. A neighborhood which has only one dusty square, with a small playground, a few benches and trees: Piazza Tasso, with its unique variety of habitu├ęs. 
There are also a few secret gardens, hidden inside the walls of the aristocratic palaces.
In 1923, the owner of one of these palaces, a gentleman by the name of Umberto Nidiaci, opened his garden to the children of the area, even inviting them to use his home as a play area.
For 90 years the residents of San Frediano have used this garden and the Nidiaci ludoteca, squeezed in behind the Carmine church and three buildings that a certain Leonetto Mugelli just put up in an area where, theoretically,  even minor restoration work requires the approval of the City Building Commission. On the other side of the church is the magnificent Piazza del Carmine,where the public-private consortium Firenze Parcheggi is eager to excavate a gigantic hole for an underground parking lot to draw lots of traffic and night life to the area.
The garden and the Nidiaci building were not open to everyone: when I first discovered them there was a Ludoteca run by excellent assistants, but only children and accompanying adults were admitted. On some occasions the elderly were also welcomed.
In this airy protected space with plants and trees, some children climbed the trees while others learned to play the violin with lessons given by an American musician. 
As the children amused themselves, the adults who accompanied them chatted or sat reading a book, knowing the children were safe in the enclosed garden.
In the 1950s, the owners donated half of the garden to the City of Florence and in 2008, they decided to donate the entire space: after all, it had been a public utility for 85 years and classified as such in the CityZoning Plan.
But before the donation was perfected, something happened that has never been clear. The property was put up for auction and was bought for a ridiculously low price by a company called S.a.p.a. Amore & Psiche Holding di Salvatore Leggiero e C. which refurbishes flats and rents them for short terms to well-off foreigners (remember the address of what was the Ludoteca - Via della Chiesa 48).
At the outset nothing appeared to have changed until, last autumn, the new owners began construction work in the space above the ludoteca. Whether intentional or not, the roof caved in and the ludoteca was declared unfit for use. From that moment the City closed it down (although in the afternoons a center for teen-agers remains in operation); when city officials later tried to open it, they found the door had been locked from the inside.
There are no funds for keeping up the Ludoteca. Someone told me that the City of Florence has only 10,000 euro in its budget for the upkeep and maintenance of public parks and spaces - but far more than that has been spent to repair the streets of the historic center on the other side of the Arno, the area where the tourists haunt the designer boutiques.
And this is how we stood by and watched as the Nidiaci was transformed into an empty shell surrounded by scaffolding, with trucks coming in to load or unload building materials – until we discovered the WALL.
The men in gray of Amore and Psiche had moved in. We will say something more about them in the next installment.

(by Miguel Martinez, originally written in Italian)