Didn’t Cross the Desert to End Up in a Square

Text by Davide Coppo and Vincenzo Latronico
Photographs by Alice Schillaci
Styling by Francesca Cefis
Casting by Stefania Perna

Porta Venezia, which in reality led more towards Austria rather than Venice, is one of Milan’s defensive gates from the Spanish era, and here it has stayed over the centuries as a neighbourhood landmark. In reality, there never has been a gate: two wood and plasterboard triumphal arches were simply erected between customs posts to celebrate passing emperors, to be dismantled immediately afterwards. Towards the interior, that is, to the south, the centre, starts the city of the Austrian conquerors with its low, wide eighteenth-century villas; to the west fascism erected the towers you see in the magazines and the big rationalist structures in the urban void made by moving the railway that once crossed the neighbourhood to Milan’s former central station, in what is now Piazza della Repubblica.

To the north, outside the walls, was the leper hospital where plague sufferers were halted so they would not infect the city; but for over a century the only traces that have remained are a street of the same name and the little church of San Carlo that was situated in its centre, now surrounded by a grid of narrow streets lined by low ochre yellow and brick-red residential buildings, with a dusting of Milanese Liberty style. 

In the first half of the twentieth century, its vicinity to the city made it a bourgeois district; in the second, its proximity to the station made it a less desirable area for the snootier types, and so it opened its pores to transformation. For decades the Porta Venezia area has been considered the figurative centre of the lives of the vast habesha community (this word is where the term “Abyssinia”, meaning Eritrea and part of Ethiopia, originates from). Originally attracted by a church, the community then settled in the surrounding area to form the only case in Italy of a neighbourhood inhabited permanently by a “foreign” population other than the Chinese (but after three generations the concept is much more complex). Integrated into the city’s economy and geography by forty years of history, and yet still a compact entity unto itself, at length it has been ignored on the maps of the fashion and design metropolis. 

Recently, however, this has been changing.

Today the Porta Venezia neighbourhood consists of two lives that run almost parallel, crossing over briefly at twilight, to then carry on in their – opposite – ways. The habesha community is very visible by day, in front of the grocery stores and the restaurants with evocative names like Asmara, Adulis and Massawa. When the sun goes down, the streets are instead lit up by many coloured signs over glass or soundproof doors, opening and shutting at a quick and regular rate: they aren’t the doors of the habesha restaurants, but the doors of the bars and clubs that have opened in the last ten, fifteen years. And the faces going by, drinking gin and tonic on the pavements, are different from the faces you meet in the daytime: they’re almost one hundred per cent white. 

Slowly but surely, Porta Venezia has been gentrifying. Today the district of Milan’s most important Coptic church is also the city’s gay village. Every year Gay Pride rounds up here, and if you could get a listen of the music in all the various venues along Via Felice Casati, the result would be a strange mishmash of hip hop, Eritrean popstars and Rihanna. The two lives brush against each other at dinner time, when the restaurants are frequented by Italians (but maybe it would be better to say “white” faces) and habesha. Some young, some older, some in Milan for just a few days, some residents in these same streets since the 1970s. The newcomers ask the older and more expert ones for advice about visas, or for somewhere to stay or a diplomatic hand. One of them is Tekle.

He’s a tiny man, with short, thick, greying hair, and he was born in Asmara in the second half of the 1940s. In the early 1970s, he worked in Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, for a mining company called Montecatini. He came to Italy for a holiday in 1972 as a tourist. In Ethiopia, as Ethiopia was then, the chaos started. He never went back. About those times, Tekle remembers how Eritreans and Italians got together, taking over houses as squatters. He remembers the talks with the Italian Communist Party councillors so they wouldn’t get thrown out. He remembers that then, unlike today, it took two days to get a passport for Italy from Eritrea.

Tekle’s story is typical of the close and ambiguous relationship with Italy that has been driving those coming here from Eritrea and Ethiopia for decades. It is not simply migration in search of a better life (like those who come to Italy by chance or for personal reasons, but could very well have gone elsewhere); but it is not a colonial influx like what happened in France or Holland either, because Italy never had a postcolonial policy, and its colonization was in many ways more superficial and half-baked than those of other European countries. 

After the occupiers were thrown out by Haile Selassie in 1941, the Italian families who hastily returned to the homeland brought back friends with them, helpers and servants who formed a first network of support for the habesha community. In 1974 this network welcomed those fleeing the coup in Ethiopia; then those escaping the war with Eritrea; and finally those getting away from the regime established by Isaias Afewerki after the success of the independentist movement, actively backed by many of the political expats. (Some, especially the second and third generations, are still strong supporters, owing to a mixture of distance and pride in conquering an independent identity, which, in their eyes, makes the evidence of the regime’s injustices seem less painful).

The historic roots of the habesha community and the continuity with Italian history makes the category of “migrants” misleading and inadequate. However, there isn’t an alternative because Italy – out of xenophobia, or backwardness – hasn’t digested the idea of a multi-ethnic society in which a different skin colour doesn’t immediately beg the question: “Where are you from?”. 

“I was born and grew up here”, says a young woman interviewed in Asmarina, a recent documentary on the Porta Venezia district. She speaks with a strong Lombard accent which, to a Milanese’s mind, you don’t expect from a Tigray woman. “But they see me as a foreigner”. The same claim, with the same accent, could very well have been made by any of the young Italian-Eritrean men portrayed in these pages, all of them second- and third-generation members of the community based in Porta Venezia.

An example of spontaneous integration between the habesha community and the rest of its inhabitants is Love, a small club run by a women-only Ethiopian family: a mother and three sisters. It hasn’t got any particular features or anything innovative about it – the furnishings are simple, the bar cramped, the cocktails aren’t particularly good – and yet, for years, every weekend and more besides Love has been frequented by a certain bracket of Milanese society we could define as the “creative class”, or, more simply, hipsters. Love’s success is explained (or not explained) by the traditional and difficult-to-pigeonhole mechanisms of the gentrification of nightlife, owing to which a venue without much going for it starts to host, probably thanks to its low costs and lack of any real events programme, some alternative evenings organized by PRs and young, talented DJs.  From then on, it’s child’s play. There are two evenings that have made Love one of the focal points of Milan’s underground nightlife and they’re called “Bruttoposse” and “Girls Love Beyoncé”. They play hip hop and both organizers and participants come from the world of art, fashion and “alternative” publishing. Nevertheless, Love has not always enjoyed the same success. Before it came to the present premises – in Via Melzo, slightly outside the heart of the more obviously habesha maze of streets – it had another name – One Love – and it was in Via Tadino, shoulder to shoulder with Eritrean restaurants and grocery stores. Love’s first life was troubled, owing to some political contrasts within the community, which blew up into episodes of vandalism. While on one hand today it’s quite rare to see a habesha patron in Love – a mark of a badly healed wound – on the other hand, for many of the Milanese who frequent its evenings, it can be a first point of contact with the large Eritrean and Ethiopian community.

The huddles of people you see every day on the pavements in the neighbourhood are not just art curators and stylists with a beer in hand. Every day, the recent waves of migrants bring newcomers to the district, without a penny to their name and no personal items except an old telephone. At times they don’t know anyone, but all the same they’re sure they’ll be able to find a net to fall back on to help them settle down in Milan. They get together to chat – or to bide the long, cruel hours of joblessness – or to find out information – or to offer it – on the steps in front of the Abyssinian restaurant windows, phone centres, tailor’s workshops; the same steps that a few hours later will host young people smooching and drunken thirty-somethings. They wait for Ethiopian mass in the nearby church of San Vincenzo de’ Paoli; they play football at the foot of the gardens hived out of the old ramparts, while listening to Eritrean music on a portable speaker system.

It’s an image that should be particularly familiar to an Italian: many have a grandfather or great-grandfather who will have found something similar in early twentieth-century New York: a compact community neighbourhood slotted into the city but considered alien and foreign by part of it; a support network; an idea of the future. Despite the difficulties, a few decades later in America they’ve had the Fiorello La Guardias and Rudolph Giulianis and Frank Sinatras. Wandering around Porta Venezia you can’t help but be surprised that, now that the shoe’s on the other foot, Italy has not proved to be so open. “Didn’t cross the desert to end up in a square”, reads some graffiti recently spray-painted in the heart of Porta Venezia. 

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