Zones of Authentic Pleasure: Gentrification, Middle Class Taste and Place Making in Milan




gentrification, authenticity, atmosphere

How to Cite

Semi, G. (2011). Zones of Authentic Pleasure: Gentrification, Middle Class Taste and Place Making in Milan. M/C Journal, 14(5).
Vol. 14 No. 5 (2011): zone
Published 2011-10-18

Introduction: At the Crossroad

Well, I’ve been an important pawn [in regeneration], for instance, changing doors and windows, enlarging them, eliminating shutters and thus having big open windows, light […] Then came the florist, through a common friend, who was the second huge pawn who trusted in this […] then came the pastry shop. (Alberto, 54, shop owner).

Alberto is the owner of Pleasure Factory, one of two upmarket restaurants in a gentrifying crossroads area in northern Milan. He started buying apartments and empty stores in the 1980s, later becoming property manager of the building where he still lives. He also opened two restaurants, and then set up a neighbourhood commercial organisation. Alberto’s activities, and those of people like him, have been able to reverse the image and the usage of this public crossroad. This is something of which all of the involved actors are well aware. They have “bet,” as they say, and somehow “won” by changing people’s common understanding of, and approach to, this zone.

This paper argues for the necessity of a closer look at the ways that place is produced through the multiple activities of small entrepreneurs and social actors, such as Alberto. This is because these activities represent the softer side of gentrification, and can create zones of pleasure and authenticity. Whilst market forces and multiple public interventions of gentrification’s “hard” side can lead to the displacement of people and uneven development, these softer zones of authenticity and pleasure have the power to shape the general neighbourhood brand (Atkinson 1830). Speaking rhetorically, these zones act as synecdoche for the surrounding environment.

Places are in part built through the “atmosphere” that consumers seek throughout their daily routines. Following Gernot Böhme’s approach to spatial aesthetics, atmosphere can be viewed as the “relation between environmental qualities and human states” (114) and this relation is worked out daily in gentrified neighbourhoods. Not only do the passer-bys, local entrepreneurs, and sociologists contribute to the local making of atmosphere, but so does the production of the environmental qualities. These are the private and public interventions aimed at refurbishing, and somehow sanitising, specific zones of central neighbourhoods in order to make them suitable for middle class tastes (Julier 875).

Not all gentrification processes are similar however, because of the unique influence of each city’s scalar rearrangements. The following section therefore briefly describes the changes in Milan in recent times. The paper will then describe the making of a zone of authentic pleasure at the Isola crossroads. I will show that soft gentrification happens through the making of specific zones where supply and demand match in ways that make for pleasant living.

Milan, from Global to Local and Back

Milan has a peculiar role in both the Italian and European contexts. Its metropolitan area, of 7.4 million inhabitants on a 12 000 km² surface, makes it the largest in Italy and the fifth in Europe (following Ruhr, Moscow, Paris and London). The municipal power has been pushing for a long-term strategy of population growth that would make Milan the “downtown” of the overall metropolitan area (Bricocoli and Savoldi 19), and take advantage of scalar rearrangements, such as State reconfigurations and setbacks. The overall goal of the government of Milan has been to increase the tax base and the local government’s political power. Milan also demonstrates the entrepreneurial turn adopted by many global cities, evident in the amount of project-based interventions, the involvement of international architecture studios (“La città della Moda” by Cesar Pelli; “Santa Giulia” by Norman Foster; “City-Life” and “the Fair” by Zaha Hadid and David Libeskind), and the hosting of mega-events, such as the Expo 2015.

The Milan growth machine works then at different scales (global, national, city-region, neighbourhood) with several organisational actors involved, enormous investments and heavy political struggles to decide which coalition of winning actors will ride the tiger of uneven development. However, when we look at those transformations through the lens of the neighbourhood what we see is the making of zones within the larger texture of its streets and squares. This zone-making is similar to leopard’s spots within a contained urban space, it works for some time in specific streets and crossroads, then moves throughout the neighbourhood, as the process of gentrification goes on.

The neighbourhood, which the zone of authentic pleasure I’m describing occurs, is called Isola (Island) because of its clustered shape between a railroad on the southern border and three major roads on the others. Isola was, until the 1980s, a working-class residential space with a strong tradition of left-wing political activism, with some small manufacturing businesses and minor commercial activities. This area remained quite removed from the overall urban development that radically shifted Milan towards a service economy in the 1960s and 1970s. However, during the 1980s and 1990s, the land price impacts of private activities and public policies in surrounding neighbourhoods increasingly pushed people and activities in the direction of Isola. Alberto explains this drift through the example of his first apartment:

Just look at the evolution of my apartment. I bought it [in the 1980s] for 57 million lira, I remember, then sold it in 1992 for 160, then it was sold again for 200 000 euros, then four years ago for 250 000 and you have to understand that we’re talking about 47 square metres. If you consider the last price, 250 000, I’ll tell you that when I first came to the neighbourhood you could easily buy an entire building with that money. The building at number five in this street was entirely sold for 550 millions lira—you understand now why Isola is a huge real estate investment, people like it, its central, well served by the underground—well it still has to grow from a commercial standpoint…

This evolution in land prices is clear when translated into the price for square metre: 2.4 euros for square meter in 1985, 3.4 in 1992, 4.2 in 2000 and 5.3 in 2006. The ratio increase is 120% in 20 years, demonstrating both the general boost in the economy of the area and also what is at stake within uneven development.

What this paper argues is that parallel to this political economy dimension, which may be called the “hard side” of gentrification, there is also a “soft side” that deserves a closer attention. Pastry shops, cafés, bars, restaurants are as strategic as real estate investments (Zukin, Landscapes 195). The spatial concept that best captures the rationale of these activities is the zone, meaning a small and localised cluster of activities. I chose to add the features of pleasure and authenticity because of the role they play in ordinary consumption practices. In order to illustrate the specific relevance of soft gentrification I will now turn to the description of the Isola crossroad, a place that has been re-created through the interventions of several actors, such as Alberto above, and also Franca and her pastry shop.

A Zone of Authentic Pleasure: Franca’s Pleasure Corner

We’re walking through a small residential street and arrive at a crossroad. We turn to look to the four corners, one is occupied by a public school building, the second and the third by upmarket restaurants, and the last by a “typical” Sicilian pastry shop and café. We decide to enter here, find a seat and order a coffee together with a small cassata, a cake made with sweet cheese, almonds, pistachios and candied fruit. While we are experiencing this southern Italian breakfast at some thousand miles of spatial distance from its original site, a short man enters. He’s a well renowned TV comedian, best known for his would-be-magician gags. Everybody in the café recognises him but pretends to ignore his presence, he buys some pastries and leaves. Other customers come and go. The shop owner, an Italian lady in her forties called Franca, approaches to me and declares: “as you can see for yourself, we see elegant people here.” In this kind of neighbourhood it is common to see and share space with such “elegant” and well-known people, and to feel that a pleasant atmosphere is created through this public display.

Franca opened the pastry shop three years ago, a short time after the upmarket restaurants on the other corners. However, when we interviewed her she wasn’t yet satisfied with the atmosphere: “when I go downtown and come back, I feel depressed … it’s developing but still has not grown enough … Isn’t one of the classic rich places in Milan—it’s kind of a weird place.” Through these and other similar statements she expressed a feeling of delusion toward the neighbourhood—a feeling on which she’s building her tale—that emerged in contrast to the kind of environment Franca would consider more apt for her shop.

Franca’s a newcomer, but knows that the neighbourhood has been “sanitised.” “It really was a criminal area” she states, using overtly derogatory terms just like they were neutral: “riffraff” for the customers of ordinary bars, “dull” for the northern part of the neighbourhood where “there even are kebab shops.” In contrast she lists her beloved customers: journalists, architects, two tenors, people working at the theatre nearby, and the local TV celebrity described earlier. When she refers to the crossroad she speaks of it as, “maybe the gem of the neighbourhood.” At some point she declares what makes her proud:

A place like this regenerates the neighbourhood—to be sure, if I ever open a harbour bar I’d attract riffraff who would discredit the place. In short it’s not, to make an example, a club where you play cards, that bring in the underworld, noise, nuisance—here the customer is the typical middle class, all right people.

The term “all right people” reoccurs in several of Franca’s statements. Her initial economic sacrifices, relative though if, as she says, she’s able to open another shop in a more central place (“we would like to become a chain-store”), are now compensated by the recognition she gets from her more polished clients. She also expresses a personal satisfaction in the role she has played in the changes in Isola: “until now it’s just a matter of personal satisfaction—of seeing, I’ve built this stuff.”

Franca’s story demonstrates that the soft side of gentrification is also produced by individuals that have little in common with the huge capital investment that is at stake in real estate development, or the chain stores that are also opening in the neighbourhood. In one way, Franca is alone in her quest for regeneration, as most entrepreneurs are. In another way, though, she is not. Not only is she participating in the “upgrading” together with other small business owners and consumers who all agree on the direction to follow, thus building together a zone of authentic pleasure, but she can also rely on a “critical infrastructure” of architects, designers and consultants (Zukin, Landscapes 202) that knows perfectly how to do the job.

With much pride in her interior design choices, Franca pointed out how her café mixes chic with classic and opposing them to a flashy and folk décor. She showed us the black-and-white pictures at the wall depicting Paris in the 1960s, the unique design coffee machine model she owns, and the flower vases conceived by a famous designer and filled by her neighbour florist. The colours chosen for the interior are orange, tied to oranges—a typical product of Sicily, whereas the brown colour relates to the land, and the gold is linked to elegance. The mixing of warm colours, Franca explained, makes the atmosphere cosy. Where did this owner get all these idea(l)s? Franca relied on an Italian interior design studio, which works at a global scale furnishing hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, bathing establishments, and airports in New York, Barcelona, Paris, and Milan. The architect with whom she dealt with let her “work together” in order to have an autonomous set of choices that match the brand’s offer. Authenticity thus becomes part of the décor in a systematic way, and the feeling of a pleasant atmosphere is constantly reproduced through the daily routines of consumption.

Again, not alone in the regeneration process but feeling as if she is “on her own,” Franca struggles daily to protect the atmosphere she’s building:

“My point is avoiding having kids or tramps as customers—I don’t want an indiscriminate presence, like people coming here for a glass of wine and maybe getting drunk. I mean, this is not the place to come and have a bianchino [cheap white wine]. People coming here have a spumante, and behave in a completely different fashion.”

The opposition between a bianchino, the cheap white wine, and the spumante is one that clarifies the moral boundary between the targets of soft gentrification. In Italian popular culture, and especially in the past, it was a common male habit to have bianchino from late morning onwards. Bars therefore served as gendered public spaces where common people would rest from working activities and the family sphere. Franca, together with many new bars and cafes that construct zones of authentic pleasure in gentrifying neighbourhoods, is trying to update this cultural practice. The spumante adds a sparkling element to consumption and is branded as a trendy aperitif wine, which appeals to younger tastes and lifestyles.

By utilising a global design studio, Franca connects to global patterns of urban development and the homogenising of local atmospheres. Furthermore, by preferencing different consumption behaviours she contributes to the social transformation of the neighbourhood by selecting customers. This tendency towards segregation, rather than mixing, is a relevant feature here, since the Franca’s favourite clientele are clearly “people like us” (Butler 2469). Zones like the one described above are thus places where uneven development shows its social, interactive and public façade.

Pleasure and Authenticity in Soft Gentrification

The production of “atmosphere” in a gentrifying neighbourhood goes together with customers’ taste and preferences. The supply-side of building the environmental landscape for a “pleasant” zone needs a demand-side, consumers buying, supporting, and appreciating the outcome of the activities of business people like Franca. The two are one, most of the time, because tastes and preferences are linked to class, gender, and ethnicity, which makes a sort of mutual redundancy. To put it abruptly: similar people, spending their time in the same places and in a similar way.

As I have shown above, the pastry shop owner Franca went for mixing chic and classic in her interior design. That is distinctiveness and familiarity, individualisation and commonality in one unique environment. Seen from the consumer’s perspective, this leads to what has been depicted by Sharon Zukin in her account of the crisis of authenticity in New York. People, she says, are yearning for authenticity because this:

reflects the separation between our experience of space and our sense of self that is so much a part of modern mentalities. Though we think authenticity refers to a neighbourhood’s innate qualities, it really expresses our own anxieties about how places change. The idea of authenticity is important because it connects our individual yearning to root ourselves in a singular time and place to a cosmic grasp or larger social forces that remake our world from many small and often invisible actions. (220)

Among the “many small and invisible actions” are the ones made by Franca and the global interior design firm she hired, but also those done daily by her customers. For instance, Christian a young advertising executive who lives two blocks away from the pastry shop. He defines himself an “executive creative director” [in English, while the interview was in Italian]. Asked on cooking practices and the presentation he makes to his guests, he declares that the main effort is on:

The mise en place—the mise en place with no doubt. The mise en place must be appropriate to what you’re doing. Sometimes you get the mise en place simply serving a plateau, when you correctly couple cheese and salami, even better when you couple fresh cheese with vegetables or you give a slightly creative touch with some fruit salad, like seitan with avocado, no? They become beautiful to see and the mise en place saves it, the aesthetics does its job …

Do you feel there are foods, beverages or consumption occasions you consider not worth giving up at all?

The only thing I wouldn’t give up is going out in the morning, and having a cappuccino down there in the tiny pastry shop and having some brioches while I’m at the bar. Those that are not frozen beforehand but cooked just in time and have a breakfast, for just two euros, two euros and ten […] cappuccino and fresh brioche, baked just then, otherwise I cannot even think—if I’m in Milan I hardly think correctly—I mean I can’t wake up really without a good cappuccino and a good brioche.

Christian is one of the new residents that was attracted to this neighbourhood because of the benefits of its uneven development: relatively affordable rent prices, services, and atmosphere. Commonality is among them, but also distinctiveness. Each morning he can have his “good cappuccino and good brioche” freshly baked to suit his taste and that allows him to differentiate between other brioches, namely the industrialised ones, those “frozen beforehand.” More importantly, he can do this by simply crossing the street and entering one of the pleasure zones that are making Isola, there and now, the new gentrified Milanese neighbourhood.

Zones of Authentic Pleasure

In this paper I have argued that a closer attention to the softer side of gentrification can help to understand how taste and uneven development mesh together, to produce the common shape we find in gentrified neighbourhoods. These typical urban spaces are made of streets, sidewalks, squares, and walls, but also shop windows and signs, pavement cafés, planters, and the street-life that turns around all of this. Both built environment and interaction produces the atmosphere of authentic pleasure, which is offered by local entrepreneurs and sought by the people who go there. Pleasure is a central feature because of the increasing role of consumption activities in the city and the role of individual consumption practices. I  f we observe closely the local scale where all of these practices take place, we can clearly distinguish one zone from another because of their localised effervescence. Neighbourhoods are not equally affected by gentrification. Internally specific zones emerge as those having the capacity to subsume the entire process. These are the ones I have described in this paper—zones of authentic pleasure, where the supply and demand for an authentic distinctive and communal atmosphere takes place. Ephemeral spaces; if one looks at the political economy of place through a macro lens. But if the aim is to understand why certain zones prove to be successful and others not, then exploring how soft gentrification is daily produced and consumed is fundamental.


This article draws on data produced by the research team for the CSS project ‘Middle Class and Consumption: Boundaries, Standards and Discourses’.

The team comprised Marco Santoro, Roberta Sassatelli and Giovanni Semi (Coordinators), Davide Caselli, Federica Davolio, Paolo Magaudda, Chiara Marchetti, Federico Montanari and Francesca Pozzi (Research Fellows). The ethnographic data on Milan were mainly produced by Davide Caselli and by the Author. The author wishes to thank the anonymous referees for wise and kind remarks and Michelle Hall for editing and suggestions.


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