Nighttime haunts go in and out of fashion, but Milan’s Bar Basso, which opened in 1967, remains one of the city’s most venerable social institutions. Embodying a very Milanese combination of stylish prosperity and tasteful design, it is a favorite destination for the area’s creative elite and the discreetly wealthy.
Tucked away in a corner, Pierluigi Dialuce explained why, if a political nightmare unfolds in the rest of Italy, the city that he has made his home could cope.
“It’s very possible that the country is heading for a moment when the hard right and [Italian Deputy Prime Minister] Matteo Salvini take power — perhaps in an alliance with the Brothers of Italy Party,” he said. “We’re talking [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban-style politics at that point, but Milan will stay as it is. There’s too much money here for that not to be the case. Then we will be even more different from the rest of Italy, but that’s fine by me. Better that way, in fact.”
Illustration: Mountain People
Dialuce is a 30-something financial consultant with one of the myriad multinational organizations that have made Milan a service hub for international finance.
He grew up in Rome, but came north 13 years ago to study economics at the famous Bocconi University. For a while, he worked for British banking group Barclays and then had a few brief spells abroad, but now he intends to stay in Italy’s richest, most cosmopolitan city.
“This place has changed enormously in recent years. It’s much more international,” he said. “There’s been so much investment and there’s so much culture going on — stuff that you won’t find in the rest of Italy. The ‘Milanese’ don’t exist anymore. Milan is made up of the professionals who have come here because there are opportunities that don’t exist back home. They’re the best of Italy. It’s a kind of natural selection that goes on, creating a community that is much more European, open and tolerant in its mindset. Milan is not Italy.”
Dialuce’s confidence is borne out by a poll conducted last year that found that 85 percent of residents would not wish to live anywhere else, while 81 percent believed that their city should be seen as an economic role model to emulate.
However, while the likes of Paris, Amsterdam, Munich and Berlin might reasonably aspire to compete with Milan, the rest of Italy, after 20 years of economic stagnation, can only dream of it.
Milan moves in its own orbit, reaping rewards from an economy centered on finance, technology, design and innovation. It has become fashionable as well as rich.
Next year, Milan is to host the World Cities Culture Summit. In 2026, the Winter Olympic Games are to be held there, as well as in the Alpine town of Cortina.
Unprecedented levels of foreign investment are driving new developments across the city. More than 40 major construction projects worth US$21 billion are to be undertaken over the next 15 years.
Left-of-center Milanese Mayor Giuseppe Sala has presided over a 50 percent rise in tourism based on aggressive promotion of the city’s cultural assets, from the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci to the attractions of the city’s thriving LGBT quarter in Porta Venezia.
Next year, the international book fair usually held in Turin is moving to Milan.
Only the city’s two soccer teams, Inter and AC Milan, have failed to keep up with the city’s pace of growth and development, although Inter — now under Chinese ownership — took a respectable second in the national championship.
The more the money flows in, the more ambitious and talented young Italians arrive, and the more foreign investors bet on the future. Across the city, monuments to prosperity have sprung up such as Zaha Hadid’s “twisting tower,” which overlooks a park and the gated communities of luxury condominiums designed by Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and Japanese architect Arata Isozaki.
Milan is a truly global city, but — as elsewhere in Europe — this metropolitan success story is coming at a high price.
Brussels-based think tank the Centre for European Reform published a paper in May titled The Big European Sort? The diverging fortunes of Europe’s regions. The “sort” refers to a sifting process that is steadily transforming the demography of EU member states and driving the polarization that increasingly defines politics in Europe and beyond.
The post-industrial city is a success story based on the clustering of high-end services in the great metropolises, according to the study’s authors.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, industrial heartlands such as the Ruhr in Germany suffered from relative — and in some cases absolute — decline in industrial output. The largest cities — often capitals such as Paris or London — were able to replace a declining industrial production with high-value services,” the report said.
By the 21st century, these reinvented metropolises needed a new kind of population, which was “younger, more highly educated and richer than Europeans who live in less successful cities and towns,” the report said.
“Less successful places are losing people, especially in countries with aging demographics,” it said, adding that the consequence is a damaging divide between aging towns and rural areas and the great cities.
“The political effects of regional sorting are predictable: frustration at relative economic decline in poorer regions, a sense of loss of community as younger people leave and grievances about metropolitan ‘elites’ running the country for their own benefit,” the report said.
These themes have also preoccupied thinkers such as France’s Christophe Guilluy and Guillaume Faburel, geographers reflecting on the new reality that the politics of place is becoming as important as class, race and gender in understanding the signs of turbulent times.
Guilluy, author of La France peripherique, is a trenchant critic of what he describes as 21st century “citadels,” which have become the “shop window of happy globalization.”
Superstar cities are the preserve of an inner-city elite, whose everyday needs are catered to by a low-paid precariat, living on the peripheries of the urban sprawl, Guilluy said.
“The traditional working classes no longer live where the good jobs and wealth are created,” he added.
Roberto Camagni, a Milan native and a professor of urban economics at the Polytechnic University of Milan, has watched it boom in recent years with a mixture of admiration and trepidation.
“I thought it would peak, but it keeps on going,” Camagni said.
He has calculated that between 2000 and 2016, Milan increased its share of Italy’s GDP by 17.7 percent. Only four other cities registered increases, and the next highest was Rome at 4.4 percent. Everywhere else lost out as the country’s economy flat-lined.
“It was big cities like Milan, not nation states, that benefited most from the great wave of integration that came with the European single market,” Camagni said.
“The city provides financiers, lawyers, designers, artists, culture — everything required to be a modern international hub. It has a monopoly on the high-end services that command the highest prices and the rest of Italy has to pay those prices. In fashion, it sits on top of a long global chain that has low-paid garment workers in Vietnam at the bottom,” he said.
“The problem is that this miracle in Milan only involves the million-or-so people at its very heart. The city has shaken off the industrial hinterland that made it great in the 20th century. In the end, this creates a problem of dignity for other places,” Camagni added.
Places such as Melzo, a small Lombard town that lies about 19km northwest of Milan and no more than 20 minutes away by train.
Leaving the station, travelers are confronted by a stretch of wasteland and a huge, crumbling monument to a distinguished past, when Melzo’s dairy industry enjoyed national fame. This melancholy edifice is what remains of the old Galbani offices, the headquarters of the company producing the original Bel Paese cheese at the beginning of the 20th century.
Abandoned in the mid-1980s, it has become a public health hazard, locals said.
The industrial ruins serve to underline the sense of a loss of vocation in a proud town, where the metalworking industry has also disappeared.
In the summer, metalworkers from Melzo were among thousands of demonstrators in Milan, protesting against the possible loss of 2,000 steelworking jobs in Lombardy.
Deindustrialization has turned Melzo into a dormitory town.
Antony Bottani, who was born and grew up in Melzo, works as a lab technician for a firm producing chemical products 24km away, but is on the verge of retirement.
“The town has lost a lot of its life,” he said. “Big firms like Galbani were powering ahead here and the town thrived. That’s all gone and much of the countryside around here is now used for agritourism, not farming, so there aren’t the jobs on the land — and the town is getting older and older.”
Bottani’s son, Gabriele, is 18 and goes to college in the nearby town of Gorgonzola.
“He’s studying IT,” Bottani said. “Hopefully that way he’ll find work in Milan, but it’s not good the way that towns like Melzo are going. This used to be a communist town. Now it’s become a town of the right. People want change.”
In May’s European elections, Milan voted for the Democratic Party, while the rest of Lombardy voted for Salvini’s far-right League.
Afterward, Pietro Bussolati, a Milanese Democratic Party official on the Regional Council of Lombardy, sat down with colleagues and drew up a novel map of metropolitan Milan.
“It wasn’t just of the city, but also of the surrounding area,” Bussolati said. “What we found was that the proportion of center-left votes in a place was directly related to the availability of fast means of transport to Milan itself. In all the places where people didn’t have that, and where frequent contact with Milan was more difficult, the vote went to the center-right.”
“In my opinion this is not about salaries,” he added. “It’s about how much direct knowledge one has of how innovation and openness help bring about economic growth. The more you can see that the universities, the research institutes and openness to the rest of the world bring about opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have, the more you are likely to vote center-left and express liberal values.”
“By the same token, the less you see of that, the more likely you are to fall for myths about migrants who steal and so on — and to vote for the League,” Bussolati said.
Nevertheless, Bussolati is realistic enough to concede that better transport links would not bridge the yawning economic and cultural divide between Europe’s flourishing megacities and angry towns.
“There is no rabbit to pull out of the hat that could solve a problem that has been developing for years,” he said.
“The future is going to be less and less about nation states and more and more about the great cities,” Bussolati said. “They have the wealth of the future in their hands. The goal has to be to make sure that wealth doesn’t just stay in those cities, but is dispersed outside the city gates. This is the massive priority for the global left: how to manage the future growth of the great cities.”
The new City Life district of Milan last year acquired its most high-profile occupant when famous Italian fashion blogger and influencer Chiara Ferragni moved into a Hadid-designed penthouse with a view of Isozaki’s Allianz Tower, as well as a glimpse of the Duomo.
The luxury development has been built on the site of the old trade and design fairs that attracted presidents, popes and film stars to Milan throughout the past century.
An exhibition of photographs that tells the story of Milan’s industrial past features a quote from Finnish-American architect Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen: “Always design a thing by considering its context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city.”
In this age of suburbia for Europe’s booming cities, it is tempting to add: “A city in a region, and a region in a country.”
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