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Stories and landscapes in Milan, Italy: an ethnography of public urban spaces

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(Thesis) Ph.D.
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Based on fieldwork carried out in 2004/2005, this dissertation explores how different people and social groups participate in public space in Milan, Italy. In the first part of my work I discuss three different perspectives on public space and their implications on its openness and accessibility. First, I examine how a street forum by the largely Italian, middle class, association VivereMilano activates the ideal of public space as agora of the city, all while marginalizing issues of importance to less privileged residents of the city. Secondly, I look at how Milanese oppositional Social Centers depict urban space as deeply political and as a central locus and object of struggle. Thirdly, I look at some aspects of the complex relationship between immigration and urban space. Although public spaces are a precious resource for several new immigrants, they are usually the ones who have the hardest time to claim them as their own. In the second part of this thesis, I argue that visibility is an important aspect of city life. I trace how some people I met during my research used embodied practices of seeing and performative engagements to imagine and situate themselves in Milan’s social landscape. I also reflect on how some oppositional groups adopt a language of (in)visibility to talk about inequality in the city, and to draw attention to the invisible social actors and the spatial ghosts of the postindustrial urban terrain. In this part of my work I theorize vision as embodied, multiple, and contested, and connected to circulating discourses on the way the city should look like and who should figure in it. As not every body can enter the field of vision in the same way, ways of seeing and appearing can reinforce gender, class, and race hierarchies in urban locales. In turn, less privileged inhabitants of Milan can use alternative ways of representing the city and their presence in it to help create a public space that would be more inclusive and egalitarian.
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