The heart of a city. The soul of a city. The pride of a city. The historic district. Cities indeed tend to be proud of their historic districts, and this tendency has undoubtly spread worldwide. Yet, this was not the case with the Centro Storico of Palermo, at least for decades. All bad things must come to an end.
This part of Palermo is redolent of the foundation of the city in 734 BC and all the invadors who were tempted by Palermitan beauty and its strategic position in the Mediterranean; it has seen travellers, artists and hosted cultures that have given it a unique shape and character.
When you stroll along its streets and happen to see a scruffy coffee shop, don’t turn away, don’t feel repulsed, do enter. You should know in advance that the black beverage will probably not meet your expectations about Italian coffee, but in exchange you may learn something interesting. The barista I meet is not usually very busy and likes chatting with his clients. He recalled, for instance, what the district was like during the time of the wall. It’s ok, we haven’t moved to Berlin, we’re still in Palermo! Well, the man told me that the wall had been built up in Alloro Street and its role was to scare off intruders. He claims that there had been so much poverty that those who couldn’t resist the temptation and infringe on the locals’ privacy, left deprived of what they had with them, and even what they had on, shoes included.
The barista said that everyone calls him il picconatore, a person who works with a pickaxe, because he’d been the one who started tearing down the wall with an axe.
Up until about fifteen years ago there were still plenty of abandoned buildings around the centro storico. Empty. Neglected.They were deprived of their original colour, low reliefs and frescoes. Without windows, without their roofs. Balconies without platforms. Lush weeds and plants growing freely out of façades. Entire streets and squares looked creepy, as if they’d been bombed.
At some point, the local authorities regained their lost awareness, and haunted-looking gems of architecture started to shake the dust off their walls and to wake up from a nasty dream.
Those who first came to live in the centro storico must have seemed like mavericks (or clairvoyants). However, nowadays it’s trendy to live here, but for some it’s even unaffordable. It’s become multicultural, it attracts people searching for an alternative way of life. The reason being that here you don’t have to grapple with many of the gnawing problems such as traffic. Although you are in the center of the capital of the region, you have the impression that you’re in a small village, and if you’re one of the lucky ones that enjoy a big private garden, you may even feel as if you live in the countryside.
It’s peculiar how two very different realities meet here and coexist rather well: doctors, judges, architects, film makers and artists live next to the old residents of the area who collect scrap metal, run illegal street food stands or who sit (who knows if comfortably) on their chairs in the middle of the street and, depending on the season, enjoy or curse the sun.
This part of Palermo has opened its doors to artisans who work and sell their products right here. There are also numerous ateliers, restaurants, pubs, art galleries and a place that has been squated and thanks to local activists turned into a library. You’ll find museums, monuments, parks, meadows, a big open space for jogging, cycling or playing with your children (be aware! – there are no playgrounds, playing here is demanding and requires initiative and imagination).
It looks as if many want a piece of this delicious cake; some people even say that large numbers of ghosts who used to live in the above mentioned abandoned houses don’t feel like giving away their piece. If they’ve seen the hereafter and decided to remain, there must be a reason. However, the centro storico is not perfect, there’s still a lot to do and please note that there’s space for newcomers. And don’t worry, the local ghosts are harmless.