The good, the bad, and forget the ugly: changes in Florence at the turn of the millennium

The good, the bad, and forget the ugly: changes in Florence at the turn of the millennium

At a certain point, Florence becomes part of our own life history.

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Fri 10 Mar 2023 3:38 PM

I can honestly say, because I’ve lived here for so long, I have witnessed some major changes in Florence. I came from Michigan to do a two-year art conservation program back in the Eighties and, sure enough, the ancient city pulled me in like so many other expats, so much so that it has become part of my own life’s history.

Back then, borgo degli Albizi used to be a treasure cove of local artisans and, to keep the Florentine male population well groomed, every other door was a barber shop. Believe it or not, there was still a place that fluffed up sheep’s wool used to stuff mattresses (the most uncomfortable mattress you’ll ever sleep in!). Carta e Cartone wasn’t a stationery shop, but it was where I bought drawing paper by the meter cut from big rolls in the back of their warehouse. Buying Fabriano drawing pads from the art supply shop had to wait until I could afford them.

Florence was terribly dirty back then, with traffic going around the Duomo turning its multicolored marble into a dull gray.

The city couldn’t keep up its cleaning, having to start all over again by the time they scrubbed their way around the entire cathedral. The streets accumulated the trash you had to put in the street outside your building for pick-up, which didn’t always happen on time. And, of course, there was no recycling. If you think dog poop on the streets is bad today, you should have seen the mess back then. It wasn’t until 2017 that a law was passed in Florence to get a fine if your doggie was caught hunched over in number two position: 160 euro, for what it’s worth.

Three cypresses and the Duomo. Ph. Marco Badiani

The worst part of the Eighties and Nineties were the drug dealers in the historical center.

The worst part of the Eighties and Nineties were the drug dealers in the historical center. I’m talking about the really horrible stuff, like heroin. Our home was an apartment by Santa Croce with my husband and our two small children. Looking down from our window into the street where Michelangelo once walked to Casa Buonarroti, I often would see an addict sitting on the curb behind a parked car plugging his ankle or arm with a needle. Needles were left in abundance in the streets and parks. Once, when I was getting the stroller out of our building for a walk, I found a needle used like a dart stuck in the center of the front door. I worked in the museum as a fresco restorer at the time, and though the daycare where I took my toddlers provided excellent care and food, the preschool teachers had to scope out the garden with gloves to see if any needles were thrown over the preschool’s wall. AIDS was prevalent in that era, and the risk of infection could be picked up from a simple prick of a dirty needle.

We moved to the country to an affordable, secluded fienile on a hillside near Montespertoli.

We moved to the country to an affordable, secluded fienile on a hillside near Montespertoli. The move wasn’t easy, but I could still drive into work, while allowing my children to grow up in Tuscany’s natural setting. It was the best choice, yet now when I arrive in the center of Florence, as many problems as it may have, the historical aspect still fills me with a sense of belonging and inspiration. I do get nostalgic for the old Florentine artist and craftsman shops, which have been replaced by restaurants and pubs for tourists. It seems like after the lockdown, now more than ever, half the world wants to see the Renaissance city. But even if it’s immersed in chaotic confusion, taking a walk through Florence’s historical streets, past its piazzas and palazzi, you can’t help feeling that the ancient city hasn’t changed throughout the centuries. If you’ve been here for a while, you know what I’m talking about: you take the good with the bad, and leave the ugly parts of the past behind.

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