Frances Kennedy: Palermo's heart crumbles to dust

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The Independent Online

Everything on Salvatore D'Anna's vegetable stall looks surreal: split-open pumpkins the size of church bells, watermelons that you need a wheelbarrow to transport, zucchini a yard long. By 11am the sun is beating fiercely on the worn cobblestones, but the blood oranges, plump aubergines and knobbly tomatoes are cool under a green cotton awning.

Everything on Salvatore D'Anna's vegetable stall looks surreal: split-open pumpkins the size of church bells, watermelons that you need a wheelbarrow to transport, zucchini a yard long. By 11am the sun is beating fiercely on the worn cobblestones, but the blood oranges, plump aubergines and knobbly tomatoes are cool under a green cotton awning.

Mr D'Anna's stall is at the start of via dei Panieri, one of the many alleys that make up La Vucciria market, a labyrinth of sights, sounds and smells that is considered the very essence of Palermo. Slightly built and solemn, the 50-year-old stallkeeper was born across the lane from his stand. "I left school at 13 to work here, and on these streets I have earned the equivalent of five degrees," he says without a hint of arrogance.

The market's name comes from the French, boucherie, because it is famed for meat, but its soul and roots are Arab. Established around the year 1000, it is more like a Middle Eastern souk than the open-air markets in the piazzas of continental Italy. You can follow your nose along the narrow streets, shaded by canopies, to the fishmongers, the red-pepper sellers and spice vendors.

La Vucciria was immortalised in a 1974 painting by the Sicilian artist Renato Guttuso, and came to represent in the collective consciousness the essence of the island's capital. Then there were more than 500 businesses, and the market spread right down to the seafront. At the last count there were fewer than 80. Streets that once echoed to the bellows of the octopus- and olive-sellers from dawn to deep into the night are now strangely silent. There are more tourists than Palermitani on the streets, more immigrants than residents in the run-down buildings, and not a week passes without a stall or shop closing down.

"La Vucciria is dying, and for me it's a slow agony, like losing a relative. Each day we have fewer customers. If I didn't supply restaurants and catering services I would have had to close long ago," says Mr D'Anna sadly as he leads me down to the central piazza, the heart - or rather the stomach - of the Vucciria.

To understand one of the reasons for the decline, you simply have to lift your eyes above the stalls, to gaping holes, boarded-up windows, dangling beams and jagged masonry. A faded, hand-written sign on a boarded-up building in via dell'Argenteria reads: "Due to the collapse of this edifice, Antonino Giannuca has been forced to move. You'll find me 25 metres further along on the right."

Francesco Barranca, a swarthy 22-year-old with a sharp haircut, saw the building fall down two years ago, taking his family's butchery as well as Mr Giannuca's business with it. "Everyone fled when we heard these strange noises, as if the building was straining, and within minutes it was rubble. Fortunately there was only one person underneath, and he survived." The Barrancas also moved along the street, to a shop that looks not much different from any other Italian butcher. EU hygiene rules, health scares, growing public squeamishness and heat mean the immense cattle and horse carcasses and the sheep with staring eyes are no longer hung proudly. Stallholders once lived above their businesses, but most have headed for safety in suburbia. Some 2,500 have left in the past couple of years.

Palermo municipality has spent millions of pounds to recover its artistic treasures and crumbling palazzi over recent years. Its consultant architect, Arianna Tuttolomondo, presents me with a computer diagram of the area, different colours corresponding to areas earmarked for restoration by private companies, the council or other bodies. "The harsh reality is that there are other areas of town that have needed more urgent attention," she says, "and we do not have unlimited funds." Palermo, which hosts the next G8 summit in December, is also counting on a big cash injection to finance other restoration projects.

Population shifts are not the only reason for the decline of the colourful market. "These days supermarkets are springing up like mushrooms around Palermo, and young people especially are opting for convenience," says Francesco Lo Cocco, whose family runs a salumeria-cum-corner shop on the edge of the piazza. "Tourists come here, but they just look, and certainly don't keep the economy ticking over," he says, slicing off a wedge of caciocavallo cheese for a customer to try.

While Sicilians are moving out, however, some foreigners are moving in. Young artists, many of them German and Austrian, have been attracted by the neighbourhood's atmosphere of dilapidation. In their headquarters, Piazza Ramacca, old men in hats sit playing cards below a 2m-high statue of a chest of drawers. The skeletal interiors of decaying palazzi have been turned into works of art and their walls decorated.

Far more numerous are the extracomunitari, the non-EU immigrants who squat or pay peppercorn rents in some of the abandoned buildings. Reactions to them are mixed. "All these foreigners, Senegalese, Pakistanis, Kosovars, who have moved in here have not helped. People are nervous about coming here, especially in the evening," complains Francesco Lo Cocco. But other marketeers say the immigrants are welcome.

"They don't bother us. In fact we are glad to have them in the area," says Placido Taormina with a grin. "They do their shopping here, and if there were some incentives I think they would probably try to start up businesses, too." As if on cue, Maria, a 30-year-old from Sri Lanka, enters to buy some veal offcuts. "I have been here for 13 years working as a domestic servant," she says. "My husband doesn't have a regular job but we get by." She seems undisturbed at living in an area where buildings are in danger of collapsing. "It is cheap here, we live well, and my four-year-old son speaks Italian just like the other kids."

On the fringes of the Vucciria there are signs of gentrification. Crumbling buildings have been gutted and rebuilt for lawyers, architects and doctors, their façades and wrought-iron balconies painted in Mediterranean colours and with satellite antennae installed on top. Some Vucciria residents fear the decline of the market is being encouraged by building speculators, who will snap up the ruins and turn the area into a middle-class ghetto, robbed of its historic character.

There's an old phrase in Palermo, used when locals are pressed to say when or whether something might happen: " quando si assciugano le balate della Vucciria" ("when the paving stones of the Vucciria turn dry") - which, given the constant washing-down with water by the stallholders, meant never. Unless efforts to reverse the decline are intensified, however, that old saying, like the market itself, may have to be consigned to the history books.