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Italy’s fashion capital is best known as the place to strike a pose. But the artsy district of Milan, Isola, offers a less airbrushed alternative.

A woman in a floral skirt and slippers is diligently sweeping the entrance hall of an elegant building overlooking Via Borsieri. As I walk past, trying to catch a glimpse of the lush inner yard, she grunts a dispirited “buongiorno”, staring at me with an expression conveying both curiosity and reproach. Perhaps it’s my insistent lurking putting her off.

You don’t expect people to stare in Milan, a city that is in general too busy to care (unless you’re not complying with its strict fashion imperatives). But I’m in Isola, a former working-class neighbourhood that seems to struggle to keep up with the pace of change ahead of Milan’s upcoming international fair, Expo 2015.

Isola looks like a quiet town rather than a district in Italy’s second-largest and most happening city. The name, Italian for “island”, refers to the farms, locally known as isole, that used to dot this territory. However, the Milanese like to think it refers to the geographical isolation that this neighbourhood, cut off from the rest of the city by train tracks on one side and a flyover on the other, has always enjoyed.

It’s a unique place, where people still shop at the baker’s and the butcher’s and where everybody is on first-name terms. But it’s also Milan’s new up-and-coming neighbourhood, currently at the heart of the most ambitious project of urban renewal the city has seen in decades.

Fashion boutiques, bistros and wine bars are opening everywhere in Isola, and just south of the neighbourhood several steel-and-glass skyscrapers and residential developments are being built. The magnificent silhouettes of the Palazzo Lombardia, the new seat of the regional government, and the Torre Hines, Italy’s tallest building, are already iconic presences in Milan’s skyline. 

As I stroll down streets lined by hundreds of parked cars – it typically takes hours and a lot of swearing to find a spot – I walk past Art Nouveau buildings, former council houses (with pretty inner yards surrounded on each floor by balconies with railings), graffiti and a surprising number of shops where artisans have worked for decades.

Isola is a neighbourhood of people who make things. Taking greedy drags from a cigarette, a Sicilian carpenter who moved here in the late Fifties shows me his workshop, a messy room that smells like sawdust and is filled with old chairs and cupboards. Next door, a young man is lifting the shutters of a store where old lutes and mandolins are fixed. Unaware of the difference between the two instruments, I ask him about his job, but his laconic answers sound to me like a polite invite to let him go on with his work.

But still, in a city where furniture is inexorably linked with expensive designer brands, seeing authentic old botteghe like these is a rare treat.


Visiting arty Italy: Milan
Digital Mag

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