My neighbourhood, Testaccio, has been the stomach of Rome on and off for two millennia. Now, because of the wisdom of modern urban planning, it's about to undergo one of its more radical transformations, from which I fear it will not recover.
Testaccio sits on the southern fringes of Rome's historic centre, sandwiched between the Tiber River and the remnants of the ancient Severian and Aurelian walls. In Roman times, the area was stuffed with public food warehouses for the oil, wine and grain that arrived in endless convoys from far-flung parts of the Mediterranean. From the late 19th century until 1975, it housed one of Europe's largest slaughterhouses; and for most of the past 100 years, it has been dominated by a bustling market, one that is about to close.
Some time in the 1930s – the records are not precise – the market was placed under an undulating concrete roof and became the market we see today. It is the centre of Testaccio life, ringed by caffes and stores that sell everything from Prada shoes to wine from Puglia.
Since I moved to the city five years ago, the market has been the centre of my Roman life, part market, part social club, always entertaining and full of a rich array of characters. I considered it one of Rome's – and Western Europe's – last bastions of independent family shops, each doing its tiny bit to fend off the franchise-laden onslaught that has turned grocery-getting into an exercise in dreariness and social alienation. Independent shop owners have pride in their work. They will treat you well to ensure that you keep coming back. They become your friends.
I speak French to the Algerian man who sells me artichokes and Italian to Marco, who sells me salad so fresh and unsprayed that we often find snails in the sink after we wash it. Stephania, the woman who sells kitchen items, is keen to learn English, so we have a little English-Italian exchange a few times a week. I no longer speak to Fabio, the butcher who would sneak a small piece of cheese onto the weigh scales when I wasn't looking, all the better to jack up the price of the meat I was buying.
I adore Luciano Cervini like a father. A jovial bald man with a white mustache and an easy smile, he is 82 and has worked the same fish stall since the German and American occupations in the Second World War. "Canada, Canada, how are you?" he says, using the only English words he knows. (I think he calls me "Canada" because "Eric" is almost impossible for an Italian to pronounce.)
There is no doubt that the market has seen better days. It is grubby. There is no running water. The electrical wiring is unreliable. The metal stalls are covered in graffiti. About a decade ago, Rome's municipal government came up with the idea of building a shiny new market just a few hundred metres away, smack next to the old slaughterhouse (now the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome).
The new market is almost finished. It opens in early July, when the old market shuts, and is like nothing central Rome has seen before. It is a long, low-slung structure, clad in white metal and divided by a pedestrian walkway. It looks like it has been airdropped in from Ohio. Among its tenants are government offices, a hotel, an American-style fast-food joint called the Roadhouse Grill (dismissed as a "tragedy" and "disgusting" by a couple of English-language foodie sites) and a sushi restaurant, a rarity in a city where international cuisine is still a novelty.
It also has underground parking for 225 cars – meaning the mall's designers had more than pedestrian shoppers in mind – and, yes, a market lined with stalls that are reserved for the merchants from the old market. "The new place is more like a supermarket that a 'market,' " says Kenny Dunn, 37, a transplanted American whose company, Eating Italy, conducts walking food tours of Testaccio. "It's a weird concept for the middle of Rome. I don't know if a drive-to mall works here."
He has a point. One of the many appeals of Rome is shopping where you live, on foot, buying fresh food in small quantities for the next meal and chatting with everyone. This way of life is slowly disappearing in Rome, as the malls and discount supermarkets arrive. Still, the old markets aren't going without a fight.
About half of the merchants in my market, by my rough count, want to stay put.
Mauro, the son of my fishmonger, Luciano, who is taking over his father's business, is quite keen to go. "It's big, clean and has running water," he says, though he forgets that the new place has no air conditioning and, because of its low ceilings, will be exceedingly hot in Rome's blast-furnace summers.
Others are saddened by the imminent move, some because they've never worked anywhere else, others because they think the old place works just fine. Marco, my vegetable man, doesn't want to go, because of the cost. "The rents in the new market will be double," he says, implying that he will have to raise his prices in a recession-stricken economy.
Irene Ranaldi, a sociologist whose apartment overlooks the market and whose book about the area, Testaccio, is to be published in September, is upset that the market is to close because she thinks that it will change its walk-talk-shop nature. It's impossible just to shop in this 'hood. Buying bread or fish typically starts with a " Ciao, bello," followed by a minute of yakking about the pleasures and absurdities of Italian life.
"The new market will be a disaster," she predicts. "There's no life in that part of Testaccio."
Still, Ms. Ranaldi is hopeful that the old Testaccio market will not shut down entirely. It could find a new life as a flower, clothing or book market, or a combination thereof, because the airy structure is solid and still works. As I pick up my last sea bass from Luciano, I pray she's right.
Eric Reguly is a Globe and Mail correspondent based in Rome.