Can a New Mayor Stop the City’s Decline?

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By Walter Mayr in Rome

Pilgrims from around the world are expected in Rome this weekend for the canonization of two former popes. They will find an Italian capital that is increasingly squalid and close to bankruptcy. The city’s new mayor is hoping he can turn it around.

The Leonardo Express rumbles from Rome’s airport right to the city center. After 32 minutes, it arrives at its final destination, Termini, the city’s central station. An ad in a pedestrian tunnel at the station reads, “Roma Termini — a Place to Live.” Some have taken the message quite literally.

It’s 11:10 p.m. Stranded people from around the world are wrapped up in their sleeping bags as they lay in front of the exit on the north side of the station. On some nights, up to a hundred homeless huddle together like freezing people in front of a fire. Many of those who sleep here are African refugees. During the daytime, Roma from Romania represent the majority in and around the station. Left largely unchecked by the local authorities, they aggresively try to squeeze money out of foreign tourists.

A comment by one British tourist recently got posted on the Facebook page of Ignazio Marino, who became the city’s mayor in June. The tourist said she had never before experienced “a more wretched hive of scum and villainy” than when she arrived in Rome by train. For safety reasons, she wrote, it is advisable to “spend as little time as possible” at Termini.

Marino takes criticism seriously, but also in a sporting manner. As he sits at his desk in Rome’s Palace of the Senate on Capitoline Hill, a building once remodeled by Michelangelo, he exudes the aura of a man at peace with himself. Two months ago, he was still cursing his opponents who, he says, wanted to let the Eternal City go up in flames just as Emperor Nero did. At the time, Marino made clear that he wasn’t prepared to play the role of the “capital city’s liquidator-in-chief.”

What had happened? Rome was on the verge of bankruptcy and the mayor said the only way to possibly rescue the city would be for the national government to jump in with emergency aid to the tune of €600 million ($829 million) within 24 hours. Marino got his wish and the city didn’t go up in flames. Standing beneath a photo that shows him in an intimate embrace with Pope Francis, the mayor now says he wants to move forward. After all, he adds, “spotlights from around the world will be shining on Rome” on April 27, and 2 billion people will be watching on their televisions.

On Sunday, the two most popular popes of the 20th century — John XXIII and John Paul II — are to be canonized on St. Peter’s Square by Pope Francis. Catholic pilgrims from around the world plan to attend, and hotels in the capital city are almost entirely booked out.

A European City for a Day

For at a short time at least, Romans will be “able to dream of living in a truly European city,” because the metro, for once, will finally operate at night to help accommodate the expected 3 million visitors, the local citizen’s advocacy group Residents of the Historical Center notes caustically. The old Roman establishment feel they are being ignored by politicians and that they have been forced to look on powerlessly as one fast food restaurant or bed and breakfast after the other has replaced the last remaining artisan shops in the heart of the city.

More than 12 million tourists visited Rome last year, and this despite the fact that the city once known as Caput mundi, or the capital of the ancient world, has since lost much of its splendor. That, at least, is what many residents say.

Novelist Mauro Evangelisti warns visitors, like the pilgrims who are about to descend upon his city, that they must brace themselves for “an old airport, crooked cab drivers, swindlers, pickpockets” and streets full of potholes like in Havana. In an open letter published prior to the last municipal election, 21 Roman intellectuals lamented what they saw as signs of the city’s downfall and “cultural gloom”.

Meanwhile, Carlo Verdone, one of the leading actors in the movie that took this year’s honor for Best Foreign Picture at the Oscars, “The Great Beauty,” even goes so far as to describe his city as a true to scale likeness of a “totally failed country.”

Rome, Kaput Mundi?

Matteo Renzi, Italy’s new prime minister, is now calling for radical reforms. Since it narrowly averted insolvency at the end of February, the capital city has, to a certain extent, been under the yoke of the national government and the mayor has been ordered to undertake draconian austerity measures. This is the last remaining opportunity for turning the city around, Renzi’s state secretary for the economy recently said. Rome, he said, should become a shining example for the rest of Italy to follow.

But where to begin? Upon their arrival, the first thing some pilgrims to Rome will see is a five-and-a-half-meter (18 foot) tall bronze statue of Pope John Paul II. In what appears to have been wise foresight, the former leader of the Catholic Church has his back turned to the station forecourt, which is littered with drug addicts’ syringes and grocery store shopping carts that homeless people have filled to the brim.

A wiry, bald-headed man walks right through the turmoil on a recent morning and says, “The first thing that needs to be done is for the city to reconquer its public spaces. There is not a single street left in the entire city where you have the feeling you’re in Europe — I mean, where everything works as it should.”

Few have the kind of insights about the underbelly of Rome as does Massimiliano Tonelli. The 35-year-old journalist is one of the most widely read bloggers in the city, but he is also one of the most contentious. His habitat is the streets, squares and riverside walks of Rome, and his natural enemies are those who make money by inflicting damage on the Eternal City’s beauty.

Tonelli has held lectures at universities and was bestowed with the title “Roman of the Year” in 2010 — because he doesn’t pull any punches when fighting on behalf of his city. The names of his blogs attest to this, with titles like Rome Sucks (Roma Fa Schifo) or Cartellopoli.

Mumbai-Like Squalor

Even the mayor collects a selection of Tonelli’s posts on Roma Fa Schifo in a yellow binder, and for good reason. The blog combines pictures and words to document the daily anarchy Romans from all walks of life face when they leave their homes. One posting shows a pig foraging for food in the overflowing dumpsters of a residential area on the periphery of the city. Another shows souvenir peddlers relieving themselves right in the middle of the ruins of the ancient Roman Empire. One shows piles of discarded stolen wallets, while another includes images of an inner city slum of the kind one might expect to see in Mumbai, but not in the heart of Europe.

Tonelli says he wants to convey the message to local residents “that the things they are seeing in their neighborhoods aren’t normal, and that they shouldn’t even have to get used to them.” Indeed, those who read his blog, come away with a better awareness of what is happening in their city. “That applies to many parts of the city,” he says. “Let’s have a look.” Tonelli then offers to take the journalist on a tour.

Our first stop is the Colosseum. Why on earth, Tonelli asks, does the city tolerate robber knights here, disguised as Roman army commanders with plumes and wooden swords, price gouging tourists for photos? And what about the sunglasses sellers from Bangladesh who play a game of cat-and-mouse with police who approach them only half-heartedly before shedding their knock-off products? Or the men with the fake “Colosseo Tour Guide” pins on their lapels offering tours for up to five people at prices of up to €150 ($207)?

“It’s all illegal, the black economy,” Tonelli says, his voice growing indignant. “They don’t pay any taxes, they’re a blight on the city and, at best, the only thing they contribute is trash. Of course, we Romans then have to pay to have it disposed of.”

‘Lawlessness Prevails’

Colosseum Director Rosella Rea also doesn’t shy away from speaking about the filth around the world-famous amphitheater, which she describes as being reminiscent of the “Third World.” The only time the entire property has been cleared of fakirs, street vendors and phony legionaries was on March 27 to make it presentable for a private visit by the US president. “If Rome goes to the dogs, it won’t be because the city is nearly bankrupt,” argues blogger Tonelli. “It will be for the exact opposite reason: Because the city isn’t pulling in the revenues owed to it because lawlessness prevails.”

Our drive continues through the historic center along the banks of the Tiber River, where brightly colored scraps of plastic dangle from the branches of trees like Tibetan prayer flags. Then we continue on to the bridge near the Museum of Contemporary Art, where Romanian immigrants have erected a small tent camp, complete with a fireplace, smack in the middle of the historic center of Rome, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The blogger says that, owing to its lawless areas, Rome attracts “a certain type of immigration.” Still, he adds that the Rome establishment has only itself to blame for the city’s growing slums. “What ails this city most is a lack of civic sensibility,” he says.

 

A Dramatic Situation or Comic Opera?

The fact that the Museum of Roman Civilization has been closed since the beginning of this year because of deficient security jibes neatly with this image. What’s more, following a number of outbursts of violence in the city’s Trastevere nightlife area recently, there has even been talk of sending in the Italian military to ensure safety and order. “We are at war here,” says Orlando Corsetti, a member of the city council. “The situation is out of control.” Meanwhile, the district mayor with responsibility for the area says there is only enough money in district coffers to provide funding for daycare, nursing homes and care for the handicapped until May.

Is the situation really as dramatic in Rome as people are depicting it to be, or is it just one big case of opera buffa, comic opera?

It’s reassuring to see Rome’s mayor smiling in a suit and tie as he cycles his e-bike down Via del Corso on his way to City Hall. It doesn’t seem as though things can really be coming apart at the seams in Italy’s largest city as long as its leader, escorted by a half-dozen police, can still get around so casually.

When Ignazio Marino managed to defeat the incumbent from the Berlusconi camp to become mayor in June 2013, it was an upset. The challenger had a lot going against him. As the son of a Swiss mother and a Sicilian father, Marino first came to Rome at the age of 14 and left again at 35 to make a name for himself as a doctor in England and the United States. Marino even served as one of the surgeons during the world’s first transplant of a liver from a baboon to a human.

‘Removing the Abcess Is the Easiest Part’

The mayor says he knows something about sharp cuts and that this is serving him well as mayor of Rome. “Still, removing the abscess is the easiest part,” he says. “After that you need to get everything patched up and then get the organism going again.” Marino says that Rome is now faced with deep cuts. “I was left with a city full of potholes, a school system that is falling apart and poverty that is rising dramatically,” he says. “Add to that €14 billion in existing debt, some of which is still left over from Rome’s preparations for hosting the Summer Olympic Games in 1960.”

Marino says he was unaware of the full “scale of the disaster” prior to entering office, but that he still won’t allow anyone to dissuade him from his aims. “I will only spend money that is at our disposal,” he says. “People handled that differently for years in this city.”

To many long-time residents of Rome, the current mayor comes across as being a bit disconnected from reality. With his striped blue socks, an accent that obviously isn’t local and his vision for a car-free city center, it didn’t take long for him to ruffle a few feathers. Indeed, his first act in office was to close the main traffic artery that passes by the Colosseum, a move that prompted howls of protest among locals.

Still, Marino has remained true to the unorthodox way in which he is running his administration. One time he fell off his bike in front of the Ministry for Cultural Assets and ruined his pants. Another time he cycled to the other side of the Tiber Bridge and asked a Swiss Guard where he could park his bike before meeting with Pope Francis. Part of his proposal for addressing the adversity at Termini station is to employ Rome’s more than 8,000 homeless people as unskilled workers at local libraries.

Well-Meaning Intentions

The mayor of Rome is certainly well-meaning. He also takes a lot of pride in the fact that he didn’t grow up in the political morass of the Italian capital, that he isn’t dependent on others and that, financially, he is a man of his own means. That, Marino says, gives him a free hand as a politician. “I have the insane advantage that I do not have to establish my career, meaning it is possible for me to make unpopular decisions.”

When asked to cite examples, he points to the city-owned company Ama, which is responsible for refuse disposal, and Atac, which operates Rome’s public transportation. Taken together, these two companies have amassed €3 billion in debt over the years. In addition, Ama reports an employee absenteeism rate of 18 percent, and at Atac, the illness rate reached a record 22 percent in August. “Starting immediately, we’re no longer going to accept things like that,” Marino says.

Pilgrims traveling to Rome for the canonizations this weekend probably won’t face major problems with public transportation given that additional shifts have been ordered to meet the increased demand. But ordinary Romans complain that, even though Atac has 12,000 employees and more managers than NASA, it is hopelessly overstrained in terms of its mission of providing buses to ensure the effective tranport of locals around their city.

Hundreds of vehicles sit broken down in the bus depots and replacement parts aren’t available. Fewer than half of the city’s expensive mini-buses are currently in operation because of defective batteries. Journeys totaling some 16 million kilometers (9.94 million miles) are cancelled each year. And what do the honest residents of the capital city who still purchase their tickets have to say about that? Those who don’t profit from fare dodging in a city where ticket checks on the public transportation system are as rare as an August snow storm?

They say nothing.

Seasoned Romans are heroic when it comes to getting through daily life. They are capable of withstanding 38 degree Celsius (100 degree Fahrenheit) temperatures in the shade or flash-flood January gushes while waiting at bus stops. They seem to be able to put up with whatever comes their way. For the privilege of living in the capital, they are even burdened with the highest income tax surcharges in the country, with no prospects for relief within the foreseeable future. On the contrary, there is a shortfall in the 2014 budget of close to €1 billion. Austerity plans will have to be presented soon, and some predict cuts in the social sector alone could run as high as 50 percent.

And even though tourism may earn the city €8 billion a year, the proceeds have largely landed in the pockets of those sufficiently close to city officials rather than in the actual communal coffers. The licenses for almost half the fast-food trucks located in the shadow of the Colosseum are owned by the family of a city council member with the Berlusconi camp. That means that almost half the people who are willing to pay €5 for a bottle of beer or a sandwich there are helping to build that family’s wealth.

Last Chance?

This, the mayor says, has to be stopped. In the meantime, he travels a lot and often spends time trying to determine why it is that things work better in other cities. In Paris, for example, he has discussed bike-sharing and environmental protection with city officials. He has talked about “smart city” ideas in Madrid. And while visiting a Saudi Prince in Riyadh, on whose mother he once conducted a liver transplant operation, he talked about raising money to restore some of Rome’s dilapidated monuments.

Marino is fully aware of the fact that rescuing Rome from possible bankruptcy is dependent on whether and how quickly the right steps are taken. “Renzi and his government are correct in stating that this is our last chance,” he says. Marino argues that city-owned businesses need to be privatized, the names of individual metro stations could be put up for auction (as seen recently in Madrid) and a special tax of up to €10 per overnight stay in a hotel needs to be levied. The goal, he says, is no less than creating a better future for “one of the most beautiful cities on the planet.”

‘Italy’s Decline Before Our Very Eyes’

Raffaele La Capria believes the mayor has taken on a considerable challenge, especially given that the crisis in Rome is a microcosm of the situation in the entire country. “We’re all disappointed and a little depressed to see Italy’s decline before our very eyes,” he says.

La Capria, 91, an elderly man with a sharp mind and polished manners, is the grandseigneur of Roman novelists. He has lived on the top floor of a palazzo located on Piazza Grazioli for half of a century. It’s a place where he can literally look down on Silvio Berlusconi, who lives directly across, a few meters below.

Pointing to the home of the former prime minister, La Capria says that Rome’s crisis is only partly related to “the man over there,” and the nearly two-decade era he presided over. One of the real problems, La Capria says, is that the Italian capital city, together with its rundown bourgeoisie, is lacking a needed consciousness of its own shining heritage.

La Capria is one of the few remaining survivors from an era in which it was still cultural giants like Fellini, Pasolini and Moravia who shaped the image of Rome for the rest of the world. He says he has witnessed an inexorable change in society in his city — “a somersault downward.”

Those who have already hit rock bottom in Rome can be seen with the naked eye from the podium where the pope will canonize two of his predecessors on April 27: the men in Via della Conciliazione. Just 300 meters away from St. Peter’s Basilica, they sleep outdoors beneath arcades. The right side is dominated by Romanians who listen to music late into the night. On the left you can see Poles with boxed red wine.

Jacek, the only one in the group who doesn’t drink, says he studied land surveying back home. He says he has lived in Rome for a quarter of a century; with the last 11 months of that being spent on the streets. At 67, he says there is nothing he would rather do than work, which is also why he still tries to take care of himself as best he can. He wears appropriate clothing, takes a shower each morning at a homeless shelter and he spends his evenings reading under the bright neon light of a pedestrian tunnel at St. Peter’s Square.

Jacek has a photo that he keeps safely stored in his prayer book. It shows fellow Pole John Paul II. On April 27, the day the former pope is to be canonized, Jacek says he will get up at the crack of dawn just as he always does. He will place his belongings behind a construction fence and then set off for St. Peter’s Square, where he will mix in with the pilgrims — just as if he were one of them.

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