Friday, May 22, 2009

From Dirty, Noisy Naples, Lessons for Chicago

First impressions, arriving in 2,700-year-old Naples in southern Italy, are of a worn-out and poor city where most vertical surfaces, including trains and ancient buildings, are covered with graffiti.

But those were only first impressions.

Turns out this tightly packed metropolis of three million people, while struggling mightily with unemployment, bureaucracy and a long relationship with the Mob, has done what great cities do: create beauty and order and art.

There are lessons here for Chicago or any other city about the kinds of energy, investment and civic life that can counteract more negative forces.

1. Active street life. All day and into the night, the streets were jammed with people of all ages, talking and gesturing and walking together as Italians do. When there are hundreds or thousands of people strolling and sitting and shopping, the environment tends to be fairly safe.

2. Organized activities. Fliers pasted on walls invited residents to community meetings to discuss plans for cleaning up the streets and addressing problems at empty buildings. Other posters announced a trip to the capital in Rome to demand jobs for the unemployed. Those marchers shut down traffic while we watched.

3. Public transit. Unlike Chicago, Naples has a unified transit system that allows 90 minutes of free transfers between the two subway routes, buses, funiculars and suburban trains. Some vehicles were old and covered with graffiti, but service was frequent even on the suburban lines. And the city is building two major subway extensions, while Chicago can't raise the funds for basic maintenance.

4. Respect for history. The center of Naples is a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with 16th Century housing, monumental government buildings and the occasional castle. It's more or less intact, and there's a commitment to keep it that way. Those new subway lines, in fact, are years behind schedule because the excavations revealed 2nd Century palaces and a Roman temple. We saw archeologists in the pits working with brushes and measuring tapes (photo below) to uncover treasures that will be incorporated into the stations.

5. Urban farming. From the train to Pompei we saw scores of tiny farm plots and hoophouses growing zucchini, tomatoes, flowers and other produce for local markets. The farms filled most every piece of vacant land between apartment buildings and along the tracks.

I'm not saying everything is lovely. This is the city where garbage was piled to the second floors during last year's strike by the Mob-controlled trash haulers. There's dog crap on the sidewalks, the scooters are smelly and loud, and the day after we left town, a Mob assasination took place on a major downtown street.

That's bad, but the weekend we came home to Chicago there were nine killings and 13 wounded on our streets. Maybe we could learn a few things from those Napolitani. The food is good, too.

Photos by Pam Barry.

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