The Fall of Roman Civilization

28 Apr

I’ve been wanting to tackle this issue for quite some time, not really sure how to go about it. Last Wednesday, I took my annual birthday trip to see my best friend in Amsterdam, and as I left my neighborhood, this is what was happening, just a block from my son’s elementary school:

If those scenes of an urban war zone aren’t bad enough on their own, then this video shows the violence that later erupted, when riot police started beating activists with batons.

The police vans, first 5, then upwards of 10, came out on April 16 to remove squatters who had broken into and illegally occupied an empty government building nine days prior. My neighborhood is generally unknown to most, as it is well out of the historic center, and yet it took center stage last week as the violence broke out. By the time I had landed in Amsterdam, I had 56 messages on my phone from the mom’s group on Whatsapp that is usually used for asking questions about what homework pages have been assigned. This time it was filled with anxiety-ridden exchanges from moms deciding whether or not to take their kids out of school early, should the situation escalate. Luckily, it didn’t affect the nearby businesses or schools, other than the road blocks and general commotion. Once the squatters were removed, however, they MOVED IN to the MUNICIPAL building across the street and next door to the elementary school.

I was told that this was a move by the municipal president (Municipio VIII, ex-XI) who was hosting them. I haven’t researched that. It’s irrelevant now, because the squatters then moved to an abandoned building in nearby via di Tor Carbone once the municipal offices had to open back up to the public on April 23. According to this article from La Repubblica Roma online, there were about 200 families in all.

Two days prior to the police raid, I took the photo below and posted it on Twitter. In retrospect, it’s embarrassing to me to think that I sent out a plea to Rome’s mayor via social media. In fact, Marino has been battling with the AMA (waste collection company) problems for a while now, especially brutal during the holidays, when a photo of a pig eating garbage in the Boccea neighborhood (inside the ring road, not in the middle of nowhere) showed unequivocally just how bad the situation had become. But you see, the question is, who in the world can citizens turn to when their city is becoming a toxic waste zone and seems to be quickly sliding more and more into total chaos?

As those of you who follow my blog know, I truly love this city, and in my writing I do my best to try to make light of the difficult situations around here. But lately, even I am reaching my limit. I thought maybe I was just imagining things, or having a particularly difficult “culture shock” coming back after a week in Amsterdam, where things are so civilized, but it’s not just me.

This article by Der Spiegel‘s Walter Mayr is absolutely, positively, a must-read for anyone who cares about Rome at all. It’s excellently written and covers this topic from a number of perspectives.

Mayr’s piece also helped me to understand the person behind one of the sites that I have been wondering about for quite some time now: Roma Fa Schifo, translated loosely as “Rome Sucks.” The blog, founded in 2008, is a hub for sharing everything that is filthy, corrupt, and shameful about daily life in Rome. The corresponding Facebook page has a following of nearly 34,000 at the time of writing.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Roma Fa Schifo for some time, because I thought it was simply another way to collectively complain about this city. But after reading Mr. Mayr’s article, I came away with the understanding that the blogger behind the page, 35-year-old Massimiliano Tonelli, is aiming to create awareness as a catalyst for change. Tonelli manages another blog called Cartellopoli, which documents the illegal sign-posting that goes on and creates untold mountains of litter throughout the city.

A bit more research on Tonelli revealed this recent interview with the free daily Leggo, in which he describes a new type of citizen referred to as “Roman 2.0,” a social activist who documents the problems of the city online. In fact, Mayr’s article says that Mayor Ignazio Marino keeps a file of certain posts from Roma Fa Schifo, so in that sense it certainly is working as a vehicle for awareness.

The Roma Fa Schifo blog inspired a bit of an online movement that’s sprung up in recent years, with a network of sites loosely known as the “Coordination of Anti-Deterioration Blogs.” These sites, such as Degrado Esquilino and Riprendiamoci Roma (Let’s Take Back Rome), document the current deterioration of Rome.

The question Mayr poses in his article: “Can a New Mayor Stop the City’s Decline?” is left unanswered. He mentions that Marino bikes to work, and Marino himself explains that his personal wealth and outsider status (he’s not a Rome native) mean that he can make unpopular decisions.

Perhaps it’s true what Marino, a surgeon by trade, says in the article: “Removing the abscess is the easiest part. After that you need to get everything patched up and then get the organism going again. I was left with a city full of potholes, a school system that is falling apart and poverty that is rising dramatically. 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.”

Rome is not in a good way right now. As much as I try to show this city in its most positive light, the fact of the matter is that things are definitely going downhill, as far as I see it, especially when I have to walk my 6-year-old son past riot police to take him to his 1st grade classroom. I’m not complaining or trying to play the victim, but I’m starting to seriously question what kind of activism a citizen of this city can take part in, to try to make a system that is so profoundly broken, get up and working again. We are lucky to have a tourism economy that keeps things moving, and tourists who continue to come and enjoy the open-air museum that is the Eternal City. But for those of us who choose to live here for any length of time, the situation continues to become more trying. As Mayr says in his article, “Seasoned Romans are heroic when it comes to getting through daily life,” and as he quotes 91-year-old Roman novelist Raffaelle La Capria, “We’re all disappointed and a little depressed to see Italy’s decline before our very eyes.”

Indeed.

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15 Responses to “The Fall of Roman Civilization”

  1. Diana Skok Corridori April 28, 2014 at 8:59 pm #

    I have to agree with your post, and I am off to read article you reference. My husband is Roman, but we live in Varese. And we just returned from Rome this weekend. And EVERY time we come back home, we reflect on our trip and ask: “WHAT is going on down there?” Although we are usually spending most of our time with family running from aunt to aunt…..there is definitely a sense that sometime is off. I am not saying that Varese is any cake walk either, but for sure there is some strange tension going on there. Anyway…I enjoyed your perspective.

    • Monica April 28, 2014 at 9:58 pm #

      You live in Varese!!! I am from Varese, though I live in San Francisco now, after 11 years in Hawaii.
      Sorry, I know it’s off topic, but that popped out to me.
      Agreed, Varese is not a cake walk, but nothing like what is going on in Rome and other cities of the south.

      • Diana May 1, 2014 at 7:31 am #

        Hi Monica! We love it here! We lived in Milan for 5 years before moving here. This is SUCH a beautiful area. I guess should have said none of Italy is a cake walk relative to living in the States (from a red-tape perspective)….still…things seems to work really well here compared to what my in-laws seem to experience in Rome…(for instance doctor appts and things like that). ANYWAY…Hawaii for 11 years?!?!? My husband’s dream. And now San Fran? You really get around! :)

    • Shelley Ruelle April 29, 2014 at 11:48 am #

      Thanks Diana! It’s sort of a “fish swimming in water” thing for me, since I live here and so it’s like weight gain, sort of gradual until something crazy happens to make you notice it (ie, my recent clothes getting too tight, and this recent police raid near my son’s school). Also, going to Amsterdam was like being taken out of the water and then coming back and going OHMYGOD things really *are* getting worse. I mean, we can complain and ha-ha-ha about the postal service not working and about rude cashiers who scream for spicci until the cows come home, and that is Rome, that’s even part of Rome I have a special little place in my heart for, and I don’t mind so much. But these recent developments go way beyond that. Just not sure where to start in terms of being proactive to work for change, or if change is even possible… just not sure about much right now…

      • Diana May 1, 2014 at 7:35 am #

        You know….I TOTALLY agree with you…because even when I expereience the craziness of the post office……I like to complain about it…but the truth is – – well – – it still gives me a little chuckle and provides a little comic relief to my day (unless I am in a REAL hurry of course). But for these other developments….yes….where to start? Seems overwhelming.

  2. Paula April 28, 2014 at 10:38 pm #

    It’s so sad to see and hear Italians being denied basic standards of daily life sometimes, especially when a lot of money comes in via the tourist industry. Here in Australia and other countries, the payment of high taxes allows us to demand and expect quality services. We love Italy and especially Rome, but of course as a visitor we get to experience all the good stuff.

    • Shelley Ruelle April 29, 2014 at 11:52 am #

      Yes Paula, it really is a shame, especially the garbage thing, because the taxes/cost for waste collection here are exorbitant, at least they seem that way to me. I pay upwards of $75 a month for trash collection, which amounts to these overflowing dumpsters on both ends of my street. I wonder, where the hell is my money going? Why do I have to explain to my son this filth? And then I read things like the info. about AMA (trash collection company) and Marino’s corresponding quote in that article: ‘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.’ It’s like, OK, Marino, that’s great, talk the talk. Let’s see you walk the walk, let’s see this AMA and ATAC reform really start working… I’m skeptical. Not about his intentions, necessarily, because I don’t even know enough about him or politics here, which is a nightmare to understand, but more just about the general climate and entrenched corruption and special interests in this city. I really don’t see how this mayor is going to come in all sheriff-like and clean everything up. It seems a bit idealistic to me. It’s like, ok buddy, show me the money. I hope he can do it but again…very skeptical.

  3. Narco April 29, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    Just popped in to point out that Rome is not, in fact, Southern Italy – even though lately is slowly becoming like it. And, as a Roman, I’ve found the article quite exaggerated… I mean, while it’s true that this city is becoming more and more a tip I’ve never seen the things described in the piece (scraps of plastic on the trees, the “piles of stolen wallets”, the syringes on the bus stops’ pavement in front of Termini or in te foyer of the station itself, etc.).

    And IMHVO Marino is almost worse than Alemanno!

    • Shelley Ruelle April 29, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

      Marco! Thanks for your comments. I agree, the descriptions make it out to be quite dire. I myself haven’t ever seen syringes but I have friends who have. It’s a bit alarmist, perhaps, but the fact of the matter is that the journalist was taken to specific areas that have problems. Frankly I could see most of this garbage (minus syringe) at my children’s park across the street. Two overturned garbage cans, multiple empty beer bottles, trash everywhere, destroyed park benches. It’s just becoming commonplace.

  4. Narco April 29, 2014 at 10:45 am #

    And my name is in fact Marco, not narco – I don’t usually engage in that kind of activities. Darn typos… :-)

  5. Andy April 29, 2014 at 7:10 pm #

    Well, that’s my two cents. Ehm… Actually I’ve a piece of five, anyone has to change?

    Yep, this is not a great moment for Rome. We can call this “the winter of Rome” (we’ve the fall with Alemannaro and his city’s government). I hope we’ll have the spring asap.
    The mayor Marino have three big problems:
    1. the previous administration, by the former mayor (the AMA is almost full by kin or friends of Alemannaro, they don’t really want to work) and the city budget has a large dark hole.
    2. the false friend in palazzo Chigi, the almost former mayor of Florence. Consider this: Rome is not like other cities, “she” has the italian government and other national buildings, and institutional people. For this consideration there’s a law called “Roma Capitale”. A lot of money for Rome. But Renzi doesn’t give that cheque. Or (hello!) he wants to put inside the law something about Florence… Very clever!
    3. the people. Not only the romans, all the people. Actually not all the people, but everyone who soils the city.
    Listen: I disagree with the name “Roma fa schifo”. It’s not true. Roma is an inanimate beautiful city. She’s not dirty by herself, but by the people. So it could be “la maggior parte di chi abita a Roma fa schifo” (“the almost totality of people who live in Rome sucks”).
    For many reasons: someone doesn’t do the right garbage collection (because… who cares?), someone puts the trash in the street (because the basket away 1 meter is too far from me), someone think the community is something what not compete me (for atavistic reasons). Have you saw the streets after the double canonizations? It’s just an example.
    This is a very long speech, why this people don’t want clean his own country.
    When I went in New Zealand I followed their rules and behavior. And strangers do the same thing here (not everyone, I know, but a lot of them). Because italian are very “dirties”, because we have not the certainty of punishment (and again: who cares?).

    So: a big hole in the budget, no one who want to put money inside it, people doesn’t help… This is not against Marino, is against Rome. Compliments!

    Few words for the riots.
    There’s a line in a song from De Gregori (Italian songwriter):
    «Cercasti giustizia, ma trovasti la legge» (You searched Justice, but you found the law)
    Well… you’re not alone, here.

  6. Jane April 30, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

    The first clip with the “special forces” was strange. Why did the police have jeans on? Would they have worn those universal 3/4 pants so popular among middle aged Italian men had it been a hot day? Why were they swinging their batons around instead of holding them properly?They were so un-policelike, but in what way do I mean, exactly?

    Undisciplined. In fact, no properly identifiable as police. Usually those special forces resemble soldiers. But with these representatives of law and order, only the helmets spared them from looking likes thugs from a distance, because that is how they were moving; in a completely unreckonable fashion: I would have been scared, wondering which interests they were upholding: the law of the state, the interests of organised crime, or fear mongering to create fertile ground for more repressive measures and less democratic freedoms. Leading back to the chestnut: WHO is in charge around here?

    • Andy May 9, 2014 at 11:06 am #

      Hi Jane!
      You got the point, you took the “chestnut”: WHO is in charge there? WHO really need repress the people? WHO really want that the police(men) stay with the power and not with the citizens?
      Remember the G8 in Genoa in 2001? The story starts there, in the night of our democracy, when they tried to shut up the voices with their batons.

      And after that with No-TAV fellas (people who want to save their land from “nonsense big opera”), earthquake people from abbruzzi (who ask houses and cities restored), students, normal strikers or protesters. Only one answer: beatings.
      The only way to be never touched by a policeman is to pretend to be a very violent football hooligan: they bring you at the stadium!

  7. Marco May 16, 2014 at 7:52 am #

    Living in Rome, I can tell you that the vast majority of those No-TAV fellas who come down here and “peacefully” protest aren’t the bunch of “oppressed heroes fighting for their homeland against a nonsense big opera” (which in all truth is not even as nonsensical as the media portray it) as they would like you to believe. And the protesters at the G8 in Genoa weren’t exactly faultless, either.

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