Rome — The letters carved above the doorway say the 50-year-old yellow brick building high on a hill in the old quarter of Naples is the Serra Elementary School.
But the laundry hanging to dry, the radio blaring out of the windows, and the wooden chairs and desks stacked at the entrance tell a different story. The classrooms in this old school building are all that 32 families, left homeless by last November's earthquake, can call home.
Although Naples did not bear the brunt of the seismic explosion that claimed 3,000 lives last Nov. 23, more than 4,000 buildings were damaged and 15,000 people turned out into the streets. Now, 10 months later, officials say housing is still the most urgent problem facing the city.
However, gang warfare, which broke out between various mafia-like families vying for control of the area, has police equally worried. And Italy's politicians now fear the situation is ripe for a new burst of terrorist activity.
On a recent visit to the region struck by the earthquake, Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini appeared generally optimistic about the reconstruction effort in the region. "But Naples worries me," he said.
What began as emergency relief measures immediately following the earthquake seems to have become a semipermanent arrangement as more and moe victims from the countryside pour into Naples seeking help. As soon as one of the 3,000 families living in school buildings is assigned new quarters in the prefabricated villages now dotting the city, a new family takes over the vacated classroom.
They move in -- sometimes 17 to a classroom -- with their cots, gas cookers, and whatever meager furniture they manage to salvage. A few even have refrigerators and television sets. Sheets are hung over the windows for privacy , family pictures go up on the walls, and the teacher's desk is turned into a dining table. About a quarter of Naples' schools are presently occupied like this.
More than 500 people are crammed aboard two old ships in the middle of the city's busy harbor. Another 2,500 families are sheltered in trailers on the edge of the city. Still others stay in apartments in damaged buildings even though they have been condemned as too dangerous to inhabit. Busy officials have not begun to tackle this last problem despite the nagging fear that the buildings to withstand another earthquake, should one occur.
The headquarters of Giuseppe Zamberletti, special commissioner for earthquake relief, in Naple's main piazza is the site of daily demonstrations. Lately, these demonstrations have been dominated by women and childenm demanding the government to speed up reconstruction and to clear the classrooms so their children can return to school.
Last December the United States Congress allocated $50 million for the construction of 12 new schools in the regions devastated by the earthquake. The blueprints for these American superschools are still on the drawingboards of the two American architectural firms commissioned to design them. Even if the schools are completed by next September, they will be located in the regions of Potenza, Salerno, and Avellino. None are planned for Naples.
Aside from its desire to showcase American know-how and to erect lasting and highly visible symbols of American friendship, sources say the US decided to donate the relief money specifically for the construction of schools in order to avoid dealing with the local housing construction racket.
It turned out to be a wise decision. The reconstruction effort has from the start been plagued by corruption and violence. More than one local politician in the earthquake area is suspected of milking relief funds intended for earthquake victims. State prosecutors are even investigating a priest for fraud: The Rev. Armando Venezia of Sant'Angelo dei Lombardi is suspected of pocketing more than $100,000 he raised from Americans of Italian extraction during a trip to the US after the earthquake.
In the disruption following the earthquake, organized crime figure dug in their heels as quickly as relief officials. They started by peddling earthquake-victim certificates and black market coffins, and then moved into the protection racket. According to Prof. Pino Ariacchi, a sociologist at the Universtiy of Calabria, the earthquake enabled the mafia-like "Camorra" clans (whose name in Italian means "graft") to get a grip on Naples in less than a year. It took the Sicilian and Calabrese mobs 20 years to achieve such control in their locales.
Building materials are stolen even before they are unloaded onto the docks, an official in Mr. Zamberletti's office said. Protection money is virtually obligatory for contractors. Those who refused to pay have found their guards shot, or were forced to close down. Naples' communist mayor, Maurizio Valenzi, asked Prime Minister Spadolini, a member of the Republican Party, to send in the Army to help protect the new construction sites, but Spadolini denied his request.
Meanwhile, the stakes are going higher. The government has just increased its contribution to Naples' program for constructing 20,000 new houses to $2 billion. Naples' six largest Camorra families, along with other criminal elements, are competing for a share.
A gang war reminiscent of Chicago in the 1930s has erupted, causing 161 deaths so far this year. But it may also have given police a break.