Naples — START in the rabbit warren of the Spanish Quarter, with its garbage flowing over the sidewalk, laundry hanging from the windows, and honking cars fighting for space in the narrow passageways. Go just half a mile up a hill until you see the crystal blue Mediterranean shining, and you will find an airy, futuristic complex of metal and glass - filled with rows upon rows of IBM computers.
The Spanish Quarter is one sign of the chaotic city services, snarling traffic, air pollution, prevalent gangs and organized crime that represent Naples' - and the rest of southern Italy's - most fundamental problems.
The glass-and-metal complex is Informatica Compania, one of Italy's leading software companies, and a spearhead of new development in chronically underdeveloped southern Italy. It is a sign of Naples' tentative revival.
Following the devestating earthquake of November 23, 1980, the city has embarked on a huge urban renewal plan, reconstructing 28,000 homes and schools and building a new 260 acre business and residential center near the train station. Tired of waiting for better organized city services, local residents - from aristocrats to poor mothers from the Spanish quarter - are banding together to create their own cultural and social services. And Informatica Compania shows that it is possible to bring even the most advanced technologies to the deprived city.
``Naples is like a cat,'' says Pietro de Meo, the silver-haired, elegantly dressed founder of the computer company. ``If you stroke it right, it purrs. If you stroke it wrong, it bites.''
The metaphor helps explain both the successes and failures of past efforts to develop Naples and close the yawning economic gap between northern and southern Italy. After the war, the central government in Rome poured huge sums into industrializing the city. Living standards rose: ``You don't see hollowed out faces from starvation anymore,'' says Professor Enrico Pugliere, director of the Department of Sociology at the University of Naples.
In many ways, though, the effort failed. Neapolitans deride the government-built steel and chemical plants - which were intended to bring jobs and prosperity to the south - as ``cathedrals in the desert.'' Typical are the huge nationalized Italsider steel works which stand across the sparkling bay. Over the last decade, the firm has eliminated 6,500 of its 8,000 jobs because of the steel market's collapse and cheap foreign competition.
``Official unemployment is 20 percent,'' says Professor Pugliere, ``but like all statistics here, that figure's not accurate. It's much worse.''
Political turmoil aggravates the economic problems - and vice versa. At city hall, spokesman Mimmo Annunziato throws up his arms in exasperation to explain why, for the seventh time in three years, Naples is currently without a municipal government. The latest occupant of the mayor's office, Socialist Carlo D'Amato, resigned last autumn after his coalition could not agree on a budget.
Until a new government can be formed, a bureaucrat dispatched from Rome is running the city. Perhaps more accurately, he is tending to it, since he lacks the power to tackle the city's huge debt or get the sizable staff of city workers to do their jobs. Despite a dustman force of 5,000, the streets remain full of dusty mounds of rubbish.
``Let's just say it's a complicated situation,'' says Mr. Annunziato. ``Politics simply don't work here.''
Filling much of the power vacuum is the Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the Mafia. At the University of Naples, Camorra specialist Francesco Barbagallo explains that the Camorra families have moved from their traditional activities in gambling and prostitution into drug dealing. Although police have put some 600 Camorra members on trial since 1983, the organization's tentacles keep extending, forcing shopowners to pay ``protection'' money and infiltrating much of the construction business.
``The Camorra has penetrated the government,'' claims Professor Barbagallo, ``and threatens to corrupt our entire society.''
Against these formidable obstacles, some Neapolitans finally are fighting back - by themselves. In the Spanish quarter, the door of a small one-story, two-room house is left open for anyone looking for help. Above the front door rests a plaque, ``Mothers of Courage.''
``Two years ago, four boys from this neighborhood - all 21 or 22 or 23 years old - died of drug overdoses on the same day,'' says Anna Tufano, the group's founder. ``At their funerals, we decided to stand up, and say, `that's enough.'''
Mrs. Tufano and 300 supporters began lobbying city authorities for funding to get an office. Rebuffed, they armed themselves with brooms and stormed the offices of the local - and inefficient - garbagemen, who fled in disarray.
From the vacated quarters, the mothers hold drug awareness meetings and counsel local drug addicts, finding them places in city hospitals. Just last month, Italian President Francesco Cossiga received the mothers in his Quirinal Palace.
``Nothing will stop us, not the Camorra, not the government,'' Tufano vows, raising her fist in defiance, ``until something is done about drugs.''
Other reform-minded Neapolitans are working in more rarified air. Out of a villa along the seaside corniche, Paolo Amalfitano directs the private foundation Naples 99, which is working to restore the city's decaying monuments. The 99 refers to 1999 and to 1799 - when Naples was the splendid capital of the Bourbon Kingdom of Two Sicilies, one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Europe.
``Florence and Venice use their cultural possibilities,'' says Mr. Amalfitano, a professor of literature, ``while everyone forgets that the south of Italy, and Naples in particular, is home to equally incredible artistic riches.''
Since Naples 99's creation in 1984, it has helped spur a wide range of cultural activities. In addition to raising private funds to restore 10 churches and castles, the group has been instrumental in bringing Naples high-quality classical music and opera, and in organizing two blockbuster art exhibitions, ``Civilization of the 17th Century'' and ``Civilization of the 18th Century,'' each of which attracted 1.5 million visitors.
``If this city is going to be saved,'' Amalfitano says, ``it will be done by private initiative.''
Computer entrepreneur de Meo agrees. Naples-born, he left to attend college in Rome, then completed graduate studies at Harvard Business School, before joining Finsiel, the computer arm of IRI, the Italian state holding company. In 1980, Finsiel decided it had a public responsibility to expand into the south. But instead of pouring huge sums into a project and thus running the risk of creating another underutilized ``cathedral,'' Finsiel decided to make a limited investment and try to nurture it.
The plan worked, largely thanks to de Meo's entrepreneurial skills. Starting with only eight employees, Informatica Compania now boasts a payroll of 280 and an annual turnover of more than 17.3 billion lire (about $13 million). That puts it 17th on a list of the top 50 Italian software companies. Naples-born computer whizzes have begun returning from prestigious posts at IBM in Milan to work for Informatica, and the company has taken a leading role in creating a software research center at the University of Naples.
To be sure, a bright future is far from assured. Many thoughtful Neapolitans see Informatica Compania, Naples 99, and the Mothers of Courage as mere oases in a bleak landscape. Referring to the kind of people involved in the first two groups, Professor Pugliere says, ``I welcome these nice upper class people, with their art promotion and computer company, but unfortunately I fear that their parties and jet-set activities won't lead to the real development of Naples.''
De Meo takes these anti-elitist critics seriously, but persists. ``If you get involved in something like this, you have to be an optimist,'' he admits. ``Someone, after all, has to show what's possible in Naples.''