TIRANA, ALBANIA — It's lunchtime in the Albanian capital, and Mayor Edi Rama is charging through Rinia Park with a cellphone in one hand, a bodyguard at his back, and his scarlet-lined overcoat flashing in the breeze.
"This park used to be filled with illegal structures - kiosks, stores, even three- and four-story buildings - and was the focus of criminality, prostitution, and drug dealing in the city," he says, gesturing at the pastoral surroundings with his free hand, while typing a text message into his phone with the other. "They were connected to strongmen and protected by various politicians, but we knocked them all down, all 148 of them, without favoritism to anyone."
The mayor's reclamation of Rinia Park four years ago and his subsequent bulldozing of nearly 500 illegal structures on the city-owned banks of the Lana River didn't earn him many friends among the shadowy masters of Albania's enormous underground economy. He's received death threats and was once woken up by the sound of bullets ricocheting off the walls of his home.
But for most locals, Mr. Rama is something of a superstar. He's not just the country's most popular politician; he's one of the most famous Albanians alive. Eight in 10 of Tirana's residents approve of his aggressive cleanup campaign, for which he earned a 2002 United Nations Poverty Eradication Award.
Last year he was named World Mayor 2004 by the London-based City Mayors website, after garnering more votes than the mayors of Mexico City, London, and other major cities.
"You can love him or hate him, but you can't ignore him," says Erion Veliaj, director of Mjaft, a citizen's watchdog group. "He is one of the few people in the country who is moving things forward."
Indeed, Rama is currently focused on trying to create the capital region's first master development plan, introducing zoning, green space protection, and suburban planning to a country where people continue to build on any vacant land they encounter. "Tirana and the surrounding region need to work together from one plan so we can protect the mountains, green areas, and agricultural land from the invasion of concrete," Rama says.
Despite the city's chaotic pace of growth, there's an undeniable sense of optimism in Tirana these days. Ten years ago, this was a sleepy, decaying backwater of 250,000, where pedestrians outnumbered cars, and horse-drawn carts were still a common sight. Now it's a teeming, traffic-choked city of more than 700,000 with gleaming high-rise office towers, chic clubs, and trendy restaurants.
Many older buildings have been painted in orange and scarlet stripes, pink-and-purple camouflage, and other outlandish color schemes under Rama's orders. Art galleries, fashion boutiques, and Internet cafes line once-dreary streets near the Lana River, which is now lined with trees.
Highways, roads, sidewalks, and the airport have completed or are undergoing extensive upgrades.
"Tirana is improving every day and I'm sure that in five years it's going to be fabulous," says Donika Bardha, an Albanian-American businesswoman whose family owns Piazza, one of the capital's top restaurants. "When you see so many changes happening so rapidly and the local government working so hard, it gives people hope, and hope is one of the most important things for Albania right now."
Plenty of problems remain unresolved. Albania, a country of 3.3 million, has neither sewage treatment nor sanitary landfills. The capital's sewage is dumped directly in area rivers and its trash in a local field, where scavengers burn trash in an effort to uncover salvageable metals.
Air pollution, too, has become a serious problem in Tirana, owing to the construction boom and the fact that most vehicles here are at least 10 years old and are propelled by low-quality diesel.
The mayor is extremely unpopular within the national political parties. Opposition leader and former President Sali Berisha has called him "a pillar of corruption" and a charlatan. Sources say any ambitions Rama might have for higher office will be thwarted by operatives within the ruling Socialist party, which he joined in 2003.
"He may be loved by the people, but he's hated by his own party," says Mr. Veliaj, who says Rama represents a threat to a cozy and corrupt national political establishment.
Rama, a tall, powerful-looking man with a penchant for polka-dot ties, red socks, and other audacious clothing, denies having plans to run for president or prime minister. "To be frank, I would like to be left in my corner and finish my job" - a task he says will take nine years. He handily won reelection for a second three-year term at the end of 2003.
Rama was born in Tirana, the son of a well-known sculptor, and in his youth was a member of the national basketball team. He left Albania in 1997, after receiving a severe beating from two assailants he suspects were sent by then-president Berisha, and moved to Paris, where he returned to painting.
The Socialists won national elections the following year, and Rama agreed to serve as Minister of Culture, a post he held until winning the mayor's post in 2000.
Crossing the park, the mayor is continually detained by well-wishers, including a group of young Albanian men from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, who beg him to run for mayor there.
Rama is often asked to sign copies of "Tirona," an album by a local rap group on which he performed, rapping about the troubles of the wildly growing capital. Other mayors often ask for his advice, and several have followed his lead in painting ugly concrete buildings in unusual colors.
Albania, the second-poorest nation in Europe after Moldova, spent much of the cold war in complete isolation from both the West and the Soviet empire.
When it emerged from communism in 1992, the economy and public infrastructure were in shambles, and tens of thousands fled across the Adriatic Sea to Italy and beyond. In 1997, the country descended into anarchy for several weeks following the collapse of fraudulent pyramid investment schemes, triggering another mass exodus.
"After 1997, Albanians came to look on their country as a sort of a transfer station between life and death," says Rama.
"My real project is to try to resuscitate hope, so that people will start looking on their country not as a transfer station, but as a place where they might want to live," he says.