Tired of conditions in their city, Romans adopt a 'do it yourself' approach

Rome's residents are filling potholes, yanking weeds, and bagging trash. In doing the work, they're experimenting with what is a novel concept for many Italians: a sense of civic duty.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Volunteers clean the banks of the Tiber River, Rome, April 17, 2016. Tired of waiting years for the city to replace trees and do other work, Romans are starting to take back their city.

Armed with shovels and sacks of cold asphalt, Rome's residents fill potholes. Defying rats, they yank weeds and bag trash along the Tiber's banks and in urban parks. Tired of waiting years for the city to replace distressed trees, neighbors dig into their own pockets to pay for new ones for their block.

Romans are starting to take back their city, which for years was neglected and even plundered by City Hall officials and cronies so conniving that some of them are on trial as alleged mobsters.

In doing the work, Romans are experimenting with what for many Italians is a novel and alien concept: a sense of civic duty.

One recent windy Sunday morning, Manuela Di Santo slathered paint over graffiti defacing a wall on Via Ludovico di Monreale, a residential block in Rome's middle-class Monteverde neighborhood. Men, perched on ladders, used mechanical sanders to erase graffiti on another palazzo. Women and children swept up litter, filling black plastic trash bags provided by the city's sanitation service, which is only too glad to have someone do the job for free.

"Either I help the city, or we're all brought to our knees," said Di Santo.

Splotches of paint stained a blue bib identifying her as a volunteer for Retake Roma, a pioneer in an expanding array of citizen-created organizations in the past few years aimed at encouraging Romans to take the initiative in cleaning and repairing their city.

Local politicians had been in cahoots with gangsters, shady go-betweens and corrupt city hall bureaucrats, prosecutors allege in investigations that have led to dozens of arrests since 2014. Some defendants are accused of using Mafia-like methods of intimidation to get their hands on lucrative public-works contracts.

Rome's last mayor, who failed in the Herculean task of cleaning up Rome literally and morally, was virtually forced to quit halfway through his term in 2015. Until mayoral elections this June, the Italian capital is being administered by a government-appointed commissioner, under a formula similar to what happens when Italian city halls are under the grip of organized-crime syndicates.

Retake Roma, which does cleanup projects all over the city, has been enjoying a surge of citizen support, especially since the explosion of the scandal in 2014 led Romans to realize that much-maligned city services like transport and sanitation had been used for patronage jobs for years.

With prosecutors still combing through hundreds of municipal contracts to expose even more alleged kickbacks, payoffs and other corruption, and with processes to award contracts under tightened City Hall anti-corruption measures, services for the public have been deteriorating further. Trash piles up. Potholes sprout like weeds, tripping up pedestrians and sending motor-scooter drivers into nasty spins.

Gaetano Capone, who serves on a local district council, joined some 30 neighbors one spring Saturday to rake up broken beer bottles, soda cans and cigarette butts from outside a commuter train station. Volunteers at the local Monteverde Vecchio 4Venti Neighborhood Committee paid a gardener to cut down waist-high weeds.

Romans "understand that the city machinery doesn't work anymore," said Capone.

Calls and text messages pour into Cristiano Davoli's cellphone from citizens alerting him to ominously widening potholes on their block or routes to work. On weekends, Davoli and four helpers – an off-duty doorman, a graphic artist, a government worker and a retiree – who call themselves "Tappami" (Fill Me Up) load their car trunks with donated bags of cold asphalt and fan out.

"Sometimes it's the municipal traffic police who call me," said Davoli, a shopkeeper.

After the first anti-corruption arrests, Sicilian anti-Mafia magistrate Alfonso Sabella was summoned to Rome for the hastily created post of city legality commissioner to get a handle on just how badly corruption, favoritism and ineptitude pervaded City Hall.

"It was worse than I thought," said Sabella, who was frustrated that his office wasn't assigned more personnel.

Starting with the run-up to the 2000 Holy Year, when government funds flooded the Italian capital to prepare for millions of extra pilgrims, "big projects became popular" with politicians, recalled Sabella. "If you do maintenance on city buses, nobody notices; if you make a new metro station, yes."

Rome's mass transit system is roundly scorned. Not infrequently, passengers have to yank shut doors after drivers pull away from bus stops as malfunctioning doors fail to close, with riders perilously close to falling out of buses.

American architect Tom Rankin organizes river bank cleanups by Tevereterno, a volunteer group dedicated to making the Tiber, which winds through the heart of Rome, more pleasant for strollers and cyclists. He noted that Retake Roma was inspired by an American who cleaned up the Rome building where she lived, exposing Romans to a deeply rooted American tradition of working together for one's community.

Sweeping sidewalks on Via Ludovico di Monreale, Brunella Fraleoni, who is married to an American and previously lived in the United States, pondered a moment when asked why pitching in with neighbors to clean streets is only just catching on in Rome.

"The idea of fixing up something is very poorly rooted in Italy. Maybe it's because we're used to ruins," she said with a wry laugh.

Then she turned serious. She and her neighbors were out there, she said, to "inspire public opinion. Not just cleaning to clean."

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