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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Idroscalo: An unauthorized, self-built Rome community

It's not often we're "scooped" by La Repubblica, but that was the feeling I had this morning (May 24, 2015) when I opened the paper to find an entire page devoted to Idroscalo, a community of some 500 homes and 2,000 people located north of the seaside town of Ostia, about 20 miles from Rome, on a spit of land between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the mouth of the Tiber River (the part known to residents as the Fiumara Grande).  The occasion for La Repubblica's interest is a May 26 technical "tavolo"--a bunch of experts getting together--"finalmente," as the newspaper put it, to deal with the case of Idroscalo.  Don't hold your breath.

RST was in Idroscalo about 10 days ago.  This was our second, and more informed visit.  The first time we were seeking the place where Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in 1975.  We came upon Idroscalo and felt we had hit a dead end.  This time, we had read Ferruccio Trabalzi's superb essay on the community in the collection Global Rome--we'll draw on it extensively here--and couldn't resist seeing the place with our own eyes.  Still, we had concerns.  Idroscalo is an unauthorized, illegal, and self-built community --according to Trabalzi, the "last surviving self-built small borghetto (illegally constructed neighborhood)" in all of Rome.  Its residents are poor and rightfully suspicious of strangers, especially those taking photographs, for those strangers are more likely than not to be the advance
In early 2011, there were 100 houses on this part of Idroscalo.  The
masts of the 2000 ships in the upscale marina are in the distance.
guard of yet another effort at eviction and demolition.

The last such event took place on March 8, 2011, when residents awoke to the presence of some 200 riot police and 4 bulldozers, which then proceeded to demolish about 100 homes along the seashore.  The area is subject to frequent flooding from the sea and, especially, the Tevere, and it's likely that the action was "justified" by the authorities as a measure necessary to the safety of the inhabitants. Protests by Idroscalo residents halted the demolitions.



Trabalzi describes Idroscalo as a
The main "square".  The town's coffee bar, complete with
umbrellas.  Bus service at right.  
 "social and cultural desert", save for a small chapel:  "no shops, no community center, no library, no piazza, no gardens or city offices, let alone any pharmacies or doctors."  That's mostly true.  But the entrance to the town has the feel of a piazza (there is turnaround bus service there - the head - or end - of the line), albeit one without amenities such as a fountain, benches, or trees.






Functioning restaurant, behind the bar
There's a restaurant just off the piazza--of the
sort middle-class Romans frequent on Sunday afternoons--and one of the town's two bars is on the piazza.  On the occasion of our mid-morning visit, the bar was functioning, as Rome bars do, as an informal social center, men sitting at tables and teen-age girls and boys in bathing suits circling on bicycles.

Our first act was to have a coffee at that bar. Rather than walking through the piazza, we wanted to announce ourselves, in something of an act of reassurance - for them, but also for us. We hoped they'd get the message: that we were Americans, that we weren't from the government, that whatever photos we took weren't going to hurt them, that we were self-confidently engaged in our own activity.  Still, we were never entirely comfortable while in the town.  The coffee was served in glass cups.



For most of an hour we walked the town, up one "street" and down another, along the area near the sea where the bulldozers of 2011 had left the land barren.  One man looked suspiciously at us as we walked by his home, yet said nothing.








Dogs, visible, center left, lying down, would make
us turn back a few yards later.

In the very center of the community--not a person in sight--we were forced to retreat by 3 barking dogs that ran at us--and then stopped as we turned. To avoid being too obvious, many of the photographs were taken at waist level or from long distance.




Squalor, one could say, with satellite TV
La Repubblica's story for the most part depicts the residents of Idroscalo as victims.  In the words of the headline:  "Favelas Idroscalo/vita da miserabili/nelle case di calce/senz'acqua né luce" (Idroscalo ghetto/living miserable lives in houses of lime, without water or electric light).  As even the newspaper recognizes, that's a bit overstated.  Yes, the roads are of packed earth, there is no "proper" sewage system (Trabalzi), most of the houses would reasonably be described as substandard, and--on the grounds that the community is illegal--there is no garbage collection within the town, though bins are not far away on the road leading to Ostia, whose middle class and upscale apartment buildings are only a few kilometers away.  As for water, over the years residents have developed an informal system that collects water from three
drinking fountains, deposits it in tanks, and uses pumps driven by electricity to move the water to rooftops and distribute it from there to residents.  And, obviously, there is electricity.  Most residents are on the regular ACEA (the water and power company) city grid.  Before 1977, hookups with ACEA were the norm, but laws passed then eliminated the arrangement, and homes built after 1977 are off the grid. According to La Repubblica, Idroscalo collectively owes ACEA 71,000 Euro. Cooking is by gas cylinders (we noticed some large ones).  Each year households are fined 2000 Euro for illegally occupying the public domain.

More middle class.
If life is so bad in Idroscalo, why doesn't everyone leave?  That's Trabalzi's question, and it's a good one.  One answer is that over the years--and some have lived there decades--residents have invested most of what they have in their homes, such as they are.  Another is that they rightly fear that the government's promises of relocation to better housing isn't a dependable one, raising the specter of homelessness and, if it were, that they'd find themselves in some version of the infamous Corviale, a kilometer-long concrete block 1970s-era disaster.  In addition, it seems clear that many Idroscalians enjoy living there.  "All the residents," Trabalzi claims, "agree on one point...that they live in a beautiful place" of gorgeous sunsets, with populations of dolphins and white herons, swans and swallows--and the smell of the sea.

Not so affluent.  
The Idroscalo that exists today had its origins in the early 1960s, when fishermen from Rome neighborhoods built small, and of course illegal, huts to use in the summer and the occasional weekend.  When it became clear that the authorities tolerated the huts, they were expanded and made more permanent. Idroscalo became a year-round community in the 1970s, largely out of necessity, when a city-wide crisis of affordable, legal housing led thousands of poor Romans to take up illegal, self-made residence along via  Casilina, via Boccea, via Prenestina, Mandrione--and Idroscalo. According to Trabalzi, authorities have here and there pursued a policy of "benign neglect" in places like Idroscalo, in part because the elimination of illegal communities would require the construction of low-income housing.

But that policy--a combination of fines, raids, threats, neglect and tolerance of self-made, illegal communities--may be coming to an end.  Residents of similar communities in Valle Aurelia, Casilino, Mandrione and elsewhere have experienced relocation to high-rise housing in places like Laurentino 38.  In 2000, private investors received permission to build a 300-boat marina within a
Behind the red timbers is a second bar, serving sandwiches, gelato, and more.  The marina is back right.  
hundred meters of Idroscalo's "piazza," promising employment to Idroscalo residents (it didn't happen); the marina was expanded in 2008.  But for the protests, all of Idroscalo might have been bulldozed in 2011.  According to Trabalzi, there is talk of turning the area into a "nature park" and, more threatening still, Idroscalo has attracted interest from corporations and politicians as a possible new center of tourism, complete with elaborate hotels and other amenities to complement the marina.
That may be what Tuesday's "tavolo" is all about.  

Bill

This photo closely resembles La Repubblica's  "lead" picture, pink chairs and all.  Several efforts at comfort here:
the umbrella, a bench, chairs, flowers, a rock garden--and a madonella.  



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