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Naples: A city centred

The media image of Naples as a dirty, crime-ridden, industrial dump masks the hidden life of a much maligned and misunderstood city, writes Nick Dines

June 4, 2013
7 min read

naplesDAMM, ‘Italy’s most beautiful social centre’. Photo: Nick Dines

Naples offers visitors an intriguing urban experience. With its dense web of narrow alleyways, ancient tenement blocks and crowded piazzas, the city’s sprawling centro storico (historic centre) is one of the few large urban centres in Europe to be dominated by lower-income residents. Here the taken-for-granted features of the contemporary neoliberal city assume a different hue. Over the past 20 years would-be gentrifiers have invested in sunlit, top-floor apartments, only to backtrack to the post-war suburbs when the lumpen dominance on the streets becomes too much to handle.

An urban waste crisis recently placed Naples under the global media spotlight. Much of the coverage was riddled with inaccuracies and preconceptions: the piles of uncollected trash were supposedly the work of organised crime, while the protests against landfills and incinerators were, at best, acts of irrational nimbyism and, in any case, merely served to aggravate the problem. In reality, the Camorra mafiosi had very little to do with the debacle, which was, more prosaically, the upshot of corporate negligence and institutional complicity. Moreover, the intense mobilisations and awareness-raising campaigns effectively hastened the collapse of the local political establishment and influenced a radical volte-face towards a zero waste agenda.

In terms of its grassroots politics, Naples has always posed conceptual dilemmas and strategic challenges. For the orthodox leftist, the city once boasted a highly organised working class concentrated in outlying factories but was otherwise constrained by the contradictory social allegiances of an unruly populace. For the more astute activist, Naples possesses alternative collective traditions and insubordinate tendencies that have, on occasions, turned the city into a vibrant political laboratory.

During the heady 1970s, as in other Italian cities, Naples was the site of radical neighbourhood-based movements that organised, among other things, the self-reduction of utility bills and, following an outbreak of cholera in 1973, fought for improved sanitary conditions. Out of these experiences emerged the organised unemployed movement, which at its peak in 1975 amassed 15,000 members. In their pursuit of regular work, activists would occupy public buildings and principal traffic arteries so as to bring the city to a standstill.

Today the movement has splintered into various factions. A few ‘lists’ have capitulated to clientelistic practices or have gravitated towards the far right, but most groups remain committed to self-organised struggle. These include the Coordinamento di Lotta per il Lavoro, whose headquarters on Via Rosaroll , in the east end of the city centre, is named in honour of Carlo Giuliani, the activist killed by police in Genoa in 2001. Tactics essentially remain the same as in the past. In other words, if you suddenly find yourself in the middle of traffic pandemonium, the chances are that it is the result of direct action by a few hundred disoccupati.

Naples has often played a prominent role in national movements such as general strikes, anti-war marches and student protests. In 1990 students across the country occupied university faculties in opposition to proposed privatisation in higher education. The Panther Movement, as it came to be known, had long-term repercussions in Naples. Besides producing a new generation of activists, it led to the revitalisation of large swathes of the centro storico that after the 1980 earthquake had become desolate outside office hours. Today’s busy bar scene around piazzas San Domenico, Gesù Nuovo

and Bellini has its origins in the mass reappropriation of public space by young people during this period. The city’s universities themselves continue to accommodate a series of radical spaces, including the long-established self-managed third floor in the

architecture faculty on Via Monteoliveto , which hosts the militant radio station Radiolina .

The momentum created by the Panther Movement also led to the occupation on 1 May 1991 of Naples’s most famous social centre, Officina 99 . Located in a former factory in Gianturco, one mile to the east of the city’s central railway station, Officina 99 is nationally renowned as the original base of rap group 99 Posse, and more recently it has become home to the micro-TV project insu^tv. Together with its sister occupation in the centro storico, Lo Ska , Officina 99 has often been at the forefront of local struggles over unemployment and migrant rights as well as being heavily involved with a number of international issues, such as Palestine and the Zapatista movement.

There are numerous other social centres in Naples, each with its own position and agenda, but without the mutual hostilities that sometimes exist in Milan, Turin or Rome. Insurgencia , a two-storey structure first squatted in 2004 in the northern district of Colli Aminei to the west of the giant Capodimonte park, played an instrumental role in the anti-landfill protests in near-by Chiaiano in 2008, and has continued to be particularly active around urban environmental issues. Insurgencia is affiliated with the national Global Network that grew out of the post-Genoa Disobbedienti movement and has, unlike Officina 99, built strategic working relationships with local institutions.

Returning to the centro storico and scaling its westerly slopes, we come to DAMM , first occupied by local people in 1995 and once declared to be ‘Italy’s most beautiful social centre’ on account of its panoramic views over the Gulf of Naples and the island of Capri. DAMM, which stands for Diego Armando Maradona Montesanto (the last word refers to the local neighbourhood), is located in a building at the top of a bizarre network of terraced gardens designed after the 1980 earthquake. Less overtly political than Officina 99 or Insurgencia and preferring the label ‘multiple self-managed zones’ to the somewhat obsolete term ‘centro sociale’, DAMM’s energies have been channelled towards campaigning for the upkeep of the park, theatre productions and running out-of-school activities for local children.

From DAMM it is a 15 minute downhill walk into the ancient Greco-Roman heart of Naples to the Ex Asilo Filangieri , the most recent addition to the city’s catalogue of self-managed spaces. The 16th-century former boarding school for orphans was ‘re-inhabited’ in 2012 to provide an open forum for culture and political debate. Loosely tied to a new national network of occupied theatres and cinemas previously threatened with closure, privatisation or redevelopment, the Ex Asilo has operated around the idea of culture and knowledge as commons and has drawn up a statute that guarantees collective participation in the structure.

All of the aforementioned spaces regularly organise public meetings and social and cultural activities, and are usually equipped with a bar and occasionally a kitchen (but don’t expect to find any vegan food!). The quickest way to gather information on latest events is to scan the posters pasted across the centro storico, especially around the university district. In doing so, you are also likely to come across murals by Cyop&Kaf, a writers’ collective that has spent the past decade embellishing the walls of Naples with Miró-esque bird-like monsters and anthropomorphised coffins, along with the odd piece of blunt social commentary, which together provide an offbeat backdrop to this at times rowdy and easily misunderstood city.

Nick Dines teaches at the University of Roma Tre and is author of Tuff City: Urban Change and Contested Space in Central Naples (Berghahn Books, 2012). His critical review of the British press coverage of the city and the rubbish crisis will shortly be published in the journal Modern Italy

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