Rome becoming a ‘do it yourself’ city’

Frances D'Emilio
Associated Press

Rome – — 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 diseased 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 plundered and neglected 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 windy recent 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.

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 processes to award contracts are scrutinized 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.

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.