Guest contributor Markus Bell is a lecturer in the University of Sheffield’s School of East Asian Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @mpsbell.
Italy is in trouble. Big trouble.
The Global Economic Recession hit hard. Italy’s young are disproportionately feeling the pinch with youth unemployment soaring to an alarming 43 percent. Conditions are worse in southern Italy, where poverty and unemployment are compounded by a refugee crisis that doesn’t look like it is abating any time soon.
In Rione Sanità, central Naples, the buildings are crumbling, 30 percent are unemployed, and Camorra crime syndicates feed on the disaffection of the young, recruiting youth while they are still in school. Widespread poverty in the district has even attracted humanitarian missions that struggle to alleviate the degradation.
In the poorest areas of Italy’s south, where people feel like the government has abandoned them, locals are taking matters into their own hands in what Anne Allison describes as “Biopolitics from below, spurred by a shared sense, and conditions, of precariousness” (2013: 175). In 2006 a handful of local born teenagers teamed up with a local priest, Father Loffredo, and started the La Paranza Cooperative to tackle the overwhelming socio-economic problems facing one of Napoli’s poorest neighborhoods.
The Cooperative was the starting point for revitalising Rione Sanità. One of the first actions of the Cooperative was to start tours of Napoli’s long forgotten city of the dead – the San Gaudioso Catacombs.
Antonio was born and raised in Rione Sanità. He’s been involved in the project since day one. With gesticulations that I’d come to associate, confusingly, with Neapolitan expressions of both joy and anger he explained,
“There were only five of us in the beginning, but we had big dreams. When we started getting attention from tourists we contacted the Vatican. After some pretty serious negotiations, we signed a contract to do tours of the whole catacombs.”
If the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, in the final resting place of thousands of plague victims, the numbers speak for themselves. In 2006 Antonio and four other volunteers guided 5,000 visitors around a limited area of the catacombs. Ten years later, 20 professional staff (read: the radical idea of exchanging labor for money) guide more than 70,000 necro-curious individuals, foreign and domestic, around the vastly extended subterranean burial ground.
What started out as a way of keeping kids off the street has expanded into a network of cooperatives managing tourism projects, training courses, and job placement for at-risk Rione Sanità youth.
The Cooperative’s roots continue to grow, now including a youth symphony orchestra comprised of 100 local children, a theatre company where local kids take acting classes, and two “houses” (Casa dei cristallini and L’altra Casa) helping local kids with their homework.
“We have to teach the kids of Rione Sanità that everything they need is right here, in Rione Sanità. They’re money poor, but they’re culturally rich,” Antonio told me, during a tour.
Each one of the Cooperative’s staff pitches in using whatever skills they’ve developed over the years. Several trained as electricians (The Officina dei Talenti) and fixed the LED lighting that illuminates the catacombs.
The most recent additions to the tour include tactile relief panels (braille) and street access (courtesy of the “Iron Angels” metal work cooperative), making the Catacombs of San Gennaro (opened in 2009) the only crypt tour in the world that is fully accessible to the disabled.
The kicker? All funding for the Cooperative and its offshoots has come from independent donors. And all profits from the project are funnelled back into the community – Rione Sanità youth are rebuilding Rione Sanità.
Similar things can be seen across Italy (in Sicily there’s been a proliferation of micro-financiers offering emergency cash to destitute communities). But it’s still more common for young Italians to look elsewhere – Germany or the UK – for employment, joining millions of other ‘precariat’ (ibid) designated as ‘flexible labor’ within the neoliberal marketplace.
Antonio, a fervent ‘Southern Man’, reflected, “Naples used to be rich. Then the North invaded us and stole our wealth to pay off their debts. So now we’re poor. So we’ve got to do it for ourselves.”
The grassroots activism of the La Paranza Cooperative is a lesson to follow for an Italy currently facing an economic and social crisis. But for Antonio and his group of ‘guerrilla tourist guides,’ there’s still a way to go.
“This is just the beginning. With the help we’re getting from local archaeologists we keep opening up more and more of the catacombs for visitors. Come back in a month, Markus,” he smiled. “You might not recognise the place.”
The relationship of the living to the dead in this part of Italy has always been an intimate one, and it’s hardly surprising that the dead are now helping the living in restoring Rione Sanità to its deserved place as the cultural center of southern Italy.
The Catacombs of Naples website: http://www.catacombedinapoli.it/en