Rome Labrino was designed as a plan for a new city (la nuova citta) by the famous architect, Kenzo Tange, and his associates based in Tokyo in the early P1010007 1970’s.  Groundbreaking on the first building was in 1976.  This was a grand plan designed for 70,000 people.  There were ten sections of Labrino which would each house between 6 and 7000 people in a combination of cooperative housing and public housing.  There was supposed to be green space, sporting areas, markets, community buildings, and other amenities.

Some of those things never came to pass over the last more than 35 years.  Reading the document description the one certainty though is that this project was a boost to the local architects, engineers, and consultants who occupy almost 2 full columns of tiny type at the back of the brochure.  Some of these ideas died quickly even though they appear like Roman antiquities along the landscape.  Near the expressway at the base of Labrino was a giant, empty parking lot, which had been thought to be space for a “park-and-ride” area, but never caught on.

I met with staff and leaders of the CGIL, a left trade union, with an office on the 1st floor of one of the Labrino buildings.  Later we had lunch with other officials including some occupants of Labrino.  The idea had been to create a model development of mixed lower income and moderate income housing on what had been an agricultural hillside on the edge of Catania.  The dominant buildings were low rises 6-7 stories high with a couple of larger towers in some of the islands.

The reality in a little more than three decades mirrors so much of what has happened in highly concentrated housing developments and projects around the world that it was almost banal in its predictability.  In the public housing only 20% of the tenants are estimated to be paying rent.  Another 30% of the tenants have stopped paying.  The last 30% are simply squatters.  The city of Catania has been broke for years and unable to hold up its end of the bargain either.  In an 18 month period over 2008-9 there was no street lighting in Labrino, because the city did not pay its bill to provide the lights.  Predictably there is pricing pressure on the co-ops with fewer families interested in buying in, though I was told that occupancy rates in the co-op housing are still hold strong.  I would bet that is temporary unless something happens soon.

My friends and informers believed the mafia was behind much of this, particularly the squatting, and had various theories and conspiracies ready and raring to explain the squatting and why it was being tolerated.  I found myself feeling too old for Labrino and too jaded as I looked at the scene.

Labrino was unkempt and signs were everywhere of the lack of maintenance, but I have been in hundreds of housing projects in America and elsewhere that were worse.  We drove by one tower where the 1st floor had a bombed out look.  My friends freaked when I went to take a picture, because there was drug activity there, but it was lightweight when I think of neighborhoods in the States or even “The Wire.”

I seemed to be looking at the classic early to mid-point stage of urban disinvestment.  With my union brothers I sketched out their alternative options:  organize the 20% of the tenants who were paying and force the city to move them into buildings they were willing to maintain and save and allow the city to tear down the rest,  or, unite the 20% with the 30% of the tenants not paying and given them an option to move into maintained buildings with “forgiveness” on a trial basis to pay within a new regime, or, finally, combine the 20% with the co-op owners in a similar plan to save what one could of Labrino as affordable and decent housing.  They reminded me that they had few members there and though they supported the citizens organization it was small, and they were busy.

I felt lucky that I was catching a plane out of Catania later than afternoon.  My friends and generous hosts were uncomfortable when I kept saying that the city had clearly already made a decision to tear down many if not all of the public housing buildings, they just had not been transparent with the community or revealed their plans.  I could see no other explanation.  I talked to them about the lifespan of these kinds of buildings and the need to find out something about the housing finance schemes in Italy for remodeling particularly since many of the buildings would require gut rehab to be saved given the collapse of plumbing systems.

I almost wore out my welcome by saying that, “yes, they could blame the mafia, but…” the real criminal element here was the City of Catania.  Mafia, gangs, whatever they might be called in the local context whether it is the Robert Taylor Homes of Chicago, Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis, or Desire and Fisher in New Orleans, this only happened once the responsible governments made a decision to disinvestment and flee the scene.   The local context of Sicily with its healthy and constant awareness of the mafia was distorting the ability of the planners and students from seeing nothing more than the garden variety tragedy of urban disinvestment and malign neglect of government.

I took no pride as we drove from Labrino as I looked over my right shoulder and saw an area of clear ground a couple of kilometers away with several cranes against the beautiful, hot, clear sky of Sicily.  I asked my friends the planning students what was being built there.  One answered without irony, “oh, that’s “new” Labrino.”  I was no prophet and could take no pleasure in having only minutes before “told them so,” but financed by the federal Italian government, the Catania was building a “new” Labrino at the foot of the old and accelerating the disinvestment process in Labrino, once the new city on the hill, and now a problem to be shelved rather than solved.

This could and should be a huge fight, but right now it’s just another urban tragedy unfolding quickly in broad daylight within sight of the Catania airport.  I could weep if I weren’t so jaded and angry at how much we know and how little we’ve learned and shared even while the same new urban crimes are committed on the poor and working families in front of our very eyes.