Catania San Berillo proper, we might say, is a historic district near the city center of Catania, the second-largest city in Sicily. The narrow alleys and unique, but too often deteriorated and hardly habitable housing structures, all tell stories of life, history, and the culture of the community. Now as I walked for several hours with a colleague, who is an urban planning specialist with a deep connection to the area, we tried to get a deeper sense of the organizing potential and problem presented by San Berillo.
In the historic district itself there are special preservation rules that instruct, or as local developers claim obstruct, development. No structure, for example, can be taller than the width of the street, which is seven meters or about twenty-one feet. Outside the San Berillo historic district, the abutting areas also call themselves San Berillo, and signs of development with taller structures and rehabs press the area. This isn’t uniform, but a patchwork of sorts. A place designated as a park stands forlornly next to two excavations for buildings that have been frozen in place for decades as a testament to unrealized plans. A thriving market runs up against hectares of parking lots and huge breezeways occupied by the homeless.
In San Berillo proper, the story is also fraught. There are some dots here and there are where beachheads have been established by urban pioneers who have planted their flags. Housing is cheap here, even if renovation is expensive. The challenges only begin there. The area, not far from the port, has also become a magnet for new immigrants, many from various African countries. Music is blasting. The street scene, even on a weekday morning, is sketchy and marked by open drug dealing and prostitution, both of which are of course illegal, but any hint of police is nonexistent.
Could a community organization be built in the historic district? There are perhaps 3000 people living there now in this small area. At one point, I asked how many families might be stable residents rather than transient, and the quick answer was “Ten,” and even if an exaggeration, it underlines the problem. What if we organized the larger self-identified San Berillo area in District 1? Talking to a 14-year resident, she likely, if anything, underrepresented how inevitable the first demand would be for security and to clean up the area. In that situation, neighbors would be demanding the existing life and work in the historic district would end, in a form of consensual and popular urban renewal via public removal. If successful, complete gentrification would be only a decade away. I visited a building where I was told they had made 300,000 euros of improvements, including adding apartments on the second floor, but still the owner would sell them the property for 150,000 euros,
San Berillo is a conundrum. This is a community in crisis, left to rot, until the abandonment is complete in deliberate deterioration at the hands of the municipality: an urban crime scene. This is a situation where building a community organization would likely not unite residents, but pit the more stable against the more transient. The strategy would have to be an “all boats rise” urban plan that also guaranteed security for San Berillo. Trying to just make that one neighborhood shipshape would simply sink what is left and accelerate the disinvestment and departures, before a tsunami of gentrification transformed it unrecognizably. Sometimes people power has to work around a problem, rather than plunging right to the heart of it.