Friday, February 14, 2014

Death and Resurrection, Part I

A busload of us spent Wednesday traveling to two sites in the Abruzzo region, to the east and north of Rome.  I'll post about the two, each of which raises a different preservation issue.

It is probably worth going first to Florence before going to L'Aquila,  just as it is worth going to Homestead, PA, or the silver mines of Nevada, or to the railway lines across the U.S., before heading to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Frick Gallery, or the Morgan in New York.  Because it is in those less famous places where the wealth come from to make those glorious cities and institutions possible.  L'Aquila is the capital of the Abruzzo region and became the sheep capital -- and therefore the wool capital --  of the world in the late middle ages, fueling the cultural ferment of Florence.  At one time millions of sheep would make the yearly trek -- or tracturo -- from the Abruzzo to Puglia in order to maximize grazing grounds and therefore the number of sheep that could be raised.  From high up above the valley, you can the sunken valley's -- a landscape feature created by centuries of the tracturo. Like other places that once dominated by their own crop (think cotton in the American South), this area fell into slow and steady economic decline with the rise of other sources of wool, and then the rise of cotton.  

L'Aquila is a gorgeous hill town town, the capital of this region.  It is also a virtual ghost town, victim to a 2009 earthquake -- the latest in its long history.  It poses the questions posed by Katrina and Sandy and the other earthquakes and natural disasters of recent years.  What do they rebuild?  What should be torn down?  And lurking behind it all:  If earthquakes have leveled this place dozens of times over the past millennium, why persist?

We visited the massive Spanish fort, the home of the region's major museum, which appears to have some serious and thoughtful people involved in securing the building and planning the restoration.  As often happens, the worst hit areas were those built most recently -- using shoddy materials, or failing to understand the structure of the original.   But despite the lengthy and enthusiastic narration of the plans for renovation we received from the project architect, we had to wonder how it was all going to be possible.  There are about five people working on the massive site right now; they hope to get up to 15. But this is a job for hundreds. 

From the start, the rebuilding of L'Aquila, which Silvio Berlusconi promised would happen fast and right, went slow and wrong.  Well, one thing moved quickly:  the money moved with great alacrity into all the wrong hands.  It appears that crane operators and scaffolding companies are the new sheep owners of the Abruzzo, shearing the state and European Union of their investments in the form of exorbitant equipment rents, while little work goes on.  It seems like there is scaffolding or other supports on virtually every building in the historic center.  But throughout out mid-week morning there, only a small amount of work was taking place.  A crane lazily picking up a bit of rubble. A few workmen fixing a road.  This is five years into the "recovery."  You get a sneaking feeling that the historic city is being harvested purely for profit, by the mafia it is alleged. 

A lot of my colleagues felt like perhaps it was time to give up the ghost town. There's no money.  It all goes into the wrong hands.  There's too much to do.

But I remembered the book by my friends Larry Vale and Tom Campanella (The Resilient City, to which I contributed an essay on New York).  They reminded us that virtually no significant city has been abandoned due to natural disaster over the past two millennia.  For economic, cultural, even psychological reasons, cities get rebuilt, even if disaster is lurking a year, a decade, or a century around the corner.  

The L'Aquilese seem committed -- in their temporary structures on the edge of town -- to wait it out.  The population has actually slightly increased in the city (if not the historic center) and the university is in full operation.  

Some are not so happy with the speed of recovery, nor the corruption

They need a plan -- not everything can or should be saved -- and they need a clean process, so that the views of the citizens are incorporated into the plan and so that the money where goes where it is meant to go.   And then a few prayers that the terremoto is a long way off.

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