Conversation with Roberto Morassut by Valentina Valentini

A detailed exploration of the suburban neighbourhoods
(in the layout of the urban system)

Valentina Valentini: In Rome there are several types of suburban neighbourhoods, those planned and built during the fascist period (Centocelle, Gordiani, Pietralata, Quarticciolo, Villaggio Breda, etc.), and those which appeared after the war, built by peasants who were leaving the countryside and arriving in Rome from Marche, Abruzzo and the South, and began to build “Sunday houses” (houses built on their days off work) (Castelverde, Borghesiana). In your book Le borgate e il dopoguerra: politica, società, ideologia alle radici della Roma di oggi (The suburbs and the post-war period: politics, society, ideology at the origins of present day Rome) (Ponte Sisto, Roma 2018), a narrative filled with visual, literary and movie sources, we read: «the debate on the abandonment and the poverty of the Roman suburban neighbourhoods, that became intense especially from 1950, brought a new field of research into the period. In time it became established and conventional and has remained crystallized like an identifying, inflexible element, which in some ways still obstructs a careful reading of certain aspects of the outer city, of the contradiction between material wealth and cultural poverty concerning some aspects of the suburban neighbourhoods of today!» (p. 13). Can you explain this contradiction between material wealth and cultural poverty?

Roberto Morassut: The years of the Rebecchini administration, from ‘47 to ‘52 were years of reconstruction. Rome, devastated by the war, was discovering the suburban neighbourhoods that had been ignored until that moment. In the sense that they had existed for some time but had been hidden by the fascist regime which had built its own idea of a city, the main feature of which was the monumentality of the historic centre, the imperial city. It moved whole families, workers and artisans, who used to live in the historic centre, to the outskirts. The suburban neighbourhoods created by fascism were dispersed in the countryside: they were easily controllable, due to how they were built, but they were distant from the city. This situation already existed but was ignored, and exploded with the class struggles, with some news reports that began to describe the new reality. It was certainly an impoverished Rome for a simple reason, as Italo Insolera recalls in Roma moderna (Einaudi, 1962), because these proletarian and productive classes were taken to the outskirts, where they lost the connection to the small economic circle of the central districts, and were transferred to an area with no commercial exchange, where nothing existed. To this absolute poverty was added that of the families from the provinces around Rome, creating a particular melting pot of Roman families and immigrants from other regions of Italy. They were the portrait of extreme poverty and neglect, with no services or facilities. In the Rome of those times, the characteristics of which lasted at least until the 60s, the dichotomy between middle class and working classes, between the poor and the socially more advanced and richer classes, was extreme. There existed a literary description of these aspects of Rome, which I call the painful suburban neighbourhoods. But when I hear about the neglected outer neighbourhoods, I believe it’is not the correct interpretation, because it’s evident that the suburban areas have obvious problems, such as economic poverty which has not disappeared, but things have changed in the last twenty, thirty years and accelerated in the last ten, as the layout of the city today is different. We now live through a disintegration of the organisation of the city, a disarticulation which interests all parts of the city, including the historic centre and well-established districts that were lower middle-class areas based on public work, and are now suffering from separation of the territory, abandonment of public and private properties, degradation of public spaces, impoverishment of social classes, above all the elderly people. In the suburbs, the situation is more complex than it used to be: lack of facilities, vertical forms of communication, fewer events where groups can socialize. This leads to a cultural impoverishment that in some cases goes together with economic wealth, often accumulated through various, not always legal, activities. Take for example property investment accumulated through various phases of unauthorized constructions, which were initially forms of proletarian legitimization. Properties built illegally in many cases then became speculation. So today, when we speak of suburban neighbourhoods, we must adopt a more articulated vision and know that a large number of active commercial activities – Rome still has many, despite the crisis – are businesses concentrated in the outskirts. I mean it is there that enterprises exist, that the economy is alive, there that gross domestic product is created, even under the enormous difficulties of a city that pays the price of a credit crunch, of the undermining of urban systems, of very few facilities. All these elements exist, however they must lead us to a more complex understanding not only of the contradictions but also the potential of the whole suburban area which is not only in a state of neglect.


V.V.: To sum up, according to what you said, in the new millenium, do we have more centres and outskirts? The lack of services is a constant fact but the suburban areas have a cultural vitality observed during the lockdown months: an empty centre with no tourists, while the suburbs were alive.

R.M.: This is a typical phenomenon of the global cities, defined by a bit of a tricky term gentrification, that is a dynamic where one loses the sense of a city organised according to social classes, to productive areas, and which has its own precise identity, assuming that Rome ever really had one. Having never been an industrial city, this spatial and productive organisation in Rome has always been difficult to pinpoint, even more so today when we observe a falling apart of the urban system that makes the perception of specific features even more difficult. In what we call the outskirts, which are made up of different urban fabric and realities, we perceive that cultural vitality undoubtedly exists, first because economic production is also cultural vitality, and because the associative and cultural fabric, the activities which are tied to subsidiary purposeful social action are plentiful and effective in the outskirts. In this I find a certain continuity with the past which goes further back than the post-war years, a characteristic of the outskirts then being to react to the neglect and create a network of associations. Many of these were tied to political parties which were more present and active, with deeper roots, than nowadays, and were the levers of social struggles and demands. So, as I have written in my book, during that period the “popular councils” were created by citizens, not affiliated to political parties, in order to undertake simple actions, take blankets to those who had none, make soup for people who had nothing to eat. They created “notebooks of necessities” that listed everything the neighbourhood needed and they organized the conflict and the requests to the Institutions, reverse strikes which meant they performed directly the jobs the Council should have provided. It is in these moments that social fabric is created, a reaction to the condition, become more articulate in time, and today we observe a panorama with a vast range of features and part of that lively reality.


V.V.: In his afterword, Walter Veltroni declares that during his term as mayor of Rome, a possibility for new enterprises and jobs was created, an Atlas of the outer neighbourhoods, contracts with the suburbs… What has happened to these projects and initiatives (as well as the new town-planning scheme…)?

R.M.: I don’t want to say things that make me appear biased, in the sense that everything was fine before and bad later: when I took part as councillor for urban planning in the Rome Council (with Veltroni mayor), many problems existed, but one was aware of the limits of what the administration could do. Now the continuation of administration has been lost, and this is very serious, because if there is a project, it must go ahead, it can be adjusted but not interrupted. Instead, there has been a division, a disarticulation of the administration and a weakening of the ruling class. It may be said that the interests of the Capital city have entered, at national level, a critical point, and are going through a long period of neglect on behalf of national politicians. All this has led to a fragmentation of memory and administrative processes of which the Atlas of the outskirts is part. It was kind of a register in which one could find the priorities and the basic directions for town-planning in the suburbs, without having the presumption of succeeding in dealing with everything. However, knowing the range of necessities which needed to be dealt with in the long term, including programs that might last several years, there was a direction in which to proceed.


V.V.: Even in the 70s those who lived in the outer neighbourhoods were in fact segregated, forced by the distance (and the buses which did not arrive) into a “lunar inactivity”, as Valerio Mattioli writes in his book, Remoria. La città invertita (Minimum Fax 2019): “the centre was not a source of life: it was a place to consume or even to raid, because only through plunder – real or symbolic- the tough guys relate to the paradise of luxury goods” (p. 131) Is the “suburb-sphere”, as Mattioli calls it, a different reality? Let’s consider the arson – reiterated – of the bookshop “La Pecora Elettrica” in Centocelle. The cultural centres, such as the network of libraries in Rome, the network of theatres: Ostia, Tor Bella Monaca, Quarticciolo, are important avant-garde structures but in a municipality of two hundred thousand inhabitants they are not able to do much.

R.M.: Centocelle is a place full of contrasts, contradictions and political radicalism, which have always been there. If one looks at its history, from the beginnings until now, one discovers that it has always been a place where radical political viewpoints are a characteristic, due to the type of formation of this area. Originally, it was going to be a kind of garden-city, a rural suburban area but it then changed radically because, due to planning choices taken in time, particular social groups concentrated here. Centocelle has always been a difficult area. In general, I would say that in the outer neighbourhoods a democratic and social positivity do exist; just think of the complex social and cultural experience of Forte Prenestino, of Borgo Ragazzi Don Bosco, a reality created by the Salesian priests who have always given an important contribution to help integrate young people in need. The outer areas today live the contrast between these responses, this desire to show their identity, which luckily has not been suffocated and which is apparent in many ways. The globalisation inevitably dulls everything, doesn’t leave space to complexities, makes individuals more lonely and similar to one another. They are the effects that Pasolini had already foreseen in the 70s when he discussed his ideas about television or the cultural consequences of mass media. Today all this comes out in obstinacy and conflictual situations, abundant in areas such as Centocelle, a neighbourhood where a strong Roman branch of the Red Brigades was based, an area where the extreme right was present. We can recall the killing of the right-wing high school student Alberto Giacquinto by the police in 1979.The communist party had enormous difficulty just after the war to get the people in Centocelle to accept Togliatti’s attempt to promote parliamentary democracy. The communists opposed the Party line because they wanted to immediately make a revolution. Centocelle has a very particular political and spiritual universe. Some of these contradictions can be related to what happened at “La Pecora Elettrica”.


V.V.: In your book you write about a close alliance during the fifties between the Vatican, property speculation and land ownership, which lasted until the 70s. What powers have now substituted these reactionary alliances?

R.M.: After the war a structural connection existed between land ownership and Vatican finance. We can see this in the fact that in 1929 with the Lateran Treaty and with the financial attachments to those agreements, the Vatican managed an enormous amount of economic resources, including government bonds from the Italian State as acknowledgement for the sealing of the Treaty. It invested these resources by buying the Società Generale Immobiliare (General Estate Company) which was based in Turin and opened in Rome in 1860 and had a large industrial capital but no land. The Vatican therefore put together the “mortmain” property, the land for development that had been donated with the town-planning scheme of ‘31 and the big company of contracts and works, creating a strong group which was the leader in property development of Rome for thirty years, until the 70s or even the 80s. Then this system had a crisis, as it began to collect debts, and the problem of the debt of Rome and the consequences of this on the financial and administrative system are discernable in that story. Obviously the story is a different one today, this aspect doesn’t have the same force, the same hierachical structure, the same ability to bring people together as before. Other central forces have replaced this one, first of all financial ones connected to the change of model introduced by globalisation. Let’s take for example the theme of property development. Today the problem is not the builders who have in a certain sense a secondary role, but rather the big international and multinational real estate investment funds, that act on the city with unbelievable speed, with an enormous financial potential, and undertake demolition, reconstruction, regeneration, as it is called today. Therefore, the city is left with nothing, because the capital gain made with these operations of urban renewal goes almost esclusively to these companies that possess mixed international property. We are up against the force of global finance which influences urban transformation. A second consideration, not to be overlooked, is crime: today the business moved by criminal activity of every kind from waste products to drugs, is an agent of the social hierarchy which encodes and classifies relationships between social classes. These are two examples showing that the city today is no longer Vatican-finance, therefore part of an Italian dimension, but rather an open society which has to contend with the vast economies on a world scale. My insistence on the necessity of a reform of the administrative order stems from this, because it’s not possible to counterpose a council that has an order from decades ago to the economic force of these subjects. It’s necessary to have a strong structure that understands the metropolitan sphere, organises it, has the force to affirm public policies. This is the great challenge of the metropolis in general and in particular Rome, because it is even more than a metropolis. Rome is one of those words that when you pronounce it everybody immediately understands what you’re talking about in every part of the world, from the indigenous populations of Australia to the North pole. This brand for Rome is a great opportunity but also a big problem: it needs organisation.


V.V.: The actual deputy mayor and councillor for cultural development in the Rome Council, Luca Bergamo, proposes to create a suburban neighbourhood museum at Tor Bella Monaca…

R.M.: It seems a weighty expression, a suburban neighbourhood museum, but I don’t know the details of this proposal. The only thing one should not do is to make a museum of a condition or turn something into rhetoric, because the suburbs are the city. When we speak of the suburbs we are still speaking of the city, its contradictions, its problems. More than leaving things as they are, we must make an effort to radically change them. We must bear in mind that the neighbourhood of Tor Bella Monaca, despite all its problems, is an attractive area from the spatial urban point of view: it is planned with modern avant-garde criteria. The actual situation, the realisation of the buildings according to this criteria is inadequate because they were built in the 70s and today they are facing deterioration in an area that has undergone massive influx of people. This area also has cultural centres, for example the Tor Bella Monaca theatre, built under the Veltroni administration; a place with an enormous potential also from a cultural standpoint, but that obviously presents many problems.


V.V.: It can be seen from your book that the issue of the outer neighbourhoods and the suburbs of Rome becomes a political struggle when there is a strong presence and involvement of left wing parties, trade unions, associations, so much so that Centocelle, Gordiani, Quarticciolo, Pietralata, Torpignattara, Primavalle were close to left-wing parties and the Italian Communist Party. In the council elections of 2016 this fact was overturned. Are there plans for new immigrants who don’t come from the South and the countryside? The “invisible” people arriving on the coasts of Italy from Africa and the middle East, in contrast to the 50s, when the issue of new immigrants was received as a political and social problem, is not taken as a responsibility by the political administration.

R.M.: There are many people who work and are invisible in their work, but they are a section of the existing population. Even in the 50s there was a problem of invisible groups, that is a lot of people who came from the provinces and the South who were not registered. Just before the jubilee of 1950 the figures of the population in Rome were unknown. In fact at one point a discussion began in the city council and throughout the city, and someone who was a strongly convinced democrat, Don Sturzo, made a proposal that today we would consider racist, that is that citizenship should be given only to those living in the historic centre. The same happens today where the demographic aspect and the composition of the groups of immigrants is wider, more articulated and different, a component of the suburban neighbourhoods. If you enter certain neighbourhoods it’s evident, take for example the area of Torpignattara where the social and cultural stratification is noticeable. This organisation is the challenge of modern times, it needs to be analysed from a demographic viewpoint, we have to build a narrative, policies which allow one not to see the matter as a limit, not a problem, not degradation, but as an enormous wealth: the strongest and most advanced people, the most intellectually creative are people of mixed blood, mixed races.


V.V.: Let’s make it a battle, “we are here”, citing the title of this edition of TBQvoices.


Thanks to Laura Ricci for the collaboration.

1The event happened during a protest to commemorate the first year anniversary of the killing of miliants of the Acca Larenzia Social Movement.

Roberto Morassut. Undersecretary of State at the Ministry for the Environment and Protection of Land and Sea.
Politician and member of Parliament, elected in 2008 and confirmed in 2013 and 2018. In Parliament he deals with the reform of town planning-regulations and the social security system.
He was a member of the VIII committee (Environment, Land and Public works) in the Chamber of Deputies and group leader in the parliamentary commission consisting of members from both Houses for the control of activities of the managing bodies for compulsory forms of welfare and social assistance.
In May 2014 the Chamber of Deputies named him as part of the delegation of the Italian Parliament -composed of 18 members- part of the NATO parliamentary assembly (Committee for Science and Technology).
In April 2016 he was appointed Vicepresident of the GSM (special group for the Mediterranean sea) of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
He has contributed to the revision and the reform of national planning regulations on the theme of contributions for the payment to Councils for the expenses of planning and construction. It established – with a law confirmed by a ruling of the Constitutional Court – that the value of these expenses must be calculated on the basis of an equal distribution between the Council and private stakeholders in urban development and construction, with a greater advantage and public interest.
He has also proposed to reform the constitution legislation, to reduce the number of Italian regions from 20 to 12 giving the territory of what was previously the Province of Rome the status of Capital Region, going beyond the ordinary form of Council.
In November 2016 he was elected Vicepresident, until March 2018, of the Parliamentry committee of inquiry into the degeneration of Italian marginal areas.
On 13th September 2019 he was appointed Undersecretary of State for the Ministry of the Environment and Protection of Land and Sea in the second Conte government.
In his role of Coucil commissioner for town planning in the Veltroni administration (2001/2008) he was responsible for obtaining the council’s approval of the new town-planning scheme of Rome and in 2005 during his office as commissioner he was appointed Government commissioner for the programme of requalification of the urban environment of Viale Giustiniano Imperatore in Rome, the only program of demolition and reconstruction of extensive civil use undertaken until now in Italy. He has coordinated several interventions and public works.
Among his numerous publications:
Malaroma: From Rome as model to the failure of Alemanno. 2012, Aliberti Editore.
Rome capital 2.0, the new dilemma of Rome. Civic reform for the Capital, 2014 published with Imprimatur
The well in the fog. The Bracci case. An assassination in Primavalle in the Holy year 1950, Ponte Sisto Editore 2014
Rome without capital. The Campidoglio crisis and the need for civic redemption book of interview with Pietro Spataro, Ponte Sisto Editore 2015.
Number 9 Giuliano Taccola the broken point. Rome and Rome in the 60s, Palombi editore 2016.
The suburban and the post-war period. Politics, society ideology at the origins of present Rome, Ponte Sisto Editore 2018.
Democrats. A movement for Europe against inequality. 2012, Aliberti Editore


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