• Can You Save a Dying Italian Town with the Art of Storytelling?

    "Rosarno now exists at the margin of a margin..."

    When Angelo Carchidi returned to Rosarno in 2012, the peak of Europe’s debt crisis, the place of his birth and home of his youth had become a ghost town. The piazzas, the public squares that are at the heart of Italian social life, were quiet and empty. Homes and apartments were boarded and padlocked and “for sale” signs hung from their façades. Persistent neglect from all levels of government had spurred the collapse of social services, including the public library—one of the town’s only cultural spaces, which seemed neglected and imbued with the smell of mold. Thirty-year-old Carchidi, an architect by trade, was accustomed to the city’s rural slumber. But this time, it was if a malaise had descended upon the town.

    Once known as Medma, a name given by the ancient Greeks for this city in southern Italy, Rosarno now exists at the margin of a margin. The town of 15,000 people is located in Calabria, one of Italy’s most disadvantaged regions and the stronghold of the ‘Ndrangheta, the country’s most powerful mafia. For decades, the violence of poverty, crime, and a lack of opportunity has caused young Calabrians like Carchidi to flock to the prosperous north, or others—like my own grandparents—to emigrate elsewhere. Rosarno, far from the coasts and close to the crops, is best known for its sweet oranges, plump tomatoes, and a reputation for hardship, organized crime, and racism.

    In early 2010, a group of African migrant workers, returning home from the fields, were shot at by a gang of xenophobic locals wielding air rifles. Two workers were injured. While this was not the first incidence of violence against migrants in Rosarno, the attack led to a series of destructive riots and violent clashes that injured more than 50 people over the course of several days. It also paved the way for the exodus of hundreds of immigrants—most fearing for their safety—to government-run immigration facilities across the south. The Rosarno riots, as the events came to be known, revealed the region’s culture of racism and thrust the city into international notoriety. The riots also convinced Carchidi that, morally and civically, he had to go home.

    “The place you are born forms you, it makes you grow, it makes you frustrated,” Carchidi said. “But in some way, you are indebted to it.”

    Seated outside Rosarno’s Bar Spagnolo on a languorous late summer evening last year, Carchidi recounted this story to me, interrupting his musings on urban renewal to joke in Calabrese dialect with friends who pass by. Humble and welcoming, tough and stubborn, Carchidi embodies the Calabrian character that is magnified in the people of Rosarno. When he returned to the city seven years ago, Carchidi was lucky to find people who shared his interests—and more so, his hopes for what Rosarno could be. Along with four friends—Ettore Guerriero, Giovanna Tutino, Umberto Carchidi and Miriana Zungri—the group formed A di Città, an association that exists somewhere between an arts collective and a cultural enterprise. Their first project was a Festival of Urban Regeneration, an attempt to resuscitate the city through art and, in turn, revive the community. But, once the festivities ended, the city’s local council—who were, for a time, attentive to the needs of the people—relapsed.

    “We realized that our work through the festival had limitations,” he said. “So we asked, if we were to recount Rosarno in a book, a tourist guidebook, what would we include in it?”

    Rosarno, a town of 15,000 people, is located in Italy’s southernmost region of Calabria, a place often defined by its high levels of poverty, organized crime and a lack of opportunity. Photo by Alessandra Bergamin

    While Italy is one of the most visited countries in the world, Calabria has commanded little attention in most travel guidebooks. My own dog-eared copy of Lonely Planet’s Southern Italy guide dedicates 12 pages to the region and, of course, makes no mention of Rosarno. With the town’s unfinished homes, its abandoned factories, and its seemingly stray dogs that linger outside the train station, it is hardly surprising. Even the city’s road signs point to coastal towns—Scilla, Nicotera, Tropea—where the tourists trickle in and the turquoise Tyrrhenian crashes against the shores. But for Carchidi and A di Città, the idea of a Rosarno guidebook was not simply to lure people to a place nobody wants to visit. Rather, it was a way for locals to reimagine the world in which they live, and for tourists, should they come, to understand the city’s soul.

    The media have often (and sometimes with reason) written about Rosarno as the land of mafia and exploitation.”

    “When you say to a person who has always lived in a place, who sees it every day, ‘If you could tell the story of this place, how would you tell it?’ It awakens a whole series of questions that can bring out even the possibilities of a place,” Carchidi said.

    In late 2014, A di Città began work on Kiwi: Deliziosa Guida di Rosarno, or as it translates from the Italian, “a delicious guide to Rosarno.” The guide’s name, Kiwi, is both ambiguous and fitting. Across the plains of Gioia Tauro, an area that encompasses Rosarno, the juicy, prickly kiwifruit has begun to supplant the region’s orange groves. While the switch from oranges to kiwifruit is driven by economics, the latter—foreign and exotic to Calabria—is representative of a changing region. The guide would encompass both the old and the new, the local and the foreign, the past and the tentative future.

    Over the course of three years, A di Città held workshops and meetings, involving the public in the planning, writing, and distribution of Kiwi. The team decided that their office would be the city and held meetings, much like my own with Carchidi, in the cafés, pizzerias, and piazzas that dot the historic center. During Kiwi’s production, the public library became a makeshift editorial office and the “beating heart” of the guidebook. But just before the book was published in early 2017, the council decided to close the library.

    “Culture is not a priority in this city,” Carchidi said. “And this was a question of priorities.”

    Rosarno students draw their idea of the city on a large sheet of paper outside the library FaRo: Fabbrica dei Saperi in Rosarno. Photo by Elisa Chiriano

    Kiwi, on the other hand, was the product of prioritizing culture through storytelling and, to paraphrase the Italian writer Cesare Pavese, prioritizing the stories of those for whom Rosarno is “in their blood beyond anyone else’s understanding.” As a hardcover book with more than 200-pages, the guide is punctuated with color photographs, historical illustrations, and chunks of lime green paper that divide it in two. The first half follows the structure of a conventional guidebook with maps, history, notable people, and places of interest. But the preface to this section, aptly titled “before you leave,” begins with a rumination on the perfume of orange blossoms and ends with a note about the book’s underlying purpose: to tell a nuanced story of a typecast city.

    Rosarno is an ever-polarizing city and one where the idea of being closed, of being shut-off, has gained traction.

    “The media have often (and sometimes with reason) written about Rosarno as the land of mafia and exploitation,” it reads. “Before continuing, we recommend leaving the labels and prejudice at home and being open to discover a contradictory place, full of contrast and surprise, with which you will fall in love.”

    Rosarno is an ever-polarizing city and one where the idea of being closed, of being shut-off, has gained traction. During the last general election, the Northern League, a far right populist party, received 13 percent of the vote in Rosarno, a sharp spike from the less than one percent it garnered in the previous election. The guide does not try to hide reality or shy away from these lived experiences, however. In a short essay—one in a series of monographs that pepper the first section—Giovanni Cappello writes about Rosarno’s immigrant population who, after “arriving by sea on crooked boats of despair, live anywhere that offers them shelter.” While addressing this fraught reality, the essay shifts focus to the city’s immigrant soccer team, created by those “living on the edge of humanity.” With this reality in mind, writing about the town’s immigrant soccer team is a means of celebrating possibility, of tasting the sweet within the bitter.  

    “The idea of being shut off, of being closed, is fashionable right now,” Carchidi said. “We are trying to build communities that are open and hospitable.”

    Ramshackle homes, such as this, dot Rosarno and are often plastered with “Vendesi” or, “for sale” signs. Photo by Alessandra Bergamin

    At Bar Duomo, as we snack on olives and crunchy bread, Carchidi opens a copy of Kiwi and flips to this second half of the book entitled, Rosarno Ulterior. The section begins with a preface, written by the A di Città team, on the idea of “possible places” and the importance of paying attention to the everyday spaces in which we spend our lives. What follows is a series of essays that together form an oral history of Rosarno and, more so, an ode to places that exist on the periphery. The writings include a manifesto on urban spaces by the French architecture and design studio, Le Collectif Etc; the transcript of a speech given at the opening of Rosarno’s only museum, the Archeological Museum of Medma; and an essay, unpublished for more than two decades, by Giuseppe Valarioti—a Rosarno council member who was killed by the ’Ndrangheta in the early 1980s.

    Carchidi’s favorite essays are written by three women of different ages and backgrounds and touch on immigration, agriculture, and women’s rights—some of the region’s most contentious issues. Among these stories is an essay by Antonella Agnoli, a Venetian librarian and architect, who recounts her visit to Rosarno’s public library. She begins by detailing the chipped paint on the walls; a lonely man, perhaps homeless, waiting for the building to open; a child’s illustration of a clock, with the caption, “Rosarno goes forth, but always comes back.” She describes the library as a microcosm of the city itself.

    “The library is like the new piazza,” Agnoli writes. “A place where many things happen at once, an organism with multiple dimensions.”

    Rosarno, while far from the assigned cultural centers of Venice, Florence and Rome, possesses its own plain yet bittersweet poetry.

    Embracing the idea that by telling the story of a place, you can begin to transform it, Agnoli went on to collaborate with A di Città on their third project, the renovation of Rosarno’s public library. In late 2018, the formerly derelict building reopened as Fabbrica dei Saperi a Rosarno (FaRo), or the Rosarno Knowledge Factory. Through the renovation, the library has become a cultural center that hosts creative workshops, performances, and literary events. Already, Carchidi says, it has been popular among families, teenagers, and Rosarno’s Eastern European and African communities. As Agnoli writes, a library is one of few places—and in Rosarno, perhaps the only place—that allows these diverse and otherwise divided groups to meet in a space that encourages tolerance and trust.

    At Bar Duomo, the last light fades into dusk and the bells from a nearby church ring in a long, steady rhythm. Carchidi once lived in a town where the bells did not chime and their absence, he remembers, was palpable. Rosarno, while far from the assigned cultural centers of Venice, Florence and Rome, possesses its own plain yet bittersweet poetry. Through Kiwi and FaRo, that lyricism has been reimagined into both literature and space, transformed into not only a guidebook and a library, but an antidote to a world in regress. 

    Alessandra Bergamin
    Alessandra Bergamin
    Alessandra Bergamin is a freelance journalist and researcher whose work has been published in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Ensia and The Establishment. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, she now lives in Los Angeles.

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