Voters in Rome this week gave their mayor the boot, demanding a new start.
The ancient city, "La Grande Belleza" (The Great Beauty), has been falling apart, as more than a few residents see it. And the past few days have seen things literally go up in flames. Fire destroyed Rome's famous Iron Bridge over the weekend. Then Monday night, 30 municipal buses in a parking lot burned in almost apocalyptic scenes that left little clarity about what actually went down but which were rife with symbolism.
"The fire is a metaphorical image for the disaster that is Rome. Just like ancient Rome. Burning," said an exasperated Barbara Lessona, a mother, businesswoman and citizen activist. Along with an army of about a thousand other Romans who love and cry for their city, Lessona spends much of her free time taking matters into her own hands. Hands that get very, very dirty. She cleans parks and streets regularly with brigades of volunteers. Lessona was doing this before outgoing Mayor Virginia Raggi was elected five years ago on a wave of hope attached to the young fresh face of the anti-establishment mayor from a brand new political movement.
But, Lessona feared things have only gotten worse since then, and she worried the city has become a rudderless ship. Raggi is out. It is not clear who will run Rome next, as a runoff needs to take place between the two candidates still standing.
"It's a tit-for-tat politcal situation. It was a vote of anger, and not passion. Unfortunately, the last five years have killed the city because Raggi's way of governing the city was saving money and not spending money. To make a city beautiful, you have to invest, you have to involve the citizens who have been totally crippled."
Lessona said she thought the city has been drowning in bad blood in a sort-of Bermuda Triangle engulfing the city hall, regional and local politicians and residents.
When Raggi entered office, there was a scandal called "Mafia Capitale" in which city hall officials were found to have worked with or as organized crime gangs to milk city coffers. Public transportation was in freefall, symbolized by a subway zipping through underground tunnels in the summer of 2015 with a door perilously wide open threatening to suck passengers into a black hole. And, a popular blog called "Rome is Disgusting" captured the attention not only of Romans but of the world's media, documenting the city's woes, measuring its mountains of uncollected trash.
Raggi last month insisted she did right by the city against enormous obstacles when she was still hoping to secure another term. "We rescued a city from the brink, a city that was left completely abandoned. You see the bad habit of spending public funds, which is the money of every taxpayer, the bad habit of awarding public services and buying goods by using direct contracts and not via tenders, created in Rome a sick system of bad management of the city that was later discovered by the 'Mafia Capitale' trial."
Raggi, Rome's youngest mayor and the first woman to hold the post, also said those firsts worked against her because "we are in Italy."
But, Corriere Della Sera columnist Paolo Conti echoed Lessona's lament about infighting having hobbled Raggi's government. "Our newspaper gave credit to Virginia Raggi when she democratically won the elections. Now, it's clear that the past five years passed under continuing slogans and official announcements that were not matched by real actions, five years of strong hostility against the regional government which should be instead a vital counterpart to solve the problems of Rome capital city and of the wider urban areas of Rome – at times she was even in conflict with the central government. Well, I believe all this was a mix that not only did not work, but at times gravely damaged the city."
Rome's latest problem involves animals, not people. Perhaps Romans should feel lucky that the city is not actually overrun by angry versions of the mythological she-wolf that is the symbol of the city. Still, the roaming packs of wild boars seen feasting at trash bins around the city these days are not exactly benign.
"We have been invaded here," said restaurateur Pino Consolini. "Yesterday evening my sister was closing her shoe store over there, pulling down the shutter at 8 in the evening and she found around 30 of them outside her store. Here they often enter (the outside area of the restaurant), they pass through usually around closing time at night, around 1 a.m., but now they come up here at any hour of the day."
The wild boar population in Italy has risen 15% since 2019. Some blamed the out-of-control trash problem Rome has faced for a long time, but the pandemic also emboldened the animals to venture out onto empty streets they hadn't roamed before.
And then, the buses – not those that went up in flames in the parking lot Monday night, but those that catch fire mid-route, an occurrence that has happened reportedly as many as three dozen times in the last 18 months due in part to shoddy maintenance. The London Times quoted a Rome newspaper editor the other day saying, "Rome is the only city in the world where you blame ATAC (the city transportation operator), not ISIS, when a bus blows up."
Rome is a particular story with a long and tortured history of bad governance that has eluded escape from its downward spiral. Raggi's Five Star Movement was just starting its political ascent when she won the mayoral election in 2016. One of the takeaways of these latest local elections in Italy has been that Five Star's star is on its way down.