THE SUN SETS OVER THE ETERNAL CITY. Gradually, the Capitoline Hill casts its shadow on the remains of an "insula". Whereas ornate triumphal arches testify to the greed of the former empire, exotic obelisks remind of its vastness. Saint Peter's dome looms above the surrounding city and emanates moral superiority.
Rome welcomes about ten million tourists a year –roughly three times its own population. From every corner of the globe, people young and old flock to the city. By day they admire its monuments; at night they indulge in its nightlife.
Amid the crowd, prudent men blend in. Some sell roses, others demonstrate toys.
Hidden from the eye in restaurant kitchens, young men prepare one meal after the other. At dawn, when the partying is over, herds of middle-aged women enter hotels via the back door.
Who are these people? Why do they disappear after work? Where do they live?
Via Cassia, "chilometro zero". From Ponte Milvio on, the road meanders up hill and down dale. Exclusive villas and condominiums alternate on both sides of the road. The balconies are lavishly decorated with flowers and tropical plants. Many offer a splendid view on the Veio nature reserve park. Expensive cars passing through automated gates reveal trimmed gardens and neat swimming pools. Meanwhile, CCTV cameras monitor every movement.
The sister of the President lives here. A leader of a political party used to live here. In the local supermarket one can spot television celebrities, famous actors and fashion models.
Hidden in private or dead-end streets, isolated blocks of flats contrast with the villas. The buildings carry names like "residence" and "fabbricato". Cracks in the concrete are visible under the peeling paint. Here, the balconies are either pitched with tents or packed with furniture and other belongings.
In squares in front of the buildings, people cook in the open. The smell of food is pervasive. Shattered beer bottles lay everywhere.
Satellite dishes indicate the presence of overseas immigrants. Almost every letter box carries a foreign name. At any time of the day, a dozen languages sound from the open doors and windows. Loud music is playing: Latin rhythms clash with oriental tunes.
Italian flags mark the few apartments that are occupied by locals. With its harsh stance on immigration, the mayor's party collected more than half of the votes of this locality during the latest municipal elections.
On a parking lot the charred carcass of a motorcycle is rusting away. Used heroin needles are littering the pavement. An improvised path reveals construction debris; the parking lot masks a former garbage belt!
Here lives Rome's Lumpenproletariat: Bengalese cooks, Philippine maids, Peruvian barmen, Sri Lankan hotel porters … Whereas Marx's poor made a living in the shadow of heavy industry, Rome's poor work in the leisure industry.
The inside of the buildings is a Hidden City: an Escher-esque labyrinth of stairs and dark, narrow corridors. Cave storage rooms have been transformed into tiny basement apartments.
The dwellings do not comply with any building regulation or safety requirement.
Tapped electric wires run through the corridors. Black stains on the walls indicate high levels of mould. There have been cases of tuberculosis in the area.
Many lodgings do not count a single window. Those inside the building are right above the garage forcing their residents to inhale car emissions. The residents of the exterior basements simply have to inhale the return air of the air-conditioning.
The rent of a room exceeds an immigrant's wage. Up to four people share a room as small as thirteen and a half square metres. Entire families have to live in one room. Every square metre is precious: mattresses are laid one next to the other; furniture and laundry are put in the corridor. To extend the habitable surface, the lodgers cobble together mezzanines.
With a rather morbid sense of humour Italians call these lodgings "loculi", i.e. Columbarium niches. The lodgers use gas cylinders for cooking and heating, thereby turning the rooms into time bombs waiting to explode. People have been buried alive in these rooms following gas explosions and fires.
The lodgers try to improve their situation. But differences in ethnical background, legal status, work schedule and a complex subletting system hinder brotherhood. These blocks of flats are modern Towers of Babel.
The buildings are conveniently close to the villas. In this way the rich have their servants within arm's reach. While most immigrants sell their skills, some sell drugs, others just sell their body. Italians who visit these buildings wear sunglasses so as to not be recognised. They all look anxiously for specific doors: in the cave apartments exotic prostitutes work 24/7.
Native residents, however, protest. These Italians do not exploit immigrants. Together, they form committees. For decades they have been addressing the issue to the local community council. Apparently they are barking up the wrong tree.
The dwellings belong to Rome's cream of the crop, "la Roma bene". Property advertisements promise excellent returns: "Ottimo investimento!" The square metre price even tops that of posh Parioli.
Several buildings are owned by an engineer. His grandson seats in the local community council. In one building, where the "ingegnere" transformed twenty apartments into two hundred "loculi", gas explosions have caused casualties.
An apartment that was central to a blackmail scandal involving the president of the Lazio region and a Brazilian prostitute turned out to be jointly owned by two politicians linked to the mayor. One of both heads Roma Entrate, the public entity for investigating tax fraud. Yet, like all slum landlords in the area, he insisted on rent paid cash in hand. The mayor's party talks the talk, but does it walk the walk?
In the same building three accountants own several apartments. All three are board members of the real estate branch of the Vatican Bank. Rome swarms with companies managed by professionals who hold large property portfolios on behalf of influential third parties.
When community protest makes front-page news, the official forces inspect these buildings. They draw up a report. Whereas the lodgers become homeless, the owners are hardly ever prosecuted. Does it come as a surprise that a late police commander owned a number of properties in the area?
A theory states that towards the end of the Roman Empire nobody was willing to defend it any longer. The élite kept on importing foreigners from all over the territory in order to keep wages low and rents high. In Rome, while the happy few lived in splendour, life was a nightmare to most of the inhabitants.
Once a vast building site in which slaves erected monuments, mass tourism has turned the city of Rome into an immense sweatshop in which immigrants serve well-off citizens and tourists. "Nihil novi sub sole"?
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