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Rome’s Mixed Metaphors

July 9, 2017

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A couple of months ago New York Times columnist Frank Bruni called me to ask about Rome. On a recent trip he had been struck by the paradox of newly cleaned monuments surrounded by developing world squalor, and he wanted to know my take.

His report was published in this article.

I told Frank that for decades Rome had survived through compromise, making little deals to get things done. “We’ll turn a blind eye to this if you see that the trash gets picked up.” Not since the beginning of Francesco Rutelli’s tenure in the early ’90s have there been big ideas;  rather a series of small arrangements have allowed the once eternal city to hobble along in gradual decline. Many Romans, concerned solely with their personal/ family interests and not the greater civic realm,  have been satisfied with this arrangement.

I tried to say that things were changing, and wanted to believe it. That Mayor Marino had begun to attack this system of favors and corruption in 2013, and paid the consequence by being ousted from office in the back rooms by his own political party, and that current Mayor Virginia Raggi could still continue to fight these interests.

A tireless optimist, I really didn’t want to add to the perception that the current administration is incompetent and there is no hope. The world’s most resilient city cannot just fail because of incompetence.

Instead, wouldn’t it be great to communicate to the world a series of Roman success stories?

Here’s an example of the news we’d love to report on. Warning: the list below is at present only WISHFUL THINKING disguised as FAKE NEWS

Rome announces (FAKE NEWS):

  • the successful re-structuring ATAC and Roma Mobilità so as to ensure respect for existing transit schedules, vehicle maintenance and clear communications with riders (in Italian and English at least).
  • the protection, through physical barriers and police presence on foot, of pedestrian spaces from motor vehicles and in general the application of the traffic laws to provide serious disincentives to those who today frequently ignore speed limits, red lights, and parking restrictions.
  • the elimination of free parking within the center, and an increase in parking fees
  • a contract to install new durable and high-visibility horizontal signage, increasing the number of raised pedestrian crosswalks and speed tables.
  • reprogramming of traffic lights to give priority to pedestrians over drivers, reducing the pedestrian wait from the current 1.3 minutes to maximum 30 seconds and programming pedestrian-activated push buttons to actually shorten the wait time.
  • the elimination of sub-standard vendors and food trucks in public places in support of quality commerce
  • the inauguration of the first of a thousand kilometers of new bike lanes
  • the inauguration of a world-class bike sharing program
  • the reopening of the successful Farmer’s Market on Via San Teodoro

We will have to wait a while for the above, since the REAL NEWS has been less inspiring. I’ve heard complaints recently from friends in academics who have been told they can’t seat their students on public steps, for example at the Trevi fountain, to give an art-history lesson or drawing workshop which they have done for years.

And yet, they rightfully observe that these monuments, where we have always taken our students, are now surrounded by vendors, food trucks, illegally parked vehicles, and trash. Just like the photos that accompany the New York Times article above.

Instead…Rome announces (REAL NEWS):

  • the closure of Rome’s drinking fountains
  • rampant toxic brush and tash fires on the outskirts of town
  • a ban against pedestrians sitting on steps or balustrades (even those designed as seating) around Rome’s monumental fountains such as the Trevi
  • the announcement (complete with the presence of motor vehicles in the Campidoglio pedestrian zone designed by Michelangelo)  that Rome will host a high-speed car race through its streets!
  • a request for annulment of fines levied for illegal use of bus lanes by private vehicles because there wasn’t enough communication of their existence

I don’t want to use Rome’s filth as a metaphor as Frank Bruni does; far better to use it as a medium for creative expression as William Kentridge did, selectively cleaning the Tiber walls as seen behind the Mayor in the photo below. The metaphors are definitely mixed and it is up to all of us to work to warrant more positive ones.


Mayor Raggi takes part (“alla sua insaputa”, or unbeknownst to her) in the civic cleanup event #teverepulito last April after the administration had been invited repeatedly to participate.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2017 14:54

    If the °Fake News° became reality, I might even move back to Rome!


  2. Dennis Miller permalink
    July 11, 2017 03:12

    Rankin in his blog gives the optimistic long term view whereas the New York Times writer Bruni is critical about everything on his list with no suggestions about how to fix problems. With firm leadership and strong community support of cleanup goals and waste collection, the city will improve as Rankin suggests. All commercial crowding of cheap so-called restaurants on the piazzas must be removed. In addition, major fashion and small clothing stores need to be encouraged to return to the city. Rome is doing a great job with its museums and archaeological work in the forum. Regarding waste, technology exists that can be placed outside the city by the private sector to accept and destroy all waste and at the same time convert it into useful products, e.g., renewable power, steam for district heating and cooling, and Hydrogen for fuel cells on cars, buses and trains that will eventually replace all gasoline and diesel- powered vehicles. These improvements will remove air pollution in the Eternal City. No quick short term solutions other than what has been labelled as fake news. With some of these fixes, Rome can become a more interesting and an attractive destination.


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