L’Aquila non ha nulla a che fare con Staten Island o Rockaways, le aree dello Stato di New York più colpite dall’uragano Sandy, ma la fatica della città capoluogo della Regione Abruzzo a riprendersi da un devastante terremoto può rappresentare una storia che funge da avvertimento per New York nella ricostruzione delle zone danneggiate dal passaggio della calamità naturale. A sostenerlo è il New York Times in un articolo. “Per variegati motivi L’Aquila è diversa da New York”, scrive il quotidiano americano, “ma i suoi ultimi anni suggeriscono che un disastro non distrugge solo case e vite. E’ un test per l’immaginazione e la capacità di cambiare di una città e di una nazione”.
Facendo il bilancio del capoluogo che colpì la città abruzzese nell’aprile 2009, il New York Times ricorda che “case temporanee furono costruite” riferendosi ai “nuovi paesi” così battezzati dall’allora presidente del Consiglio Silvio Berlusconi e ai “tristi, isolati, minuscoli e costosi appartamenti di cui lo stesso Berlusconi si vantò di avere ordinato per gli abitanti della città” rimasti senza un tetto dopo il sisma e collocati “nella periferia della città, tagliati fuori dai trasporti di massa e dalla vita civile”.
“Nessuna infrastruttura fu creata o nessun consenso pubblico fu raggiunto su come controllare l’aggregato urbano, su cosa salvare o cosa sacrificare e come”, si legge sul New York Times aggiungendo che fino ad ora “solo pochi palazzi sono stati riparati sulle centinaia di essi distrutti nel centro storico, che resta una città fantasma”.
Il quotidiano riferisce che nella città “mai stata una Mecca per turisti”, in questi giorni un numero crescente di “turisti sta arrivando per dare un’occhiata alle macerie. Il turismo macabro diventa la nuova industria locale”.
“Un segno positivo è arrivato a ottobre” continua il New York Times, “quando il presidente della Repubblica Giorgio Napolitano è arrivato nella città abruzzese per l’apertura del nuovo auditorium progettato da Renzo Piano, promosso dal quotidiano definendolo “una delle poche iniziative urbane intraprese da quando il terremoto colpì” L’Aquila. In quell’occasione, aggiunge il quotidiano “Napolitano criticò i ‘nuovi paesi’ dicendo di sottrarre attenzione e risorse” dalle sfide più importanti da intraprendere per rimettere in vita il centro cittadino.
Sebbene il governo regionale abbia preso il controllo sulla ricostruzione da una “successione di autorità fallimentari a Roma”, il New York Times crede che un “modo di pensare incantevole resta un problema per residenti e politici, come è normale dopo un disastro, mentre il ricordo del sisma si sta piano piano affievolendo al di fuori della Regione”.
Qual è la somiglianza tra L’Aquila e New York? Anche nello Stato americano “gli ufficiali pubblici hanno seguito l’esempio italiano”, promettendo a persone distrutte dall’uragano la ricostruzione di interi quartieri” senza ammettere che una politica di ricollocazione è una “politica impossibile”. In molti – cittadini e politici – sembrano aperti a grandi idee, conclude il quotidiano, sostenendo che “una calamità può anche essere un’opportunità per ambiziosi politici e non di meno per un presidente al suo secondo termine [Barack Obama], dunque liberato dal pensare con ottiche decennali”.
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
L’Aquila, capital of Abruzzo, in central Italy, is a long way from the Rockaways and Staten Island, but its struggle to recover from anearthquake may provide a cautionary tale for New York, post-Hurricane Sandy.
Hurricane Sandy caused major flooding and fires which burned nearly a hundred homes in Breezy PointQueens.
That earthquake, in April 2009, killed hundreds and left tens of thousands of L’Aquilans homeless, shuttering the city’s graceful and extensive historic center, which was its cultural and economic heart. “Temporary” housing was constructed: “new towns,” as Italy’s prime minister then, Silvio Berlusconi, boasted about the sad, isolated, cramped and costly apartments he ordered for displaced L’Aquilans along nowhere stretches of the city’s outskirts, cut off from mass transit and civic life. There was no infrastructure created or public consensus reached about combating sprawl, or what to save or sacrifice and how.
Since then Italian officials have kept promising to restore the city to its former self, but fewer than a dozen buildings have so far been repaired among the hundreds damaged in the center, which is a virtual ghost town. Never a tourist mecca, despite its pretty churches and squares, L’Aquila was a working town of some 75,000, home to a university and to many families with local roots dating back to the Middle Ages.
These days, tourists arrive to gawk at the rubble. Ruin porn has become the new local industry.
A sign of progress came in October, when President Giorgio Napolitano arrived for the opening of a new concert hall designed by Renzo Piano in a park in central L’Aquila, one of the few urban initiatives since the quake. Mr. Napolitano criticized the “new towns” for diverting attention and resources from the primary challenge of returning life to the city center.
The regional government has now gained control over recovery efforts from a succession of failed authorities in Rome. But magical thinking remains a problem for residents and politicians, as usual after a disaster, while memories of the quake are fading outside the region.
What’s the relevance for the New York area? Notwithstanding the need for big change and straight talk in the face of hard science about rising sea levels and increasing storms, public officials have mostly followed the Italians’ lead, promising devastated homeowners to reconstitute ravaged neighborhoods in harm’s way. They have all but conceded that a policy of retreat and relocation is a political impossibility.
I’ve gone to L’Aquila several times since the quake, the first a couple of days after it struck, most recently before the opening ceremony for Mr. Piano’s hall, to see it under construction and to speak with residents and the city’s planning chief, Pietro Di Stefano. “We went into a labyrinth of the absurd,” he told me. “We needed a new plan.”
Then he talked about retrofitting a few buildings here and there in the city center. He seemed resigned to the futility of arguing for the demolition of homes and for new construction while owners were still petitioning the state for money. That didn’t sound like much of a plan to me.
I mentioned Mr. Piano’s project. Conceived by the architect and his friend Claudio Abbado, the conductor, as a way to bring some culture and night life back to the center, the 240-seat concert hall links multicolored cubes, pavilions made of spruce from Trent, the northern Italian province that sponsored the project. (The hall was not quite finished for the opening ceremony and, as so often happens in Italy, was shut right afterward. There are supposedly plans to finish it and organize concerts next year.)
An anomaly in L’Aquila’s historic city, the hall was partly engineered as a prototype for the sort of recyclable, quake-resistant wood construction that could handsomely and cheaply replace damaged stone houses in the center, so people might finally move back there. Per square foot, the hall cost a fourth of what the “new towns” did.
At the suggestion of wood buildings, Mr. Di Stefano stiffened. He started to pet the nearest stone building as if it were the family Labrador. “Impossible,” he said.
“This is a city of stone,” he insisted. “These homes were built by families here over hundreds of years, and they have their histories. What would Florence be without Giotto, or Pisa without the tower? The buildings are who we are.”
Is a city the assortment of its buildings or the life that happens in and around them? L’Aquila has fine architecture, including Baroque churches and early-20th-century Rationalist office blocks. These could be retrofitted and reopened, and a couple already have been. But it is really the public spaces — the streets and piazzas — that make the city special. Officials charged with saving the center, fixated on buildings instead of urbanism, seem not to realize this, and let L’Aquila die a little more each day.
And so now, in the main square, old men gather on sunny mornings, driving from miles away. They stroll the main street, as they did before the quake, then scatter by day’s end to their far-flung new homes. Antonio Antonacci, a retired lawyer, chatted in the empty Piazza Duomo with three friends when I stopped by.
“It’s still the only city center we have,” he told me.
New Yorkers aren’t particularly married to old stone houses. The city has a history of audacity and adaptability. Both have fueled the region’s prosperity. But heedless planning in the last century has also made many people skeptical about large-scale infrastructural change.
That said, some storm-ravaged New York homeowners have already made known that they’re contemplating resettling in safer neighborhoods, and Shaun Donovan, the United States secretary of housing, whom President Obama appointed to spearhead federal relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy, seems open to big ideas. A calamity can also be an opportunity, for ambitious politicians, and not least for a second-term president, now liberated to think decades ahead.
Although L’Aquila may be unlike New York in most crucial ways, its last few years suggest that a disaster doesn’t just destroy homes and take lives. It tests a city’s, and a nation’s, imagination and capacity to change.
Follow Michael Kimmelman on Twitter, @kimmelman.