From mafia city to a haven for refugees: Palermo moves on from its criminal past
Insert from The Guardian.
Mayor of Sicilian capital insists it is a place of tolerance, in spite of high-profile criticism by singer Roberto Vecchioni.
Piazza Bologna used to be an example of how lawlessness permeated life in Palermo, in ways big and small.
For years, the square, which is surrounded by abandoned, rundown 16th-century palaces that once belonged to Sicilian nobility, was used as an illicit parking lot, where residents were forced to pay illegal parking attendants known as posteggiatori if they wanted to make sure nothing happened to their car. The attendants were working their turf, having divided the city in accordance to the borders set by the mafia bosses that controlled the territory.
The posteggiatori are gone now. In their place on a chilly evening earlier this month was a far more stirring sight, and a sign of a welcome resurgence in the Sicilian capital. Religious leaders of different faiths – including a rabbi, an imam, a protestant, and the newly appointed Catholic archbishop of Palermo, Corrado Lorefice – joined the mayor, Leoluca Orlando, in a candlelit vigil and march to condemn violence in the name of religion.
Weeks after the Paris attacks, at a time when the issue of religion, mass migration and terrorism have become intertwined and up for debate across Europe, Orlando said the event was a potent symbol of Palermo’s openness and tolerance.
“Immigrants here feel what it is to be part of a community. That does not happen in Paris, it does not happen in Brussels,” he said. “There they live separated from the rest of the world, and if they see something they don’t give information to anyone. Over the last two years we have seen 400,000 immigrants [arrive in Sicily], and we have never had an act of intolerance in Palermo. Today, Palermo is exciting and safe. Normally when I speak about Palermo I say it is a Middle Eastern town in Europe … I think it is a mosaic.”
The mayor thinks Palermo should serve as a model for other European cities trying to integrate migrant populations. It is an upbeat assessment of modern Sicilian life that stands in stark contrast to recent criticism by northern Italian singer-songwriter Roberto Vecchioni.
Speaking at the University of Palermo, Vecchioni called Sicily “an island of shit”, noting that city streets were sometimes consumed by no less than three rows of cars and that the region had destroyed its beautiful coastline.
“It’s useless for you to try to hide behind the fact that you have one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. It’s not enough,” he said.
His views were backed up by a recent survey in newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, which listed Sicily as the worst region in Italy in quality-of-life rankings, and Palermo as the worst within the region.
Vecchioni’s comments were met with outrage in some quarters and resigned agreement from others, but Orlando had no quarrel with the singer. “When a finger points to the moon, please, let’s speak about the moon, not about the finger,” he said. “It is a Chinese philosophy. When we don’t want to solve the problems, we speak about the finger.”
He added: “Probably it was not perfectly polite. But he sent a message. Sicily is so rich but it is so underdeveloped, because we don’t use correctly the riches we have. The difference between richness and development is that richness is many things, but development is to use well what you have.”
For decades the city has been associated with the murderous reign of the Cosa Nostra. A keen reminder of that era can be found on the A29 motorway, the road from the city’s airport to Palermo, where a large monument marks the spot where Giovanni Falcone, an anti-mafia judge, was assassinated in 1992. Falcone’s wife and four others were also killed in the attack.
Orlando insists that the city has come a long way since the worst period of mafia atrocities. “In the past, the framework of Palermo was an alliance between the Catholic church, the aristocracy, and the mafia,” he said. Over decades, aristocracy was replaced by fascism, and then by politicians.
“Of course it was a criminal harmony, but it was harmony,” he said.
“In 1985, when I became mayor, it was my goal to destroy the framework and to substitute it. The mafia does not govern Palermo any more. It exists, it is a corrupted piece of stone inside the mosaic, but it is not the framework.”
The 68-year-old was inspired to enter politics following the 1980 murder of Piersanti Mattarella, who was serving as governor of Sicily when he was gunned down on his way to mass. Orlando had been working as a legal adviser to Mattarella, whose brother, Sergio, now serves as Italy’s head of state.
The Sicilian mafia has not disappeared. A short walk from Piazza Bologni lies Ballarò, a lively immigrant neighbourhood that includes one of the busiest food markets in Palermo. Mario Lavezzi from the University of Palermo, who conducts research into the Cosa Nostra, described how a pub in Ballarò was confiscated from the mafia some months ago and reassigned. After the new owners were subjected to threats, the pub was set on fire.
“The interpretation was, this is the Cosa Nostra. But then there were crackdowns and arrests. There was a reaction,” he said. That signals progress, Lavezzi noted.
Although there are many disparate groups fighting organised crime – including one Lavezzi is involved in that encourages business owners not to pay mafia protection money – known as a pizzo – he noted that the anti-mafia effort in Palermo has been weakened by distrust and a lack of co-operation among the various groups, even though they share a common goal.
Nevertheless, there are signs of progress in Palermo, in ways that one local said might be taken for granted in any other large city. Congested roads have been converted into pedestrian-only walkways, a new bike-share has been implemented, new theatres are popping up, and the city has its accounts in order.
Orlando points to improvements in the public transport, with the inauguration of four new tram lines. But he doesn’t mention that the trams – which cost €320m – are not being used at the moment due to a dispute between the mayor’s office and city councillors, who are arguing over how maintenance of the new system should be financed. Progress, it seems, comes slow.