Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Scampia and South Bronx: burnt more by sin or by indifference?

The Scampia district on the outskirts of Naples has become infamous as the symbol of urban degradation, crime and despair, much like the South Bronx of the 1970s. And like that New York City neighborhood, there is much truth in this characterization, but also much that has been conveniently ignored or misunderstood. Is Scampia being unfairly labeled with the clichés of despair, just to give people an excuse to turn away?

Roberto Saviano‘s 2006 book, “Gomorra” brought the situation of this area to the consciousness of a wider public.gomorrahbook

Saviano described the activities of the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, in a wider context over a long period of time, but it is the physical focus on Scampia that people remember. The open wounds of this impoverished neighborhood came to symbolize the rock hard cruelty and oppression of organized crime. The visual world of Scampia came alive with the movie version of “Gomorrah,” directed by Matteo Garrone. His setting of the story inside the pharaonic public housing projects, called “Le Vele” was searingly iconic. The film is a burning tool with a sharp edge that cuts the images of urban decay into the spectator’s brain, just as Saviano intended to cut his words into the reader’s mind. The objective for both artists was to bring the nation to action in order to resolve problems and it was brave and powerful work. However, too often, the effect is to make people look away with disgust, and to blame the victims, the people of the Naples slums, for their nightmare.gomorrafilm

The “photogenic” aspect of the problem could not be denied. Photographers came to snap pictures, some sensationalistic, others with sensitivity and care. To this latter group belongs the photographer Norma Rossetti. Her images concentrate on the faces of the residents posing in their surroundings, places that are sometimes squalid and mean, and at other times sumptuous and fantastical in the way that the poor transform kitsch and throwaway objects into dreamy articles of wonderment. Her subjects can be laughed at by those who choose to keep these people at a distance. The odd material fetishes can be reason enough to consider the residents unreachable and beyond help. But that is a shame, because these people speak directly to the camera, in a language that is really not so hard to understand, and they speak about their humanity, their fragility and their love of life.

Click for more about Norma Rossetti's Scampia

Click for more about Norma Rossetti's Scampia

The same was true in the South Bronx, where burning buildings, and sky high crime rates were considered the norm in the 1970s, and people simply turned their backs. If the South Bronx was ever mentioned at all, it was as a setting for sensationalistic films or as a symbol of the greed of slumlords or the corruption of city government. However, that was only a part of the story. There was a throbbing heart at the center of that dying neighborhood, and there were tens of thousands of people who were condemned to live that agony. They suffered, but they did not consider their suffering to be in vain. With the help of some enlightened city programs, which rebuilt lowcost housing, cleared out filthy vacant lots to plant gardens and used favorable tax policies to attract small businesses, the South Bronx was able to come back from the brink in some small but nevertheless spectacular ways.

Recently, the New York Times put together a photographic presentation using the photography of David Gonzalez to show the South Bronx during 1979. But they do not show the devastation of the infrastructure, instead, they show people, the beating heart at the center of it all. Photographs like this were not widely seen in 1979, because they were not considered particularly interesting. There was nothing newsworthy about a bunch of kids laughing, or people dancing on the sidewalk; what people wanted to see was the spectacular failure, the decay, the reason that they could just write off this place and concern themselves elsewhere. David Gonzalez had returned to the South Bronx to work in a school, teaching elementary school children to tell stories with photography. He says,

“Now, teaching children was interesting, because they just photographed their world. And even though they lived in this messed up neighborhood, they photographed utterly ordinary things, their parents at home, their kid sisters sleeping, their friends playing in the streets. And it taught me to just look at that. And so, I really didn’t photograph a lot of the rubble, if you will, I photographed the life that persisted in the middle of all this. And it was a really important lesson, that in this place that had been written off as hopeless, I found people just moving on.”

It may come as a shock to some people, but there is a certain pride in the people that live in even the most destitute circumstances, and a feeling of community that can be more powerful that anything else. David Gonzalez ends his slide show with these words:

“Having come from there, and more importantly, having gone back there, it’s something to be proud of, actually. And it’s not pride in the sense that I survived this tough place. It’s the pride that, I’m still part of this place in a very essential way.”

David Gonzalez South Bronx Photo Feature.
Perhaps if people had seen more photographs like these in 1979, they would have made more of an effort to help the Bronxites pull their neighborhoods up “by the bootstraps,” and perhaps have thus saved some of the lives that were lost through drugs and crime in the slow climb out of the depths.

Can the same be true for Scampia? Through a government redevelopment program, some of the enormous structures of “Le Vele” have been demolished, in an attempt to make the community less dense and more manageable. But although this may have been a necessary first step, the solution will not come with the simple destruction of the offending brick and mortar. A whole culture of pessimism and hopelessness has to change. That is beginning to happen, very, very slowly. Just as in South Bronx, there are several initiatives in Scampia which are using art training, information technology and music to give children a door to the wider world of culture and self esteem.alibruciate

Earlier this year, a book by Davide Cerullo, “Ali Bruciate, I bambini di Scampia” appeared in Italy. It told the familiar story of children caught up in the drug trafficking and petty crime in the housing projects of Scampia. But in this partly autobiographical work, Cerullo aimed to give a more nuanced view of the lives of these young people, one in which there are alternatives, and there are exits that lead to sunlight and healthy lives. In April, 2009 he gave an interview to the Italian weekly Panorama, in which he echoed the words with of David Gonzales.

“E invece ai lettori che non sono di Scampia che messaggio vorrebbe far arrivare?”
“Che a Scampia, alle Vele in particolare, abita anche tanta gente perbene, solidale, che vive realmente ogni giorno in comunione con gli altri. Solo che bisogna dare a questa gente uno straccio di opportunità, un’alternativa. E allora si potranno fare davvero miracoli. Io senza Scampia nel cuore non posso vivere. Vede quest’area verde qui intorno? Un tempo era tutta campagna e io bambino venivo ad aiutare mio padre che pascolava le pecore. Per me questo resta il quartiere più bello di Napoli. Vorrei che lo fosse per tutti.”

The translation:

Panorama Question:
“What is the message about Scampia that you would like your readers to come away with?”

Cerullo Answer:
“That in Scampia, and especially in “Le Vele,” there are many good people, that live every day in perfect harmony with each other. All that these people need is just a little bit of opportunity, an alternative. With that they would be able to perform miracles. I would not be able to live without Scampia in my heart. You see this bit of greenery here? This used to be open country, and when I was very small I came here to help my father herd his sheep. For me this is the most beautiful neighborhood in all of Naples. I wish it were that for everyone.”

The full article here.

in a video clip for FuoriTV, he says that he wanted to write about the children of Scampia because it is them that pay the highest price in the downgraded quality of life of this place. But he wrote his book to push people more to action, the people that claim to be doing something, but really do little. Like Saviano’s book, his work is being read in prisons, but in this case, it is helping the people in those places to find a reason not to give up hope.

The video interview here.

Today, the South Bronx is coming back to health little by little. And tomorrow… Scampia? It will happen, someday. The question is, when? And how many more people will have to suffer and die to make it come true?

Related Articles:

Gomorrah: A book and a film describe the Modern Plagues of Naples.

Naples on the Edge: Photography of Norma Rossetti.


October 13, 2009 - Posted by | literature | , , , , , , , ,


  1. […] Scampia and South Bronx: burnt more by sin or by indifference? […]

    Pingback by Naples on the edge: Photography of Norma Rossetti « Dominic Ambrose Virtual Art Gallery | October 23, 2009 | Reply

  2. […] Scampia and South Bronx: Gomorra […]

    Pingback by Music and Naples and John Turturro. « Dominic Ambrose Blogblot | September 3, 2011 | Reply

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