Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Romans are sharing photos of their do-it-yourself efforts to improve the city under the hashtag #Romasonoio.
It’s time to clean up Rome—and ordinary Romans are the most appropriate people to do it. That’s the message of a remarkably successful social media campaign launched in Italy’s capital this past Sunday. Kicked off by well-known actor Alessandro Gassman under the hashtag #Romasonoio (“I am Rome”), the campaign is urging ordinary Romans to stop leaving care of their city to inept, dysfunctional authorities and start taking personal responsibility. On social media, Gassman commented (via Google Translate):
We Romans should get a shirt that says I am Rome, arm ourselves with broom, wallet, and a trash bag and each one of us should clean up each their own little corner of the city. We would give an example of civilization to those who govern us and those who insult us.
It’s a call to which many have responded. Two days later, the hashtag is still very much alive, both on Twitter and in the media. Locals have been chiming in with support and uploading photos of themselves tackling strewn rubbish, shaming major littering offenders (including shops and restaurants), scrubbing off graffiti, and freshly painting public areas.
The problems the campaign is trying to address are clear for any visitor to Rome to see. Walk through the city on a particularly bad day for rubbish and you’d be forgiven for thinking the Vandals had sacked the place the night before instead of in 455. Trash piles up on corners and sidewalks come slicked with some indefinable, malodorous varnish. Following a dispute between contractors and the city, some parks are overgrowing with (quite picturesque) weeds, while industrial disputes have hit Rome’s metro with a work-to-rule policy that has seen trains move at a snail’s pace. This is still a city of undimmed beauty, of course, but there is a palpable sense that public space is both unloved and increasingly unlovely.
Rome has been like this for a while. What actually pushed the cleanup campaign into action right now is international pressure, specifically from America. Last Wednesday, The New York Times published a piece detailing Rome’s current physical and political malaise. That article sent shockwaves through the city. Today, France’s Le Monde also chimed in, stating that “trash and neglect have ruined Rome’s image” and noting that the city had helped foster a sub-genre of ruin porn photography, where people take pictures of heaping trash mountains.
Critics in Italy have added to these accusations by suggesting that residents aren’t taking enough responsibility for their environment. For a city whose contemporary politics have a relatively low international profile, this level of critical scrutiny from both inside and outside the country is hard to stomach for any local who cares about her city’s reputation. While many have agreed with the analysis, some have protested. There has, after all, been an inconspicuous but effective cleanup campaign running for some time—the 25,000 member volunteer organization Retake Roma.
Some commentators have lashed back with critiques that are hard to take all that seriously. Veteran writer Alberto Anso Rosa suggested that The New York Times article was hypocritical because “Americans run around half-naked” leaving trash at historic sites and committing the crime of wearing flip-flops. Elsewhere, comedian Enzo Salvi suggested that the hashtag campaign was a buck passing move to take the heat off those in power, claiming that, “In Rome, the real garbage is inside the palaces.”
Rome’s current poor state, however, is not up for discussion. Even Mayor Ignazio Marino himself has spoken out in favor of Gassman’s campaign. So who is to blame? The New York Times points the finger at slow-burning corruption, exposed by the ongoing “Mafia capital” investigation that revealed numerous city contracts linking officials with organized crime. It also suggests that anti-corruption Marino isn’t up to the job of cleaning up the sleaze.
This helps put the “I Am Rome” campaign into context. It is a welcome rallying cry for citizens sick of civic mismanagement who want to take matters into their own hands. But given the scale of the problems facing Rome, it’s not exactly the sort of major political and social overhaul the city really needs. Still, as a confidence-boosting call for more conscious, active citizenship from Romans, it’s definitely a start.