“When I think of my life in Le Vele, my skin crawls with rage,” says Omero Benfenati.
He looks out from a dark, narrow passageway framed by suspended steel stairways that block the natural light and lead up to abandoned apartments. Most of the windows are bricked up, and liquid leaks from split pipes on to the sewage and refuse-strewn asphalt several storeys below.
“We used to play down there,” says Benfenati, now a housing activist. “The uncollected rubbish bags make ideal goalposts for five-a-side football.”
Just a few years ago, Le Vele – a sprawling housing estate in Scampia, on the outskirts of Naples – was both the fictional location for the hit crime film and Italian TV series Gomorrah and the real-life location for the biggest international drugs and arms supermarket in western Europe.
In 2004, the tower blocks were seared into the popular imagination when a feud exploded between the ruling Di Lauro Camorra clan and a breakaway faction, the Secessionists. Their fight for control of the drug trade raged for almost a year. At its zenith it saw more than a murder per day, and more syringes per square mile in northern Naples than in all of Italy combined.
This week, however, marks a new chapter for the beleaguered estate, with the announcement that authorities will finally tear down the distinctive sail-shaped tower blocks. Unusually, the effort to demolish the buildings has been led by the residents themselves. On Monday, alongside the mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris, Le Vele campaigners unveiled a red banner which read: “The fight has been won, goodbye.” Arm in arm with residents, De Magistris declared the demolition a “victory for Naples” and dedicated it to “the inhabitants of Le Vele who never lost hope or dignity”.
For the residents, some of whom have already moved into new purpose-built apartments nearby, this week marks the culmination of a long struggle against politicians, architects and the stigma of Gomorrah, which transformed the buildings into a common shorthand for Italy’s socials ills and criminality.
But the demolition also marks the symbolic failure of Italy’s postwar dream of social housing. Built between 1965 and 1980 by the Neapolitan architect Franz di Salvo, Le Vele was meant to replace the slums and squalor of the medieval city centre. Di Salvo, inspired by Le Corbusier, was operating in the spirit of the case per tutti, or houses for everyone. The seven blocks (three have since been demolished), each to house between 210 and 240 families, were to fulfil the role of the traditional neighbourhood, with a central backbone walkway running through the heart of each tower to encourage community relations.
“They hoped the corridors would recreate the vicoletti Napoletani – the backstreets of Naples’ old centre,” says Antonio Memoli, an architect who has supported the residents. But, he says, it didn’t work out that way. “When the plans were executed, corners were cut and funds were siphoned into private pockets.”
When finished, the corridors were narrower than planned, the tower blocks closer together and the proposed transport links and social spaces non-existent. The effect was to isolate hundreds of the city’s most destitute families without access to work in a vast concrete slum.
Many of the blocks were left unfinished, and when a huge earthquake struck in 1980 hundreds of refugees squatted the empty flats.
“The buildings were never finished but we had no choice but to live here,” says Benfenati, pointing to an empty shaft with a nine-storey drop into a dark void where lifts were meant to be installed but never materialised. He was only two when his family moved in.
Growing up in Le Vele meant an unconventional childhood: games invented using the uncollected rubbish bags; hide-and-seek in the stairwells, dead-end corridors and empty garages. It also meant navigating the drug addicts who would queue up in the basements to collect heroin, and avoiding the discarded needles on the grass.
“But we also learnt to cohabit with the drug addicts and drug dealers,” says Anna Liparulo, whose father Lorenzo is an active member of the residents’ association. “If we minded our business the Camorra left us alone, but they would also deliver food packages to those in need.”
The residents’ relationship to the Camorra organised crime groups who dominated Le Vele is complicated. Benfenati says most of his peers died in the clan wars. But with unemployment rates in Scampia lingering at 70%, there are often few ways to make a living other than working in the black market economy.
At first, the residents campaigned to stay in their flats, forming a support group called Il Comitato Vele. “A battle broke out between poor people desperate for somewhere to live and the institutions,” says Benfenati. But over time they began to realise just how squalid their home really was – damp, crumbling, abandoned by state services and haunted by crime – and began campaigning for new apartments to be built instead.
“There is no refurbishment plan or amount of money that will improve Le Vele,” says Lorenzo Liparulo. “The external walls were built only 12cm thick, meaning condensation creates thick layers of mould inside the flats.” He remembers saving a three-year-old from crawling into the empty lift shaft.
In 1991, local hero Vittorio Passeggio – who would use a megaphone to shout between the towers: “What does Scampia want? Everything!”, which became the slogan of the protesters – confronted Francesco Cossiga, the Italian president, outside the Royal Palace in Naples. The meeting eventually led to an agreement to build several replacement apartment blocks. But the process of legally recognising the 926 families, and then actually moving forward with the first demolitions, would take another two decades of protests, sit-ins and labyrinthine bureaucracy. Among the defenders of Le Vele were many architects, who argued that the buildings were important examples of modernism, and should be protected.
Meanwhile, in the absence of services – the maintenance company contracted to look after the blocks never showed up to do any work, and was eventually indicted for embezzling state funds – it was the Comitato that became a de facto state. It documented the residents, mediated relationships between them and helped the unemployed find work.
Then Gomorrah came along.
“We knew we were selling our soul to the devil allowing Gomorrah to be filmed here,” says Lorenzo, who helped negotiate with the producers on behalf of the residents.
But it was an opportunity they could not afford to give up. The production company paid for some building maintenance, and employed residents to clean and act as runners and extras. The Comitato, meanwhile, used Gomorrah money to block the entrances to the lift shafts and to buy strip lighting for the stairwells.
This week’s announcement means the show will soon have to find somewhere else to film. All the original 926 families have now moved into new apartments, which the Comitato helped design in order to avoid the mistakes of the original, and one Le Vele tower will be preserved for posterity, probably as a museum or offices.
Lorenzo has just finished moving his family to their new apartment, just a few hundred metres away. It’s in a low-rise building with shops on the ground floor and plenty of well-kept green space, and boasts a new kitchen, two bathrooms and a living room bathed in light. His old flat in Le Vele is now empty except a bottle of bleach, the smell of damp and red graffiti reading: “Thank you home for all the memories, you’ll always be in our heart.”
Many of the residents have similarly mixed feelings.
“Nothing will compare to life in Le Vele,” says Maria Tavano, one of Liparulo’s old neighbours who frequently drops by. “We do miss our community,” says Anna Liparulo, who wears a silver charm in the shape of one of the Vele buildings, which her mother made for her as a memento.
The Comitato, meanwhile, has now set its sights on improving the urban environment more broadly: its Restart Scampia programme has won funding to campaign for better transport links, cycle routes, student accommodation, sports facilities and schools.
“Scampia wants everything,” repeats Lorenzo. But he’s not complaining. “We now have a lift – and only three floors to climb if it breaks down.”