Sick-joke Naples gets the green light for renaissance

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TRAVELLERS in the 19th century would go misty-eyed and sigh, 'See Naples and die'. Today the phrase is just a sick joke. But now Naples council is bent on restoring the city to at least some of its former beauty.

The first beneficiaries will be leaders of the G7 countries, for whose summit there on 7 and 8 July the more visible parts of the city are being given a quick face- lift: facades and arcades done up and potholed streets and squares repaved. But this week the city council launched more ambitious long-term plans which include removing a steelworks and restoring the once-lovely, now mouldering, crime-ridden old centre with its dark, washing-strung alleys.

It is hard to imagine that Naples once vied with Venice, Florence and Rome as one of the great tourist centres of Europe. Its fabled sky is now often grey with the filth of its heavy industries, the waters of its bay look like a sewer and its coastline is covered with jerry- built blocks of flats. If any Neapolitan still felt moved to burst into O Sole Mio it would be drowned by the din of the traffic.

The old political class which, with their friends in the Camorra, the Naples Mafia, reduced it to its present straits, have gone - the city council was dissolved for reasons of 'law and order', leaving the place bankrupt and with 2 trillion lire ( pounds 816m) of debts. Unemployment and poverty are massive problems; the Camorra, despite many arrests, is still active; smuggling is a major source of income and the hospitals are a scandal. Despite it all, the first stirrings of a renaissance are evident.

The lead is being given by the new left-wing city council under its Mayor, Antonio Bassolino, a former Communist. The council has already signalled change by opening facilities - churches, monuments, a park, a library and a sports centre - which had been inexplicably kept closed, and tearing down buildings put up illegally. It took traffic wardens away from pointless jobs and put them back on the streets, with revolutionary results: motorists, for instance, now actually stop at red lights. Equally revolutionary, honesty is being demanded of officials.

And this week it outlined the future Naples - plans which involve dismantling the vast Italsider steel complex at Bagnoli toward the north-westerly end of the bay and replacing it with a huge park, a congress centre and upmarket hotels. Later the refineries and other industries along the bay to the east will give way to hi-tech industry and more green areas. And the old city centre will be restored to its former glory.

The plans are still only guidelines and the cost has not been worked out. But a start has been made - and that would have been unthinkable even a year ago.