NOTEBOOK: Rome won't be cleaned up in a day - if at all

Cynical Romans are not impressed with the authorities' year 2000 plans for improved roads, drains, and - they must be joking - morals
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Rome is undergoing its biggest makeover since the Fascist era. Billboards around the city announce that there are 700 construction or restoration projects underway to prepare for the year 2000. Work being carried out includes rail and metro upgrades, extra lanes on highways, new carparks, church restorations and even improved drainage. Far from inspiring civic pride among Romans, however, the frenzy of activity has provoked fury among the inhabitants of this already chaotic city, who fear things will only get worse as the new century begins.

The billboards all carry the slogan: "Today the inconvenience: tomorrow a better city". For a friend, a writer who lives just off one of the main piazzas, San Giovanni in Laterano, this has meant roadworks outside his window for most of the year.

"As usual," says my friend, once a staunch supporter of the city's left- wing administration, "everything was decided late and started late, so there is a huge rush and enormous disruption to try to meet the deadline. It's a wonder these billboards haven't been pulled down, set on fire or at the very least defaced with spray paint."

Pope John Paul has declared next year a Jubilee - or Holy - Year. As with every such event since the first Jubilee in 1300, pilgrims will flock to the centre of Christendom, seeking grace and forgiveness. Thirty to 40 million people are expected to take some part in next year's rich calendar of religious events, most of which are concentrated in Rome. Alongside the frenzied building, digging, drilling and repainting there is another, more subtle, clean-up campaign under way. The Vatican is applying discreet pressure to ensure that the profane side of Rome, celebrated by filmmakers such as Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, is, if not buried, at least tucked well out of sight for the Jubilee Year. And it would seem that its diplomacy is paying dividends.

The city council and the interior ministry have just agreed a package of extraordinary security measures, including tougher action against illegal immigrants. This, the authorities hope, will discourage the city's army of street prostitutes, most of them foreign, who haunt the parks, archaeological sites and shady avenues. Immigrants without papers are to have their fingerprints registered, and those who entered illegally are to be repatriated, though where to, and how, is not clear. Committees in neighbourhoods where prostitutes are concentrated, bringing nightly traffic chaos, are hoping the immigration measures will ease their problems.

There have also been Vatican requests for tougher action against "private clubs", a euphemism for midmarket brothels that have sprung up in the city centre and in the hills outside Rome, as well as the erotic cabarets and sex cinemas which are an integral part of the urban landscape. The Church is putting discreet pressure, too, on Italian television networks, in particular the state-run RAI, to tone down sex on screen - not only in drama, but also in space given to porn stars, prostitutes, transvestites and gays on chat shows. Since the subject was touched on by Cardinal Paul Poupard, the Vatican's cultural minister, during the latest sex-laden Venice Film Festival, TV editors have vied to please religious authorities by promising to respect the sanctity of the Holy Year. "It feels like we have gone back to the days when it was considered quite normal for bishops to call us in personally to express their disapproval," said a senior female producer at RAI Uno, the conservative state network.

Even if the thighs and cleavage quotient of variety shows is reduced - and there is little sign of that - the directors of pay-per-view porn channels are unlikely to follow suit, given the boom in subscriptions. The same goes for newsagents, even those near the Vatican, where hard porn videos are openly on display.

"I am not a believer, but if they want a morality crusade I am right behind it. This city has become vulgar and tatty," said an elderly woman who owns a shoe store near the Vatican Museums. Her neighbour, a booming, moustached bar owner, disagreed heartily. "Rome has always been a bit pagan," he said, "maybe because we have the Pope right on our doorstep. They have no hope of cleaning the place up, because if they did it just wouldn't be Rome any more."

However successful Church pressure may be in some areas, there is one planned millennium event that will turn Rome into a "city of transgression". World Gay Pride 2000, billed as the "biggest gay and lesbian rally ever" is expected to attract up to a million visitors from around the world for events such as drag soccer matches, transvestite fashion parades and concerts by gay orchestras and rock musicians. The fortnight, coinciding with the feast of saints Peter and Paul, will culminate in a huge parade through central Rome on 8 July.

In response to the politicians' and clergy's criticism for his allowing the gay jamboree to take place, the mayor, Francesco Rutelli, refers to Rome's long tradition of tolerance and hospitality. But that spirit will be tested to the limit next year, and many residents fear the disadvantages will outweigh any benefits.

According to my local wine merchant, Giulio, a staunch member of the right-wing Alleanza Nazionale party, "there will be coaches crammed with Poles and Peruvians who will sleep in convents, take packed lunches and spend their money only on religious trinkets". Neither he nor his sister - who runs a central cafe with her husband, and fears that wealthier travellers may be deterred from coming to Rome because of the Jubilee - seem to have absorbed the Pope's message that it is the spiritual aspect which matters.

Never one to miss an opportunity, however, Giulio's sister has added pre-cooked pasta meals to the cafe's menu to cater for pilgrims with less money to spend. "Let's face it," she says. "If we don't take advantage of these big events, nothing ever gets done. I just hope that they are ready in time."