Stefano Santos

'O Cantiere

(IT version)

Naples is among the most densely populated cities in Europe.  From any panoramic point one can witness an apparently endless succession of buildings and church domes, often sitting precariously on the side of the hills that make up the city’s geography.
The Bagnoli district, however, is a remarkable exception. In a matter of a mere pedestrian crossing, a relatively sprawling residential neighbourhood suddenly turns into a barren wasteland reminiscent of post-apocalyptic fiction developed just in the space of a two-way road, surrounded by walls which reveal from time to time glimpses of skeletons made of steel and concrete.

The remnants of Bagnoli steel factories. From its inauguration in 1910 to its final demise in 2000 with the sale of its last components to Thai investors, this industrial district played a large part in shaping Naples’ social and economic landscape, going through two world wars, the post-war economic boom, and the transition to the dominance of service-based industries in the Western world. However, since its closure in 1994, virtually nothing has changed, both from a visual and from a social point of view. To the detriment of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood and of those who looked after its reconversion.

For most of its history, the Bagnoli steel complex provided its workers the security of a steady income in the present and pension benefits for the future, even more so when it became a state industry, part of the strategy devised after the war that sought to increase the national steel productivity by direct control of the government (by the in-famous “Ministry for State Holdings”). Together with Bagnoli there where Genoa, Piombino, and Taranto in the early sixties, when the original ILVA (company founded in 1905 and named after the Latin name for Elba island) fused into Italsider in 1961.

For these reasons, working at the factory became for most young men the greatest ambition, a guaranteed way to enter the ever-growing ranks of the middle class and upwards social mobility, especially for those who endured the hardships and deprivation during the war and Nazi occupation. During the years, among families from Bagnoli and surrounding neighbourhoods and towns (Fuorigrotta, Cavalleggeri Aosta, Agnano, and Pozzuoli) a family member working in the factories (or ‘O Cantiere - construction site - in Neapolitan) became a common denominator. A common reminiscence among older Bagnolese is of the sirens that announced the various working turns (“we lived with the sirens...”).

However, for a long time the workers and their families were seemingly unconcerned of the health hazards linked with living in such close quarters with a source of pollution - although veterans often instructed the newbies on how to protect themselves from pollution and blankets hanging from windows had to be re-washed when the wind brought the smoke from the factories.

When environmental issues began to enter public debate, the oxymoron between economic welfare and public health safety became even more apparent.

As the closure of the factory becomes an event further back in history, fewer and fewer of the inhabitants have direct memories of the years in which the steel mill was in full operation, especially those who were born during its very last years.

The vast majority of them have a relative who worked there, thus enjoying the relative prosperity brought by those jobs or indirectly reliving those years with the testimony of their fathers or grandfathers, who often draw parallels between ‘those days’ and today situation, in which the demise of the factory effectively created an occupational vacuum where the younger generations carry the heaviest burden.

Once, the families of the neighbourhood often pushed their sons and daughters towards higher education in hopes of getting employed in the industrial complex. Today, as the fate of the area is still unknown, the rate of unemployment rises, and more and more young people seek their fortune elsewhere, leaving behind a situation in which the pensions of the former workers are the main source of sustenance for entire families.

Among most of them, regardless of their memories of the past, the main concern is about the future. Unable for reasons out of their control to preserve a continuity that dates back since the beginning of the twentieth century, which saw three generations employed at the same place, often look with distrust at the local and national politics, guilty of letting the situation stall - nearly every intervention towards the reconversion of the area, save for the reconstruction of the Northern pier and Città della Scienza (a private investment), has been utterly unsuccessful.

More than one hundred years ago the construction of the Bagnoli industrial complex was decided in order to provide a solution to the seemingly endless poverty that plagued Naples and its surrounding at least since the unification under the Italian kingdom. For most of its history, the steel mill managed to accomplish its mission - together with similar experiences on the other side of the Vesuvius, like the shipbuilding industries in Castellammare di Stabia and Torre del Greco, pasta manufacturing in Torre Annunziata and the Sarno valley - by providing stability in a difficult region like Southern Italy, even though they proved to be a quite fragile context.

On certain aspects, the Bagnoli experience was an exception. Its social model proved to resist better as the heavy industry in general began to fall during the beginning of the ‘80s, as the development of a working-class ethic managed to create a ‘social bloc’ which contributed to lessen the degenerative process associated with the crisis. In fact, as it was already renowned as a place with a lower crime rate than the rest of the city, it never saw the violent resurgence of organized crime that plagued the rest of the region.

Like for many problems in Southern Italy, solutions are often found by taking advantage of its hidden potentials often neglected for lack of initiative or political competence.

In the case of Bagnoli however, an enormous ground zero left abandoned for close than twenty years, the negligence reaches macroscopic proportions.

This project aims to narrate this social fallout.

Project selected among the finalists at Premio Canon Giovani Fotografi 2018.

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