A Canceled Town

How does central Italy rebuild after the earthquake? An example from the south of Italy of what not to do

Pescara del Tronto is gone,” said a news report after a catastrophic earthquake struck central Italy on August 24. That is the same date, in the year 79 CE, that Vesuvius began its march of ash over the city of Pompeii. Now, for the people of Pescara del Tronto, Accumoli, Amatrice, and all of the affected towns in the region, the question is: how will they rebuild their towns, and their lives?

I know a town in the south of Italy that was also destroyed by a natural disaster. Like Pescara del Tronto, and Amatrice, it sat up in the sky, in the mountains, and came crashing to earth. That was eleven years ago. Now, Cavallerizzo is gone.

Cavallerizzo, in Calabria, about 375 miles to the south of Pescara del Tronto, lies one mile down a ribbon of mountain road from where my mother was born, in Mongrassano. The towns there, in the valley of the river Crati, are poor and lonely places, founded in the Middle Ages by Albanian refugees, known as Arbëreshë. Their descendants have now largely emigrated elsewhere, to the north of Italy, and Europe, and the New World. Today, chestnut and olive trees still stretch down the mountain sides, and women in the winding streets wear the traditional dress of the Arbëreshë as they did generations ago. If not for the low hum of televisions through open windows, and plastic strewn about, it still feels like it could be the Middle Ages there now.

On March 7, 2005, just before dawn, a mudslide struck Cavallerizzo. As the ground beneath gave way, houses on the outer edge of town began to crack and slip into the valley. Church bells pealed and warned residents that it was time to flee. All 300 of them, unlike their heartbreaking counterparts to the north, survived.

There are many reasons for this mudslide, or frana, and they are as complicated as Italian history itself. From the town’s founding, and long after, feudal lords, through large estates called latifundia, overfarmed the surrounding land until it became unstable. Heavy rain and snow the winter before saturated the soil that Cavallerizzo was built upon about 600 years ago, and loosened its hold on the mountain top. A fault meanders through the region. Earthquakes are common, and the 2005 mudslide was hardly the first.

Mudslides, I have read, have plagued the Crati valley for centuries; they have been recorded in 1635, 1720, and 1941, to name only a few. Up until now, the towns had always rebuilt, carried on until the next frana, continually rebuilding and starting again.

In the accounting after the 2005 mudslide, only 11% of the houses in Cavallerizzo were rendered uninhabitable. Several were completely lost to the valley below; others had cracks in their walls you could walk through. But the vast majority of the houses in town, beyond its outer edge, remained largely unaffected.

Yet the town was shut down by the federal government. Permanently. It was gated, and all the residents were forced to leave. The road leading into town from Mongrassano was shattered and never rebuilt. News reports read that Cavellerizzo was “cancellata.” Cancelled, abandoned, like a rained-out football game, where players threw up their hands and went for a coffee instead.

In Lazio, the damage is far worse than in Cavallerizzo. The mayor of Amatrice was quoted as saying that half the town no longer exists. Whether to rebuild the town where it lies, or move the people of the area elsewhere is the question that remains.

It has been more than a decade since Cavellerizzo was shut down. I went to Mongrassano last year with my mother. Standing in the town’s cemetery we looked across the valley and saw what has become of Cavallerizzo.

Pianette to the left; Cavallerizzo to the right.

After the mudslide, the Italian government built a new town, called Pianette, at the cost of 70 million Euro, in a nearby, theoretically less precarious location. People who had homes in the old Cavallerizzo were given, in exchange, a home in Pianette. From our vantage point in Mongrassano, we could see the houses of Pianette, a mass of pristine white standing out from the other towns in sight of it, including the old Cavallerizzo, with its red terra cotta rooftops.

In online photographs, the new town looked to me like white Lego, haphazardly and soullessly strewn together. It seemed as though the government tried to recreate the old Cavallerizzo, with the same jumble of attached houses, but with all the rough edges smoothed out. The old stone and plaster, the cluster of homes that grew together organically over hundreds of years, were replaced with white paint rectangles, already graying and dingy.

Pianette is almost totally empty. No one wants to live there. Few people, I think no more than thirty, wanted to move to the new town. They don’t want new houses, someone told me in Mongrassano. They want their own houses back.

70 million Euro was used to build something impractical and unwanted, instead of reconstructing a community built over hundreds of years. Now that community has scattered, to other towns in the valley, or elsewhere entirely. Weeds have already pushed up through the cracks of unused streets of Pianette.

Online, I found the website of a group, Cavallerizzo Vive, which seeks the reinstatement of the ghost town of Cavallerizzo. Pianette, they say, is abusiva, illegal, because it was built without an environmental impact study. As if, instead of setting out to correct the mistakes of past — the poor building practices, the lack of infrastructure, and the exploitation of the land, the new town was set to begin a new cycle of abuse on a new piece of the valley. And now the residents are stuck in the middle, between their old town, in which they have been barred from living, and their new town, the existence of which is barred by law.

Still, despite the gates, and the roads splintered into matchsticks, the spirit of the old town continues. Cavallerizzo has one resident. An elderly woman, Liliana Bianco, anziana e combattiva, elderly, a fighter, as she has been called, has remained in her old house amid the ruins. She gets power from a generator, when it works, and water from a fountain connected to a mountain spring, a practice common to all the towns in the area. She heats the house, like many still do down the road in Mongrassano, with fire. She will never leave her home, she says.

Another woman I heard about had made a living in Cavallerizzo, before the frana, by baking in her ancient wood-burning oven. Her house and the oven in it are still intact. Like she did before the frana, she makes bread, taralli, and cookies to sell. Every day she drives from San Marco Argentano, the local market town where she now lives, parks outside the gate that closes off Cavallerizzo, walks, or climbs, over the broken roads, deep into the town to her old house. She bakes, and carries everything out again.

An oven in Mongrassano.

There have been many mudslides and landslides in the valley, and there will be many more. There will continue to be earthquakes in Italy as long as there is an Italy. With every disaster, another oven collapses. That bread, cooked elsewhere in a newfangled oven, will never taste the same again.

Amatrice, in the middle of its horror, has at the very least a legacy that will remain. Pasta all’amatriciana: San Marzano tomatoes, deepened and complicated by rich, salty guanciale. It is a pity that it took an earthquake for the world beyond Amatrice to connect that well-known dish with a real place, a long history, and a now struggling people.

Much of what the Italian government does to preserve its ancient cities and towns is thoughtless, tone-deaf, and wasteful, like the construction of Pianette. In many areas, particularly in the poorer regions to the south of Rome, the process is corrupt, controlled by construction companies allowed to build with shoddy materials, while officials look the other way on anti-seismic building regulations.

I hope, as someone who is watching the place where her family lived for hundreds of years literally slide away rather than receive the resources it needs to sustain its way of life in a changing world, that the Italian government will pay careful attention to the rebuilding process in Umbria, Lazio, and Le Marche, and place more of an emphasis on solid infrastructure and reconstruction that respects the communities that have lost so much.

Italy has a reputation all over the world as a place that cherishes its history. It thrives on it; it sells that history to the throngs that stomp through its crumbling ancient sites every year. But the people who still choose to live and work in these old places must be allowed to thrive as well. Otherwise, the entire place will be canceled, will perish, like Pompeii, beautiful, yet choked in its own dust.