Portrait of an Italian city struggling to go beyond its industrial vocation

13 stories about the lockdown in a suburb symbol of the Italian contradictions 

Taranto is the emblem of many Italian cities that are paying the high price of the lockdown restrictions. The industrial monoculture of this suburb, deriving from the presence of large industrial facilities such as the former Ilva (a steel factory), a military Navy Yard and a refinery, is slowly giving way to investments in the fields of maritime culture, art, tourism, food and wine, commerce and green economy. The abrupt slowdown, due to the forced quarantine we had to go through, has blocked this virtuous process of transformation. As of May 20th, according to the data provided by the latest reports of the Local Health Authority (ASL), the city of Taranto and its province account for 276 active cases of Covid19. The contagion and mortality rate are relatively low compared to both the Apulian and national average. The positivity rate reaches 4.8 per 10,000 people in Taranto, 10.9 in Apulia and 37.7 in Italy. The death rate reaches 0.5 per 10,000 inhabitants in Taranto, 1.2 in Apulia and 5.3 in Italy. Thus Taranto, like many other Italian cities, has only slightly been touched by the virus, but risks paying bitter economic consequences for years, although state and regional aid is on the way and the municipal budget for the next year will be almost exclusively dedicated to saving the city from the damages the virus caused. 

Walter is the striking example of the change of pace the Apulian city is experiencing. Since 1998, he has worked for a company depending upon Ilva, Taranto's siderurgic giant, with a revenue of 1600 euros per month. "In there, social codes and rules are not the same. Once you go through the turnstile, you have to survive, you change, you get ugly", he says. Then, the jump into the dark. Taking advantage of the cultural ferment that started in 2013 with the celebrations of the 1st of May in Taranto and with artistic productions showing the potential of the city, Walter has chosen to live on music, playing bass guitar and double bass, as well as on cinema and theatre. "On the 11th March, I was supposed to start working as a toolmaker for the shooting of a film in Taranto. A thousand euros for a week's work. And then there were music tours organized by the groups I play with and various artistic projects I was planning alone. Everything blew up". The same goes for Erika, his partner, who works as a contemporary theatre actress. "Some colleagues are trying to adapt their work to the new circumstances, for example using streaming; others, like me, are waiting. We have already received a 600 euros remuneration, coming from the public assistance program the Italian governement has allocated for people working in the field of Arts and Entertainment. It is a tough moment, considering that theatre almost exclusively leans on human interaction. I'm trying to keep in contact via social platforms, via email or through long voice messages with some of the trainees attending the various workshops. I am confident about the solution of open-air theatres". "So far”, explains Adriano Di Giorgio, who took over the Fusco theatre, the oldest in the city, in 2005, “we have lost almost 150.000 euros, that we were supposed to cash with the scheduled shows. Then, we have to add to this amount the one coming from the rent of the theatre for musical and artistic initiatives, for matinees organized by schools, and for festivals, exhibitions and ballet recitals organized by dance academies. May and June are usually full of these events. A separate chapter has to be dedicated to the cinema. In order to survive, we need money, non-repayable cash to compensate the lack of income and assistance in the cinematographic sector for what we'll never broadcast, given that the majors cinematographic industries are now promoting their films on streaming and for a long time nothing new will be produced due to the norms of social distancing". The emergency is also defying the ambitions and desires of Mimmo, Aldo, Francesco and Luca, who invested their money in the first concert hall of the city: a 300m2 area that up to two years ago was completely abandoned, but which was about to open to craft shops, coworking and a movie port. "We thought this part of the city had a strong potential”, they explain, “and we worked very hard, helped by many friends, to redevelop it. On 30th November 2019 we inaugurated the project and the first concert was supposed to take place on the 7th of March 2020". But, in that precise moment, Mercato Nuovo closed its doors and left unemployed many people, such as the sound engineer, who earned about 1000 euros per month from his activity, and the bartender, a university student. And then, as we all know, "behind every concert there's the work of many other people: the drivers who accompany the artists, the b&b where they stay, the restaurants for their meals. For lunches and dinners we collaborated with restaurants and caterings in the the Tamburi neighbourhood, very close to the Mercato Nuovo and sadly known for hosting the industrial plants of former Ilva. For the overnight stay we turned to the receptive activities of the Old Town. This was our way of proposing a source of revenue different from the one related to the big steel factory". Ernesto, a b&b owner, shared his story, too. "At present, it's probable we won't reopen until all this is over; we don't even know which will be our responsibilities. I inaugurated 'Le finestre sul mare' on 31st March, 2019. It took me many years of makeover and now we have 14 beds, 6 rooms and a breakfast room. Since I started the business, the total profit has attained around 20.000 euros. We usually host many clients thanks to our strategic geographical position, between Salento (Southern Apulia) and Matera (Basilicata), and thanks to the events that have been taking place in Taranto for a few years. The concert celebrating the 1st of May and Medimex are among them, as well as national and international water sports competitions. I worked a lot in the off-season, too, from November to February. People from all over the world have stayed here". As for the city tours, The “Ape Calessino” (typical Italian three-wheeled cars) have been taking tourists around the Old Town for some years now. "We started the business in the spring of 2017 as a startup. At the beginning, we organized from 200 to 300 tours at most”, says Giovanni. “Last year, we got to 1000 tours, so I had to open a VAT number, I obtained the NCC licenses and I inaugurated my own private company.  Before the Covid19 turmoil, I was about to hire the first three part-time drivers, people who are now at home, waiting to be called". The biggest fear for Giovanni is to lose all what he has built so far. "Our advertising is our presence in the territory. If tourists, considering that 60% of them are foreigners, see us around, they come to know the service and can then take advantage of it. If we remain closed, we'll have to start again from scratch". 

Aldo and Marco are two former employees of the Taranto steel industrial plant and two among the founders of the “Comitato Cittadini e Lavoratori Liberi e Pensanti” (a committee of citizens spreading awareness about the dangers of the Taranto steel industry as it doesn't respect the security and pollution measures imposed by national standards). They got to be known for supporting the closing of the factory and for their preference for a green conversion of the plant; however, people frequently asked them the following question: “Where are we going to eat if the factory closes? At your home?". Inspired by this assertion, that has now become very common in Taranto, they quit the factory using the voluntary exodus incentive coming from the transition of the industrial property from Ilva to Arcelor Mittal, and converted their activism in a gastronomic activity renaming it “A casa vostra”, precisely meaning “At your home”. 

This is their answer to the question of those who believed in no other option but the industrial employment, that privileges work over health. However, they explain that "due to the stop of the activities in March, and due to the measures  of social distancing, the inauguration of our business is suspended for the time being”. They live in the wait, like Marco and Annalisa, who had expanded their business just two months before the lockdown, building a steakhouse adjacent to their sandwich shop. Annalisa explains: "We foresaw  that it would take 10 years to make up for the money we have invested. Now we don't even know if we're gonna amortize them at all. Social distancing further complicates things: in our new steakhouse, we had to reduce seats from 75 to 35, and in our sandwich shop from 80 to 20. How can we earn money to survive in these conditions? Our revenue will be cut, but the economic burden of our charges and fees will be the same. And then we'll have to buy gloves, masks and hand sanitizer to put them at our clients' disposal. Then, we'll have to continue paying our employees, too. And Marco adds: "I have calculated that during this 3-month lockdown, we have lost approximately 65.000 euros. Obviously that's not our net income. Of the 2018 turnover, only 10% accounts for our revenue. The rest is used to pay taxes and for the purchase of raw materials. Then, as we had to close without notice, we threw away more or less 1500 euros-worth raw material". 

Fabio, to  meet the costs of reopening his small barbershop, had to raise the prices of the services offered. "I have calculated about 5 euros more per customer. This means that a haircut now costs 7 euros more".  Reopening came with a lot of expenditures: sanitizing the shop, purchasing individual protection devices such as surgical masks for customers, visors for employees, plexiglas panels to split the workstations, disposable capes, sanitizing wipes and gel". And these expenses will continue to grow "if the price of a pack of gloves, considering that gloves are mandatory for workers in hair salons, rises from 4 to 12 euros". And then there is the issue of insecure employments. “There are many people in Southern Italy who don't have permanent job contracts. I have worked as a restorer for ten years, both in Italy and abroad, but then I gave it up to follow my passion for baking" Federica tells us. "I have been working as a full-time baker since October 2018. The pastry field already suffered from many problems, like exploitation and low-paid wages, before this moment of crisis; Covid19 simply boosted this trend”. Then, she continues: “I'm talking about my personal experience and the one of some friends of mine. They hire you on the basis of a part-time contract, but then you work 14 hours a day without rest. They never pay you in time and they never give you the full amount of money. At the moment, my employers are making use of a temporary lay-off scheme to pay their staff, but my contract is about to expire; so, it's me or my colleagues; they can't keep us all. I'll have to look for another job, but I don't think I'm gonna find it before the end of this year. Who dares to hire you right now?". The very same fate awaits Tecla, who was working in a fashion store inside a shopping mall. "I'll be honest, with my back broken and my breasts swollen with milk, watching a customer demolishing a bunch of newly-folded shirts has very often pissed me off. When they offered me that job as a saleswoman, I had just delivered but I accepted immediately. I worked as hard as I could; it was exhausting, but it was a multinational company, and they offered me an excellent contract. I was hoping this could become a permanent job". Instead, the coronavirus arrived. And the company had to lay off six of its employees. “They couldn't have renewed my contract even if they had wanted to, because it would have meant giving up state support for the other colleagues, whose contract was not expiring like mine". In the meantime, his partner Gabriele, a door-to-door nurse, decided to go back to work in the hospital, and was ironically sent to the ICU of the Covid hub in Taranto. He did it out of passion and, perhaps, to compensate for the fact that his family had lost one of its income sources. "He's happy, it's the job he loves”, Tecla says, “and he's very careful; he knows he works in an unsafe environment and it's for this reason that he takes his shower at work and then sanitizes everything he touches before leaving the hospital; however, it's useless to say there's always a risk when he comes back home to me and the children”.

Will state aid, provided under the form of direct subsidies, guarantees and subsidised interest rates on loans, as the last decree states, help Taranto? Will it help this town, emblem of many Italian cities where the economic collapse risks being more lethal than the virus? It is too early to give an answer. The fear is that only big industrial groups will end up taking advantage of the subsidies, leaving behind those who, rather than spending vouchers or emergency incomes, need to return to believe in their projects and invest in the future of the city.

photo: Pierfrancesco Lafratta

text: Marina Luzzi

Pierfrancesco Lafratta Photography

Pierfrancesco Lafratta Photography - Photojournalism and Documentary Photographer
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