By Laura Benedetti
Sunday, April 11, 2010; B02
What is a city without its center?
That's the sort of question an earthquake forces you to ask. Rebuilding a city means more than just new houses and shops; it also means re-creating the invisible ties that hold people together. Cities need outside help during an emergency, but the real reconstruction falls to the people who live there.
Every time I hear about another disaster -- whether the devastating quakes in Haiti and Chile or the more recent ones in Mexico and Indonesia -- I think of my home town, L'Aquila, which was struck in April 2009 by the deadliest earthquake Italy had seen in three decades.
What is L'Aquila without its center? I asked myself this question many times last summer as I camped in a tent in a friend's garden, just outside her damaged house. The city lay at my feet, no more than a mile away, still hugged by its wall, its main monuments still recognizable. But the center was filled with rubble, the promise of rebuilding emptier every day.
After the disaster, the government's response, led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, was fast and feverish. The outskirts of L'Aquila were turned into construction sites to build temporary homes for thousands of displaced people. Italian flags were wrapped around the balconies, and dazed families moved into the new housing -- featuring amenities from ironing boards to linens to food baskets with local specialties -- to find a note of welcome from Berlusconi.
But the building frenzy had its downsides. Privately owned land was requisitioned, and the landscape surrounding L'Aquila, which had largely been preserved for generations, metamorphosed into urban sprawl. The hastily built apartment complexes scattered what used to be a close-knit community over a vast territory, with inadequate infrastructure and no social venues. In the meantime, the medieval downtown, which used to be home to 16,000 people and more than 1,000 restaurants, shops and offices, remained eerily quiet and inaccessible.
I returned to L'Aquila in January, to a city still without its center. A few streets had been reopened, but that only increased the sense of displacement. The barred stores and the scaffolding created the impression of a ghost town. Peeking beyond the barriers, one could see piles of debris and an occasional stray dog.
When would the city be rebuilt? Some estimates were optimistic: in 20 years. Some grim: never.
Most Aquilani seemed to have accepted their new lives with resignation. They were struggling to meet their basic needs, forced to relocate and not even allowed to actively participate in putting their city back together. They seemed to have no energy to fight.
But in February, something changed. An investigation turned up a recorded phone conversation between two entrepreneurs. One of them, rejoicing at the opportunity to profit from the rebuilding process, recalled laughing about the news of the earthquake.
That recording -- broadcast on television and posted online -- seemed to show that the response to the emergency did not have the best interest of residents in mind.
A few days after the recording was made public, a group of Aquilani confronted the police who blocked the city center. After a brief altercation, they knocked down the barriers and gained access to Piazza Palazzo, a square they had not been allowed to see for more than 10 months. Standing on a pile of rubble, a man improvised a speech, punctuated by the refrain "On April 6, I was not laughing," while many looked in disbelief at their town, still piles of stone and rubble almost a year after the earthquake.
A woman asked where her fellow citizens were: "Eight centuries of history are watching us. These ruins are crying. We are crying. Why are so few of us out here?" As if answering her call, the following Sunday, thousands of people showed up with shovels and wheelbarrows to clear rubble from the piazza. They made a human chain, passing pails from hand to hand to remove the debris. These meetings have now become as regular as evening strolls on the main street once were, and the ranks of the "people of the wheelbarrows" -- as they have been named -- are growing.
With the anniversary of the earthquake, a new urgency has brought together people of all ages, social status, and political and religious beliefs. They claim the city center as necessary to their identity and sense of belonging, and they ask to be an active part of the reconstruction. On Easter Sunday, the Aquilani prepared their traditional meal of bread, salami, hard-boiled eggs and wine. This year, though, they did not eat it at home. They brought it to the main square and shared it with other families in their town.
For the "people of the wheelbarrows," resurrection can no longer wait.
Laura Benedetti is the chair of the Italian department at Georgetown University. She wrote about the immediate aftermath of the L'Aquila earthquake for Outlook last year.