Tenth largest city in Europe: Catania, in the shadow of Mount Etna
IN THE LARGE street market tumbling down from Piazza Stesicoro, you can find amulets and antiques, pirated CDs, pants, tuna and horse meat. Immigrant tailors bend over sewing machines set on small tables for clothing buyers to have them remade on site. Half of a young sheep hangs from a hook.
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Italy’s tenth largest city is buzzing with life, but sits under a reminder of mortality: Mount Etna, which has been spitting fire, smoke and lava since February. Europe’s largest volcano is proof that Catania is located in one of Italy’s most seismically unpredictable regions. In 1693, an earthquake virtually destroyed the city, killing two-thirds of its inhabitants.
This showed catanesi this disaster can lead to rebirth, says Marella Ferrera, a fashion designer. The wide avenues of Catania, its majestic squares and its magnificent noble residences all date from the years following the earthquake.
This understanding is extremely relevant today. Italy is poised to be the biggest beneficiary of the EU750 billion euros ($ 884 billion) recovery plan from Covid-19, Next Generation EU (NGEU). A significant portion of the money goes to the south, with the aim of closing the gap with the wealthier north of Italy. NGEU will help finance infrastructure projects, including an extension of the Catania metro to the airport. This should encourage tourists to spend more time visiting the busy but depressed city before or after visiting the beaches in eastern Sicily. The mayor of Catania, Salvo Pogliese of the far-right Brothers of Italy, said the number of apartments used to accommodate tourists increased in the three years leading up to the pandemic, from 200 to 1,390.
Catania should also benefit if the pandemic further encourages remote working. Now that location matters less, people will be more free to enjoy the pleasures and the relatively low cost of living in cities like Catania. At least that’s the conviction behind Isola (island), a privately funded project to create 1,000 square meters of coworking space in part of the vast Palazzo Biscari.
The city has a better foundation than exists in other parts of the mezzogiorno. Catania has an old university, founded in 1434, and an entrepreneurial middle class. During the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, it became the “Milan of the South”. Few call it that these days. But the city produces antibiotics for Pfizer, microchips for ST Microelectronics, an Italian-French multinational, and solar panels for Enel Green Power. And Catania has reportedly been chosen as the site of a new microchip production facility for which € 750 million has been earmarked in Italy’s national recovery plan.
Mr. Pogliese is keen to promote the business. It has set up a mechanism whereby companies applying for a building permit can pay € 2,000 to guarantee a response within 48 hours. This reflects what is happening at the national level, where the government of Mario Draghi has introduced legislation to reduce bureaucratic delays that are stifling Italy’s economic growth.
Yet cutting red tape raises a problem as threatening as Mount Etna. In Sicily, much of the delay is caused by checks to determine whether, for example, the tenders are from companies linked to the Mafia. Many Italians who have nothing to do with organized crime believe that development can no longer be held hostage to fears of Mafia infiltration.
Claudio Fava, a leftist politician, has a different point of view. Her father was killed by the mafia. Mr Fava says organized crime remains deeply rooted in Catania’s poor neighborhoods such as San Cristoforo, a dilapidated downtown area, and Librino, a suburb of soulless towers. These places are not as violent as they used to be. But this, he says, is because the Mafia is increasingly focusing on white-collar crime, including securing public tenders. It is particularly active in renewable energies, on which many NGEU the money will be spent. “Anyone who thinks that the Mafia has lost its ability to penetrate the legitimate economy is either naive or devious,” he says. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “The so-called Milan of the south”