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In Palermo, Mafia Takes Aim At Historic Vucciria Market

Vucciria is not quite bustling.
Vucciria is not quite bustling.
Laura Anello

PALERMO — As the Sicilian capital's oldest market, La Vucciria has long drawn visitors from around the world for its myriad colors and aromas. While its peculiar traditions live on, with vendors barking out in the local dialect to sell their products to passersby, the market is a shadow of its former self. Once immortalized in painting by the artist Renato Guttuso and on the screen by the director Roberto Andò, both native Sicilians, the market is now mostly in ruins, with just a few stalls selling fruit.

La Vucciria, however, has become the stage of a battle between a group of local businessmen, committed to redeveloping the neighborhood and building new apartments, and the infamous Sicilian Mafia, which wants to keep control of the city like it has for much of the past century. After a devastating earthquake struck Sicily in 1968 and emptied the historic city center of its residents, organized crime prospered and the market was reduced to a mere tourist attraction.

Uwe Jäntsch, an Austrian artist based in Palermo, called attention to the market's dilapidated state by painting on the walls and producing provocative art installations. Three years ago, a group of 17 businessmen finally heeded his call by investing in a plan to stop La Vucciria's inexorable decline.

The group began by rebuilding Palazzo Lampedusa, a baroque palace destroyed by bombing in World War II, restoring it to its former glory. Now they've purchased the three palaces that surround Piazza Garraffello, at the heart of La Vucciria. The enormous palaces — Palazzo Mazzarino, Palazzo Sperlinga, and Palazzo Rammacca — were once home to the city's nobility before falling into disrepair. Left empty by families who emigrated and owners who disappeared, the group bought the buildings from the city government for 10 million euros ($11.8 million).

The underworld made its presence felt.

But just as reconstruction was set to begin, Palermo's underworld made its presence felt. Along with the Palermitan mafia, local drug traffickers and squatters wanted La Vucciria to remain in its current state — and in the hands of criminal networks. Cranes and scaffolding would have reduced the market's area by 600 square meters, shutting out the unlicensed vendors, nightclubs, and drug pushers that do business in La Vucciria. So the businessmen received threats and pressure demanding them to back down from their plans.

Piazza Garraffello — Photo: Kalamun

The market's renovation has become a symbol of the struggle between two visions of Palermo. On one side is a resurgent metropolis, nominated Italian Capital of Culture in 2018 and seeking to attract more tourists; on the other is a city living in the past, still plagued by corruption and organized crime.

As the market waits for the first scaffold to arrive, the local district council held a highly publicized open-air session in Piazza Garraffello last Monday in a show of support for the businessmen, which was also attended by Palermo's mayor and local law enforcement to demonstrate a united stand against the mob.

All of those who came out for the meeting know that they are embarking on a crucial battle for the city's destiny. "In the last few years, this part of the city has been abandoned," said Massimo Castiglia, a city politician who represents the surrounding neighborhoods. "Our dream is to transform Piazza Garraffello's image from a hub for drug deals to a center of culture."

The few elderly citizens still living in the old town point to several things that symbolize its decline. The balcony at Trattoria Shanghai, a famed Sicilian restaurant, is collapsing. Most of all, they look downwards to the balate, the market's porphyry cobblestone flooring. A local saying holds that La Vucciria would die only when the balate were no longer wet because the fishermen plying their catch in the market had vanished. Today, the balate are as dry as anyone can remember.

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