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Tor Sapienza, The Dumping Ground Of Rome Catches Fire

This neighborhood on the Italian capital's outskirts has erupted in clashes between longtime residents and undocumented migrants. It is part of a long and toxic history.

Police vehicles in Tor Sapienza on Nov. 15
Police vehicles in Tor Sapienza on Nov. 15
Giacomo Galeazzi

ROME — For decades now, Tor Sapienza has been the place in the Italian capital to hide what wasn't meant to be seen. After World War II, it was confiscated German munitions; today, it's undocumented immigrants, squatters in abandoned buildings and illegally dumped waste. It is a neglected and toxic neighborhood, in more ways than one.

This little-known enclave on the eastern outskirts of Rome made national headlines last week after violent demonstrations erupted. Stones and flares were thrown by longtime residents at the local migrant center, and garbage cans set on fire at a nearby Roma camp. It was quickly dubbed a "land of fire" at the gates of Rome, though few asked how it came to be.

"Tor Sapienza was a ticking time bomb, and a situation like this had been brewing for a long time," says sociologist Domenico De Masi. "The poorest part of the population converged away from the city center, among the migrant centers and Roma camps which all eventually spun out of control."

De Masi, a professor at Rome's La Sapienza University notes that people have always come to the neighborhood to "escape from poverty in search of work. First it was from southern Italy, but now it is from Africa."

Inside the residential blocks on Viale Giorgio Morandi, about a hundred refugees are among that latest wave of migration. Before them, a century ago, immigrants came from Abruzzo and Calabria and houses were built in the 1920s around the 13th century tower.

Both central and local governments have considered Tor Sapienza something of a "non-place," falling between the cracks of local administrations. It was "almost officially made a ghetto," says Daniele Rinaldi, a local politician.

The list of ailments goes way back, but when another reception center for immigrants was opened, this time the people took to the streets — and they're not giving up.

"It's not enough that immigrants walk around the residence on Viale Giorgio Morandi naked and throw things off balconies. Nobody can sleep because of the loud music," says Antonella Simoni. When the first center opened in 2011, Rome's city council deemed it just "temporary accommodation."

But bureaucratic backlogs have meant that the asylum seekers have stayed indefinitely. "The city councils have never blocked national decrees," says Rinaldi. In short, because of choices that came from the top, Tor Sapienza was left to become a "slum" repository for what wasn't wanted from the rest of the city.

Strangers at home

Alongside the slaughterhouse, abandoned warehouses, junkyards and bingo halls are the dark avenues where both male and female prostitution runs non-stop. Even the number 508 bus had to be diverted — it was just too dangerous. The hedges have not been pruned in years, the streets aren't lit, and roads are closed because of the restructuring of public transport routes.

In via Salviati, in one of the most troubled Roma encampments, plastic taken out of the city's dumpsters is regularly burned in the open air, and a recent fire destroyed the warehouse of Rome's waste management agency.

The dark heart of Tor Sapienza is a housing complex whose ground-floor shops, garages and commercial premises have been illegally occupied by ethnic groups hostile to each other and the Italian residents around them. The migrant center that was attacked with stones and flares is now constantly guarded by police.

"We feel like strangers in our own homes, surrounded by immigrants, nomads, transsexuals, pickpockets, and drunks," says Tullio, a local resident.

Speaking at a recent meeting with Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino, another resident, Manlio said promises have gone unfulfilled too many times. "This time we won't be fooled," he said. "The refugees and vagabonds need to go. We don't want to be the dumping ground for Rome's problems."

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