ROME - Refuse from the shacks float by in the river's brown, putrid water. There is mud everywhere and the acrid smell of burning plastic lingers in the air. Chickens crow and dogs bark, rusty chain-links act as fencing and a gate.
It looks like Manila, but this is Rome. Welcome to the “City of Joy,” a slum on the banks of the small Aniene River, which flows into the Tiber.
For the past 20 years, entire generations of Filipinos have lived here, working in the beautiful homes of the Parioli neighborhood, in northern Rome.
They spend long days cleaning the big villas and taking the priveleged children to school. At night, they return to their homes – if you can even call them that – shacks on the bank of a muddy river with tin roofs and wooden walls. Water, for some of them, comes from nearby fields and sewers don’t exist; electric power is divided between the houses because there isn’t enough for all of them.
From October onwards the weather is freezing but as soon as May comes around, the heat is torrid. If it rains a lot, and often it does, it becomes dangerous. This winter there was a lot of rain and, luckily, the inhabitants of the slum were evacuated, otherwise they would have ended up in the river, like their shacks that are now floating in the water.
This is Rome’s black hole, a place where the contradictions of a metropolis in the 21st Century blend together, crushing every certainty. Nineteen Filipino families live here, many of them with young children, and then there are Peruvians, Colombians, Roma gypsies, as well as some Italians.
The access road is quite hidden and unknown, leading down from Rome’s Olympic Stadium towards the Aniene River. The asphalt quickly turns into a dirt track, which runs along a junkyard with old cars and an authorized Roma camp – a dirty urban forest that is uncultivated and sinister. The first homes begin to appear halfway down the road. They have numbers painted on plates and mailboxes with names written on them. Flowers grow here and there, wherever they can – because living for 20 years in a place like this, you need something beautiful to look at.
No water or stoves, but there's wi-fi
It is totally official yet unauthorized. The children go to school like any other Italian child, the fathers go to work as builders and the mothers are domestic workers or nannies in Parioli, a rich neighborhood a stone’s throw away. Their names are in the telephone book and every two months the bill for the trash arrives – they don’t recycle here. Non-Italians all have the permesso di soggiorno permit visa, and they’re all legal.
Among the residents there are men and women who were born and raised here, as well as people who will soon retire. Some of the inhabitants have returned to their homelands and offered their shacks to other people. There are Italians who inherited the land years and years ago, when this estuary was just untamed land. Then there are the Roma gypsies, who have chosen to leave their nearby campsite to live here, in a place where front doors are locked at night and guarded by dogs – so that you know you are getting robbed.
This Roman neighborhood has grown through the years in total indifference – and lack of alternatives. For years, it has been hidden in plain sight, under everyone’s nose. On the other side of the river, there are people playing football and tennis. Here, the shacks keep piling up but services have not improved to offer a decent existence to the shantytown’s residents.
Mariam, 43, lives in one of the last homes on the street and she has four children and eight grandchildren. She left the Roma camp to come and live among the Filipinos. She built her refuge here: “It’s much quieter. I stayed in the camp for 20 years but I was tired of cleaning up after the others.”
Life here is absolutely normal, yet completely surreal. The road ends at the railway bridge, where there is an open dump created by the residents of the Roma camp – an enormous mountain of trash that gets thrown into the river, bit by bit, every day. Not everyone has a boiler, some people boil water in the middle of a street in a pot on an open fire. They use wood-burning stoves for heating because wood is easy to come by. However, there are satellite dishes to watch TV and anyone who wants to install Wi-Fi can do so easily.
Alfredo Ciotti, who has lived here since 1970, says that he likes it there: “The problem isn’t the Roma who live in the camps, but the Romanians who live in the plastic shacks on the river, who come to steal at night.”
The Lopez family has lived here for ten years; there are four of them – mother, father and two boys. For them, everything is good; they wish the riverbanks were safer. “They need to re-enforce them, this winter they just collapsed under our home. Luckily, the boys were in school and we were at work. They made us leave but after two months, they said we could come back to our home and that they would find a solution.”
It's a solution that for 20 years no one has really been looking for.