Rebuilding and Destigmatizing Rome’s Quarticciolo Neighborhood
On first impression, Quarticciolo is a handsome district in Rome. A human-scaled public housing complex comprising red and yellow midrise buildings arranged around internal courtyards and gardens. Designed by architect Roberto Nicolini during the Fascist regime, this village feel isn’t found in the massive postwar residential schemes elsewhere in the capital. Like other rationalist architects, Nicolini was inspired by the ancient city. Basing the layout on a classical orthogonal grid pattern, he allowed just one tall structure, the Casa del Fascio (the Fascist party headquarters), a fortress tower that looms over the main square. Most of the buildings were constructed between 1938 and 1943 to house a working-class population that was forcibly moved from Rome’s historic center to the outskirts to make way for Mussolini’s grand public works.
However, when Allied bombing made residents homeless in nearby neighborhoods, they moved to Quarticciolo to occupy buildings that had not yet been completed. Generations later, some of the same families continue to live in the original 10 housing units (totaling 2,400 flats). Despite some repairs in the 1950s, the buildings were poorly constructed and maintained and have been in a state of decay ever since. And although the neighborhood is connected to the city center by a main road, via Palmiro Togliatti, travel by public transport remains arduous (as I discovered myself), despite the relatively short distance to Rome’s main train station.
Many Romans mistakenly consider Quarticciolo a crime-ridden, no-go zone. It’s a vital neighborhood, though many of its roughly 5,000 inhabitants feel stigmatized, isolated from the rest of the city, and ignored by public authorities. Living conditions can be grim, and school absenteeism rates are some of the highest in the capital. Drug dealing is rampant—a source of shame and fear for many residents. Police raids, when they occur, are often violent. But the district is historically famous for its resistance to the Fascist regime, a long tradition of political radicalism, and a unique urban landscape that’s helped forge a sense of community. Determined to restore dignity to their neighborhood, residents have come together to construct a future for their children, improve living conditions, and renovate public spaces.
Pietro Vicari, a Ph.D. candidate in urbanism at Roma Tre University, and Emanuele Agati, a boxing teacher trainee, joined the “Lotta per la casa” (“Fight for a home”) occupy movement as students. They soon realized that the housing emergency there was acute and moved to Quarticciolo in 2015 to work with the 30 families squatting the abandoned Ex-Questura (the former Fascist party headquarters, later used as a police station.) This spirit of civic engagement is typical of many young architects and designers across Europe. Vicari dedicates his life to activism; working during the week to support his thesis, he devotes many early mornings and evenings to his activities in the community.
Vicari and Agati’s goal was to establish Quarticciolo’s Palestra, inspired by the palestre (gym) in the Brazilian favelas, rare indoor spaces that provide sports activities for those who cannot afford them and host social activities for the neighborhood. In 2015, together with other local activists, they occupied a disused boiler house. Restoring it themselves entirely with funds collected from local residents, they opened the Palestra Popolare Quarticciolo a year later. The aim was to create a place to keep children in school and off the street. Boxing and parkour were selected as sports that, Agait says, “enhance self-discipline and self-reliance.” An after-school laboratory was set up to support the young and help them with homework. “Even some local drug-dealers started to send their children,” Vicari says. Membership dues are nominal, enough to cover expenses. The Palestra quickly became a symbol of neighborhood pride and a meeting place for young people and their families.
The effort also underscores the crucial need to reuse abandoned buildings and return them to the community. In 2018, the family of a child attending the Palestra was evicted from its home, forcibly removed by the police simply because they had constructed a paper-mache wall to divide a 30-square-meter apartment inhabited by five. “These living conditions are emblematic of Quarticciolo, where many families make do in makeshift accommodations often assembled in damp building basements,” Vicari says. Amid local outrage, a Comitato di Quartiere Quarticciolo (Quarticciolo Neighborhood Committee) was set up by activists at the Palestra, including Vicari, to protect the community against further evictions. One of their first steps was to support the 60 homeless families that for decades had been squatting two housing units in the “favelas,” a degraded area of Quarticciolo. The buildings had been abandoned by the public housing authority, ATER, in 1963 when they failed to meet the legal requirements necessary for public housing constructions. The recent occupation was reported on Italian TV, with an interview with Vicari, and the committee was able to persuade ATER to repair the buildings and provide legal accommodation for the families.
Vicari is inspired by the work of Roma Tre University’s Laboratorio Città Corviale, and the committee now acts as an intermediary, identifying issues and concerns with residents and conveying them to public authorities. “We’re determined to ensure that Quarticciolo’s residents are no longer treated as second-class citizens,” Vicari says. The aim is to convince ATER to repair other buildings. For now, ATER is committed to repairing an additional two housing units and has officially acknowledged the “social value” of the Palestra.
Last year, Quarticciolo’s residents were able to open the new Casa del Quartiere (Neighborhood House), an adaptive reuse of an abandoned bowling alley funded by a local crowdfunding campaign. Entirely managed by the community—or “the family,” as an elderly man proudly called it—the Palestra (the Comitato di Quartiere) includes an information desk, an after-school laboratory, and a children’s playspace operated by mothers. All are now in one building under one slogan: “Quarticciolo Rebele” (“Rebellious Quarticciolo”). Vicari says there are plans to convert the former Palestra into a neighborhood-run medical center.
“In the absence of institutional support, citizens can only improve their living conditions by coming together as a community,” Vicari says. “Poorer suburbs are categorized as problematic areas associated with crime and delinquency. Very little attention is paid to the voices and actions of the inhabitants themselves.” While Quarticciolo Rebele works on securing a future for its youth and convincing public authorities to help provide adequate housing, Vicari’s objective is also to change the public perception of Quarticciolo, to “destigmatize the borgata.”
To renovate a neighborhood is to risk its gentrification. (Quarticciolo is, potentially, the perfect 15-minute city.) However, Vicari says, “Regeneration here is in the hands of the community and solidarity is strong. Either way, there is still much to be done.” Buildings are riddled with structural defects; water infiltration and toxic mold are common. And there’s an economic challenge as well: the rebuilding effort has to compete with drug pushers who offer 2,000 euro monthly salaries to any teenager willing to act as neighborhood sentinels. Procuring local employment will be the next step, and Vicari envisages eventually opening a pub and publishing house. Meanwhile, if the dream is to, in Agati’s words, “create a world similar to the one he dreams of living in,” Quarticciolo Ribelle has certainly taken some steps in the right direction. Perhaps soon, residents will be proud to say they are citizens of Quarticciolo.
All photos by Daniele Napolitano.