Days of future past
By Amber Paulen*
idewalks jammed with people, a ferment of people jostling up against each other trying to get from the center of Rome to the Coliseum. All want a better view of the Roman Forum or a good place to pose for photographs. Adding to the melee are Bengali vendors and hustlers (whose latest tricks include levitation), a body artist painted white and wearing pearls (what is he supposed to be?), and many would-be watercolor painters whose lack of originality is staggering. Then, as a kind of soundtrack, come several lanes of deafening traffic tearing down the medians.
It is 2 p.m. on July 1, 2013 and I'm on Rome's Via dei Fori Imperiali.
The avenue connects three of Rome's grandest and most ancient places, the Roman Forum, the Forum of Augustus, and the Coliseum. For every minute you can enjoy their ancient beauty against the sun-washed sky, you face another dodging an assault from walls of tourists, speeding buses, cars and scooters — except on Sunday.
The next obstacle is construction. Work has started on the long-anticipated Metro C, Rome's third subway line. Sidewalks have been cut in half and surrendered traffic. It's easier to see Hadrian's temple in a postcard.
Via dei Fori Imperiali was the brainchild of Benito Mussolini, who sought to associate his rule with the splendor of Imperial Rome at its Augustus-era peak. He demanded large vistas of Imperial monuments. To build such roads, he demolished hundreds of local homes, pushing residents into hastily built apartment complexes outside town (EUR was created under his watch). Via dei Fori Imperiali, Via del Mare, Via San Gregorio, Via di Circo Massimo, and Via della Concilazione are all Mussolini creations. Before Via della Conciliazione, St. Peter's couldn't be seen from the Tiber.
Some roads have changed names — Fori Imperiali was christened Via dell'Impero - but little else since the 1930s. In many respects, they accomplished what Mussolini intended, bonding his brand of fascism with the "new is good" spirit of modern technology. Many late 20th- and early 21st century urban planners embraced the large traffic lanes and small sidewalks that characterized Mussolini boulevards.
In some ways, Mussolini read the mind of the future. He saw Rome as a bustling capital whose residents would come to depend on cars to get from one place to another quickly and efficiently.
But Rome's newest mayor, former heart surgeon Ignazio Marino, is a bike rider. Marino insists he wants to transform Via dei Fori Imperiali from a car-dominated thoroughfare to a place where you can walk, bike, live. (The latest plan calls for closing it and rerouting traffic on an "experimental" basis beginning in August.)
Still, the dream experiment comes with a nagging question: "Where will all the cars, buses and scooters go?"
There's only truthful answer: For any such plan to work in the long haul, the city center needs to cut down on cars. For many residents, projects that challenge car rights — no matter how high gas prices — are shocking. Even current traffic limitations, most established in the 1990s, are mocked and abused. How can you not drive your car? How can you get from here to there without one?
Rome might take a cue from Seville, Spain, where I lived in 2004. At the time, the city's main road, Avenida de la Constitución, was a mess. Cars and buses swarmed on their way to city's central plaza. For pedestrians, it was loud and nearly unbearable. But when I went back in 2007, the cars and buses were gone, replaced by swishing trams. A new metro and kilometers of bike lanes now connect the city's outlying parts to the tram routes. The transformation of the Avenida was a revelation to locals: the road now belongs to the people.
The citizens of Seville adapted. They left their cars at home, took the metro, and then boarded the tram. Or they rented a bike from the city or bought their own. People adjust, that's what they're good at.
Maybe some of them were won over by the pleasure of walking down a road that seemed to exalt their presence instead of threatening it. They can now enjoy the pleasure the beautiful Giralda cathedral without the deafening roar of cars.
People forget that Rome's own adjustments. Until 30 years ago, traffic ran full rings around the Coliseum (it turned black). Now, three quarters of the space is a pedestrian island. When Italy agreed to a European Union ban in indoor smoking, skeptics said Italy would never comply. It did.
Here's Via dei Fori dei Imperiali on July 1, 2019, at 2 p.m. — at least in my imagination.
It's silent, except for chattering voices and the squawking of seagulls. A tram bell signals people out of the way. After it passes they all fall in again, spreading out. Photos of forums are taken from their immediate railings and people photograph the Coliseum from the center of the road.
Mussolini's idea of enhancing the grandeur of the Coliseum now makes sense. The wide-open and car-less boulevard evokes the ancient mysteries of the Forum. And in 2019 I love Rome even more.
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