Signor Mayor: The de Blasio of Rome Has a Competence Fetish

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Last June, a year into his tenure as mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino got a visit from another newbie colleague, Bill de Blasio, who called him "one of the great mayors of the world." De Blasio may have thrilled to Marino's center-left politics, or his nods to urban environmentalism and inclusiveness — or maybe just to his excellent (if accented) English. Marino spent much of his adult life in the United States, working as a surgeon and liver transplant specialist in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, before returning to Italy and starting a second career in politics in 2006. In a bilingual conversation with Roman-born classical music and architecture critic Justin Davidson for the final installment of Italy in 30 Days' Exchange Rates series, Marino seemed warm and cordial, but shortly after hanging up the phone, he fired the Rome Opera’s entire orchestra and chorus and told them to regroup as freelancers (for much lower pay). Was it something we said?

Good morning, Mr. Mayor, thank you for calling.
Oh, how is that you speak Italian?

I was born in Rome and lived there until I was 17.
Where, exactly?

Viale Tiziano, near where Maxxi is now.
That’s a beautiful area and we’re making it more beautiful. We’re doing a very important project right where you grew up, the City of Science. Rome is the only capital in the Western world without a science museum. Now we’ll have one. So you grew up here and then moved to the States? Just like I did.

What’s it like, going back?
When I was in America, I missed Italian things. Now I miss American things.  You never feel completely at home, on either side of the Atlantic.

Did you find that Rome had changed in your absence?
Tremendously. More teenagers speak English, more people travel, and Rome has a much more international outlook. People wear motorcycle helmets and buckle their seatbelts now, too. Yes, that rule is enforced everywhere, except a few places in the south. That’s a huge cultural change for a country where we saw Audrey Hepburn riding around on a Vespa. We are doing a good job on smoking, too.

The air in movie theaters and offices used to be foul.
Right. Now nobody smokes in a closed environment. Even at home, people go outside to light a cigarette. This is one reason life expectancy in Italy has risen from 45 a century ago to almost 90 today. It’s higher than in the United States. When I was elected, I thought it would be a nice gesture to send a personal letter to every person in Rome who was having a hundredth birthday. I’m signing 90 letters a month now.

A month? That’s a serious time commitment.
Yes, but it makes people so happy.

So life in Italy is good even if the economy isn’t? A lot of educated, ambitious people are leaving. The brain drain is real, isn’t it?
Yes, and I know what the problem is, because I was part of that group. You know, I went to United States in the 1980s because I had a dream, which was to learn how to perform a liver transplant. I thought I would stay 2 years; I stayed 20. You want to know why? Because when I found myself at the operating table for the first time, there were four surgeons with four different skin colors, four different religious, and four different educational backgrounds. None us were there because we knew the right people. And I knew that if I worked hard, I would see the results of my work and maybe get a promotion. In Italy, we still need to develop that meritocratic culture.

Some people say that here, too, meritocracy is more a myth than a reality.
I don’t know about that. I was just recently in a research facility at Harvard, and the chief of the lab told me that the size of his workspace depended on his ability to secure a grant. If a lower-ranking scientist gets a bigger grant next year, he’ll take over the chief’s square footage. That’s unimaginable here.

It sounds like you might have returned with some American attitudes that feel foreign in Italy.
It’s true. Instead of making appointments based on pressure from political parties, I’ve chosen directors the way you would hire a chief of surgery in a hospital: through interviews and CVs. That was a big shock.

You insist on competence? How radical. Let’s talk about one of your signature actions: closing via dei Fori Imperiali to traffic. Has that been successful, or do you wish you’d done it differently? 
It’s very popular abroad and very unpopular in downtown Rome. Romans were used to being able to drive right through the largest archeological park in the world, but we have to manage our heritage responsibly. I’m quite sure that if the Colosseum were in Manhattan, New Yorkers would not treat it as a traffic island, the way we did for years. We had 30,000 cars going past it every day. A few months ago we started a renovation and already we’re able to see the true color of the Colosseum. My generation never saw that.

You mean it’s not grayish black? So was that decision more about preservation traffic control? 
Both. We have 978 cars for every 1,000 adults in Rome. Paris has 450, London 350. Now, it’s true, those cities have much better public transit systems. But using a one-ton vehicle to move a 150-pound person creates a lot of pollution. So we’ve started an aggressive car-sharing program, and in a few months we’re going to restart our bike-sharing program, with electric bikes. You need them on those seven hills.

You used to cycle to work in Philadelphia, and now you commute to your office in the Campidoglio the same way. How would you rate Rome as a bike-friendly city?
More and more people have stopped asking Why should I use a bicycle? Instead, they’re asking for more bike lanes. Starting next year, there will be: We’re adding 25 new kilometers of bike path and 4,500 bike racks.

Immigration has put a lot of pressure on Italian cities. How’s Rome handling the new arrivals?
That’s a tricky and important question. Unlike Great Britain and the United States, we don’t have a regulated flow of immigrants; we have thousands of people arriving on our shores every month, and we don’t have the resources to support them. That’s a critical problem. I was discussing this with Bill de Blasio when he came to visit, and he mentioned New York’s homeless population. I guess these are challenges that are common to all cities. The good side is that, when I was a kid, I was the foreigner because I moved here from Genoa. Now every school in Rome has students from dozens of different countries. This is making our society much more interesting and mature.

Is Italy ready for that?
There’s one big step forward that we need to take: We need to give citizenship to everyone who is born in this country, just like in the United States. Right now you’re not eligible until you’re 18.

Exactly. My parents were foreigners, so I never became an Italian citizen. If the law changed, maybe I’d be eligible, too.
Possibly.

Let’s talk about another problem Rome and New York have in common: gentrification. Is central Rome becoming a luxury enclave?
I’m working to prevent that. Take the project I mentioned in your old neighborhood. We’re developing an abandoned military barracks and devoting one third of the site to social housing, one third to market housing, and the rest to the City of Science. This will help Rome to be a genuinely mixed community and not just a fragmented mosaic.

I’ve heard about that project, but it’s been in the works for years, no? Why do these things take so long?
I’m trying to change that. We’re pushing forward aggressively now. When I was elected, there was no deadline for finishing the work on the first segment of the C subway line. Now there will be passengers on it ten days from now. We’re planning a new stadium for the Roma soccer team, and I insisted that it open two years after groundbreaking. I’ve told everyone, when we start these projects, we have to be able to get them done in two or three years, or I’m not interested.

That’s a very un-Roman thing to say!
I guess so.