Southern Italy’s “Korea”

On the edge of Monte Sant’Angelo sits “the Korea”, the biggest social housing project in the southern Italian town. Originally built under a Communist Party administration, “the Korea” soon gained the reputation of a ghetto and the site is still the subject of much prejudice and stigma today. Maurizio Totaro re-visits his hometown and looks at the housing estate through the lens of the town’s history and his family’s own story.

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The westernmost block of the “Korea”, facing the Umbra Forest. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

Monte Sant’Angelo, the city of the Archangel: my hometown. A centre of pilgrimage for more than a millennia, it stands on one of the calcareous peaks making up the Gargano headland, in the northern part of Apulia, Southern Italy. The Junno, its historical centre, in which small, one-room white houses lean on each other’s stone shoulders, has been progressively abandoned in the course of the last fifty years. In winter the centre is engulfed in a dense mist. Walking through the silent, narrow alleys that tortuously climb and descend its slopes, one might still hear the ghostly voices of the peasants, artisans and herders that once lived here; shrouded in a black headscarf, a woman’s face, prematurely corrugated by the hardship of life, might watch you suspiciously from behind an empty window frame.

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View of Monte Sant’Angelo’s historical centre. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

Although the small city has continuously – some say irreversibly – shrunk in population since the 1980s, its territory has expanded. New apartments and blocks have been built on its edges, many bought by parents dreaming of the return of their prodigal sons and daughters from the cities of the North. My parents’ apartment, on the top floor of a clay-red residential complex, sits on a spot known as u muragghiòn (“the big wall”); as a small kid my mother would fling stones at the pigs grazing beyond it. Situated on the northern edge of the town, my bedroom overlooks the Umbra Forest, whose beeches and oaks dominate the central, mostly inhabited, part of the Gargano peninsula. From its depths a sharp wind violently buffets my childhood street, creating whirlwinds with the garbage of the tormented dustbins. As a child I believed that an evil, magical force animated these vortexes; there must be witches there, I thought, dancing invisibly at a plastic Sabbath.

The "Korea". Photo: Maurizio Totaro
The “Korea”. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

It is here that the town’s largest council estate stands. The locals call it a corej’ (“the Korea”) or simply le case popolari (the council estate). The association with the Asian peninsula had been a mystery to me for many years until one day, consulting the Treccani dictionary, I found out that, in the Italian language, the word corea (with a lower-case “c”) is “used at times to indicate the peripheral neighbourhoods of big cities, squalid and over-populated, referring to the Koreans’ miserable life conditions exposed to the West mainly from the Korean War of 1950-53”.

At the beginning of the 1950s the first ever council house was built in my home-town: a rather small, three-storey building destined to war veterans. Gradually, with the Tupini Law of 1956 the state started to participate more robustly in what was called “affordable people’s housing” (edilizia economica e popolare), whose funding and implementation was out-sourced to several mixed public-private institutions. As a result, a proliferation of new buildings at the fringes of the expanding town started to appear. It was 1963, under the first Socialist city administration, when my father, 12-years-old at the time, moved from the irutt’ (“caves”) district to a council house apartment with all its modern amenities.

A partial map of Monte Sant’Angelo. 1. The “caves”; 2. The “junno”; 3. The “ditch”; 4. My block; 5. My paternal grandparents’ block; 6. The Korea

Paradoxically, those who were able to move to the new residences were not the most in need. The payment system, with its mandatory ransom clause, automatically restricted access to those with a steady monthly income, which would have eventually allowed them to become owners. In the absence of an industrial working-class, those deemed eligible were mainly white-collar workers, teachers and civil servants; or those, like my grandfather, who were employed by the local administration. The excluded vast social stratum of landless peasants and day labourers continued to live, as their ancestors did for centuries, convivially with their beasts of burden in houses carved out of the mountain side. Here the houses gave way, stone by stone, to small terraced plots where the locals grew vegetables; the sea at the bottom, the crest of its waves visible during the clear days of summer.

“The ditch”, early 1970s. On the chimney is a Communist Party electoral poster. Photo: Celestino Furii

By 1971, when the state started to change its policy on social housing, the two most insalubrious quarters of the town, ù irutt’ and ù fuss’ (“the ditch”) seemed to many citizens a distorted image of a distant past still haunting their present. Whereas previously social housing projects saw the participation of the public, now the state – by means of regional and local administrations – increasingly took on the whole financial burden of projects under the name of Edilizia Residenziale Pubblica (“Public Residential Housing”), whilst at the same time withdrew its financial support for “redeemable housing”. After a smaller first prototype, between the end of the 70s and the very beginning of the 1980s “the Korea”, the biggest social housing project in Monte Sant’Angelo, was built under a Communist Party administration on what then was the extreme north-east of town. Five “strips” of white concrete, connected by alleys and courts, overhanging the underneath valley. A street sliced them open, like a tunnel through a mountain.

A Korea’s alley. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

In the mid-90s the large, concrete open space connecting two of the blocks was the largest “football pitch” where we could play. Football was otherwise usually played in the streets, with the rolling shutters of garages used as goals, vibrating from the ball’s impact with a distinct metallic noise. Mothers, shouting from the balconies, exhorted us to play nicely; fathers to unleash our furious kicks on someone else’s garage. Sometimes we would go to the Korea: there were plenty of potential goals and, when the ball did not fall into the precipice underneath us, we could play for hours. Local bullies would turn into fellow players in the blink of an eye; and yet fights were not unusual, even when access to the pitch was mediated by a resident.

The football pitch. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

At that time the complex had already acquired the reputation of a ghetto, home to the local underclass. Since residents were not allowed to purchase their apartments, and maintenance was at the expense of the public sector, the situation degenerated from the onset: many became insolvent, others occupied, while the IACP (Social Housing Autonomous Institute) could not afford the soaring costs. Members of local criminal organisations made the Korea their home and recruitment headquarters. The city administrations, following one another, employed many of its residents in odd and temporary jobs. In Pasolinian fashion, where there were not factories the lumpenproletariat hobbled along. Modernity, that grand cacophonous symphony, played through a broken radio in the Korea; sounds were heard, distorted by a constant crackle.

Two blocks overlooking the Umbra Forest. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

In the past, the “Caves” and the ”Ditch” neighbourhoods had housed a high percentage of people struggling for their daily bread, without becoming ghettos. In the labyrinthine twine of their alleys life was porous, like the limestone of the houses. Their inhabitants strove for upwards social mobility that many considered possible. Mutuality helped to lessen everyday hardships and the proximity of town and countryside offered a source – although insufficient – of sustenance. In the Korea, where many moved in the 80s, these relationships underwent an irreversible transformation. There was not much porosity in the cement, and certainly not here. If solidarity and proximity remained, physical seclusion from the rest of the town made the Korea resemble a “social prison”: escape from it was possible but its walls were very well guarded by prejudice and stigma.

I still distinctly remember an anecdote from when I was ten, the age of my first communion. It was spring and a friend of mine, a few days after receiving the sacrament, asked me: “Did you see Antonio in the church? You know he lives in the Korea. But his mum and dad were well dressed and decent. His family is different, they’re not like the others living there”. The “others living there”, this objectified image of the Korea dwellers has persisted to this day. When talking to people about this article, I noted a smirk of disgust and contempt for the place and its inhabitants. As if those crumbling walls inescapably defined the identity of everyone who made them their home.

The Korea’s backstreet. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

Progress, with prosperity, increased well-being, and cumulative knowledge as its hazy destinations, has passed by, in the last decades, like the low clouds that at times embrace Monte Sant’Angelo in the mist. It has been a thick yet unclear, volatile, mysteriously charming presence in the town’s life: always in the air but only sporadically low enough to lie on it. Social statuses, and the dynamics of interaction between them, have continued to ossify in a community chronically marked by unemployment, nepotism, and crime. The city has jumped (not really a great deal forward!) from an agricultural to a service based economy. Industries, down by the sea, have brought more ecological problems than stable jobs. Decades of ever-increasing out-migration have accompanied the town’s bitter path to (under)development: urban expansion, speculative housing development, a service economy based on personal and political clienteles, a rentier administration involved in the contention for scarce resources, connivance of political and criminal power, declining agriculture and marginal manufacturing industries.

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Korea’s “tunnel”. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

Mid-day, the sun beats down on my head. I have been wandering around the blocks for a while. A car approaches on the unpaved street at the Korea’s back, gold dust rising from the ground. The car stops: “Hey, what are you doing here?”. Ivano was one of my sister’s classmates in middle-school, I once knew one of his older brothers well. Staring at me, “tourist-like”, with a photo camera hanging from my neck, there is no surprise in his gaze, but a proud, simple question mark: “So why are you taking pictures? Do your friends over there not believe that we have tall buildings too?”

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