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1st November 2023

Napoli: The love-hate relationship Neapolitans have with their city

Naples is a city which evokes contention, both among tourists and native Italians. The Mancunion discusses the beautiful mess that is Napoli, one of the most densely populated cities in all of Europe
Napoli: The love-hate relationship Neapolitans have with their city
Credit: Zsolt Cserna @ Unsplash

Words by Sofia Brooke

If you have ever been to the Southern-Italian city of Naples, for some of you, the chaos and mayhem may have come as a surprise. Whether you flew in or got the train to Garibaldi station, you might have been shocked by the disregard for traffic laws, rundown pavements, and mounds of rubbish.

Naples can come across as suffocating for many who are not used to densely populated cities, and most tourists prefer to travel into surrounding areas like the Amalfi coast and the surrounding islands which are more idyllic and certainly less messy.

If you first felt overwhelmed and cramped in this bustling port city, I can assure you that many Italians from outside Naples feel the same way when they visit. In fact, many Italians, and Neapolitans themselves, believe that Naples is a place of its own, with a unique attitude and culture.

There are many negative stereotypes that follow the city and its people; the lack of care for the city’s environment reflects the general laziness of the people there, some Italians would say. Neapolitans are considered backwards, uneducated, and untrustworthy. This negative stereotyping extends to many Southern Italian areas where it is believed that Southerners are less hardworking than Northern Italians, hence the big economic divide.

In fact, before the Italian populist party ‘La Lega’ turned itself into an anti-immigration party, it was a Northern secessionist party (‘Lega Nord’) which tried to justify reasons for Northern independence using these negative stereotypes about Southern Italians. Matteo Salvini, the Party’s current leader, was famously filmed singing: “Can you smell the stench? Even the dogs are fleeing. The Neapolitans are coming.”

But what do Neapolitans think of these stereotypes? Do they share the same frustrations at their fellow citizens like outsiders that come to visit? To find out, I asked some locals over the summer whilst I was there visiting family.

Just outside the entrance to the metro station by my grandma’s house, I met a lady who was leaving some bowls of water for birds. She told me that she had seen a lot of dead birds since the summer heat kicked in, so she formed a group that takes turns to leave water out for them. When I asked her how she felt about the state of her city she couldn’t deny the obvious fact that there was a lack of respect for the local environment.

“A lot of Neapolitans claim to love their city but don’t look after it”, she told me, adding that the fault not only lied in the attitude of locals but in local government, too. In fact, Naples had a waste management crisis from 1994 to 2008, where the region’s main landfill had overfilled with both hazardous and non-hazardous waste. The crisis was caused by the fact that there was no regional waste management plan in place.

As the lady continued to look at the birds, she mentioned that many Italians would be surprised to hear what she’s saying, referring to the stereotype that many Neapolitans don’t care for their city. Besides her frustration at the poor management of the city, and the lack of care locals have for their beloved hometown, she believes that Naples is a unique city. Taking pride in the rich ancient history of Pompeii, Neapolitan cinematic idols like Totò (you can find a lot of graffiti of him in the Spanish Quarter), and the matter-of-factness of Neapolitans.

I could tell that her relationship with her hometown was difficult. Her desires for a cleaner, more environmentally friendly city are being hindered by the poor attitude of local government and fellow Neapolitans. But she still felt immensely proud and connected to the city’s past. Many others had a similar mixed relationship with their hometown.

I met a local retiree who was also extremely keen to talk about his opinions on his city (if you ask any Neapolitan questions about their city, they will always give you great answers). After promising him I wouldn’t ask political questions, he was quick to blame the younger generation for the state of the city and negative stereotypes about Neapolitans being disrespectful and untrustworthy.

“People of my generation were more respectful”, he concluded. Despite his acknowledgement that Naples wasn’t perfect, he quickly began talking about the beautiful landscape of the city, like the view of Vesuvius from the seafront. But, the gentleman’s comments about the local youth being the problem behind negative stereotypes about Neapolitans was an opinion I later found to be slightly contradictory.

I met a young man in the Floridiana park, where you can see the city’s panorama (few tourists go there). He told me that he had recently moved from the UK back to his hometown because he missed the people and the culture. “Neapolitans are welcoming, loving people. Being from here provokes feelings I can’t explain, you never forget your roots and that’s why I came back.”

Just like the retiree, he too shared the same love and respect for his city, so much so that he felt the need to come back. For any Italians living in the UK reading this, I’m sure you can understand the courage it takes to move back to Italy. In 2023, Italy’s level of unemployment was at 7.3% which is almost double that of the UK.

He explained that there are a minority of Neapolitans who give the city a bad reputation, but overall disagreed with the typical negative stereotypes about them. “I don’t agree that Neapolitans are lazy, I think it’s a sign of ignorance if one believes this about Southerners in general. It makes me smile whenever we [Neapolitans] prove this stereotype wrong.” Both young and elderly Neapolitans share the same conflicted view about their city, and both feel incredibly privileged to be born in such a unique place.

Finally, I asked my mother how she felt about her hometown. “Unfortunately, the city is victim to criminal organisations which has significantly worsened the futures of many.” She highlighted that the unemployment rate is the most detrimental aspect of the city because many educated Neapolitans are pushed to leave the city for work, draining the place of talent. This pattern can be seen across many Italian cities.

According to the Eurostat, Naples had the second highest unemployment rate in Italy in 2021. “There is some lack of civic sense that can be seen in the mess and traffic, but I would encourage everyone to look beyond the surface.” She believes tourists should try to take in Neapolitan food, art, and sense of hospitality.

There is no doubt that Neapolitans have a love-hate relationship with their city. Whilst many agree that there needs to be structural and behavioural changes to the care of the city, locals from every generation and background feel an immense attachment to every part of the city: the good and the bad. A city steeped in a rich history and culture, that is battling corruption and negative stereotypes, Napoli is a thousand colours.

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