The Families of Poggioreale Sicily

The Belltower
A Word About the Old Town of Poggioreale

A number of people have recently contacted me regarding things they have heard about plans for the old town of Poggioreale. What follows is my opinion based on the several years I have lived in Poggioreale, including personal experiences and conversations with many citizens of both the new and old towns of Poggioreale. I recently returned from my 18th visit to Poggioreale since 1992 where I usually spend 3 to 6 months at a time. Although not a scholar, I speak and understand basic Italian as well as a little of the Poggioreale dialect. I have had many friends there, both ordinary citizens and public figures. Here's what I can tell you about life there.

Since the 1968 earthquake there have been many proposals concerning the fate of the old town. These usually coincide with the mayoral election every 5 years. There is always a lot of discussion until after the election, at which time public officials fall silent. I have personally seen two comprehensive proposals and lots of ideas targeting specific sites in the old town. While I was there in December 2018, I attended a presentation to the mayor and town council by a group from the University of Catania. I had the impression that it was a graduate thesis by students of that university.

Every proposal I have seen has had these things in common:

1. They are unrealistically ambitious and extremely expensive

It's doubtful that Italy, the Sicilian Region or the Province of Trapani could ever afford creating a tourist attraction in the old town even if they saw a need for one. The government of Italy as well as the region and the state are in a constant state of chaos and in perpetual need of money, so funding from them is unlikely. The town of Poggioreale is probably in an even worse position to undertake such a project. The local economy is based on farming, with olives, grapes and wheat being the major products. The market for these has been very depressed for many years. Money for building such a project, not to mention maintaining and protecting it, is just not there. I think a lot of people are hoping the financing will come from Americans and Australians. While it's possible that there are some who would contribute to such a project, it's very unlikely that it could ever come anywhere near the total needed. Just the proposal to save the bell tower before 2009 was estimated at over 70 thousand euros.

Any project aimed at attracting tourists to the old town would probably not encompass the entire town. This leaves the matter of the areas not updated. A large percentage of buildings in the old town have already fallen and those that haven't are very near collapse. That's exactly why entrances to the town have been fortified in recent years and the official policy prohibiting entrance has been more seriously enforced. So far no one has been killed, but with the passing years, the possibility increases. If a tourist area is created, where would it be? How would tourists get to and from these areas without risk of life and limb? The answer is to stabilize any structures that might be a threat to safety or destroy them completely. Does any of this sound like a good idea?

Until recently, all proposed projects in the old town involved a visitor center or tourist attractions. The latest proposal aims to entice people to invest in the old town by rehabilitating a building to be used as a vacation home, for example. This approach has been tried in other towns in the area, such as Salemi, with little success, by selling homes for one euro. Of course the catch is that a huge investment is required to make them livable. The big difference between the two plans is that the Salemi type gimmick offer is for abandoned buildings in inhabited and established neighborhoods.

The old town of Poggioreale is completely uninhabited and has no water, electricity or sewer systems in place. There are no stores or businesses. All but a very few streets are impassable and walking anywhere near a structure is inviting a large piece of a building to fall on your head. And this is just for your "vacation home". This proposal is promising new streets, a new power grid, water system and sewer system. The new town of Poggioreale is not able to maintain the streets they have. There is absolutely no way that Poggioreale can ever afford this type of expenditure. The state, the region and the country are in dire financial straits as well and have been for years. Where is the money for these improvements coming from?

What about the rest of the homes and the public buildings in the old town? Most are completely derelict and very near collapse. Do you really want to pony up 50 thousand euros (55 thousand US dollars) for a vacation home in the middle of 50 years of accumulated rubble? You can buy one of the many, many vacant homes in the new town of Poggioreale for less than that and construction in the old town will surely exceed that figure. If you are expecting "Under the Tuscan Sun", you will be very disappointed.

Do you speak Italian? You will rarely hear English spoken anywhere near Poggioreale. Who will protect your property from vandals and thieves when you are not in residence? Certainly not the town of Poggioreale. There is a reason why every country home in the area has heavy, reinforced steel doors on all windows and doors. The very idea of an investment of this kind makes a timeshare seem like a wise choice by comparison. If you want to vacation in Poggioreale, there are a number of nice hotels and B&B's in the area. Stay there for a week or two. It will cost you a lot less than 50 thousand euros.

There is a very good reason why the residents were not allowed to return to the homes they loved in the old town of Poggioreale after the earthquake. The majority were just not safe and were not good candidates for repair, and 50+ years of neglect has not improved that situation. Except for a very few structures built just before the earthquake, most walls are just field stones piled on top of each other with a weak gypsum mortar in between. There are very few free standing structures in old Poggioreale. Most buildings share walls with those around them which compounds the problem. These walls were topped by wood frame roofs and covered with heavy clay tiles. Without maintenance, most of the roofs fell years ago and the intervening decades of storms have washed away a lot of the mortar in the walls. Take a look at a satellite photo of the old town. There are precious few buildings with roofs. This is why a large portion of structures in the old town have fallen or are dangerously unstable. Buildings such as these cannot be saved. They would have to be completely demolished and rebuilt.

2. No realistic proposal for financing a tourist attraction

None of these proposals have had any concrete plan for financing, leaving that subject somewhat nebulous. It seems that many are hoping that tourism will take care of that, but I find that also extremely unlikely. I believe that the majority of tourist that visit the old town do so because it has acquired a reputation on the internet in recent years as a "ghost town". These are Italian tourists with no ties to Poggioreale. They come to see it as it is and would probably not be interested in any commercialization.

Of course, like me, lots of Poggioreale descendants make the pilgrimage but their numbers are a very small percentage of all of us out here. More than one visit in a lifetime is rare. I suspect that most of this latter group would also prefer to see the remains of the town as it is, rather than a commercialized version of their ancestral home.

I suppose it's possible that a private group could want to finance construction and operation, but once again, any expectation of a positive cash flow is purely fantasy in my opinion. It would indeed be a foolhardy private entity that would invest the millions of euros necessary into an enterprise with so little evidence of potential success. In addition, there is the matter of ownership of the old town. I've never been able to get a straight answer to the question of exactly who owns the old town. Some say it belongs to the new town and some say it belongs to the Region of Sicily or the Italian government. Hammering out these legal issues is sure to be a major undertaking considering the Italian love for red tape.

3. No Planning for Maintenance and Security

Not only does the construction of a tourist attraction need to be financed, but an even bigger issue is maintenance and security. These are very important and expensive concerns that cannot be overestimated. They will require firm and constant dedication by local government, not to mention lots of money. What follows are examples of what I consider to be a lack of local resolve and financing.

In the nearly 30 years that I've been visiting Poggioreale, I've seen expensive projects in the new town fall to vandalism right under the noses of the city government and police. Consider this:

The soccer field near the town hall has been equipped twice and destroyed twice by vandals. Windows were broken, landscaping pulled up by the roots and the expensive rubber surface was ripped up.

The new theater right next to the main piazza was half finished for many years and completely vandalized. The external structure was renovated about 10 years ago but it's empty inside and has been used only a couple of times. It is presently starting its second decline.

The new library and museum was abandoned about 5 years ago because the new building was unfit and unsafe. It's currently empty and the town has no library and no plan to reopen one anytime soon. The main piazza of the new town and the nearby piazza adjoining Saint Anthony's Chapel are virtual shrines to neglect. For whatever reason, there has been little or no maintenance in the decades since their creation. The "commercial center" above the piazza is still unfinished and is anything but commercial. There is a restaurant and barber shop, but most space is unoccupied and run down. The parking area underneath also serves as a public urinal where none has been provided.

Construction of a covered swimming pool was begun near the entrance to the new town in the 1970's. Work came to a halt when the contractor left during the night and never returned. The derelict construction crane stood watch over the new town, swaying in the breeze for decades, while vandals broke the windows and trashed the building. Locals called it the pigeon house. In the last 2 or 3 years it has been completely remodeled and is a beautiful site to behold. Unfortunately, immediately after the fanfare of the grand opening, it was closed due to lack of an entity to operate it. I expect that it has already begun its second slow decline.

The town of Poggioreale has a real challenge just maintaining the streets and paying the salaries of city workers without taking on a huge project in the old town. About ten years ago an enormous hole opened in a busy and important street just outside of town. It was years before it was repaired and the road reopened. Just drive around town and look at the streets and sidewalks to get an idea of the extent of the problem.

About ten years ago, thieves stole miles of electric wire that was strung high up between poles in a busy area less than two miles from the new town and less than half a mile from the old town. These lines provided electricity to the many summer homes in that part of the Poggioreale territory and it was many months before they were replaced. You may wonder how such a brazen theft could be accomplished under the many watchful eyes in the area and how it could be done without serious bodily harm to the thieves. I can assure you from personal experience that one can hardly sneeze in that area without ten people blessing you.

Most importantly, consider what has been done to protect the old town from thieves and vandals from 1968 to the present day. Immediately after the earthquake, residents were forbidden to enter in order to reclaim their valuables during the day, while thieves laid waste to possessions and buildings by night. Centuries old wrought iron balconies and fencing were ripped from the buildings for scrap under the noses of those charged with protecting the town. Some local citizens were allowed to keep their flocks of sheep in the old town for decades which caused devastation to parts of the old town. After the earthquake, many valuable objects from the many churches in town were stored in a warehouse across from Saint Anthony's church. The back wall of the building was literally destroyed by thieves and what wasn't stolen was vandalized. The broken remains of the organ from the church are still strewn on the floor, with full knowledge of town officials. The pipes that were once part of the majestic organ in the church were literally put on the curb for trash pickup.

The Agosta home at the western end of the old town was extensively (and expensively) renovated decades ago for use as a museum. It was never furnished or opened as a museum. It has been open to vandals for decades and occupied by flocks of pigeons which have left monumental piles of dung in their wake.

Those of you who know me will remember when we conducted a letter writing campaign to save the bell tower of the Mother Church in old Poggioreale. This was a tiny proposal compared to some, but no action was ever taken when there was the opportunity to do so. There was abundant hand wringing and lip service applied until the tower finally fell on December 1, 2009 after standing for centuries. Of course there was a chorus of voices lamenting its demise and suggestions to rebuild. Aside from a hasty reinforcement of the tiny sliver of the belltower still standing, absolutely nothing has been done.

These are all very unpleasant facts about our ancestral town that I take no joy in revealing. I have known about these problems for many years and have avoided speaking of them publicly, preferring to enjoy the positive aspects and not dwell on the problems. Unfortunately, there have been some Americans recently who have very "pie in the sky" ideas about Poggioreale that seem to be based solely on speculation. I don't know of any who speak Italian or who have visited there for more than a day or two.

Today, most American descendants of Poggioreale families have one or more generations between them and their immigrant ancestors. Because we have only heard others speak of it, many of us have an almost magical and mythical image of Poggioreale in our heads. The recent article by Silvia Marchetti on CNN's travel page on their website is an example of just such thinking. It is filled with half-truths and fanciful ideas about the old town. Poggioreale was in serious trouble years before the earthquake. The economy was so bad that the town nearly emptied out around 1900 when a large portion of the residents left for America to find employment.

After the US began severely restricting the entry of Italians around 1920, many went to Australia for work. When the 1968 earthquake hit the Poggioreale area, many residents went to stay with relatives in Australia until a new town could be built. A large number of these Poggioreale citizens decided to remain in Australia where there was hope for employment and a prosperous future. Even today, many young people are forced to leave Sicily for northern Italy and other European countries to find work.

Poggioreale is just another Sicilian town, no better or worse than any other. There are good things and bad things about all of them. It is an ordinary town full of people just like you and me. We need to take off our rose colored glasses when discussing Poggioreale, especially when money is involved.

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Do we really want to turn Old Poggioreale into a Disneyland?

These proposals would completely demolish parts of the old town and create a carnival-like atmosphere that I find offensive. This was the home of our ancestors for almost 400 years. We all deserve better. I would much rather see the old town left as it is to continue its inevitable decline.

If I were to be asked what might be practical for the old town's future, I would say lets try to save a couple of buildings for visitors. No carnival atmosphere and no tourist rip offs. Rebuilding the bell tower would be nice, but very expensive. The old church of Saint Anthony would be a worthy candidate for help as well as the Piazza di Gesu' e Maria and its church just behind it. The buildings along the staircase leading from Piazza Elimo to the Mother Church also need attention before they fall. Any fund raising should be done only after a reasonable proposal is approved and accompanied by a realistic plan for financing, security and maintenance of the project. Without that we will simply be throwing money down a deep, black hole and will end up with nothing to show for it.

In closing, I want to say that I believe there are good and honest people who want good things for the old town but find themselves in an impossible position, between that desire and the practicality. It's obvious to me that:

1. Any sweeping plan for a project in the old town could never be supported by tourist revenue.

2. There is no government entity capable of mounting such a project, much less operating and protecting it.

3. Any fund raising efforts before reasonable plans are approved would be a mistake and amount to exploitation of those of us mourning the demise of our ancestral town.

I couldn't love the old and new towns of Poggioreale any more if I were born and raised there. I have many dear friends who live there and I wish only the best for them. It's very distressing for all of us to witness the decline of the old town but I fear that its fate is the same as many other towns in Italy that have fallen to disaster. I believe it's probably just something we must accept and move on.

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On to Other Matters

I've also been asked about items being sold as products of Poggioreale. If you are planning such a purchase, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Is it a quality product? Unfortunately, I and a number of friends have purchased products over the years that have fallen short of that goal. I won't go into the specifics, but the stories are legendary. The Poggioreale economy is essentially the same as any free market with some products that are good and some that are not.

2. Is the price a fair one? Is it as good or better than what I can find closer to home for the same price or better? Just because it's from Poggioreale doesn't necessarily mean that it should be sold at a premium.

3. Is it really produced in Poggioreale? Can the seller provide convincing, legal documentation?

If the answer is yes to these questions, then take out your pocket book and enjoy! If not, shop at your local market. I understand wanting to support the economy of Poggioreale as much as anyone, but please do so wisely.

I've been told that certain individuals have been claiming that I have endorsed their products. I have never publicly recommended, either for or against, any specific product and I will continue that policy. However, I do suggest that you use care and good judgement in spending your money on such products.

I am also not involved in any way with any event organized with descendants of Poggioreale immigrants in mind, other than those which have been announced on this website. The reunions I have helped organized have been non-commercial without exception. I do not endorse any event not sponsored by the non-profit group called The Families of Poggioreale, Sicily ®.

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And lastly, word has reached me that some very misinformed people are saying that there are still Poggioreale citizens suffering financially from the effects of the 1968 earthquake. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have many, many friends and acquaintances who live in Poggioreale today who will tell you that their financial situation has improved in comparison to their lives before 1968. Yes, it's true that many miss the life they had in the old town from a social standpoint. Life was different there, slower and closer, but many families were struggling financially.

Soon after the earthquake, the Italian government built a town of small army barracks, two families per barrack, just to the west of the old town. Life was different in the barracks, but I'm often told that they enjoyed the closeness imposed on them. When the government decided that the old town was no longer inhabitable, construction began on the new town. It's complicated, but generally speaking, anyone owning property in the old town was compensated with funds to build a home in the new town. This also included citizens who left Poggioreale, so many homes in the new town are owned by citizens now living and doing quite well in Australia, for example. The government has continued to add funds to these compensation packages over the years. In comparison to the old town, homes in the new town are spacious and modern.

Those not owning property were not forgotten. The new town has many residential units built to house low income families and both the Italian government and the Catholic Church are quite generous in helping these families in many ways. I have never seen or heard of anyone in the new town who does not have a comfortable place to live or plenty of food to eat. And as always, health care is either free or very low cost to all citizens.

In addition, the Italian government created many jobs that would not exist otherwise, in order to keep families from moving away. Many of those jobs still exist today and the Italian government is very generous with unemployment benefits where the need exists.

Written in August of 2019 by Robert Lee Lowry Jr. of Houston, Texas, USA, proud grandson of Antonino Loria and Anna DeNina of Poggioreale.

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