Naples: introduction and bassi

One of the big changes we have seen, between our first long visit in 2014-2015, and our second in 2018-2019, has been the rise of the AirB’n’B-ers. What were low-rent homes for Neapolitans are being turned into high-yield holiday flats for young New Yorkers, Brits, French, Dutch—anyone on a budget, really (so no Russians, obviously, and not many Japanese), as well as older, more adventurous travellers. We see these folks, map in hand, dragging their carry-ons behind them over the uneven basalt slabs of the city streets and pavements, looking for the right doorway or the right sign outside the portone of a palazzo. There are so many flats being turned into short-stay apartments that in the working-class areas close to the centre (and Naples is unusual in still having such things), there’s a new movement against it called Questo non è un albergo, è una città (‘This is not a hotel, it’s a city’). They had a march and a rally in April 2019; I’ve no idea how successful the movement will be, but I think they’re right to be concerned. As I said, we could easily see that in not much more than three years the city had been transformed. In short, Naples had become—at any rate before the COVID-19 pandemic—a tourist town.

Now one thing we’d liked about Naples, up until then, had been that it was precisely not a place that attracted many tourists, or wanted to. It was the exact opposite of theme-park-towns such as Venice or Florence—not a place for show, or for outsiders. There were some tourists, but they tended to stay in groups, and to visit a few places only—the various castles; San Martino; the royal palaces; the San Carlo theatre; the Galleria Umberto I; a few major churches. A few outliers could be seen in the Quartieri Spagnoli (more on them later), rather more of them in the historic centre, but that was about it.

The word was, you see, that the city was “unsafe”, and for a while it was; not because of organized crime having gun battles in the streets (which does happen, albeit very rarely—in May 2019 shots were fired at a patient in the Vecchio Pellegrini, the hospital a few streets away from our rented flat), but because you were even more likely to fall victim to a pickpocket than in other big cities; and there were also the scippi, when two guys on a motorino (a scooter or moped) would ride past an unsuspecting tourist, and the one sitting behind would snag a bag or camera hanging off the tourist’s shoulder. The scooter would then disappear, carrying its owners and their booty into the warren of streets and lanes in the Quartieri or the centro storico or wherever. When I first came here, in 1982, I was told always to wear a bag with the shoulder strap over both shoulders. I couldn’t believe it when I came back in 1996, after a long gap, to see women walking around actually carrying handbags. The change had actually begun in 1993 (more on that another day too). But it’s taken 25 years since then for Naples to make itself in a tourist attraction.

This sudden shift in tourist fashions means that some of the city’s bassi have perhaps found a new rôle in the city, helping once more to shape its history. In the narrow street behind the palazzo we stayed in in 2018-2019 is a little row of four bassi, one of them used as a workshop. And the whole time we’ve been here workmen have been busy on the block of flats opposite these bassi, transforming what used to be a workshop inserted into the facade into a snug two-storey home complete with aria condizionata, air conditioning—doubtless for renting out on Air B’nB.

The basso I mean is to the left of the big gate into the palazzo. The buildings nearer the camera are bassi too.

The bassi (literally, ‘low things’) are a Neapolitan speciality, though they are similar, in some ways, to the back-to-back housing that once blighted Victorian Britain. Bassi are tiny homes that open directly into the street. Sometimes they stand on their own in little rows, like the ones in the photo above. A couple of streets away from us there’s a row of what were clearly once four carriage-houses for the rich that at some point have been transformed into people-houses for the poor; you can still see the shadow of the large gateways with their curved tops, now filled in, except for a small doorway, one window downstairs, one window up.

But usually you find one or more of these bassi inserted into the frontage of an older palazzo, to one side of the main entrance (some newer buildings have them too). The smallest ones have just one floor; they may even have a single room, with a curtain between the bedroom and the kitchen-cum-sitting-room at the front. More often there are two or three rooms, and often there are two floors too, but squeezed into the height of a single storey of the palazzo—these older buildings, like New York lofts, have very high ceilings, 15 feet being usual (as in our apartment), 20 or even 25 in the grander ones, at least on the ground floor (and as for the royal palaces…). In these bassi, a tiny staircase leads up to the low-ceilinged first floor.

This basso isn’t lived in any more, but it gives some idea of how small they can be.

Thus couples, numerous elderly people living alone, even whole families—as many as 40,000 people now—are crammed into homes that are airless and lack natural light. In the old days, before indoor plumbing, it was a lot worse, of course. All waste, human and otherwise, had to be carried through the house and disposed of outside somewhere. Because a basso doesn’t have a back entrance, and doesn’t have rear or (with a few exceptions) side windows, no currents of air circulate through the rooms. In consequence the bassi and their low standards of hygiene helped spread the many outbreaks of contagious diseases that have killed thousands of Neapolitans down the centuries—although, to be honest, cholera, dysentery, and their kin had some help from general overcrowding, polluted wells, non-existent sewers, lack of proper medical care, and widespread malnutrition. (One episode of the plague at the end of the 17th century killed about half the city’s population—maybe 300,000 people.)

Nowadays internal plumbing has removed some of the health hazards associated specifically with the bassi, just as it has with the thousands of back-to-backs that still stand in Britain. They were built at first around courtyards, with common privies, pumps, and washing areas, later in rows with a few privies at one end. You can see photos of slums in Britain like that, not just 19th century ones either. But they’ve mostly been demolished now, except in a few towns where they were once amazingly popular, such as Leeds and Nottingham.

Back-to-back housing, 1883

They say back-to-backs today are actually popular again, with some occupants anyway—students, for example, who can’t be arsed to carry out basic maintenance, and aren’t much interested in gardens. But these back-to-backs rarely have the crammed, low ceilings of the bassi.

Restored back-to-backs in Birmingham, England
Back-to-back houses in Bellshaw Street (near Bradford, England)
Photo by Betty Longbottom (CC BY-SA 2.0)

On the other hand, I hope you have not got the impression that nowadays the bassi or their inhabitants are dirty. Quite the opposite. There is no housewife like a Neapolitan housewife, and the women who live in the bassi spend inordinate amounts of time washing their clothes and cleaning their homes. You can even see them outside, sweeping the pavement in front of their windows—something no-one ever does, apart from the occasional shop-keeper. I take my hat off to them.

The high-viz sort of life lived by bassi dwellers goes with the physical arrangements imposed by the bassi. They mean that, walking along a street or a lane, you’ll suddenly find yourself staring directly into someone’s kitchen—possibly with a glimpse of a bed beyond—as they eat their dinner or watch TV (or, more usually, both at once). The things is, they are used to this, but you are not, so you immediately look away in embarrassment. Their lack of concern at being watched may reflect something that many Neapolitans experience, or, better, something they help create: the fact that so much of life is still lived “on the street”, especially in the summer, when rooms and apartments without air conditioning are hot and stuffy, and the smaller they are, the hotter and stuffier they become.

So Neapolitan street-life is and always has been vivacious, loud, and colourful, and it may be one reason why people who live in the bassi are able to talk so unconcernedly through their open windows and doors with friends and family standing to all intents and purposes right next to them—except they’re outside, on the pavement. For them, the barrier between inside and outside, between public and private, has become porous; but for you, it isn’t, and so, as I said, you look away. Well, that’s how I try to explain to myself the feeling of discomfort I experience when in their gaze I see at most defiance or truculence, and typically only indifferences. Strangers’ glances slide off them like—to coin a phrase—water off a duck’s arse. And one of the puzzles I mentioned at the start is just how the people I see going about their lives do actually feel about the stranger’s gaze.

It’s often said, truly, that the very best thing about Naples is the people. They may seem to look at you suspiciously, coldly, sizing you up as prey, as they work out just how much money they can squeeze out of you. Yet once you talk to them—especially if you talk to them in their own tongue—they are almost invariably warm and friendly, like the people in the north of England where I come from, or at any rate like they used to be when I was a kid. Maybe northerners have become more like southerners, who’d never start chatting about the weather at the bus-stop with complete strangers, never help with carrying shopping-bags, certainly never ask you, ‘Are you all right, love?’ if they see you looking a bit under the weather. But Neapolitans aren’t nosy, and they won’t tell you their life story at the drop of a hat—though if you make a large purchase from any of them, or even become regular customers in a small way, they’re likely to order coffee and pastries, and show you pictures of their nephews and nieces and second cousins in the UK or Australia. (I can’t imagine that happening in the US any time soon, even without the pandemic.) They have a fund of good will towards strangers, which I hope will survive the influx of foreigners, both immigrants and tourists.

One reason I hope it will is because, sadly, so many young people have to leave to find work. The percentage of young people out of work and not in education or training is frighteningly high—40%, and even more in the more deprived areas on the periphery of the city, where the camorra has sucked the life out of every community, substituting for civic unity and for the public and private support networks that go with it its own grotesque parody of “the family”.

As for the immigrants, they are a mixed bunch, but there are lots of Tamils from Sri Lanka, and quite a few Philippinos. The women used to come here to work as home-helps and nannies, but now there’s clearly work for the men too, in restaurants, garages, workshops, and so on. There are Tamil restaurants and take-aways and social clubs too; five minutes’ walk from our place is a place that functions as a sort of community café during the day, but once a week it becomes a sort of dance-hall, with music and disco ball that must have arrived via a wormhole from about 1974. Travel agents specializing in long-haul flights to the Far East are commonplace, and there are posters in Sinhalese advertising trips, outings, internet services, things for sale and so on. And in May 2019 there was a celebration in Piazza Dante of the 10th anniversary of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, at which the flag was proudly displayed.

Celebration of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, Piazza Dante, May 19 2019

The end of the war was cruel and bloody and a lot of people’s human rights were trampled on, by both sides. Living in a Neapolitan basso could have seemed a pretty attractive alternative. I hope their kids will go to university here and start moving up the social and economic ladder, and I wonder if they will be more successful than their Italian-by-tradition counterparts, thanks to ambitious parents driving them to work ever harder and to make a better life for themselves. Recently we met a guy from India who was delivering things on his bike, and who told us he’s also training to be an architect. This is how the new Naples looks. For now.

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