This City Once Ruled the Mediterranean. Now It’s Eyeing a Comeback

(Bloomberg) -- You’d never guess it now, but slumping, sagging, demoralized Genoa was the richest city in the world just 700 years ago.

Genoa’s commercial fleet and powerful navy dominated the Mediterranean for over 100 years, and the independent city state had its own empire stretching from Syria to the Crimea. Its merchants and financiers helped bankroll the vast palazzos and other architectural treasures that led proud locals to call the city “the Superb.”

This City Once Ruled the Mediterranean. Now It’s Eyeing a Comeback

Today, things are slightly less superb. Genoa’s population is ageing and dwindling—it’s now just Italy’s sixth-largest city. Jobs are scarce and cargo volumes passing through its historic port are a fraction of what northern European peers handle. Banca Carige SpA, the city’s biggest bank, is under European Central Bank administration.

Police shot and killed a protester during violent clashes at the 2001 G-8 summit, leaving the image of a chaotic city in flames. Mudslides surged down the overdeveloped hillsides in 2011, killing six, and flash floods followed three years later, angering residents as rescue and coordination was mishandled. At one point in 2017, the city was so overrun by wild boars that authorities invited Genoese to shoot them.

To many, last summer’s Morandi bridge disaster looked like just another chapter in the sad decline of the once-grand city. But Mayor Marco Bucci saw things differently.

Within minutes of the Aug. 14 bridge collapse, which killed 43 people and split the city in half, the 59 year-old mayor was in a crisis mode, gathering together civic leaders and plotting the city’s resurgence.

This City Once Ruled the Mediterranean. Now It’s Eyeing a Comeback

Even with the bridge destroyed, transport disrupted and links to the rest of Italy and France imperiled, “we realized the city was not on its knees at all,” Bucci recalled in an interview at City Hall, offering a passing visitor fresh-baked focaccia dripping with olive oil, a famous regional delicacy like its signature Pesto alla Genovese.

In the wake of the tragedy, the 59-year-old mayor reasoned that if the municipal government “played its cards right, the city could become even greater—that moment was the beginning of Genoa’s comeback.”

While his city mourned, Bucci eyed an opportunity.

Step one: the Morandi, hailed as a triumph of modern engineering at its 1967 opening, would be rebuilt in record time, and by one of Genoa’s most famous citizens: architect Renzo Piano.

Step two: the mayor would use the nationwide sense of solidarity with the stricken city to unlock funds for long-planned infrastructure upgrades that had languished in red tape for years. With refurbished roads, rail links and port improvements, Genoa would return to its heyday as a European maritime power.

This City Once Ruled the Mediterranean. Now It’s Eyeing a Comeback

Politicians have been eager to get on board. Even Transportation Minister Danilo Toninelli, whose Five Star Movement is notoriously suspicious of big infrastructure plans, waxed eloquent about the rebuilding plan.

“The bridge reconstruction will signal the relaunching of Italy’s image abroad,” Toninelli said Feb. 8, at an elaborate ceremony to mark the start of works to rebuild the link.

“It’s an important moment, it’s the rebirth of Genoa,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte added at the event, donning a construction worker’s helmet and assisting with the initial labor.

Looking around Genoa, signs of rebirth still appear pretty far off. The economy is sputtering and the city is leading a regional population decline. The job market is stagnant.

The main engine of growth is still the harbor where native son Christopher Columbus first plotted his naval adventures. With more than 55 million tons of goods moving through Genoa last year, it’s still Italy’s busiest port, but traffic is down by about 8 percent since the disaster.

In many ways, slicing the coastal city in half exacerbated its natural state as a place of two often mismatched parts. The Morandi bridge was the link between them.

Squeezed between Alpine foothills and the Mediterranean, Genoa stretches almost 35 kilometers along the shoreline. Renaissance palaces clash with the functional architecture of the commercial port, and soccer fans follow one of two rival clubs, Sampdoria or Genoa. The city is even formally divided into an eastern section and a western half, with fresh sea breezes running into noxious fumes from shipyards and steel plants drifting over the industrial grime.

“We need to clean up the mud that has covered our lives, our land, our traditions,” Cristiano De Andre, son of “Italy’s Bob Dylan,” Genoan singer-songwriter Fabrizio De Andre, sang at a benefit concert the day after the tragedy.

This City Once Ruled the Mediterranean. Now It’s Eyeing a Comeback

For some residents and businesses, that cleanup cannot come soon enough. The headquarters of Ansaldo Energia SpA, a $1.1 billion energy company, were located literally under the bridge. On Aug. 15, the business was cut off and about 400 employees had to be relocated. Total losses came to almost 50 million euros ($56 million).

The city’s airport has lost about 20,000 passengers since Aug. 14, according to Paolo Odone, the facility’s president and a former head of the Chamber of Commerce. “Hotel owners are scared”, he said.

Only a fraction of the 14 billion euros of infrastructure investments planned by the municipality will go to bridge reconstruction, as the city looks to ease its chronic gridlock by building a new bypass, overcoming decades of opposition by Five Star, egged on by its founder Beppe Grillo, another Genoa native.

And while big Italian builders like Salini Impregilo SpA and Fincantieri SpA will lead the reconstruction works, financed by funds set aside by Italy’s central government under a “Genoa decree” that gives the city 30 million euros per year through 2029, some local people worry the effects won’t trickle down to them, at least not anytime soon.

Teresa Marasso, a 49 year-old mother of two, has considered leaving many times to search for work elsewhere. So far, she’s stayed home.

“Genoa is human,” Marasso said. “She is trying to remind us that she’s hurt, but still alive.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.