Note: This article is an abridged version of three longer historical case studies about Palermo (about reclaiming the city, reforming city hall, and strengthening municipal services) produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.
In 1993, Palermo residents elected Leoluca Orlando mayor with 75 percent of the vote. A series of assassinations of high-level anti-Mafia leaders had left the city reeling, and Orlando's election affirmed that voters wanted him to continue policies he had begun during his first mayoral term in the 1980s: To purge the government of Mafia influence and to help restore Palermo's cultural and economic vibrancy. By the time Orlando (shown in the photo above) left office in 2000, his administration had collaborated with civil society and business leaders to reclaim the city by creating public spaces, improving services, and promoting a "culture of legality." Although subsequent city administrations abandoned or rolled back many of the reforms, Orlando's administration from 1993 to 2000 helped define and lead what is known as the "Palermo Renaissance."
Reviving Palermo was a formidable task. For decades, the Sicilian Mafia held a strong political, cultural, and physical grip on the city, while city mayors either tolerated or assisted Mafia activity. Violence was endemic. Orlando initially entered politics in 1980 when the Mafia assassinated his boss, Sicilian President Piersanti Mattarella. Known for his anti-Mafia stance, Orlando required multiple bodyguards protecting him at all hours. Palermo had approximately 100 Mafia-related assassinations per year, not counting disappearances. Sicily's killing peak was in 1991, when there were 718 Mafia-related murders, accounting for 37.5 percent of the total number of murders committed in Italy that year.
Against this backdrop of violence, the city was hobbled by a host of critical challenges. City spaces such as parks, historic buildings and squares, theaters, monuments, and schools were either dilapidated or owned by Mafia-affiliated groups. An urban plan written in 1963 (by politicians aligned with Mafia interests) deliberately deferred urban maintenance, so that new, large, and lucrative building projects would be contracted to construction firms with ties to organized crime.
More from Democracy Lab
- The Optimist’s Case for Yemen
- The Prickly Politics of Aid
- LGBT rights and the long road to democracy in Georgia
Concurrent with the dilapidation of public spaces was the decline of Palermo's arts and cultural life. The Teatro Massimo, Palermo's once-elegant opera house, was a searing emblem of this deterioration. The opera house was shuttered in 1974 for "urgent repairs" as city officials awarded a multimillion-dollar renovation contract to a Mafia-affiliated company; the repairs were never carried out. By 1993, 60 to 70 percent of Palermo's 240 historic buildings were in decay. There were no thriving cafés, common spaces, pizzerias, bars or shopping centers. Without a cultural base, public life waned and crime peaked.
As a result of rampant organized crime, economic and touristic activity also suffered: Businesses were wary of investing in Palermo because the rule of law was uncertain and government workings were opaque. The state of education was similarly dismal. Deteriorating school buildings necessitated that classes be convened in private buildings, many of which were Mafia controlled. High dropout rates -- up to 40 percent in poor and Mafia-controlled neighborhoods -- created another barrier to expansion of the formal economy.
Moreover, city government was rife with inefficiency and mismanagement; nepotism and patronage, rather than skills and talents, determined who ran the city. Orlando noted that, before him, every Palermo mayor save one had had affiliations with Mafia bosses -- and the lone exception was a Mafiosi himself. Municipal offices lacked adequate records, and information retrieval was difficult and time-consuming. City finances were in shambles. Citizen disaffection mounted as city services verged on collapse. Garbage and trash lined the streets of the city. Natural gas for cooking and heating was available only intermittently, and public buses rarely ran on time. The municipality rationed water during the day.