Poling on Caruso, 'The Swamp of East Naples: Environmental History of an Unruly Suburb'

Valerio Caruso
Kristin Poling

Valerio Caruso. The Swamp of East Naples: Environmental History of an Unruly Suburb. Translated by Sara Ferraioli. Cambridgeshire: White Horse Press, 2021. 224 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-912186-21-1

Reviewed by Kristin Poling (University of Michigan - Dearborn) Published on H-Environment (September, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57386

Kristin Poling on Valerio Caruso, "The Swamp of East Naples: Environmental History of an Unruly Suburb"

Valerio Caruso’s history of East Naples begins with the narration of an eastward journey from the center of the city, leaving behind the skyscrapers of the business district for the warehouses, abandoned factories, oil storage facilities, power plants, and public housing of the city’s industrial periphery. In its rust and its mix of uses, its patchwork of density and abandonment, the landscape Caruso describes is likely familiar to readers the world over as an example of the postindustrial city. Seeking to uncover how the global structures of twentieth-century capitalism interacted with highly localized territorial and political features to create the East Naples of today, Caruso argues that a foundational piece of this history can be found in the land itself. Rarely visible, hidden beneath the remnants of the city’s industrial past, is the marshy land of an alluvial plain that stretches from the city center to the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. In Caruso’s narrative, this east Neapolitan “swamp” has been hidden by successive waves of spatial rationalization undertaken in the name of agriculture, industry, and urban hygiene. By his telling, the marshy land has been both a resource and a curse in the grand arc of the modern city. It provided fecund soil for the agricultural uses to which it was initially put, but its amphibious spaces remained hard to control, associated with stink and disease, and resistant to modern urban planning. It is an intriguing argument, not least for the ways in which Caruso plays with the idea of the swamp as both a material reality and a social and cultural construction. The environment of the marsh becomes a swamp, with all the attendant associations of an economic and social backwater, because of poor urban planning and social marginalization that result, somehow (it is not quite clear exactly how), from the “chaotic ecosystem” of the marshy land itself (p. 7).

This short but ambitious book includes an introduction, three main chapters, and an extensive appendix of transcribed oral interviews. The first chapter surveys the history of East Naples from the sixteenth century up through the 1970s, focusing on the stages by which high-risk, heavy industries became concentrated in an area close to, yet poorly integrated with, the city center. Some of the key moments in this history include the construction in 1842 of a massive steel plant that manufactured locomotives and was the first Italian factory with more than one thousand employees (p. 16), and the establishment later in the century of the several canning facilities operated by Cirio. Perhaps most decisive of all was the construction of two oil refineries (first by Agip, then Mobil) in the 1920s and 1930s. By World War II, East Naples had become a dense industrial zone, “completely saturated with 230 industrial plants, with a total of 21,000 employees” (p. 28). Given Caruso’s argument about territory and environment, it would have been helpful to include more discussion of the decision-making processes by which these industrial concerns were located in or on the edge of Naples’s swamp. But the author’s real interest is in how their presence once established shaped the city’s fate in the postwar era. In this, he appeals to the idea of a “resource curse,” drawing on the work of Michael Ross and Terry Lynn Karl to argue that after World War II industrial concerns in East Naples became a resource available for external agents to exploit, “leaching ... power from local economic systems” (p. 37).

The second chapter covers the consequences of this shift away from local control through the era of deindustrialization. Caruso’s narrative of the disinvestments of the 1970s and 1980s attends to how external factors (national and global financial restructuring) intersected with local, place-based considerations (crowding, lack of housing) in companies’ decision-making processes. Through this period of disinvestment, there also emerged a new urban planning regime, following especially the cholera epidemic of 1973, focused on sustainability and livability. Yet, in spite of repeated efforts, East Naples remained resistant to significant spatial restructuring and continued to suffer from overcrowding and lack of planning and green space. For one, efforts to relocate some portion of the city’s oil facilities failed as Mobil effectively deployed a language of emergency: the strategic importance of the oil industry outweighed the needs of local residents and the substantial ecological and safety risks of the urban oil infrastructure (p. 80).

The final chapter looks at the ways real and manufactured crises intersected in the postindustrial era. While Mobil used the language of emergency to describe the necessity of sacrifice in order to maintain high-risk urban oil facilities, material crises both endogenous (the 1985 explosion in an oil storage depot killing five, injuring scores more in the resulting fire) and exogenous (the 1980 earthquake that displaced 170,000 from their homes) revealed the “structural fragility of Naples’ urban environment” (p. 82) and demanded urgent policy responses. Caruso’s telling of how urban reform efforts were interrupted by, accommodated, and built on emergency responses to these crises is fascinating. He makes a strong argument for remembering the successes in housing and infrastructure of these efforts, in spite of their limitations. But, once again, a familiar pattern emerged: radical proposals for rethinking East Naples in the 1990s gave way to compromise with a multinational corporation that preserved much of the oil area and set aside ambitious green space planning (p. 110).

A good third of the book (pp. 123-197) is taken up by the appendices, containing transcribed interviews with five men who experienced East Naples’s postindustrial transition from distinct but overlapping perspectives: as employees in its factories; as members of the local government, unions, and the Communist Party; and in one case as an urban planner working for the city. There is much here that is fascinating and valuable, though the material would have benefited from being better integrated into the main body of the book. The choice of these five voices and the particular value of their individual perspectives in casting light on the centuries’-long story Caruso has told is never fully explained. Especially intriguing is the way these men themselves engage their city’s environmental history, raising the question of how historical awareness of the city’s preindustrial and industrial pasts might have shaped local actors’ imagination of postindustrial urban reforms.

This book contains much that is of interest beyond Naples, particularly in Caruso’s attention to the complex interplay between environmental history, risk, and sustainability in the 1970s through 1990s. Particularly promising for further work is a consideration of how Naples compares to other port cities caught up in what Carola Hein terms the “global petroleumscape” where “oil refineries rarely die.”[1] Although of much potential value to a wide range of urban scholars, this book could do more to make that material accessible. Promising ideas and intriguing descriptions are made difficult to decipher with text in need of further editing. As an urban environmental historian without expertise in Naples or Italian cities, I had to seek out maps and additional resources beyond the book in order to follow the book’s spatial stories.

In a way, The Swamp of East Naples is the history of an absence--and as such, it sets itself an almost impossible task. The marshy plain that sets its narrative in motion merits mention only as it disappears from view in the history that follows. The features of the wetland are outlined only in the broadest terms; its amphibious spaces, its flora and fauna, are never described. We are not told how the Sebeto River disappears, or what “restor[ing] the integrity of the floodplain” (p. 105) centuries later would look like. Perhaps this absence is an inevitable product of the book’s main focus on the dynamic of deindustrialization. But, if restoring the marsh of East Naples can become a source of hope for the postindustrial city as Caruso suggests, perhaps it is worth describing its features as a real, complex environment--with its own inherent order--that transcends the constraints of the imagined swamp.


[1]. Carola Hein, “‘Old Refineries Rarely Die’: Port City Refineries as Key Nodes in the Global Petroleumscape,” Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d’histoire 53, no. 3 (2018): 450-79.

Citation: Kristin Poling. Review of Caruso, Valerio, The Swamp of East Naples: Environmental History of an Unruly Suburb. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. September, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57386

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