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Naples's schoolchildren play a key role in opening long-closed historic sites to the public

NAPLES is full of churches, museums, libraries, and other buildings of great cultural interest that have been closed to the public for years.

Mirella Barracco won't put up with that.

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Mrs. Barracco, the head of the Fondazione Napoli 99, has been the moving force behind opening up these places of historic interest for at least a few days each year.

The foundation's second annual Porte Aperte (Open Doors), held May 7 and 8, attracted 1 million tourists to the city, who got to see more than 200 monuments (about half of which are normally closed).

And their guides were 100,000 Neapolitan schoolchildren.

The children have been drawn into Barracco's activities through a program she designed to encourage elementary and high school students to adopt a monument in their neighborhood. In the process, they read about the monument's history, draw it, write poems about it, and propose how it might be restored, maybe coming to love and respect it - and their city - in a way they never would have before.

It is a battle for hearts and minds.

The children of the De Nicola technical high school seem to have caught the idea. They explain why they adopted the Carthusian monastery of San Martino:

``Technologically advanced countries do everything to show off their artistic patrimony. But in Italy, and especially Naples, we have behaved in another way, as if we were ashamed of this patrimony. Our indifference has brought about the deterioration of many treasures, which have fallen victim to thieves, vandalism, unscrupulous urban ventures. That's why we want to introduce `our' monument to the young people of our city and other cities, as happened during a meeting with some French students and during Porte Aperte ('93 and '94). To show that we feel responsible and that our patrimony is also protected with the spirit of service to the citizens.''

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At last, all eyes on Naples

The idea has been such a hit that it has spread as a pilot project to Turin, Milan, Genoa, and Palermo in Italy; to one city in each of the European Union countries; and to Moscow, where it is being carried out by the Gorbachev Foundation.

``The travel agents themselves are discovering Naples. They took everyone to Positano, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Capri, Ischia, because they didn't know these things [in Naples] existed, because they had been closed for a thousand years,'' says Barracco.

Fortunately, the eyes of the world will be on Naples during next month's summit of the Group of Seven industrialized nations and October's UN-sponsored international crime conference, says Barracco. The G-7 guests, incidentally, will be shown the city by the schoolchildren who have adopted monuments.

The high international profile caused the government in Rome to provide 20 billion lira ($12.7 million) for much-needed repairs to the city's streets and squares. The work is being carried out quickly and economically by Mayor Antonio Bassolino's administration, says Barracco.

But she is anything but pleased with the city's past political bosses, like regional politicians Paolo Cirino Pomicino and Giulio Di Donato.

``Those famous politicians - the Pomicinos, the Di Donatos - were always talking about megaprojects. `We've got to bring trillions of lira to Naples. We've got to restore the historic city center.' .... But they didn't know how to pave over a pothole,'' Barracco says. ``These politicians didn't work for the city or its citizens, but used them for their power. The results were before the eyes of everyone, because the city was heading toward absolute ruin. The most basic needs were completely disregarded.''

Is traffic the next target?

Since Fondazione Napoli 99 was created in 1984, Barracco has worked to improve the image of the city, to restore historic sites, and to raise consciousness about the city's artistic heritage. The 99 recalls the six months in 1799 when the middle class and the intellectuals wrested control of Naples from the occupying Bourbons and simultaneously expresses hope that the city will have changed by the end of this century.

Barracco dreams of Naples as a tourist center: a city that is clean with crime under control, a city in which traffic moves in legal patterns, a city with open monuments.

Can Napoli 99 make a difference in changing the city? Many say yes, that such associations and activities are the only hope for the future, the only way to change deep-rooted indifference to the public welfare.

Others are more cautious, convinced that the city's situation is desperate, possibly hopeless.

``The things that Napoli 99 does, that Bassolino does, are beautiful things, they're things I like. But whether they're very important is another story,'' warns Paolo Macry, professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples. ``I think they run the risk of being like a drop in the ocean.''

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