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To Italy now where for decades, the streets of Naples have been menaced by the Camorra mafia. But underneath those streets, beneath the cobblestones lies a gem of early Christian art: The Catacombs of San Gennaro. Well, now a local priest is trying to bring the mafia and the art together.
Christopher Livesay has our story.
CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: Head to the inner-city neighborhood of Sanita in Naples, and you might hear this song playing in a back alley.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)
LIVESAY: In local dialect, the singer relishes in buying and using a bread-basket-full of drugs off Sanita's streets.
FATHER DON ANTONIO LOFFREDO: (Through translator) This is a ghetto.
LIVESAY: Don Antonio Loffredo is the parish priest of Sanita. When he arrived here about a decade ago, he found three levels of frescoes, chapels and cubicles beneath the neighborhood's trash-strewn streets. It's a burial ground that dates to the second century. And it's the largest of its kind in southern Italy.
But back then, tourists only wound up in this part of town by mistake. Loffredo saw an opportunity.
LOFFREDO: (Through translator) We took kids with one foot in the streets and one foot in the church, so to speak.
LIVESAY: Some of them even came from mafia families.
LOFFREDO: (Through translator) I can say this because your audience is far away. It could easily be the case that the sons of a boss are here, and one of them has nothing to do with the mafia.
LIVESAY: Loffredo says crime families often feel trapped by a life they were born into, and are eager to find alternatives for their kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)
LIVESAY: So he put them to work fixing up the Catacombs that had been seriously neglected. Mud and dirt covered much of the floor, an old lighting system left much of the artwork in shadows, and a store room had been stuffed with waste and old equipment from a nearby hospital. All of it had to go.
LOFFREDO: (Through translator) When we started they were 16-year-olds. Now they're in their 20's and they're paid because they are entrepreneurs. It's not hard to offer alternatives to crime if you're creative and available.
LIVESAY: After fixing up the Catacombs, they went to work in management, the ticket office and as guides.
One of them is Vincenzo Porzio.
(SOUNDBITE OF A GATE)
VINCENZO PORZIO: Here we are in San Gennaro's catacombs. And when you say catacombs of Naples, it's not like the normal catacombs of Italy. The catacombs of Naples, as you can see, are really large, extended and not deep underground. It's not a small place. It's not a claustrophobic place.
LIVESAY: Mosaics of jaw-dropping beauty glisten under high-tech lighting, paid for through donations and grants from such corporations as IBM and Vodafone, as well as local foundations. Tombs that once housed the remains of Christian saints and martyrs are carved right into hardened volcanic ash. They look like the inside of a surrealist beehive.
PORZIO: It's like Gaudi was the architect, no?
LIVESAY: The effect is breathtaking and ticket sales have increased to the point that the Catacombs help employ roughly 40 people, mostly young. That's 40 jobs in one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the poorest regions of Italy, where youth unemployment is well over 50 percent.
Like many, Porzio initially fled Naples in search of work.
PORZIO: I was working in London for one year. And when this opportunity was open in our future, I rushed here to Naples, just because if you have to use your personal energy, I think that its better you use it for your hometown than for foreign town.
LIVESAY: The transformation surrounding the catacombs is remarkable, says Vincenzo Galgano, a former chief prosecutor of Naples, especially considering the neighborhood's rough reputation.
VINCENZO GALGANO: (Through translator) It was heroin. Heroin has destroyed the poor, like syphilis in the 1500s. Like the plague. I think Don Antonio has come up with a cure for the social illnesses that afflict the Sanita neighborhood.
LIVESAY: The prosecutor was so impressed by the turnaround, he told his staff to nix the gold watch for his retirement a few years ago, and put the money instead towards restoring a San Gennaro fresco. Today, the catacombs have their own restoration studio. Before the full-scale makeover, roughly 5,000 visitors came per year. Now it's up to 40,000.
Vincenzo Porzio says that's had a huge impact on the neighborhood.
PORZIO: OK, they pay the ticket for the Catacombs but then they go to drink coffee. They go and get a pizza. I went in a small shop that sells ham and cheese and they said, oh, Enzo, can we invent something with the tourists? So can you imagine how the mentality is changing? They are going out from the ghetto, with the mind because they are having a new guest. So just having a new guest is changing the way to see the district, the way to catch the opportunity and even the way to do business.
LIVESAY: Or, as the priest who got it all started says about the mafia: Don't fight it. Cure it, by offering something beautiful in its place.
For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay, in Naples.
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