When Villaggio Coppola was built in the 1960s along the western Mediterranean coast of Italy just north of Naples, the aspiration was of a utopian residential area.
But as it turns out, utopia quickly took a wrong turn. Around 12,000 apartments, along the seaside and in the nearby town of Castel Volturno, were built in violation of zoning laws, at a time when local authorities ignored development along the coast. Eventually, many residents were forced to leave.
What remains today looks less like a utopia than a paradise lost, a site of abandonment and degradation, and a concentration of southern Italy’s abiding troubles: criminality, lax local governance and extreme poverty.
The section originally designed for wealthier residents, Parco Saraceno, stands as a ghost town, including a now vacant but once popular hotel built to resemble a castle, a remnant of the village’s grand ambitions. Most of the once colorful constructions are a portrait of neglect, the streets and landscape often eerily deserted.
All along the coast, for dozens of miles even beyond the confines of Villaggio Coppola, single-story buildings occupy the waterfront, steps from the beach and the sea. But rather than being a paradisiacal refuge for holiday-goers and sunbathers, the beach has become a dumping ground for dirty mattresses and is lined by seafront porches where hardly anyone ever sits.
But that is not to say there are no residents. Some still call Parco Saraceno home.
While many structures are abandoned, a few residents were able to negotiate amnesties with local authorities in the late 1980s and early 2000s, to avoid eviction. Some still live there. Other abandoned buildings have squatters.
But Parco Saraceno receives little in the way of municipal services, existing in a quasi-legal limbo, and inhabitants did not want their full names published because of the village’s gray legal status.
Salvatore, 40, a house painter, and his partner, Maria, 41, a cleaning woman, moved into the village from Castel Volturno’s historical center after they found the rents there to be too high.
Today they live in Parco Saraceno with three of their four children in an apartment that overlooks the local soccer fields and Villaggio Coppola in the distance.
Similar financial hardship pushed Thomas, a 54-year-old native of Mali, to move in. He ran an internet cafe in Castel Volturno until a year ago, when he started losing his eyesight and had to quit working. A local Catholic charity provides him with food and medical care.
Prostitution flourishes in the area, a boon for local mobsters. By dusk virtually every evening, the Via Domitiana, an ancient Roman road that runs parallel to the sea, is transformed into a long runway for women, many from Africa, who offer their bodies to passing drivers for a little money.
Authorities have sporadically tried to restore the area. But the construction of a tourist harbor has long been stalled.
While the juxtaposition of tourist development so close to such poverty may be jarring, the seaside remains the allure for all. Almost every resident in Parco Saraceno has a sea view, albeit sometimes obstructed by rusty satellite dishes.
The neighborhood was once designated for expansion, but the foundations of the new homes became the repositories for anything blown in on the sea winds. Almost anything of value, including metal, has been stripped by scavengers.
Yet from a distance, it is almost impossible to imagine the village’s utter decay and easy to envision it as the utopia it was intended to be, an oasis facing the open sky and blue sea. A nearby 18-hole golf course enhances the illusion.
Even on closer inspection, it is hard to tell which of the dozens of little balconies have dwellers who might walk out to enjoy the view, and which of the homes are simply the shell of a forgotten dream.