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World

In Rome, Local Retirees Are Working To Clean Up The City's Aqueducts

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Another story now. We're going to Rome, where the aqueducts were a marvel of human engineering during ancient times. In modern Rome, they're often overlooked. In fact, for many years, they were abandoned and turned into a makeshift dump. That is until local retirees decided to roll up their sleeves and do something about it, even if that meant bending a few rules.

Christopher Livesay explains.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: These days, Rome is a dirty, modern city, and in some places, downright filthy. Seagulls routinely pick at trash from overflowing dumpsters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARK AMBIENCE)

LIVESAY: But in one park on the far east side of the city, there's hardly a cigarette butt on the ground. Oh, and there's a second reason this place is just so remarkable.

GABBY CASSELL: So right now, we're in the Aqueducts Park in Rome.

LIVESAY: Gabby Cassell, a college student visiting from Calgary, Alberta, marvels at the sprawling stone arches. Spanning 593 acres of parkland, the aqueducts once carried 3,400 gallons of water per second from the surrounding hills to the ancient capital. The oldest here was built almost 2,000 years ago by Emperors Caligula and Claudius.

CASSELL: Yeah, I think it's really, really beautiful. And I think that - the fact that it's not, like, overtaken by the city is really a miracle by now, and that it hasn't been completely filled with trash.

LIVESAY: Seven of Rome's 11 aqueducts all converge here, with babbling brooks and a waterfall flowing beside perfectly pruned rose bushes and fig trees. But the park wasn't always so pristine, says Luciano Di Vico, a 72-year-old retired manager at a natural gas company who lives down the street.

LUCIANO DI VICO: (Through interpreter) It had become a junkyard for trash and discarded stolen objects. This whole area was a no-trespassing zone.

LIVESAY: You couldn't even walk in this area?

DI VICO: (Through interpreter) Right, or even see very far due to the overgrowth of vegetation. The only people around were drug dealers, ne'er do wells and prostitutes.

LIVESAY: He tried to get officials to fix it up, something the Park Service confirms. But for about a year, he kept getting the runaround. Tired of waiting, he said enough is enough and started cleaning up acre after acre with his own two hands.

DI VICO: (Through interpreter) I started right over there by the jujube plants. You won't believe the kind of garbage we found - about 15 motorcycles and scooters, two cars...

LIVESAY: Two cars?

DI VICO: (Through interpreter) ...Refrigerators, parking meters, cash registers, slot machines.

LIVESAY: To remove it all, he enlisted the help of two fellow retirees, plus one of Europe's most marginalized ethnic minorities - the Roma.

DI VICO: (Through interpreter) I'm on good terms with them. They collected and sold all the scrap metal. They were very generous.

LIVESAY: Trash wasn't the only thing they unearthed. The park happens to sit on top of the Via Latina, an ancient Roman road that once stretched for tens of thousands of miles. In the course of the cleanup, Di Vico says his volunteers accidentally crossed the line between vigilante gardening and amateur archaeology, a big no-no in a country with strict laws against laypeople handling found artifacts. One day, a city official noticed, and he was not happy.

DI VICO: (Through interpreter) He tells me, you're not just cleaning things up, you're performing an archeological excavation. You can't do this.

LIVESAY: Today, the park service confirms that city and state officials mostly look the other way considering all the good work the volunteers have done for the community, like the mothers I see playing with their children, cyclists whizzing across miles of reclaimed paths, and Nordic walkers, like Alberto Feliciani. He says Di Vico and the volunteers are heroes.

ALBERTO FELICIANI: Yes, yes, they are the kings here. So we are - you know, we depend upon what they do.

LIVESAY: The volunteers started cleaning up just over 10 years ago, and they're still at it every day of the week, rain or shine. On this day, they're loading a wheelbarrow with litter and collecting and burning brush.

(Speaking Italian).

I point out to De Vico that the bonfires they've built appears to be burning on private land that overlaps with the park.

DI VICO: (Speaking Italian).

LIVESAY: That's right. What they don't know won't hurt them, he says. If we clean it up, it's better for everyone. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.