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COLUMN ONE : Naples Puts On Its Best Face : Although the Italian port wallows in corruption, crime and decay, Clinton and other G-7 leaders will be offered a sanitized view of a city that is trying to clean up its act.


NAPLES, Italy — The question being tested here under the volcano is whether, beginning with one world-important and summer-scorched weekend in July, it is possible to hew order from the chaos called Naples.

Will President Clinton, who arrives Friday, find a historic and beautiful city that is belatedly recovering its health and pride? Or will he and leaders from the six other richest nations see hastily applied makeup caking an urban corpse as the setting for their Group of Seven meeting this weekend?

Reform Naples! O sole mio. What a giggle. Easier to stay the tide.

But don't laugh too hard. Overdue change is afoot in Italy's messiest metropolis. Reforms are being launched, and some serious people are taking them seriously: "I have begun to stop for red lights," said Tullio Pironti, the city's last remaining book publisher. "I used to feel stupid if I stopped, because nobody else did."

Whether this sudden modernization will outlast a limelit international gathering is the real question. Though the Italian government, the Secret Service and Neapolitans themselves will make sure Clinton sees no trace of it, there is an everlasting seamy side of Naples: When I exclaimed at a white-bearded body in blue jeans lying in the gutter, my cab driver scarcely braked, explaining, "No, he's not dead, that's Alfonso, who's quite comfortable there. He's a habitue. Alfonso drinks and drinks. I think he drinks to forget."

Oblivion and disorder, thy name is Napoli.

Little moves under the broiling sun except hands jammed on horns. Motorbikes weave on sidewalks around pedestrians, pickpockets, con men, preteen apprentice hoods called scugnizzi . Vendors hawk African gewgaws, Miami Dolphin hats, smuggled cigarettes and pirated copies of X-rated movies.

Naples' throbbing streets are home to a nasty branch of organized crime called the Camorra, and support some of Europe's highest official unemployment and worst civic services. Naples is a noisy, noxious, insufferable and dangerous city that often seems more of the Third World than the First.

And yet . . .

Neapolitans agree that their city is ungovernable and unlivable, but 78% tell pollsters they'd never leave. Naples is a madhouse in which nothing ever works; a stress-and- Angst factory in which suicide is almost unknown.

It is a slums 'n' squalor, palaces 'n' princes southern port, with world-class architecture and museums. That kid on the corner may steal your watch while your park bench neighbor is reading Pliny the Elder in Latin. And how can anybody stay angry at a city in which one sips cappuccino while watching clouds play atop the Vesuvius volcano on the far side of a fairy-tale bay?

Naples may even seem quite magical from Bill Clinton's sanitized view of it in the (Enrico) Caruso Suite of the Hotel Vesuvio at the heart of a newly coiffed city core, where the G-7 participants will live and meet for three days beginning Friday. Christened the "red zone" and closed to traffic, it will perhaps be the most protected place on Earth until Sunday night. Even residents on foot need a special pass to get into the area.

The security and the fresh paint are symptomatic: What a difference a year can make! Last summer, Naples touched bottom, befouled and overwhelmed by corruption and decay. Uncollected garbage festered, few traffic lights worked, potholes swallowed roads, the water was brown, the city government wasn't paying its bills.

The crisis marked the local climax of a national scandal in which political parties, organized crime and big business were belatedly caught conspiring to get rich at public expense. Lire flowed into Naples by the billions: Special funds for a 1974 cholera epidemic, a 1980 earthquake and the 1990 World Cup came in a torrent. Many repairs and projects were started: a sports palace, schools, a new Justice Ministry building. Hardly anything was finished.

"It was like the pyramids. The question was not when a project would be finished but how long it could be kept alive to eat money," newspaperman Vito Faenza said.

Change began Aug. 6, when Prefect Umberto Improta, the Italian government's senior representative in Naples, dissolved the feuding, corrupt and inept city government to remedy what he deemed a lack of public order.

Improta, formerly police chief in Milan and Rome, does not take kindly to civic malfeasance. Over the past two years, he has dissolved 16 local governments in the region around Naples for having links to the Camorra and 40 others for administrative paralysis. In Naples, Improta named administrators to run the bankrupt city until elections could be held in November.

Before that, though, then-Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, himself an interim technocrat, amazingly asked Improta if Naples could possibly host the annual meeting of the world's seven largest economic powers plus their newfound Russian ally.

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