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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.


"I said yes, if certain things were done first," Improta, 61, said in an interview. The central and regional governments dutifully anted up about $35 million for infrastructure preparations.

When the mayoral elections came, Naples, like most other large Italian cities, turned to the left in protest against corrupt Establishment parties. Antonio Bassolino, 47, a longtime apparatchik of the former Italian Communist Party who now leads its social democratic successor, defeated right-winger Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the former dictator.

Naples' new mayor cut his political teeth on fierce partisan politics. But Bassolino has proved an unabashed Naples booster, reaching across party lines in search of renewal.

"I've been critical of him, but as mayor, Bassolino has certainly overcome his combative past. He has appointed a good team of people, and he understands that restoration cannot be done by government alone," said Cesare De Seta, a Neapolitan author and history of architecture professor.

Together, Improta, the crusty ex-cop turned administrator, and Bassolino, the rookie reformer-mayor, are proving an effective odd couple.

They have begun stitching the southern metropolis of 1.2 million people back together: Public works contracts are now let on a fixed-price basis in a blind draw of competing companies--a revolution in the Italian context.

"Work is being finished in record time and at great savings--55% to 60% cheaper than in the past," Bassolino said in an interview. "Everybody is interested in making the city look good. For G-7, Naples wants to prove itself to the world."

Repaving of the main bay-side road, a civic priority for decades, is finished. The Piazza del Plebiscito and the Via San Carlo have been redone and antiqued to restore them to the way they looked in the early 19th Century, when Naples, home of a ruling Spanish king, stood with Paris and London in the front rank of European capitals.

The 17th-Century Royal Palace, where the G-7 leaders will meet in the tapestry-draped Hercules room, has had its face lifted along with a number of major thoroughfares and buildings including City Hall.

"The city is recovering. There's a new spirit of collaboration. We must show that the government keeps its promises. To combat decay, antipathy and indifference is the best way to fight crime," Improta said.

Cops are giving traffic tickets; trucks are towing illegally parked cars. Bassolino has reopened half a dozen parks. Improta has overseen the refurbishing of 280 schools. This month, Naples Police Chief Ciro Lomastro astonished and outraged 160 phantom city workers who collect pay for jobs they never go to--a hallowed Naples scam. He had them arrested.

Naples patriot Jean Noel Schifano, director of the French Institute that teaches French language and culture, sees marked improvement in the life of a city he loves and has written about extensively.

There is poverty aplenty, but some appearances are misleading: Swiss patients come for eye operations at one Naples clinic, Schifano says. Tens of thousands of nominally unemployed, in fact work hard in businesses and industries that do not officially exist--and therefore pay no taxes.

"Things are getting better. You can take a Sunday morning walk by the sea and smell the sea. Ten years ago, people were afraid to go out at night. Now there is night life again. We are going in the right direction. This is how Naples used to be," Schifano said.

Wrong, says 78-year-old philosopher and social commentator Luigi Campagnone, a lifelong Naples resident: "I never go out anymore because I cannot bear to see Naples. It's unlivable.

"People go into raptures about the music, sky, sun, sea, sand. Lies, all lies. I define Naples as a collective infection. Two weeks after G-7 it will be exactly the same mess as before," said Campagnone over coffee at his home recently. "I was here during the Naples uprising in the war, when kids leaped bravely on German tanks and some got killed. Three days later, the Americans came, and these same kids were selling their sisters and mothers to new soldiers. It's a stupid, diabolical city."

In context, says Neapolitan sociologist Domenico De Masi, Naples is no stranger to big international gatherings--or the fact that little lasting good usually survives them. The Roman emperor Tiberius held ancient-world versions of G-7s on the island of Capri off the Naples coast, he says.

"Greeks, Romans, Renaissance princes, 16th- and 17th-Century kings have always met here--it's an excuse for a party," De Masi said.

Others are less skeptical. Surveying clean streets blessedly free of cars one morning this week, Fulvio Milone, a longtime newspaper correspondent based in Naples, says nobody expects the G-7 overhaul to be the opening salvo in a social revolution. "Rather," he said, "it could be a trampoline toward renewal."

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