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Frank Gruber

Apropos of Niente

By Frank Gruber

I'm back in Santa Monica after my vacation. I don't seem to have missed much, locally, except for two interesting events -- the Industrial Lands workshop on July 21 and the RAND forum on traffic.

But I've written a lot about both topics, and I suspect I will have further opportunities to do so in the future.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was on the RAND panel, however, where apparently he touted his "simple" proposal to turn Pico and Olympic into one-way boulevards. Another panelist, Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Richard Katz talked about another "simple" fix -- building the 710 connector through Pasadena.

Oh yeah, those simple solutions to traffic. What compels intelligent people -- politicians in particular -- to characterize as simple proposals that everyone knows are anything but? Are we simpleminded? Simpletons?

In any case, Supervisor Yaroslavsky's proposal gives me a thin thread on which to hang a story from my recent trip to Italy. It's the story about how the Naples police gave us a police escort to a municipal parking lot, and it involves one-way streets.

Our trip through southern Italy was always going to be a driving trip, and for that reason we were going to avoid big cities. Driving in Italian cities is not recommended to Americans who want to have a relaxing vacation.

But due to circumstances involving our son Henry, who was working in Italy and took an impromptu trip to Sardinia, we ended up adding an overnight stay in Naples, so that we could meet his boat when he returned from Sardinia.

We booked rooms in a little hotel we found in a new guide that I recommend to anyone planning a trip to Italy. It's called Osterie & Locande d'Italia, and notwithstanding the title, it's in the English language. It's a guide to traditional small hotels and restaurants that the Slow Food movement has published.

After misadventures that included taking the wrong exit off the autostrada (my advice is to be careful using Google Maps directions in Italy), which condemned us to meander through about ten kilometers of old towns along the southern coast of the Bay of Naples to get back to the city, we managed to find the hotel.

The hotel was on the third floor of an old palazzo, the kind with a courtyard and a huge door to the street, which in this case was a kind of drive-thru piazza with a Baroque spire in the middle.

Drive-thru piazza in Naples (Photos by Frank Gruber)

The piazza was itself a widening of a long, straight street that has many official names but which is colloquially called the "Spaccanapoli," -- "Naples-splitter" -- because it cuts Naples in halves. The Spaccanapoli is long and straight because the ancient Greek town planners laid it most of it out that way 2,500 years ago (and then the Spanish extended it in the 1500s).

After we unloaded our bags, I asked the receptionist where we should park the car; the Slow Food book had said that there was parking nearby. She marked the location of the parking lot on our map and it looked easy to get to: we only had to drive through the piazza and down a block of the Spaccanapoli, take a right, and then a left, and then we would be there.

Which is where the slim connection to one-way streets comes in. I didn't ask the receptionist about this later because my Italian isn't good enough, but I suspect she doesn't drive in Naples, because she didn't tell me that in fact you couldn't get from the hotel to the parking lot the way it looked on the map because of one-way and pedestrian-only streets.

I only found this out when I drove down Spaccanapoli and got to the intersection where I was supposed to turn right. But I couldn't -- the street was one-way the wrong way. Not only that, but just in case I had an idea of going the wrong way on it, a police car was coming up the street, toward our intersection.

The street, by the way, was one-way for good reason -- it was only one lane wide. I later learned that it followed the line of the wall of the old Greek city; our piazza was the location of a Greek gate that the Spanish moved to the west.

In any case, I thought maybe I could continue on the Spaccanapoli, and take the next right, but after the piazza, the street narrows, and becomes pedestrians-only.

Pedestrian only section of the Spaccanapoli

I couldn't go right or straight, and needless to say, there was a van right behind me.

My only option was to turn left, but I didn't want to start driving around Naples looking for a way back. I turned left, but tried to get close to the side of the street, thinking that if the police car and the van departed the scene, I could sneak back down the one-way street. I've driven enough in Italy to know that driving backwards the wrong way on a one-way street is neither a capital offense nor a mortal sin.

This didn't work. I couldn't get close enough to give the van enough room to get past me. But fortunately the two cops inside the police were curious as to what I was trying to do.

They pulled up next to us. I explained how the hotel had told us that this was the way to the parking lot. Okay, okay, the cop in the passenger seat seemed to say, but you've got to get out of here. He waved for me to follow him.

So that's how we got a police escort to the public parking lot. We followed the cops way up on one one-way street, and then they made two right turns and we followed them way down another one-way street.

At a certain point, we reached a little intersection. There was a street that went off to our right. I kid you not, but from one building on the corner a torrent of water was pouring down from the second floor -- I don't know if a pipe had burst or what.

The cop riding shotgun pointed down that street. "Parking. Dopo l'acqua." Parking, after the water. Okay. We closed the windows and drove under the waterfall. Sure enough, in another block, there was the public parking.

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