When rebellion broke out in the distant suburbs of Paris last year, the leader of the Italian centre-left coalition, Romano Prodi, warned that similar trouble could hit Italy if the government failed to watch out. For many his words conjured up, rightly or wrongly, a potential flash-point in Rome itself: a frightening satellite ghetto called Laurentino 38.

This quarter had been abandoned for more than 20 years, acknowledged Paolo Pollak, head of the citys XII district, way out to the south of the capital in near-countryside well beyond EUR. But in no way can it be compared with Paris.

Why? Laurentino 38 is like a double-carriage oval race-track in the middle of nowhere, crossed by 11 Ponte Vecchio-style bridges connecting so-called islands of housing at either end. Or it is like a motorway with autogrills running over it at frequent intervals, except that this motorway has garnered a reputation for violence, delinquency, drug-pushing, squatting and extreme social hardship.

Isolated from each other, over the past 30 years each of the 11 bridges has bizarrely developed a sharp identity of its own, with three of them the 9th, 10th and 11th taken over to bursting point by 160 mainly first-generation immigrant families from Romania, the Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Algeria and elsewhere. Squeezed in among them were a few Italians, including Adele.

Adele lives on Bridge 9, inside what was meant to have been an office over the now deserted road. It was damp inside and stank of drains. The woman was lying in a double bed chain-smoking, heating herself with an electric fire going full-blast while her adolescent son Roberto, with his back to the foot of the bed, watched soccer on telly, the set fed by borrowed current from a pirated meter. He mumbled that he was under house arrest for a robbery allegedly committed by a mate. In the next room, a partition walled off by a wardrobe, his elder brother was asleep with some Romanian friend, both of them snoring away. Roberto explained he was a Juventus fan and Adele let him do the talking, but in the end threw back her bed clothes. She had only one leg.

Beneath Bridge 9, a family of three lived huddled together inside a commandeered Enel electricity cabin amid the sound of dripping water.

The whole structure leaks and when it rains the basement floods. But at least theyve got our lifts working again. Until not long ago, they were all broken and older people lived marooned from each other, explained the self-styled ambassadress of the squatters, a blonde and plumpish widow called Maria Vittoria Costa, an Italian who was moved by the Rome town council to live on Bridge 10 some 26 years ago.

That was shortly after the doomed birth of Laurentino 38, conceived in 1972-73 as a daring, avantgarde housing experiment that at the time drew cries of admiring wonder from around the world, the idea being for people to live together in a dream satellite city where nobody would have to cross roads.

Then things went wrong. Most of the islands were shoddily built by the now newly-named state housing authority ATER and the council filled them up before they were ready, when they were still without amenities such as electricity or running water. The new tenants were Romans shifted in from bulldozed nearby shanty towns left over from the Mussolini era. Then the whole place was promptly forgotten and, as the intended office complexes on the bridges were never let because they contravened building regulations, squatters moved in, mainly Italians at first. They were later evicted to be replaced a decade ago with the present, more restive, wave.

So why could no Paris erupt there? Those asked all had a pat answer: a community spirit had grown up. With everybody in the same boat, theres a strong link between people, Pollak explained. And to the credit of many volunteer groups, energies became channelled constructively. In practice, volunteers from the better-off bridges had mucked in to give a hand to their less fortunate neighbours.

Their kids go to the same schools, which brings families together, Costa said. Once there was vandalism and cars got burnt here as well. But now its calmed down. Anyway, if anything goes wrong, Im at hand to fix it. They call me Queen of the Down-and-Outs, you know, she proclaimed with some pride. She seemed to be forever organising events, the next being a whole day, 19 March, devoted to A Feast For Africa. She promised Africans from all over Rome would be there.

One young volunteer group, Ponte dIncontro (meeting-point bridge), explained: Our main aim is for young people to mix with each other, so as to break down the psychological and class barriers typical of the social backgrounds many of them come from. So they put on fishing competitions, for example.

Pollak has the final word. If at last things are moving here, its all because of [my] administration, he said.

The next expected development is that the three offending bridges are to be torn down. Answers to tenders for the job came in January with ATER pointing out, reasonably, that work would only begin after the removal of the squatters.

Where would they go? Yes, yes. Where? Where indeed? replied Pollaks spokesperson, Mariangela Stammena. Nobody seemed to know. And integration? All for nothing? And Adele?