I like [centre-left leader] Romano Prodi and Im going to vote for him at election time, but if I met him, Id almost slap him in the face for that remark about us: you know, about the danger of the suburbs of Italy exploding like the Paris ones last year. He damaged us with that remark. Why doesnt he come and see for himself? Theres absolutely no comparison between here and France. For one thing, there are very few immigrants here. Were not racist anyway, even if there were. Weve got a totally different mentality, a different approach to each other...

The outburst came from an indignant Rina Spagnoli, for 24 years a vivacious resident of what many Romans still dub the monster, or serpentone (as it snakes around). Otherwise known as Corviale, it is a massive barracks of popular housing literally one unbroken kilometre in length, a bold eyesore set in idyllic countryside close to the sea to the extreme west of Rome, just off the ancient Portuenese consular road. Sheep were grazing in the rolling pastures overlooked by the nine-storey building; a couple of wild horses were romping around and the clean air lay pungent in the lungs.

Corviale was the vision of a 1970s architect, Mario Fiorentino, who conceived it as a self-contained city-within-a-city. It welcomed its first occupants in 1982, among them Rina who, like many other of its current 6,500 residents, was an evictee from the centre of Rome. However, the vision immediately blackened into a suburban slum because its owner, the state-run housing authority now known as ATER, gave it to Romes city council to administer while it was still unfinished, before it even had drains, to then promptly leave it, and the people in it, to rot. Indeed, Fiorentino is said to have committed suicide after seeing the result.

So some 12 years ago, when this writer first set foot in Corviale, it was still a filthy ghetto, run-down and overcrowded with home-hungry, jobless Roman squatters. They had no electricity or services, and the place had garnered a deserved evil name for delinquency.

Today the building itself has been improved only marginally, but the feel, the social atmosphere or spirit, of Corviale was almost unrecognisable. It smacked of nascent recovery. There is a swimming pool, talk of a future theatre. It is now served by four bus routes, as opposed to not even one before. The municipal police had at last moved in; Romes 15th municipality, which includes Corviale, now actually holds its council meetings there to give residents a sense of belonging. It boasts a new library, and three years ago, Romes first-ever so-called social laboratory was set up inside a disused school, a pioneer work group for which Spagnoli herself now works. Heading the laboratory was Mauro Martini from the city councils suburban renewal department. We try to put people in touch with each other, he explained. Theyre already gaining an inkling of self-esteem. They all need psychological help here, as if theyd been through a trauma. For instance, some answered a questionnaire sent out by the laboratory by confessing that if looking for a job, they would never mention where they came from because of the name Corviale had.

The anger here is all linked to the state of the building itself, Spagnoli interjected. For instance, most of the lifts still dont work. If a grandmother on the ground floor wants to see her nephew on the ninth, she cant make it. So many people are still prisoners in their homes. But if you knock on somebodys door, now theyll answer. Not before

Inside, Corviale is like a penitentiary. Its endless, gloomy corridors have been portioned off into segments by grim steel grilles with knots of inmates staring through them as if wanting to escape. The doors of many of the locked flats are in turn protected from the outside by cage-like steel barriers which seem to have been slammed down like portcullises. An almost eerie silence hangs over everything, but despite the odd broken window and little piles of rubbish here and there, the corridor we were in was spotlessly clean.

Cleaning is up to individuals, explained Spagnoli. Some bits are like this. Others arent. Outside, a couple of burnt-out or abandoned cars lay about. Oh yes, she answered, theres petty delinquency and drug-trafficking here. Weve got our own pushers too, but they dont get in your way. Not like in some other suburbs, I tell you. And theres no bag-snatching here in Corviale. Not a bit of it.

But the fourth floor remained crammed with illegal nearly all Italian squatters who had turned what were originally intended as shops and offices into makeshift, boarded-up homes. We were not invited to go up for a look. Nobody even knew their number. A dicey census was apparently about to be taken

Some way away, the mayor of the 15th municipality, 42-year-old Giovanni Paris of the Democratici di Sinistra, sat in his panoramic office in the splendid hill-top Villa Bonelli overlooking Rome. He was all frustration. Yes, from the outside Corviale is not too bad. Inside, its terrible. It needs a complete overhaul. But we cant do a thing about it. Its not ours. Its ATERs. Were helpless. We can only work from the outside, as were trying to. Weve invested a lot in the project, trying to end peoples isolation there.

ATER is now planning to convert the fourth floor into proper flats for the squatters in order to legalise their tenure.

We dont agree. We want it to revert to its original role as Corviales commercial and admin floor. ATER has just got a new chairman. Lets hope hell do something.

And the Paris suburbs? Another shrug. France simply failed to tackle the consequences of its disastrous colonial past.