Archive for Venetian Problems
It’s been a while since I grappled with any serious aspect of Venice today. (History is so much more amusing.) But I feel a strange sense of obligation to update the situation for people who are interested, and who may have the impression from assorted news reports that the city’s biggest problems are tourists or big cruise ships or acqua alta.
Part of my silence is because Venice is in an exceptionally confusing, depressing, and frustrating situation and I am becoming allergic to confusion and frustration. And by reading the daily bulletins, it can be difficult to grasp the big picture. So I’m here to provide it for you.
In my opinion, Venice is living (enduring, suffering) one of those critical moments which occur in every life, whether personal or municipal or national or whatever. I have no doubt that people are already writing books about it, and will continue to do so till the next critical moment strikes, and may it be far, far in the future.
This little update seems appropriate just now because yesterday there was a “primary election” to decide who will be the mayoral candidate from the political party known as PD, or Partito Democratico (Communists). Three men were vying for this nomination from their party, and this is already strange because normally the officers/directors/stringpullers of the party decide who their candidate is going to be. It’s rare for there to be such conflict within a party that the public has to intervene to decide who to run.
The election is scheduled for May 31, and many cities are going to the polls that day. Here in Venice, some politicians have already commented that the state of the city is so catastrophic that it might be better not to waste money on elections, but to just stick with the emergency governor, commissario Vittorio Zappalorto (or someone like him, appointed by the prime minister). I realize that this approach probably shouldn’t be a long-term plan, but if the electorate here were to take seriously the suggestion by one candidate that nobody from the previous city government should be permitted to run, that would leave slim pickings indeed.
My own feeling is that anyone who would want to be mayor of Venice would be someone who would want to scale Everest, walking backwards, and naked. There can’t be much difference between the two adventures — painful for him, and close to futile. Sorry, I meant fatal.
Before I relate any specifics, I share this observation by Professor Guido Vittorio Zucconi which I found on the homepage of the Ateneo Veneto, one of the city’s major cultural institutions which offers lectures and other presentations on a variety of Venetian themes.
He said that the programming of events will undergo some innovations (I translate): “To give more weight to topics tied to the ‘city that is being transformed,’ rather than those of the ‘death of Venice': the city is not dying, but it is changing radically, showing itself too fragile for the tasks and for the impact which it must sustain every day.”
I’m clear on the fragility and the impact, but it’s the economy that has become the new instrument of daily torture. Basically, Venice doesn’t have an economy anymore.
First, the global economic crisis that began in 2008 dismembered the Italian economy. In an effort to get the country back on a steadier fiscal footing, the parliament — urged on by the heat-seeking missile which is the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi — passed a “Pact of Stability,” intended to establish budgetary limits all over the country and get everybody back on the black side of the ledger. If not? Budget cuts and penalties, and penalties and cuts, all outlined in the Pact.
Second, Venice, which for years has lived on the fat of government money via the “Special Law” for Venice, suddenly found itself not only required to prepare a budget according to the new limits, but one that would be based on real income, and not on subsidies. (Another “subsidy” of sorts, the income from taxes from the Casino, went into a death spiral about the same time.)
The city government tried all sorts of things: selling the Casino (failed), selling palaces (mostly failed), and a few mastodontic projects which instead of creating income, created only debt and grief. And money from the Special Law which had been intended for many uses had been funneled into the pockets and personal bank accounts of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, otherwise known as “MOSE,” leaving everybody else with that “It’s only the sixth of the month and I’ve already spent my entire paycheck” feeling.
In 2005 (before the crisis) the national government passed a special decree called the “Mille Proroghe,” and repeated it each year till 2014 (it skipped 2012). A “thousand deferments” is a rough translation, and was meant to resolve or — better yet — offer extensions to facilitate the resolution of certain urgent financial problems.
But by 2008 Italy was leaping on ice floes across the raging financial river, like Eliza fleeing to Canada, except that unlike Eliza, it fell in. And cities that couldn’t make their budgets balance were on their own, even big cities such as Torino and even Rome.
On June 4, 2014 the city government imploded, and on July 2, 2014, Venice was placed under the administration of a temporary governor, Vittorio Zappalorto, whose assignment was to do whatever it took to force the budget even somewhat close to reality. In one of his first interviews, he said “I’m worried, but I’ll straighten out the accounts.”
That was then. After months of pitiless toil, cuts and slashes everywhere, Zappalorto finally concluded that there was nothing more that could be done to save the ship; he was even quoted as saying that if Rome didn’t step in with funds, all the sacrifices people had been forced to make would have been useless.
But Rome wasn’t feeling Venice’s pain; in fact, there were enough other cities in the same desperate straits that it seemed impossible, if not absurd, to favor one town ahead of the others. Why Venice and not Aquila? (Not a completely rhetorical question.)
Desperate meetings finally produced a way to save Venice from default. At 4:03 AM on February 16, 2015, the “Salva Venezia” (save Venice) amendment was inserted into the Mille Proroghe bill 2015 to be voted on.
This was only slightly good news, because there appeared to be a great reluctance on the part of the Prime Minister to give any special consideration to Venice, and hundreds of parliamentarians from all over Italy weren’t necessarily clear on the reasons why Venice deserves more help than their own region or city.
Of course, cutting spending (good) also means cutting jobs (very bad), and social services, and other non-frivolous aspects of city management. An example of what “cuts” mean: Only one and a half million euros of what ought to be nine million euros were allocated in the budget for 2015 for the 3,000 city employees.
Last year it was the then-mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, who went to Rome pleading for mercy. But now it was Zappalorto, the very man sent specifically by the Prime Minister to shape up the city, who had to step forward to ask for clemency.
On February 22, virtually at the last minute, the “Save Venice” amendment was passed, on the condition that the city’s budget be subject to monthly reviews for the next year. It’s sort of the equivalent of being grounded for the next twelve months.
The problem is how to fill in a hole in the budget that amounts to 56 million euros. I won’t start listing categories and amounts of cuts, or the various exceptions, but it’s worth noting that the city government isn’t going to have money to buy anything for its own daily operation except “paper, office supplies, and toner.” Not made up.
Before leaving this excruciating topic — and before anyone feels too tempted to weep — I have to say that although the city is broke, it has to a certain extent brought this on itself. Essentially, the city maxed-out its credit cards several years ago, and many things it has spent money on have not proved to be useful, and some are sitting half-finished, or not even started, growing weeds.
Somewhere there is a comprehensive list, but I’ll just give a few examples of the money that has been thrown out the windows with wild abandon on the Lido, summarized by the Gazzettino on March 6 under the headline “Projects and public works A flop of 100 million” (euros, rounded down). You may not care about the Lido, nor do I, but the following will demonstrate some part of the mentality which has driven the Good Ship Venice onto the pecuniary reef.
About ten years ago, more or less, a number of huge “improvement” projects were confected which would “re-launch” the island, which had lost its luster and also most of its tourist income.
The star project would be the new Palacinema for the Venice Film Festival, which was designed as a sort of multiplex with numerous theaters; another would be a vast yacht marina at San Nicolo’, a space which would be as big as the Giudecca; and another was the conversion of various buildings which comprise the once quite marvelous (and useful) Ospedale al Mare, or Hospital at the Sea, to private uses such as apartments.
The new Palacinema was approved in 2004; time was spent in the search for additional funding, work began around 2008 with the ripping out of a shady pine grove near the old building, and some excavating began. And then almost immediately stopped, because in 2009 the diggers began to pull up loads of asbestos trash, thrown away by God knows who over the years and then covered up by other occult hands. Nobody thought of taking soil samples before bringing in the backhoes.
And there the Palacinema sits — or rather, the hole sits — frozen in time, and 38,613,000 euros have been spent on a site which remains devastated and on which not one brick has yet been laid. Some wag has put up a street sign with the fictitious but too-true name, “Piazza Quaranta Milioni” (Forty Million Square). It’s a lot to pay for a hole that’s 9 feet (3 meters) deep.
Palacinema, Part 2: Seeing that the costs were rising, the city removed the project managers and installed a commissario, or temporary overseer, which cost an additional 1,500,000 euros. (I can’t explain this, I merely report it.) The financial magistrates stated that this whole affair was a “handbook example” of waste of public money.
Ospedale al Mare: Cleaning up and preparing the areas for the new uses, which have yet to even begin being realized, has cost 1,600,000 euros.
The glorious yacht marina at San Nicolo': 8,000,000 euros spent, with nothing done so far except court cases with lots of accusations. If I had time (and cared), I’d do more research on what could have cost that much for no results.
New traffic layout on the seafront: 2,000,000 euros spent, with no results so far.
Hotel Des Bains: This legendary landmark Belle Epoque hotel, famous for its starring role in “Death in Venice” (book and film), not to mention its 100 years of fabulous guests, remains closed since the project of turning it into a luxury-apartment complex failed. 30,000,000 euros spent so far, and its extraordinary decorations (fabrics, curtains, furniture) were put up for sale, even on the internet.
So yes, we should feel bad that Venice is broke, but we should also feel bad that it got this way because nobody cared about much of anything but themselves.
Prosperity depends on a simple choice: Make more, or spend less. They just got it backward.
One thing that everybody loves about Venice is that it seems so old. Of course, it is old. It’s kind of like a Byzantine/Renaissance/Baroque/Neo-Classical Lascaux Caves, except that it’s inhabited.
I pause to say that I know there are at least 14 continuously inhabited cities in the world that are far, far older than Venice. I was just making the point that many visitors are struck with astonishment at the fact that Venice was ever created, an emotion I believe the cave paintings also elicit. But I’m getting off the point.
One thing that makes it feel old when you’re living here is the endless cycle of the same old things, and when I say that I don’t mean the Befana (with its utterly predictable brief annual cluster of highly-charged articles about the dangerous effects of the air pollution caused by the bonfires’ smoke), or the feast of the Redentore, or other celebrations.
By “same things” I mean issues that just keep coming up, that continue to be transformed in a shape-shifting way by assorted groups, interested parties, and random changes of circumstance, but that never get settled. Even in the rare instances when a problem appears to have been resolved, before long we discover that it has spawned new problems. And the cycle begins again.
In the few days since 2015 began, the Gazzettino has filled its pages with a new crop of the old. Such as:
MOSE: No, this time it’s not about the gates themselves, nor about the billions that were stolen to pay off its many participants, collaborators, and well-wishers. Now it’s about the conca, or basin (#4 on the image above), which was dug at the inlet of Malamocco to permit the passage of ships on the occasions when the gates are raised.
For one thing, it’s too small.
It has been designed to accommodate ships up to 280 meters (918 feet) long and 39 meters (128 feet) wide. These dimensions are already too small for the largest cruise ships, the ones that certain groups want to compel to enter the lagoon by way of Malamocco instead of by the Bacino of San Marco. So a mega-cruise ship wanting to come to Venice would have to hang around outside in the Adriatic until the tide turned and the gates were lowered, to let them continue with their plan to unload thousands of passengers and take on more. Having to delay entry sounds like a new problem has just replaced the old.
But it gets worse. The fundamental problem isn’t size. It’s the positioning of the scogliera (skoh-LYEH-ra), or protective barrier, in relation to the basin. Stick with me here, because in the world of engineering “oops!” this is kind of special. And whatever you may think about cruise ships, we now have to consider the needs of real grown-up working ships that haul containers and petroleum and grain and coal (for the power station just on the edge of the mainland); these are ships for which time really is money.
The curve and position of the barrier built to shield the basin from wild stormy water (the kind you might well have if there is an exceptional acqua alta underway) makes it difficult — in some cases, perhaps impossible — for even smaller ships to navigate themselves into a perfect straight line to enter the basin.
“About 2,000 vessels (note: That’s nearly six per day) enter and exit the lagoon each year,” said Alessandro Santi, president of Assoagenti Veneto, the maritime agents’ association. “Of these, at least 350, in the current state of things, would be prevented from entering the basin.” They’d have to wait outside till the tide turned and the MOSE gates were lowered to allow them to enter by the usual channel.
Solution! Construct an additional rubber barrier (I have no further details) against which the ships could lean — a sort of fulcrum — to help them position themselves to enter the basin. I’m referring to the ships which can, in fact, enter the basin, which as you see isn’t going to be all of them.
Projected cost: 15 million euros ($17,669,900). That’s one heck of a patch.
Speaking of cost, the news has just come out that the completion date for MOSE has yet again been postponed. It is currently predicted to be finished in mid-2017, and will cost an additional 2 billion euros ($2,355,980,000). Unless it turns out to cost more, of course.
So why is this an old subject? Because it’s yet another aspect of a project that wasn’t planned correctly, but construction just went merrily along anyway, and now everybody is having to find ways to resolve problems that didn’t ever have to exist.
DEGRADO: The terse but expressive and useful term degrado (deh-GRAH-do) means “degradation,” and it finds innumerable uses. And I will keep this entry short because the subject deserves a post all of its own, if I could find the strength.
Degrado is a hydra-headed monster composed of graffiti, broken pavements, disintegrating nizioleti, and now strata of aging posters stuck up all over walls. The city of Venice, and myriad individuals, put up these pieces of paper with or without permission, and these announcements of all sorts of events, needs or offers stay there because once the moment has passed, who cares?
The city says it cares, and since 2012 has spent 856,000 euros ($1,008,360) to pay a private company named A.R. Promotion to affix posters and also to strip away the accumulated crud. But evidently the announcements breed at night and produce more old posters, or somehow the private company isn’t keeping up. Or perhaps even starting, who knows?
Breakdown of payments made: At the end of 2012 A.R. Promotion won the bid to do this work for one and a half years for 456,000 euros. A few years later, the same company got the job for about two years for 400,000 euros. The age of some of the posters indicates that in either one or other of these periods, the company somehow didn’t catch everything.
Let me say that having to hack away layers of gummy paper over a period of years does not speak well for the paper-hangers. Because while one could criticize the ability of A.R. Promotion to remove paper, one could much more justly criticize the cretins who put up the pieces of paper in the first place.
But back to the subject of payment for services rendered, or not: Cecilia Tonon, president of the volunteer group Masegni e Nizioleti, has raised her hand to ask why the city is paying for a service which evidently isn’t provided, when squadrons of members have turned out more than once to do a large amount of this very work for free. (I participated in one clean-up project, which I’ll write about another time.)
No answer has yet forthcome.
Intermission: News from the trial of the Indian couple who murdered their Iranian roommate, Mahtab Ahadsavoji, and dumped her body in the lagoon. The Indian girl has been identified as the culprit, and has been sentenced to 17 years in prison. Her boyfriend got a smaller sentence because he merely helped dispose of the evidence. Appeals will drag on.
BUDGET: For years now we’ve had to listen to the municipal choir singing the Anvil Chorus, financial version, whose refrain is “No ghe xe schei” (there is no money).
We found out last year that the reason there was no money was because it had all been gift-wrapped and given to politicians and businessmen involved in the MOSE project.
So now there really is no money.
After working his way upstream through heavy fire from outraged city employees facing drastic cuts, attempting to make the budget balance in some miraculous way (“miraculous” meaning “money from Rome”), the emergency governor, Vittorio Zappalorto, has had to say it isn’t working. The city is 60 million euros ($70,855,800) in the hole.
“The situation is unsustainable,” he said. “We’ve reached a point of no return, The next mayor is going to have” (I freely translate) “one hell of a hideous job.” The Casino’, once an endless font of funds, is also now crouching over its begging bowls. The sale of palaces is almost the only option for raising money, but so far they are being sold at slashed, fire-sale prices, or not being sold at all.
POVEGLIA: Remember the popular groundswell, funded by citizen contributions, to acquire the island and restore it for the use of the Venetians rather than let it be sold to one of those terrible foreign companies which would transform it into a hotel?
All stuck in lawyer-land. The city put the island up for bids; the highest bid, from a private businessman, was snubbed by the city as being ridiculously low. To which the bidder has replied, “But you had no higher bids in this auction. So?”
In any case, the groundswell of Venice-for-the-Venetians emotion hasn’t been heard from in quite some time, considering that since last June 4, when the sky fell on Venice, much bigger problems have overcome everybody. It would be extremely difficult, in the current climate, to get anybody excited about an abandoned island.
BIG CRUISE SHIPS: This is an issue that’s so photogenic that it cauterizes people brains, rendering them incapable of thought. In battling to ban the ships from passing in the Bacino of San Marco, the enthusiasts have created a much larger problem, which is how to keep the port economy going when some cruise lines have already canceled their plans to come to Venice in 2015.
The no-big-ships people haven’t given any sign of caring much about the port itself, but they are baffled as to how to they feel about the digging of the Contorta Canal (officially named the Canale Contorta S. Angelo). But it seems clear to almost everybody that deepening the canal will create so many more problems than it solves that it makes my teeth grind all by themselves.
The tug of war about approving the Contorta canal is going to continue for an unspecified time. Another year, anyway, I have no doubt. There will be flourishing crops of claims, counter-claims, and recriminations.
Meanwhile, due to the canceled cruises, 300,000 fewer passengers are expected this year. This means people may very well be laid off or fired, and all the rest of the ripple effect that doesn’t need describing. There is also the loss of income from the taxes paid by the ship companies to be considered. Nice.
But what I don’t understand is why the ships are vilified as ugly, and therefore deserving of death, when everyday ugliness like graffiti just keeps rolling along, singing a song.
Old? New? Is there a difference?
As all the world knows — or that part of the world that reads this blog — the ACTV, or Azienda del Consorzio Trasporti Veneziano, is the local public transport company. When it’s in the mood.
The ACTV is an apex predator, which means it can do anything it wants. Strike? Bring it on. Send boats to the shop for repairs on a holiday weekend? You bet. Raise ticket prices again? Great idea. Do we regret any possible inconvenience? With all our hearts.
People in other human settlements might regard public transport as a public service. The administrators of the ACTV seem to regard transport as a favor, an onerous, tiresome, inconvenient and irritating sort of favor they’re compelled to grant the traveling public, like having to take your mother-in-law to the gynecologist on Saturday morning because you promised five months ago.
I can almost hear the murmuring soundtrack in the administrators’ brains. It says: “If only we didn’t have to haul all those people around every day, and repair boats, and go out in unpleasant weather, running a transport company could be so much fun. But no.”
I bring all this up not because two days ago the Gazzettino reported that two ticket-sellers have been fired for having recycled vaporetto tickets, pocketing large amounts of free money. That is a non-story because there will always be more. I say this because there always are more.
No, I bring it up because this weekend is election time all over Europe, in which the citizens of the EU are voting for their representatives in the European Parliament. Sunday will be election day in Italy. Yes, Italians vote on Sunday.
And who will be working the polling places? Employees of the ACTV. Why does this matter? Because bus and vaporetto service on Sunday is almost certainly going to be curtailed for lack of drivers, ticket-sellers, and so forth. The agency is alerting us to this already.
Sunday, you may recall, is a peak day for day-tripping tourists, especially when the weather is sunny, which it is expected to be. Just another example of how thoughtless people are regarding the ACTV’s convenience, to want to come to Venice on a Sunday.
Here is how the long-suffering officers of the ACTV phrase it, on the company’s website (translated by me):
“…seeing the experience of the past years…we estimate that an increased and unpredictable number of employees could be called to serve at the polling places… in past years, the phenomenon was so pronounced as to oblige the company to suppress some runs, whether of boats or of buses.
“Therefore the same risk may be run this year, and given the unpredictability of the absences, the possibility can’t be excluded that the agency could be constrained to apply reductions of service (vaporetto and bus) without being able to indicate in advance the lines or the precise runs that could be involved.”
I dwell with incredulous eyes on the lavish phrases of warning and exculpation. Why are the absences unpredictable? Why would the agency be constrained to limit service? Do they not have enough employees to go around? Why can’t you indicate in advance the lines and times that could be involved? And why, now that I’m busy asking questions, can’t you prepared to call in replacements? This election was scheduled months ago. It’s not like the fog.
If you would like to ask something, you might inquire as to what kind of idea of public service this might be. It’s the “We can do whatever we want because you have no alternative” idea.
And as long as there are questions in the air, you may further ask why ACTV employees have been given this assignment — and why they will get time off with pay to provide this manpower, especially considering that the people working the polling places also get paid. The answer is simple: Because getting money twice to do virtually nothing is a wonderful way to spend the day.
You may then ask (as I did) why ACTV employees enjoy this little perk, and not, say, members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, or the Red Cross, or the World Wildlife Fund, or someone else.
Because the ACTV contracts stipulate that their members will be allowed time off with pay for providing this service.
This is a marvelous clause, and if their contract were to contain similarly marvelous clauses, it would only make me more astonished that they ever bother to go on strike. It’s a wonderful life on Planet ACTV.
But I noticed that, at least as Lino explained it to me, the contract doesn’t stipulate that ACTV employees must be called. So why doesn’t the Board of Elections ring up the grain millers, or the Red Cross, etc., and just tell the ACTV employees “Sorry, but you’re going to have to go to work today. The panda-counters will supervise the voting. You’re going to have to do your job carrying thousands of people around the lagoon. Bummer.”
I don’t know why. But all this makes me think disagreeable thoughts. The ACTV is eager to take money by fining a passenger who hasn’t beeped his ticket before boarding, even if the ticket is a monthly pass which obviously has been paid in full. They demand this immaterial beeping, and punish non-compliers. We demand a boat every 12 or 20 or 30 minutes, or whatever the timetable is at the moment, and we get “Sorry, we can’t guarantee service because we’ve been constrained, obliged, and otherwise compelled to suspend runs by forces beyond our control, beyond even our ability to predict, which causes us to feel distress at the plight we have inflicted on you totally against our will, even though we’re inflicting it anyway.”
The world belongs to the ACTV, in the same way that it belongs to killer whales, Nile crocodiles, Harpy eagles. Because although you can kill these creatures, if you really try, you can’t possibly make them afraid. Or even vaguely apprehensive.
If you don’t think this could be a correct assessment, you should know that the ACTV has announced a 24-hour strike for May 30.
No, we don’t have bikini-clad babes rocking in-line skates zooming up and down via Garibaldi — yet — but one evening a while back we definitely had the beach.
Strolling up the street, we noticed an animated group forming. It was composed of people of various sizes and they were looking at something, and talking to each other about it, and looking some more.
A pool of water was forming at the juncture between two stretches of pavement, stretches which were not on the same plane, hence the pool. And we could see water flowing toward the pool from an undiscernible source.
That’s a fancy way of saying: What? Where?
The “what” is a trick question — it was obviously a burst water pipe. But the “where” was beginning to concern everybody.
And there was also the “who,” as in: Who’s going to come find the lair of this rampaging beast and vanquish it?
There wasn’t any “why?,” though. Considering that most of Venice is held together with flour paste and baling wire, bits of the city breaking, separating, subsiding, or otherwise deteriorating does not, in itself, inspire surprise. So the fact that a pipe had burst appeared to arouse reactions no more urgent than “Gosh, wouldja look at that,” or “It could have been worse.” Why does that thought never comfort me?
So: A city falling to bits and water passing through pipes. So far, so not-worthy-of-wonder. Water would be the easiest thing to imagine issuing from a water pipe.
What surprised me was the sand. Unlike the Lido, most of Venice isn’t built on sand dunes. It’s built on mud, clay, or other forms of soil not containing a high percentage of silica.
But the silica is here now, because — as a fireman friend explained it to me — as pipes were laid over time, snaking around under those tough trachyte paving stones, the workers noted that the softer the soil, the easier it was to open up the street and work on the pipes, as needed. So over time the soil they replaced when the work was finished was more friable, more granular, just generally softer.
This is the main reason why the paving stones are now so apt to subside, especially near the fondamentas where the pounding of the waves caused by thousands of motorboats a day (not made up) pulls this now more fragile material out from under the stones and out to sea.
Help came in a relatively short time, the break was located, the water ceased to flow, the sand no longer swam out from the underworld into the light — artificial,true, but light just the same. Next day, the traces were hardly noticeable.
But now I know there’s all that sand just under the stones, more than I had suspected. This doesn’t bode well for anybody, except for babes in bikinis. And the maintenance men, naturally, for whose sakes Venice is now even more fragile than before.