Archive for Carrera

Nov
17

Exodus but no promised land

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Esodo.   (EH-zo-do.)   It means “exodus,” but this simple term — like “Fort Sumter” or “potato famine” — is freighted with history and emotion.

When  a Venetian refers to the Esodo, he or she is referring to a   Gordian convolution of elements of which the Mother Strand which  is knotting up everything else is this: Everybody’s leaving.   Not all at once, obviously, but at a fairly steady rate of 1,500 a year.   This has been going on for decades.

In 1981, the population of the "historic center" was just below 95,000.  On December 31, 2008, it was touching 60,000.  (Source:  Statistics and Research Service, Comune di Venezia.)

In 1981, the population of the "historic center" was just below 95,000. On December 31, 2008, it was touching 60,000. (Source: Statistics and Research Service, Comune di Venezia.)

In 55 years (1951-2006), the “historic center” (“postcard Venice,” as I put it) has lost 65 percent of its population.   It shrank from 171,808 residents to 63,925.     At this writing, the population is 60,311 and still falling.   I’ll pause to let that sink in.

If “exodus” seems to be  a dramatic word, calling to mind haggard refugees plodding toward the horizon, the reality it connotes is not less  dramatic, and potentially fatal to the city’s future.     “‘Save Venice’   is passe’,” professor Fabio Carrera, a Venetian, told me, only slightly in jest  — ”  We need ‘Save the Venetians.'”

The reason the city doesn’t look like the desolate wasteland it is becoming is partly because the casual visitor doesn’t miss what he/she/they never knew.   If you’re just walking around for a day, everything looks fine.   Self-suggestion is a powerful force, and if you believe that Venice is inhabited by Venetians, you probably won’t notice much to contradict that idea, even though it’s mostly tourists who are filling up the empty spaces, both on the streets and in the apartments.

Economic pressures generated and intensified by the steady increase in tourism (3 per cent a year, till this year), have conspired to cause something resembling forced migration.   Venetians have been packing up and moving out for many reasons: Lack of jobs here (businesses closing, even as you read this, due to rents which keep rising, and competitivity which keeps falling), the exaggerated cost of housing, the general cost of living, and even the nature of ordinary daily life (“fatiguing,” demanding,” “inconvenient,” even diehard Venetians will admit).

Over the past 20 years, the proportion of families in the historic center made up of only one person (most often a widow) has reached almost half of the total.  Not a factor conducive to a long and prosperous municipal future.  (Source: Statistics and Research Office, Comune di Venezia.)

Over the past 20 years, the proportion of families in the historic center made up of only one person (most often a widow) has reached almost half of the total. Not a factor conducive to a long and prosperous municipal future. (Source: Statistics and Research Office, Comune di Venezia.)

To consider each of these points more closely, let’s look at the last first.   Living in Venice, beautiful and fascinating as it may be, is not for everyone.   Living here is a vocation, like being a priest, and it too  involves sacrifices (and rewards).      Considering how heavy — and even impossible — some of those sacrifices have come to be, I can understand why the city can’t keep its kids at home.   Not everyone wants to walk five miles a day shlepping the shopping, wedging themselves and their kids onto vaporettos crammed with tourists and their inconceivable  luggage, paying prices for even the simplest items which you know cost half as much on the mainland.

Leaving Venice — apart from being carried out in  a pine box — has usually meant a move to the mainland towns.   First it was Mestre and Marghera, then the territory of Venetian exiles expanded to a  series of smaller sub- and exurbs such as Zelarino, Chirignago, and Favaro Veneto.   I think of it as Venice’s “near abroad,” the way Russia refers to its former republics.   Except some of these settlements were mere wide spots in the country roads winding through fields till the Esodo began.

Mestre and Marghera have been part of the municipal entity known as the Comune di Venezia since 1926.   In 1951, the proportion of inhabitants between Venice and its mainland component was 55:21.   In 2006, it was 23:66.

Second point: Cost of housing and of living.   Here again, the pressure of tourism works against the city’s ultimate well-being (as a city, I mean, not as a theme park).   There is very little residential space for rent (for many reasons, one of which is laws which heavily favor the tenant), and the passion which non-Venetians have for buying a place here has led to phenomenal real estate speculation, pushing prices so high a normal Venetian can’t even spell them, much less pay them.   The Giudecca has replaced Tuscany as your well-off Briton’s favorite Italian place for a second home.

The future of a real Venice needs to have many more of these.

The future of a real Venice needs to have many more of these.

Depending on the neighborhood, a modest dwelling can cost up to $5,000 per  square meter (or 10 square feet).   For the same amount of money (assuming you might have that much), or even less, you could get a place on the mainland that was multiple times larger, in better condition, with an elevator, and a garage, and a garden, and so on.   If you’re a young family on a budget, you’re going to delete “romance” from your list of domestic requirements and go west.

And finally, the first point: Lack of jobs.   Until the middle of the last century, Venice was a city that worked.   The Arsenal was still going strong, repairing ships; the colossal Molino Stucky was making pasta, from grinding the wheat to  boxing and shipping the final product; there were 20 printing presses; there were factories in Venice and on the Giudecca making cigarettes, cotton thread, asphalt, clocks, pianos, fireworks, beer, and luxury fabrics.   I’m probably leaving something out.   If you needed work, you’d have had to stay in bed to avoid finding it.

The cost of everything has not only forced out families, but also businesses.   They keep closing, or moving, taking their  jobs with them.   Now, some 20,000 people commute to work on the mainland every morning.

So while “esodo” is what everybody calls it, I’d compare it more to a Class III hemorrhage, caused perhaps by several events but  which, taken together,  damage the vital functions and left unaddressed will probably kill you.

I know a number of ex-residents — they would still call themselves “Venetians” — who have moved to Mestre.   (If you’re a native of Mestre, you’re referred to as a “Mestrino/a.”   If you go anywhere outside the Veneto region, though, you will almost certainly tell people you’re from Venice.   Technically, it’s not a lie, but your listener will be imagining you in a gondola and not stuck in traffic on the way to the airport.)

The older these exiles are, the less willing they were to make this move.   One of them, a guy I know who belongs to a boat club over there, makes a point of rowing over here with his buddies as often as he can.

They stopped in the canal outside one afternoon and rang my doorbell.   We had a little schmooze, but he ignored his three companions’ pleas to get going because he had to — HAD TO — show me something.   Because his grandparents used to live in  our building, and when he was born — he dragged me around the corner — his grandfather immediately took him  to this very canal (he showed me the very steps going down into the very water) and dunked him three times.   “This red bandanna,” he pointed to his neckerchief, “means I’m from Castello.”   His friends were rolling their eyes,  but to him it was something utterly crucial about him, about the city, about the world the way it used to be, a world that doesn’t and can’t and won’t ever exist on the mainland.

I’ve met ex-Venetians who come over from Mestre on Sunday afternoon just to stroll around, just to be here.   Like going back to the old home place.   On a personal level, it is pure pathos, which doesn’t primarily mean “sad,” it means “suffer.”   I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a transplanted Venetian say, “Life is so much better since we left Venice.”   I have heard some say, “We really, really miss it.”   The emotional reality of this erases much of the importance of factors such as cost of living, crowded vaporettos, and all those other drawbacks I mentioned above.

In many ways, Venice is an excellent town for older people; lots of human contact, and you are compelled to walk, whether you feel like it or not.  But as the shape of families changes, more of the elderly are living alone.

In many ways, Venice is an excellent town for older people; lots of human contact, and you are compelled to walk, whether you feel like it or not. But as the shape of families changes, more of the elderly are living alone.

The city government is not oblivious to what’s going on.   There are spasmodic attempts to get a grip on some appendage of this monster, and a recent recalculation shows that the departures have slowed, if not stopped.   New apartments built or renovated to be made available at advantageous prices to Venetians was an excellent idea, then it was discovered that there were Venetians buying them in order to  re-sell them.   Jobs?   Nobody seems to   know where more  might be found.   I think I saw one around here the other day, but I can’t remember where.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be the mayor of Venice and go abroad to some big international conference of mayors.   And someone asks, “So, how are things in your city?”   (I overlook his probable first response which would be “Fine, except that the people are morons.”)   I imagine him saying “Fine,” period.   Or maybe, “Well, could be better.”   Or maybe, “We’re  evaluating some  exciting new projects,” or however mayors phrase it.

It would be much harder to have the nerve to admit, “There are a lot of great things about my city, except that nobody can live there.   I’m mayor of a city in which it is becoming literally impossible to live.”   What response could anyone give to that statement?   It would be like asking a ship’s captain about his vessel and hearing him say, “She’s in great shape, except for that large hole in the hull.”   Nor would it make much sense for him to say, in effect: “Hey! At least we’re still floating!”

In the end, there may not actually be any compelling reason to halt this hemorrhage.   Mestre is big and modern and loaded with taxpayers with disposable income.   Venice is little and decrepit and not really self-sufficient.   If I block the emotional component, it may make more sense to just keep the patient on life support (tourists, sponsors, etc.) than attempt to return it to health and vigor.

It bears some thinking about.   In fact, now that this radical  thought has occurred to me, it’s going to be bothering me a lot.

Categories : History, Problems
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Most of the journalism about Venice, either print or TV, points out tourism as Venice’s main defining characteristic, which is about as simple a discovery to make as that  water fills the canals.      Apparently the  appeal is eternal to the average journalist and editor looking for a story which is immediately sensational and not at all hard to do.   A story on tourism here practically writes and photographs itself.

In doing so  the reporters  universally bewail it, to one degree or another, in the same way one would bewail any uncontrollable  natural disaster such as grasshopper swarms, tornadoes, avalanches.   You’d almost think that  tourists come to Venice deliberately  to wreak havoc on an innocent, helpless, unsuspecting, undeserving  victim.   The lines in these stories are usually pretty clear: City Good, Tourist Bad.

Pictures of mass tourism at its most intense are the easiest images in the world to take, the journalistic equivalent of  hitting the bull’s-eye from one foot away.  Anybody can do it — I’ve done it myself.   You don’t even have to open your eyes to take impressive pictures of the worst aspects of mass tourism.   In fact it’s probably better if you don’t.

But there is much more to the situation than the simple outlines sketched by the just-passing-through journalists.  

Catching some rays at the entrance to the church of San Zaccaria.

Catching some rays at the entrance to the church of San Zaccaria.

I am not defending the behavior of large segments of the mass tourist population.   These are generically labeled  “turisti da culo,” which literally means ass-tourists, but generally conveys a wide range of rude, thoughtless, generally sub-civilized behavior.   There is never any lack of examples, especially in the summer.   This race of tourist is horrifying, demoralizing, offensive, depressing.   I could tell you stories.   And yes, of course there are too many of them.

 

 

 

A bridge, the narrower the better, is always a useful place to have lunch.

A bridge, the narrower the better, is always a useful place to have lunch.

But I want to pause for a moment in mid-cliche’ to regard the situation from two important points of view which are rarely addressed as everyone is busy wailing and gnashing their teeth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And you bivouac the troops wherever you find a space.

And you bivouac the troops wherever you find a space.

First, the  city officials who have been assigned the role of City Councilor for Tourism over the years are politicians.   They are not trained in the industry of tourism, an industry as demanding and complex  as making steel or developing drugs.   Further, it is the nature of the  political breed to be cautious and easily swayed by conflicting demands, which makes planning, and then executing any plan, hugely difficult.   And unappealing.   Politicians on the whole tend to avoid “difficult” and “unappealing.”   So a lot of tiny,  disconnected   actions are undertaken to minimize, if not solve, whatever is  the most pressing problem of the moment.  

The current Councilor for Tourism, a native Venetian lawyer named Augusto Salvadori, is famous for  his impassioned oratory on behalf of his beloved city, the need to protect her and defend her and nourish and cherish her.   It’s like the wedding vow.   He is often on the verge of weeping before he finishes.   People have come to expect it.

But he has no program, he has only little temporary fixettes.   My favorite was the recent day to promote Decorum (yes, that’s the word they use for clean, tidy and polite), one of  whose more publicized aspects was that the city offered to donate geraniums to anybody who wanted them, in order to brighten up the windowsills.   If he had thought of donating  the same number of large trash bins to be distributed far and wide to mitigate the incessant leaving of garbage on said windowsills because no alternative is to be found, the city wouldn’t need flowers in order to look better.   You can walk from the vaporetto stop at San Pietro di Castello as far as the  Bridge of the Veneta Marina (a straight shot of about 20 minutes, if you dawdle) without finding one (1) trash bin of any size whatsoever.  

Speaking of decorum, this little midden is two steps from City Hall.  It's been here so long that cobwebs have begun to cover it.

Speaking of decorum, this little midden is two steps from City Hall. It's been here so long that cobwebs have begun to cover it.

There aren’t many people who are willing to walk around town indefinitely with their empty soda can, beer bottle, or plastic ice-cream cup in their hand, searching for a place to dispose of it.  

So: Point One is that the persons in charge of tourism here are unprepared for anything other than Making Suggestions.   Which isn’t the same as Having Ideas.  

Tourism is Venice’s only source of income.   Yet it is inexplicably and profoundly — even stubbornly — even proudly, it sometimes seems  —  mishandled.   The individuals charged with managing this important, complicated, potentially destructive resource could be compared to a person hired as director of a mercury mine whose previous job had been, say, as the Judges and Stewards Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association.

“We need some truly visionary people,” professor Fabio Carrera told me the other evening.   “There’s no long-range thinking.   It’s very short-range.”   A few months ago there was tremendous blowing of trumpets and waving of banners to publicize “VeniceConnected,” the next big step in tourism management here: One-stop  online booking.   Carrera snorts.   “All these ideas that were good maybe five years ago, like VeniceConnected online.   We should be doing ten times better in the future.   But they think ‘We’re innovating’ by doing this crap.”

The fact that there is chaos at the top naturally leads to chaos all the way down to the poor bastard trying to find a place   in the shade to have some kind of  lunch that won’t cost a fortune.   Bathrooms — can’t find them.    Open late, close early.    Vaporettos — confusing.   Signage — random and often homemade.   img_1794-homemade-sign-compStreet vendors — insistent and vaguely disturbing.   Which leads to Point Two.

Point Two: Nobody ever takes the trouble to report on what is demanded of  a tourist here.   I see it every day and even as it repels me it also inspires something like pity.   It must be the vacation equivalent of the Ranger Assessment Phase at Fort Benning, especially if you’ve got kids.   I once stopped to help a family of three standing at the foot of a bridge with their eight suitcases (I counted them), unable to figure out where they were, much less how to get to their hotel.   They had been standing there for a while.  

Visiting Venice in the summer will almost certainly be hot, tiring, baffling, occasionally even upsetting, and it can cost far too much.   A one-ride ticket on the vaporetto costing 6.50 euros ($9) is far too much.   Two euros ($2.80)  for a half-liter (two cups) bottle of water is far too much.    Disposing  of the  result of the water you drank, if you avail yourself of one of the  few but very clean  municipal bathrooms costs   1.50 euros ($2), which is far too much.   But cheaper than the  original bottle of water, true.  

I am  not defending or excusing the type of tourist of which one sees way too many here: Oblivious, rude, loud, and often, yes, ugly.   The garb, the behavior, the everything is impossible to defend.   When people leave home, many evidently leave their manners at the kennel with the dog.   (The fact that there can also be rude, loud, ugly Venetians is noted by the court, but doesn’t have any bearing on this case.)   But to be a tourist here, enchanting as the city is, must  be debilitating.    

Still,  that doesn’t explain why they have to shuffle around the narrow streets like wounded water buffalo, stopping with no warning and blocking your passage, or to ride the vaporetto with 60-pound packs on their backs, nonchalantly laying waste to everyone around them as they turn this way and that, admiring the view.  

So let’s sum up the situation:  The city puts up with aggravations and discourtesies and even damage, large and  small, all day, every day, and also at night, but it  gets money.   And the tourist struggles around a bewildering, overloaded bunch of Baroque/Renaissance/Veneto-Byzantine-laden islands, but gets lots of pictures of canals and belltowers.

I don’t know.   Something is definitely missing from these equations.

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Categories : Problems, Tourism
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