Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tending to Venice

                                               A group of volunteers cleans a barena near Certosa last Saturday                      photo credit: Jen

There was a large, spirited protest against cruise ships in Venice yesterday afternoon, complete with live bands playing on a barge moored just off the Zattere in the Giudecca Canal, well over a thousand (and perhaps as high as 2,000) attendees, and delays in the scheduled departures of the largest of those ships due to leave.

Faced with a hostile crowd, some cruise ships apparently decided they had no choice but to sacrifice the lordly perspective looking down on a legendary city in the golden light of a late afternoon that they'd promised their passengers and slink out, instead, under cover of night--when the crowd of protesters would at least be smaller and less visible, if not entirely gone.

But Sunday afternoon (and early evening) was not only about cruise ships. From the stage, and from various tables set up along the Zattere, the message was, more broadly, that Venetians would continue to fight for the existence of Venice as a living city, not a theme park, stripped of residents; not an environmentally-ravaged dead lagoon.

I've posted about this topic so much lately that I have no interest in doing so again at length. Suffice it to say, it registers somewhat differently with someone who lives here full-time with a son who, at this point in his life, ardently imagines for himself a life in the lagoon, than it does with those who visit even for extended periods or own a second home here. The latter are rarely confronted by the lived reality of a life in Venice which, of late, with the start of school, has included classrooms that were not cleaned all summer long and a schoolyard so infested with rats that children had to be kept in during recess, along with such a shortage of city funds that toilet paper is quite literally rationed. (Is this an improvement over those schools in Venice where students are asked to supply their own? You decide.)

Our son's school makes headlines, unfortunately, for being filthy
At the first meeting of the school year for parents, at which our son's teachers were to lay out the year's educational aims, as well as tell parents about the school supplies that all students would need, these were the kinds of non-academic topics the teachers had to address, trying as best they could to somehow keep the general mood optimistic. It didn't work for everyone. My wife Jen reported that the father seated beside her kept muttering under his breath at various points in the presentation, "Terzo mondo..." That is, "third world."

And yet, cruise ship traffic is higher than ever before and the total number of tourists steadily grows! These, according to Venice's mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, and the head of its port, Paolo Costa, are the engines of the local economy--and yet while these engines spin ever faster you'll be hard pressed to find any growth in local benefits.

On the contrary, the city continues to lose residents and fixtures of local life continue to vanish. As reported in yesterday's edition of La Nuova di Venezia, four fish stalls have recently closed in the famous Rialto fish market, mostly for lack of customers. Over the past few years the total number of fishmongers at the Rialto has been halved, from 18 to 9. As one fish seller says in the La Nuova article, the ever-increasing numbers of tourists gawk and snap photos as much as they ever have--what they don't do, however, is buy anything.

The city needs a mayor committed to a comprehensive plan to maintain--or re-establish--Venice as a living city; something which a subservience to a monoculture of mass tourism clearly has not done, and is not doing. What the city seems to have instead is a real estate developer-in-chief.  

Development plans pour out of Mayor Brugnaro: to turn the old fort of Sant'Andrea into a luxury resort, to expand the old grass-runway Nicelli Airport on  Lido in anticipation of a big ski event, to do this and that with the old Ospedale all Mare on Lido, to name just a few... None of which, nor all of which, will actually address what ails the city of Venice and its residents--though it will create some nice plum construction contracts to hand out to a favored few.

But of course it is not just Brugnaro, and it is not just Venice. As the cultural critic Stuart Hall put it, "A pervasive, ruthlessly competitive and privatized 'common sense' has penetrated popular consciousness, corrupted business practices and public life, and invaded and transformed every sphere of life..." 

The first step to addressing the problems of Venice is to consider them from outside of this "common sense," as various community groups and scholar and citizens have been trying to do for many years. Groups which continue to try to be heard.

In the meantime, in this "best of all possible private-profit-at-public-expense-driven-world" (see the great ongoing MOSE flood gate swindle) we must also continue to "tend our own garden." Which is, in this case, the lagoon. This is just what a group of volunteers did last Saturday, as part of a nation-wide project by the non-profit environmental group Legambiente: picking up garbage from a large barena (mudflat) near the island of Certosa and rowing through canals to collect more of the same.

What remains of the life of Venice can be found, I think, in such community-oriented activities; activities of which the vast majority of visitors to the city are not even aware. 


Friday, September 23, 2016

War and Peace on Riva degli Schiavoni, This Morning

Forward, march!

Head over to the Riva degli Schiavoni on any morning of the week and you can watch wave after wave of an invading army come ashore.

Actually, what you'll be seeing is boatload after boatload of tourists arriving on lancioni granturismo, the large boats that ferry 60, 70 or 100 passengers from various points around the edges of the lagoon to the historic center. But the number of boats and the hundreds or even thousands(?) of passengers they disgorge over the course of the morning give it the air of a military operation.

The statue of Vittorio Emanuele II on the Riva degli Schiavoni
An impression not helped by the fact that upon arrival the visitors rarely split up into pairs or trios or even a group of a half dozen people--into smaller groups within which each member is clearly distinguishable, individualized, and approachable. No, instead, the large groups tend to stick together, waiting in one great undifferentiated mass of as many as 70 people, until a single tourist guide summons them to attention, then leads them, with flag or pennant or closed umbrella lifted high over head, en masse into the narrow calli of the city center--which they cannot help but clog.

Such groups are considered a royal nuisance by residents, whose paths to work or school or appointments--to all the destinations of an ordinary life--are inevitably blocked. But I can't imagine that the visitors themselves are well-served by such large groups either.

I don't know the economics of such tours, how putting a limit on the number of tourists behind any single guide would impact the pocketbook of either the guide or the tourist. But given the number of independent studies that have been done on tourism and the economy in Venice, I suspect the information has long been available to the city's decision makers. Just as so much other information regarding the well-being of the city and the quality of the tourist experience has long been available to decision makers, who have, for the most part, diligently ignored it.

A growing frustration among the city's residents about their ever-more harried and circumscribed lives, and the no less substantial frustration among many tourists about the quality of their tourist experience are the results of this inaction.

When Venetian residents complain about the "bite-and-run" tourists who come only for a few hours and cost the city more to clean up after and protect than the visitors contribute to the local economy it's easy enough to warn them not to "bite the hands that feed them." But one point is that a majority of these hands are not actually feeding residents--though some would argue they are feeding off the residents.

The other point is that, however much some individual residents may complain about such mass tourism, it is the city's decision makers who are biting the hands of their tourist "feeders," by treating visitors as simply the indistinguishable and insignificant elements of what they haughtily assume will be an endless revenue stream passing through the city. One that will never diminish, nor dry up, regardless of how bad or degraded the tourist experience becomes. As bad as the experience may be or get for the tourist, such decision makers trust in the infinite appeal of the Venice "brand."

In any case, things are getting rather ugly. Just a couple of days ago, my wife, Jen, was walking home from school along the Riva with our eight-year-old son, talking to another parent, when she noticed that our son and his two friends, who were some yards ahead of her, were actually insulting groups of tourists as they passed.

The kids were doing so in Italian, which the tourists didn't seem to understand--fortunately--but Jen caught up with them and told them to stop. She began talking to the other parent again, the three boys appeared chastened, the walk home continued. Then the boys, as they usually do, ran off ahead again to walk by themselves.

And a few minutes later, Jen noticed they were back at it, calling tourists names--in Italian, and not at all quietly. They wanted to be heard by their targets. Jen called to our son, he came back with his two friends to where she waited, all of them in high spirits, and unrepentant.

"What did we just talk about?" she asked.

"But a signora heard what we were saying to the tourists and she said we were right!" they exclaimed. "She said we should be mayor!"

At this point the three boys had to be reminded that regardless of what the Venetian signora might have said, all of them were in fact "foreigners" themselves: one was half-Swiss, the second was half-German, and Sandro, of course, is an immigrant from America, even if he is also an Italian citizen.

This reminder dampened their animosity toward tourists a bit, but didn't entirely dispel it. Indulging it was too much fun to immediately let it go, and for the rest of the walk home it was just barely contained.

And so the conflict between residents and mass tourism is played out, too, among elementary school students. And not at all helped, I suspect, by the legions of visitors trooping in great masses into the city each day behind tour guides bearing, as you can see, more than a passing resemblance to the idealized militaristic ardor of Vittorio Emanuele II atop his horse on the Riva.

Between the basin of San Marco, crowded with boat traffic, and the crowded Riva, this trio finds a bit of peace

Sunday, September 11, 2016

"Watch Your Legs, Here Comes the Shopping Cart!": Venetian Residents Assert Themselves


With varying degrees of accuracy nearly every tour company or guide here promises a rare, authentic experience of Venice. But yesterday tourists in certain parts of the historic center experienced a truly rare occurrence that hasn't been typical of the city for many years, though it was once (and for many centuries) the norm: For about an hour yesterday morning, along a route running from Rio TerĂ  San Leonardo (near the church of San Marcuola) to the Rialto Mercato, some lucky tourists got to find out what it's like to be outnumbered by actual Venetian residents.

The occasion was a march organized by a group of twenty-something activists called Generazione 90 to assert the simple but all-too-often-ignored fact that, yes, indeed, Venetian residents do still in fact exist. And that, moreover, a good many of them are determined to resist the various forces in the city which, for the sake of profit, would prefer to scrub the calli and campi and even the canals themselves clean of everything except tourist accommodations, restaurants, shops, and transportation.

This was the message of the banner carried at the head of the procession, which read "R-ESISTIAMO": that is, both "we resist" and "we exist."


The official theme of the event was shopping. But as the title of the event--Ocio ae gambe, che go el careo!--made clear, it wasn't about the kind of shopping done by tourists at one of the "poles of luxury" the current mayor loves to talk about and is intent on developing more of, or at one of the city's ubiquitous cheap mask shops. Rather, the title means, in Venetian, "Watch your legs, here comes the [shopping] cart!" and was meant to evoke the kind of quotidian shopping that locals here do for produce, fish and meat--and which has long been symbolized in this pedestrian city by the careo (carrello, in Italian), or shopping cart. Everyone was encouraged to bring such a cart--or one of those other wheeled symbols of resident domesticity, a baby stroller--and process en masse from the western end of Strada Nova to the Rialto Mercato, which for all its picturesque charm, still functions as an important part of daily life for many residents.


The turnout for the event was, as you can see in the images, substantial--and enthusiastic. In fact, it really was a strange experience to see the usual ratio of tourists to residents in Venice inverted. 
 
In a good many other cities one might visit as a tourist it's common to find oneself not only puzzled by local customs or language, but overwhelmed by the sheer number of residents. In Venice, however, you may as a tourist be puzzled by something you see, but it's a good bet that, looking around you in most cases and most places, you'll find yourself among a good number of other tourists, perhaps equally puzzled.

And as a resident here, used to having your path to your child's school or some other appointment clogged with great masses of tourists, it was funny to observe how tourists reacted to finding their own free movement through calli or across bridges impeded by great masses of residents.


Not that the point of the procession was in any way to discomfit tourists, nor to be anti-tourism, nor anti-big ships, nor anti-anything. There were no particular policies or people opposed, nor positions taken, beyond the simple, positive assertion that Venetian residents are here and have no plans to clear out.

I know of one Venetian who stayed away from the event because of his concern that such pro-Venetian fervor might in part manifest itself, at least among some people, as what might be called a worrisome kind of insularity, of the sort that appeals in equal measure to nationalistic nostalgia and racism (a dismayingly popular combination these days in many places around the world, including my native country). But I got no impression that the young organizers of the event intended it to be anything other than as inclusive as possible, and I saw no signs of such troubling sentiments or behavior.

After all, the greatness of Venetian culture, and commerce, originated in the city's position as a meeting place of East and West, North and South. And as moronic as Lega Nord-style fantasies about cultural or ethnic/racial purity are in general, they stand out as even more so (if that's possible) in a place like Venice. 




"Come together citizens or they'll cook us up"

Tuesday, September 6, 2016