A walk in Venice, pt. 2: it’s a small world after all

“Too much, too many people, too much” – Grandmaster Flash, “The Message”

[Ed. Note: This is a second personal reflection about the state of Venice – as I’ve seen it during my visit here. Unlike most of what appears on the site it is purely my opinion.]

I remember the first time it dawned on me that the loss of residents in Venice was not an inexorable result of some natural process (or as Mayor Brugnaro would have it, “all the historical centers are depopulating”) but was instead intentional. It’s all part of the plan being carried out on a local and regional level to take away services and housing from residents to make way for the new Veneto economy – tourism, with Venice at the center. That was three and half years ago, and from what I’ve seen in my most recent stay here, the plan is well under way.

Somehow my visit to Murano brought this reality home even more forcefully. Perhaps it’s the smaller scale of the island, and its extraordinary beauty, that make the throngs of people lining the streets seem so out of place. Other than the fact that there is glass of the highest craftsmanship surrounding them, it seems to me that most of the visitors have no idea where they really are. Unless accompanied by a tour guide there is no point of reference, no indication of the centuries of culture and history and tradition that are represented by the places they are visiting. No. Instead Murano and Venice are being transformed into little more than a pretty backdrop, a movie set for picture taking, eating and drinking.

While I’m on the point of eating and drinking, the radical proliferation of restaurants and bars with outdoor seating stands in stark contrast to the local administration’s past efforts to limit the ability of local residents to do the same, outlawing outdoor community meals as an illegal use of public soil, while at the same time selling off that same soil to countless foreign (and some local) owned and run establishments. It’s like a giant international food court with a very unique and beautiful backdrop. This is where the comparison to Disneyland I often see is strongest, because Disneyland is essentially that – a giant backdrop or set. Pick the country or region or movie or TV show where you want to go play and eat, and they have it all set up for you.

Hence the well-known theme song of Disneyland, “It’s a small world after all”, a sugary encomium to bringing nations together, Disney style. But in Disneyland you know it’s fake, an invention. Here in Venice, on the other hand, it’s always been a small world – Venice has been an open, international city for a millennium and more, and the names of the buildings and calle bear witness to this – Armenians, Greeks, Turks, Jews, Germans all lived and worked here. However, in the past, everything was managed very carefully to be sure that everyone who came to do business in the city was really here for the good of the city. If they had nothing to offer the city, they weren’t welcome. Now this equation has been reversed, and the city seems to be open for business solely for the benefit of  investors. The new theme song for residents has become “It’s not your world any more”.

Keeping with the ‘small world’ theme for a moment longer, many people I have talked to about what is happening here recognize that this is a global problem. Take a step back and you see it in most major European tourist destinations. Take another step back and you see it in a rampant global tourism that will exploit, ruthlessly, any location anywhere that people will pay money to visit. Take even another step back and you see that global, national and local capitalism is bent on turning land into money in whatever way it can. Tourism is the manifestation in many places. In other places, such as where I live in the US, it is the opposite problem; overdevelopment.

In the space of just 20 years a series of Mayors in my little American town have radically reshaped the development process. The results are visible in every part of town. High rise “luxury” apartments are going up everywhere. Large housing developments (again “luxury” – which can be read as “not for locals”) are devouring land at a breakneck pace. The lovely, quirky, small college town nature has been irrevocably erased. When the changes come in the form of new construction, they are permanent. Now the local government wraps the local buses with advertising for the town itself, promoting the very ambience and nature that they themselves have forever eradicated. The advertising is not directed at us residents, who now sit in lines of traffic many times longer than we had to just a few years ago. It is aimed at bringing in more outside money, more home buyers, more big developers, and more people escaping from the overpriced northern and west coast cities, lured by the image of a town that itself has been in many ways reduced to a movie set, a place to eat and drink.

This brings me back to Venice. Are the changes here as permanent? In many cases yes, but perhaps they are not completely irreversible or uncontrollable. Where restaurants and souvenir shops occupy space in the city, those spaces could possibly be converted back into something like a real local economy again. The onslaught of people and vehicles (not just cruise ships) could be managed differently. The use of public space could be managed differently. Pick an issue facing the city of Venice and its residents today and all of them could be managed differently, in a way that puts the city and its residents first, and that lets visitors know, as once was done, that they are privileged to set foot in one of the most unique and important creations humanity has ever achieved – and that it is a living city with citizens, not just a movie set backdrop for their indulgences. For that they can always go to Disneyland.

In the end it’s a question of leadership. A different way of managing the city and its issues calls for new leadership with a new vision of the city, and the ability and will to say no to uncontrolled tourism. I can only hope that from among the many extraordinarily intelligent, talented, and committed people that Venice still calls its own that such new leadership will emerge.

The lyric I quote at the beginning of this piece is from a song written about living in an overcrowded, out of control city. Of course it was referring to the American inner city of the early 1980s, but this line came to mind over and over again as I’ve walked the streets of Venice. It’s a small world after all.

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