"What time does Venice close?" a tourist is reported to have once asked, assuming the city was nothing more than a theme park.
I can no longer remember where this well-known query first appeared, as it has since reappeared in so many articles on the city, but in terms of Venice as a living, livable, and merely inhabited city, the answer strikes me as becoming ever harder to ignore: It's in the process of being closed down right now.
In the eight years since we first moved here the transmogrification of the city's dwellings and businesses into an ever-more exclusively tourist use and orientation is striking, and it seems, actually, to be picking up speed--in the way things do when they're circling the drain.
Of course, Venice has been known as a tourist-oriented city (or tourist trap) for at least two centuries. This is a fact in which I used to take a certain comfort as I read accounts of the city written 60 or more years ago--when its resident population was still well over 100,000--which already characterized it as little more than a "museum" (if not yet an amusement park).
But the changes of just the last few years alone are too stark to be ignored, and even businesses that should have a certain appeal to tourists--or at least tourists as they once existed--are shuttered. (I just came upon a short piece by Donna Leon, who moved out of Venice a few years back, that suggests just how stark.)
|The now empty Coin department store beside the Salizada S. Giovanni Grisostomo, unusually empty of its usual crowds early one evening in the middle of last week's oppressive heat wave|
I don't know whether these changes increased their sales, but given the fact that last spring their landlords demanded an increase of 500% on the new rental contract, even a significant increase in sales might not have proved adequate. Coin countered with an offer of 350%, but this was deemed insufficient and its 94 employees found themselves out of work.
The fractured familial relationship between landlord and and tenant in this case might make one wonder how much personal antipathy entered into the business of agreeing to a new contract, but it's really a moot point, as such rent increases are common.
Indeed, the area that Coin had long anchored between Campo San Bartolomeo and Campo Santi Apostoli has become in just the last two years one of the deadest of what I think of as the many dead zones in Venice. (Dead zones are those oxygen-less areas of the ocean created by human activity in which no marine life can survive--in Venice such zones are devoid of any trace of resident life.)
|This new unstaffed luggage storage facility in Cannaregio(!) was formerly a shop that sold sewing supplies|
(The ruination of Venice's calli and local culture goes in waves: when trashy plastic mask shops had finally reached their limit, along came a rush of gelato shops, then take-away chip (french fry) shops without seating, then take-away pasta shops without seating, then a mass of "local delicacy" shops selling suitcase-friendly little bottles, jars and bags of stuff having nothing to do with Venice, and now chain candy stores, popping up all over and seemingly overnight like poison mushrooms, and, like a final insult, unstaffed luggage storage facilities. For nothing contributes to the vitality of a neighborhood like tourist luggage storage storefronts! And one of them is in Cannaregio, no less, one of the last refuges of resident life.)
|And another lively luggage storage business in what was once a residential area|
In a city whose dwindling number of residents aren't exactly known for being huge readers, and whose tourist masses, from my repeated observation, crave candy far more than they do Codussi--though the former is exactly what they can buy anywhere in the world, while the latter, the church of San Giovanni Grisostomo, is only in Venice--a doubled rent was insupportable.
|The quick and the dead: Marco Polo Kids bookshop at its grand opening (top) and as it was last week (bottom)|
And lest you think I'm exaggerating the severity of this, I leave you with an article from a local newspaper translated into English on the Campaign for a Living Venice website on the possible demise of one of the city's defining landmarks, the Rialto fish market.
It seems that mass tour groups passing through the fish market to snap pictures is a poor substitute for people who actually buy something.