Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Raising a Child in the Monocultural Economy of Venice

My son's drawing of the tourist boat he plans to own some day

It was probably inevitable, but that didn't prevent it from being distressing.

For years now our son has been obsessed with all kinds of work boats and water transportation. There were times when we quite literally could not cross our living room or open certain doors because he'd tied door handles to heavy cabinets and chairs to other chairs, their ropes criss-crossing what had once been open space: all in the course of pretending to be a marinaio hitching a vaporetto to a series of stops.

Other times he was the driver of a delivery mototopo (large workboat). For this play he'd gradually accumulated a quantity of large empty boxes that occupied about a 1/4 of his small room. He'd unfold the sofa-sleeper in the living room to serve as his mototopo, load his collection of boxes onto it, climb behind his controls (a wood crate to which he'd affixed a flat cheese grater whose movable U-shaped handle exactly mimicked the 180-degree arc of a workboat's--and vaporetto's--throttle) and with a convincing imitation of a rumbling, slowly-accelerating engine set off on his delivery route.

He talked about the mototopo he was planning to buy when he was old enough, the features it would have, the kinds of work he'd do (pretty much anything besides that of an espurgopozzineri, or sewage boat), and the livery and name of the transportation company he would found.

All of this, foreign as it was to me, I could take in stride. Then, a couple of days ago, came the drawing at the top of this post of the tourist boat he told me he was planning to buy.

I was careful to show no surprise when he brought it to me and told me about it, and I expressed only admiration for it and all its labeled features (the water exhaust port, the radar and steering wheel and throttle). But inside I couldn't help but feel that he'd turned a corner, from industry in general to the tourism industry in particular, and it was a narrowing of focus that somehow made me ill at ease.

As if his focus on water transportation in Venice hadn't been practical enough--and in this sense wasn't he simply being Venetian, those most practical-minded of people?--he'd adopted what's considered the very bedrock of practicality in Venice these days, the basis of all civic decision-making, the horizon beyond which our rapaciously neo-liberal mayor and his ilk can imagine nothing else: tourism.

Now there's nothing wrong with working in the tourism industry, and he most likely had tourist boats on his mind because of how much he'd enjoyed serving as a crew member on the tourist boat of a friend's father who was giving free tours around the basin of the Arsenale (to Venetians) during the recent Festa di San Pietro di Castello.

Still, at his age, eight years old, I don't like even the hint that his own imagination might be constrained by the lack of imagination of those making the decisions for Venice. I know too many Venetians who have been forced to leave their city because they've been unable to find anything other than low-paying tourism-based employment. I know a couple of others who left, and have stayed away, because they didn't and don't want to work in a completely unfettered industry that is destroying--or has already destroyed--their city.  (The latest example: The Corriere del Veneto's confirmation yesterday that a building on the Riva used as a retirement home for Venetians is now slated--thanks to a cambio d'uso, or "change of use," or change of zoning--to become yet another hotel. Who needs housing for the city's sizable segment of senior citizens--around 25% of the total population--when you can have even more tourists!)

The question of the effect that a shift from a more diverse economy to one based solely upon tourism has upon a population is an interesting one. And though there are those who will say that Venice has been a tourism-based economy for two centuries, that's a broad viewpoint that overlooks so many particulars as to be almost meaningless. In contrast, our retired upstairs neighbor, who used to teach at the public elementary school on Via Garibaldi, will describe with dismay the distinct changes she saw in her students and their parents as the latter went from being artisans and locally-oriented business people to working in the tourism industry in the 1970s and beyond.

Of course when it comes to my son, Sandro, I remind myself not to worry. I can't imagine him leaving behind all the other kinds of transportation at which he likes to play to focus exclusively, narrowly, unimaginatively on a future in tourism.

I wish I could say the same for those who are now controlling Venice.


  1. You should worry. You should not be "careful to show no surprise when he brought it to me and told me about it, and I expressed only admiration for it...". You should take your son serious in being the next generation of Venetian citizens responsible for the future of their city, it's inhabitants and their way of life. A boy of 8 years is capable to understand and discuss it's own future and the part he's going to take in it.

    Tell your son about your worries and disgust of the present politics and that it's up to him, too, to do things better than they are going now. If you don't do so now he won't listen to you later, because you didn't teach him when there was teaching time.

    1. No need to worry, Brigitte, as he is already well aware of the ugly forces at play in Venice and of opposition to them. You can't live here and not be. But sometimes there seems little hazard in letting a child simply be a child and draw what he sees around him, taking a break from the political and economic complexities. An unrelenting stream of information about the problems of Venice doesn't necessarily make one more committed to, say, creative solutions to them--it can also, as a great many Venetians themselves have shown, simply make you cynical and hopeless.

  2. I suppose Sandro would have drawn a truck or a bus if you were still living in US or on the Terraferma. That is normal at the age of eight. This tourist boat is just a part of his daily world. Don’t worry for the future!
    The real question you raise is a major one concerning historical cities/centers, in particular in Italy where the historical centers are large and well preserved: what other industry than tourism could be developed respecting local people and maintaining everyday life? The issue is much more important in Venice, which is an island/a peninsula. It is possible to maintain some local artisans (not only art crafts people) and services for people living in Venice, but is it enough to maintain an economic activity at reasonable costs and services for people in a city as large as Venice and located in the middle of a lagoon? I don’t follow the present Mayor and the “liberalism” spirit of the times, but the issue of the alternative to tourism is especially difficult in Venice. Even if cultural tourism (festivals, Biennale, exhibitions, etc) is developed and if tourists stay more than twelve hours in the center of Venice, the question remains. The worst risk is to establish only luxury hotels and flats for foreigners at the expense of Venetians and let the city become a “Disneyland for rich people” as a journalist (I don’t remember who) has written. I am deeply shocked reading that retirement homes will be transformed in hotels on the Riva. What a scandal!
    What is the alternative? Creating new schools and universities to attract young people? Building assembly lines for computers, electric devices, fabrics or shoes in the hangars of the Arsenale? Transforming some palaces in office buildings or international call centers? And proposing systematically to the staff cheap flats with modern facilities in the historical center? But is it consistent with the current liberal globalization and state of mind?
    During my July travel, I visited the current exhibition in the Doges’ Palace. It shows an “interesting” project of the 19th century with (if I have well understood the exhibited plan) an extension of the railway line from the Ponte della Libertà to the Punta della Dogana through the west part of the city and upon Zattere! All the times had stupid ideas to develop business and tourism in Venice! Hoping the present Mayor will not have this kind of projects… (by Auvraisien)

    1. I've seen images of that proposed 19th-century railway line, Auvraisien, and it really is something! Not to mention a reminder of just how long the city has been struggling to figure out what to make of its unique situation. The difference is that as recently as 1970 there were more than 150,000 residents in the city, while now the population is steadily plummeting--under 55,000 now--and the fear is that those with control over the city are quite content to watch it (or encourage it) to empty out almost entirely of everything but tourist, 2nd-home owners, and the commuting workers who cater to the first two groups. The people who came up with the idea of the train line all the way to the Punta della Dogana were trying to think of ways to modernize the city, to keep it a living city, just as those who reintroduced the glass and lace industries in the 2nd half of the 19th-century were trying to create work for the resident population. Whereas maintaining a resident population in Venice often seems like the last thing the most outspoken would-be present-day "developers" of the city are concerned with.

  3. is it possible the public office mindset is hungover from the days of the republic? that charitable organisations funded by "wealthy venetians" - which would include many second home owners today - should still provide these social services?

    1. I couldn't tell you, Pollyanna, what the administrative mindset is--beyond its recurrent exclamations that it has no money. It seems the most visible charitable organizations here are Venice in Peril and Save Venice, and their charity doesn't go toward actual residents. But I think it's safe to say that in the unlikely chance that anyone in the administration expects the wealthy of Venice to willing cough up funds, they'll be disappointed. But, in fact, Mayor Brugnaro is more likely to cut the taxes on the wealthy than increase them. The old days of the old oligarchy of the Republic feeling obliged to contribute to the common good are long past. Here, as in the US (and elsewhere), the aim is: "Private profit at public expense."