Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Before the Flood

Summer reading in a small town on Lake Como

Not a single postcard for sale anywhere in the whole town.

Of this fact I became aware only gradually during the just-concluded week we spent in a village on Lake Como.

More immediately striking upon our arrival in such a beautiful setting was that in the town's small lake-side playground I heard only Italian being spoken. And on its little beach. And among the cafe tables under the trees beside the lake.

How was it possible? Given the town's position upon the lake, its long waterside promenade, its charming marina in the heart of the village, its circolo di vela (sailing club and school) near one end, the small medieval maze of streets set back from the waterfront (rather like a mini-Genova), among which were a fruit and vegetable seller, two butchers, a couple of grocery stores, an optometrist--where were the tourist hordes? The guided tours, 75 strong, clogging up the narrow shaded lanes, the day-trippers sprawled on the stones around the monument to one of the town's past luminaries?

I suppose this is what living in Venice does to you. Forget about any romantic old notions that living among great beauty, such as that for which Venice is famous, refines your capacity for aesthetic appreciation or sharpens your senses. I'm not so sure about that. But what it definitely does is make you marvel, when confronted with a setting of great beauty, that the place hasn't been exploited more.

My heavens, you think, this is stunning! Then, immediately: What the hell are these backward people waiting for? This is a mass tourism goldmine!  

 Not that you actually want it to be exploited. It's simply staggering that it hasn't been.

Because you just know that it won't last. It can't last. You see the retired people who meet in the town square before dinner each day; you see the empty textile mill along the river that is likely to have employed a number of them before it closed in the early 1980s; you see the parents with young children in the park and wonder about their sources of livelihood; you look at the ads posted in the windows of the few real estate agencies, at the price of the apartments and the nature of their sales pitches (still entirely in Italian); you look at the (not inexpensive) menu prices of the waterfront bars, cafes, restaurants; and you find yourself calculating, "How many years until the whole economy turns? Until speculation, under the guise of 'development', gets a firm grip and its major proponents begin presenting their demands as the only way forward, with all the vehemence of well-practiced extortionists? 

I checked on the Trip Adviser website to see what had been said about this town and took some comfort in the fact that a couple of people who had posted queries about it--"Is it a good town to stay in on the lake in the summer? What is it like?"--were actually counseled against it by more seasoned travelers. These wise and worldly expeditionists advised the original questioners that to get a more authentic experience of Lake Como one should, on one's first visit to the lake, stay in either Bellagio or Varenna or Menaggio.

Excellent advice. At least in terms of preserving everything I found appealing in the town we stayed in.

We visited Varenna and Bellagio, and my main reaction to both, in differing levels of intensity, was that if I wanted to see so much tourist-oriented commerce I would have stayed in Venice.

But of course, after six years in Venice, we're over-saturated with that; just as someone who, say, lived near Utah's Great Salt Lake might want to vacation beside fresh water. A lot of other people might find--and obviously do find--the shops and menus and international crowds exciting or fun.

We just wanted quiet.

There were of course some tourists in the town we stayed in, but tourists in themselves--speaking as one of them--aren't bad, despite the rhetoric that can sometimes be heard in Venice. Most of us tourists travel with the intention of seeing something of the life of a place, and in places where tourism has not eradicated that local life visitors can be as interesting for those who live in the place as the locals are for the visitors. In contrast, in a situation like Venice, both visitors and locals often lose out on the chance to recognize the singularity in each other, to connect in any way, even fleetingly, beyond commerce.

The fact is that tourism is one of the world's biggest industries. It's not going away--short of some global cataclysm that would make us nostalgic for the days of mass tourism. Venice, as something like a ground zero of mass tourism, is uniquely positioned to become a laboratory for innovative approaches to problems that afflict cities and communities around the world.

Alas, innovation is not what those who control Venice seem to have on their mind.

We found the apartment in the little town on Lake Como on Airbnb. Yes, the same Airbnb that is causing so many problems in Venice and Barcelona and elsewhere. But the apartment we stayed in seemed to be the actual home of the woman who rented it to us. While we were there she was staying elsewhere, and other members of her family lived downstairs. They were not the proprietors of a number of tourist flats; they had only their own home to let.

Is it then okay to rent via Airbnb from someone like this, or is it simply the tip of a wedge, making its first entrance into a housing market it will inevitably upend? Or at least help to?

I don't know.

As our landlord's brother-in-law, who lived downstairs from our vacation apartment, gave us a lift to the train station he asked us where we were from. When we told him Venice he expressed surprise that we could bear living there. Too many tourists, he said, too expensive--like Varenna, the most touristy place on his side of the lake.

Then he said that before last year there weren't any tourists in his town at all. Which seemed like a bit of an exaggeration to us, made simply to suggest that even the limited numbers we saw during our stay were the beginning of what he recognized as an important shift.

An important shift, I might add, to which he and his family, and we ourselves, might be contributing.

NOTE: As tempting as it may be in the comments section to identify (or guess at) the town we stayed in, I'll delete any such attempts. Though if you're wondering, I'll tell you via the contact form found on the right side of this page under "About Me".

Monday, August 29, 2016

Postcard from Lake Como

We've been in a quiet town on Lake Como for the past week and return to Venice later today. During the time we've been away, here are some of the things that have happened in Venice (in no particular order):

It was reported that the latest test of the multi-billion euro flood gates (known by the acronym MOSE), which are supposed to "save" the city, was a complete disaster. Having only discovered in the past year that sea water actually contains salt (who knew?), the crack team of thieves engineers at Consorzio Venezia Nuovo still haven't found a way of preventing it, along with all the other things that are known to be in the sea (by everyone other than themselves, it seems), from fouling the barriers' operation...

Two young tourists (one English, one American)--the latest in a very long line of tourists gone wild--were arrested for stealing a gondola. This, just a few days after a young woman was photographed defecating in broad daylight into the water in front of Palazzo Ducale...

While Italy's flags are at half-mast for the earthquake victims in Umbria, and the Venice Film Festival, out of respect for them, has cancelled its usual gala dinner, Venice "first citizen", Mayor Luigi Brugnaro, was photographed partying at a big bash at the city casino...

Ah, "Romantic" Venice...

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Summer Storm: Three Views

Strike up the band: A couple on the Giudecca try to exert some control over the opening series of lightening flashes

Summer storms in Venice come on like the apocalypse, and if you find yourself trapped by one beneath an arcade or, more fortunately, in a little bar on the Giudecca, as I was at the end of last week, you can wonder if you'll ever see your home and loved ones again. But they rage--never losing their conviction--for just a half hour or so and then move on, usually leaving behind them, like a note of contrition for getting so carried away, a beautifully clear view of the mountains around Venice.

This sailing cruise ship headed out to sea while the storm was at its worst

The rain doesn't let up, even as the sky begins to clear to the northwest

Friday, August 19, 2016

Nobody Home: Venice's Population Drops to a Historic New Low

Venice drops toward historic low: from the 9 August 2016 edition of La Nuova di Venezia e Mestre

In the past week local and national media have been all abuzz and atwitter with the dismaying news that the population of Venice is about to drop beneath yet another milestone in its steady decline. By September the number of city residents is estimated to stand at less than 55,000.

To put this number in perspective, consider that, as Il Gazzettino reported on 16 July, the population of Venice numbered 84,500 in 1986. In 1976, it was 102,000.

I've forgotten a lot about my first short visit to Venice as a teenager in 1982, but one thing I still remember quite clearly is how our tour guide described the the worrisome loss of population from which the city was already suffering. Because of a lack of good jobs and the expense of living in the city, she said, young natives had no choice but to leave.

In 1991, as John Keahey reports in his excellent book Venice Against the Sea, the Italian parliament passed Law 360, which was "directed to finding a solution to the exodus of Venetians from Venice's historic center to the mainland."

A quarter of a century later, it's not only obvious that a "solution" has yet to be found but, even worse, it's widely suspected that the search for one was given up some time ago. In recent days Venessia.com (https://www.facebook.com/venessiacom/) has posted articles from 2007 and 2009 in which (in the former article) the city's Assessor, Laura Fincato, states that only Mestre has a future, while "Venice is a slave to the past," and (in the latter article) that the mayor should govern from Mestre.

On May 27, the current mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, made exactly the same point about Mestre, "where people live", being the "future of the city" while speaking to (or, rather, haranguing, as is his wont) an audience at the Architectural Biennale--before backpedaling from this claim a couple of days later and claiming that the many people who'd been disturbed by his words had merely "misinterpreted" them (and willfully, too).

But let's consider some other numbers related to the problem of spopolamento or depopulation:

2.6: The average number of residents Venice lost each day over the last year

40,000: The number of people who are estimated to commute from the mainland to Venice to work, according to researcher, author and co-founder of We Are Here Venice, Jane da Mosto.

1,371: The number of vacant apartments in the sestiere of Cannaregio alone, according to a 6 February article in La Nuova di Venezia. That amounts to 14% of the 9,668 total apartments in the sestiere. Some of those apartments are believed to be rented either to tourists or residents, but there is no information on whether, in either case, they are being rented legally. (It should be noted that Cannaregio remains one of the most "local" of sestiere; in those of Dorsoduro and San Marco, for example, the proportion of dwellings either empty or entirely devoted to tourist lodging would be, it seems safe to assume, much higher.)

1,190: The number of new apartment listings in Venice that have appeared on the Airbnb website in just the last 11 months, according to an article published last week in La Nuova. Overall, the same article states that there are now 3,949 rooms (391 of them on the islands of, for example, Burano or Murano) listed for rent in Venice on Airbnb.

According to Fabio Carrera, a Venetian professor and the director of the Venice Project Center, 64% of those posting these tourist rental listings own more than two structures. The top ten listers of Venice apartments on Airbnb each own eight or more apartments or rooms for rent.

200: The number of illegal, unregistered tourist rentals uncovered in the last year by the Guardia di Finanza.

€ 800-1,000: The monthly rent that can be expected from renting an apartment of 80 metri quadri (861 square feet) to a resident

€3,000: The monthly income that can be expected from renting the same apartment to tourists.

21%: The tax rate due on income earned by renting an apartment to a resident

40-60%: The tax rate due on income earned by providing tourist accommodations

€1,000: The penalty imposed upon a landlord whose declared term of a lease differs from the actual span of time in which a renter or renters stayed in an apartment.

These last five numbers come from a 10 August article in La Nuova, centered upon an interview with Giovanna Massaria, head of the real estate agency Heim Immobiliare, who's chosen to handle only those rental apartments designated for residents, not tourists. Massaria states that given the far greater income to be made from renting to tourists, the absence of oversight, and the insignificant penalty levied for being found guilty of such abuse, it's no wonder that profit-seeking Venetians themselves are among the prime forces behind the depopulation of the city.

The 10 August 2016 article on tourist rentals in La Nuova di Venezia e Mestre

Indeed, given the gap between the monthly income that can be expected from renting to residents and that likely to be received from renting to tourists, a landlord can absorb a €1,000 fine and still come out well ahead of what he or she would have made from legally renting to residents.

(Compare this €1,000 penalty for landlords who operate illegally to what I understand is the €5,000 fine levied on illegal street vendors in Venice. I leave it to you to decide which group of abusivi actually does more damage to the city--and which group has more friends in local government.)

At this point, one significant difference should be noted between Massaria's characterization of the sales market in Venice, and that provided in April of this year by the international luxury real estate agency Engel & Vöelkers, which, among many other places in the world, has an office in Venice.

Massaria rather surprisingly describes the number of foreign buyers of residential properties in Venice as being rather insignificant: placing it at around 20% of all sales. Engel & Vöelkers, on the other hand, presents a far different picture, stating in its spring report:
International buyers account for around 70 percent of residential property sales in Venice. 25 percent of these foreign investors are British citizens, constituting the largest group, followed by the French (20 percent) and Germans (10 percent). 15 percent of all transactions involve buyers resident in the Netherlands, Argentina, the USA, Thailand and Switzerland. The majority of buyers acquire real estate as a capital investment and often generate income through tourist rentals. The market is dominated by investors, with only a quarter of buyers acquiring residential property in Venice for their own private usage.   (my italics) 
I assume that Massaria is accurately reporting the sales figures of her own small agency--which make the culpability of Venetian landlords in the depopulation of Venice seem all the greater. While the figures provided by Engel & Vöelker represent a broader, and therefore more accurate overview of the Venetian sales market.

Taken together, the figures provided Massaria and Engel & Vöelker add up to a large percentage of Venetian apartments being steadily taken out of the residential rental market. And to these figures I can add the anecdotal personal experience of myself and friends: I know first-hand that it's become nearly impossible to find an apartment to rent if you are a resident--the pickings are quite slim. And the narrowing of residential rental options has been dramatic since the first time we looked to rent an apartment nearly 6 years ago. 

So, given all of the above, what is to be done?

During the course of the mayoral election campaign Brugnaro promised to return tens of thousands of residents back to the city through the creation of new jobs.

But if ten of thousands of people are commuting from where they live on the mainland to their jobs in Venice is it really a matter of creating new jobs or, rather, of creating the conditions in which rental apartments are available to residents at affordable prices? These 40,000 commuters from the mainland already have jobs. What they don't have are affordable places to live in Venice.

Which is not to suggest that Venice doesn't need new jobs, and, ideally, new kinds of employment options beyond the monoculture of tourism. But to focus exclusively on creating jobs is to ignore the market for housing that already exists among those 40,000 already-employed commuters.  

In fact, the thousands of jobs Brugnaro has mentioned most often since his election are the 5,000 that he claims would be lost if the city does not submit to the demands of the cruise ship industry.

Indeed, like so many other die-hard neoliberals around the world, Brugnaro binds the survival of his constituents to their total submission to the desires of big Capital. Concerns about the deleterious effects of proposed "developments", their feasibility, their promised benefits, or the extreme likelihood (or evidence) of rampant corruption, are all dismissed by Brugnaro and his supporters as the cowardly and even traitorous ("unworthy of 'True Venetians'", as the boy from the mainland said last spring) braying of "Those who can only say No."

Solutions to Venice's problems, Brugnaro is fond of suggesting, are simply a matter of "thinking big"--which inevitably means getting the hell out of the way of him and his business pals. 

At the end of last week, as the public exclamations about depopulation peaked, the head of Brugnaro's political movement, Maurizio Crovato, claimed that if the green light were given to 13 construction projects that have been sitting in the file cabinets of Ca' Farsetti (Venice's city hall) since at least 2013, 5,041 new homes would be created: "Il Comune metta i terreni, le autorizzazioni e si faccia promotore di trovare le imprese private che li realizzino: 50 appartamenti al privato perché li venda sul mercato e 50 al Comune per affitti a prezzi calmierati (The city would provide the land and permits and find the private companies to build them: half of them to be put on the market, and half to be given to the city for affordable housing.)"

Given the €1 billion in corruption estimated to have been siphoned off the €4 billion (and counting) cost of the long overdue and over-budget MOSE watergates, "big projects" and the big contracts they promise to certain well-connected firms are rather understandably viewed with a certain suspicion around here.

True, construction or, even better, conversion of un- or under-utilized, already-existing buildings will be an important part of any re-population of Venice. But considering the information above, aren't there more immediate approaches to be tried in the mean time? Changes in the tax code, targeted economic incentives to landowners, effective oversight, stiffer penalties, and so on? Measures whose aim is "to fill vacant houses"?

With this last phrase I'm thinking about something I recently read in Joanne M. Ferraro's book, Venice: History of the Floating City. Writing about the fourteen outbreaks of plague that struck Venice between 1456 and 1528, Ferraro notes that each such "cycle of demographic depletion prompted concerned authorities to provide economic incentives to newcomers, not only to rebuild the labor market but also to repair the truncated families and to fill vacant houses."

Faced with what is sometimes metaphorically referred to as the new "plague" of mass tourism, contemporary Venetian leadership has shown no ability to "provide economic incentives," nor to "fill vacant houses." Rather, in the name of protecting, if not actually "rebuilding the labor market," Brugnaro has pushed short-sighted concessions to the cruise ship industry and big works projects (such as a new deep water channel needed by ever-larger cruise ships) that sound much more like extortion--either you submit to this or you lose your jobs--than actual community building.

Perhaps a better place to start would be to address problems such as the 21% tax on long-term rentals that realtor Giovanna Massaria points out was created as an incentive for landowners to rent to residents but which--because of the ease with which it can be abused and the insignificant penalty imposed on the off chance that one gets caught--has had the exact opposite effect.

Perhaps, too, as is already being done in cities around the world, it's time to seriously address the dramatic effects that Airbnb is having upon housing in Venice. 

Barcelona, for example, has a new website in which tourists or anyone else can type in the address of an apartment they have seen rented as a tourist accommodation and find out whether that accommodation is legal.

True, such approaches don't hold the obvious advantages for politicians and private companies that go along with the promise of huge construction contracts, but when your city is losing 1,000 residents a year perhaps it's time to turn your attention to something other than merely the big fat political sugar plums you find it so pleasant (and lucrative) to hand out or receive.

In the mean time, it strikes me as myopic to the extreme (sometimes willfully and cynically so), to cry out at every outrage visited upon "the dignity of La Serenissima"--all those plastered on local papers and social media sites: the tourists swimming (nude or nearly so) in the canals, jumping off bridges, picnicking in Piazza San Marco, camping out or urinating or defecating in the campi and calli, biking through the city, clambering up 500-year-old facades for selfies, etc*--without copping to the simple fact that in a city in which tourists outnumber residents (quite literally by more than 30,000 on some days) it is the tourists and tourist industry which will set the norms of behavior, not the residents.

On any given day, tourists outnumber residents 60,000 to 55,000--and this is a ratio which is only getting worse. On any given day, that is, Venice feels to a fair number of its residents like a city under foreign occupation, if not outright attack. And this sentiment, regardless of how valid one might consider it, and in spite of the number of Venetians who themselves profit from this state of affairs, is getting increasingly ugly. Not yet to the point of a sardonic sign that appeared in Barcelona asking "Why call it tourist season if we can't shoot them?", but more and more angry signs are appearing here--in the past two days, around Campo Bragora and on the bridge near the church of San Martino in English: "TOURISTS GO AWAY!!! YOU ARE DESTROYING THIS AREA!"

For the sake of the city's visitors as well as its residents, the time to act on the related problems of uncontrolled tourism and the depopulation of Venice is now.


*Three examples from the past week of tourist misbehavior (there are always many more):

1. would-be swimmers

2. bike riders

3. a near-fatal leap off the Rialto 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

From Pest to Plate: How Age-old Venetian Knowledge May Save Maine's Fisheries--and Introduce a New Dish to the US

A recent image of an unused crab crate with the campanili of San Marco and San Giorgio Maggiore in the background

Last April, at the height of the spring moeche, or crab season here in Venice, I put up a post inspired by a Venetian friend's description of how mysterious is the knowledge and skill of the lagoon's remaining crab fishermen. The fishermen's livelihood depends upon their ability to detect those crabs among the hundreds and hundreds in their crates who are just about to lose their shell.

A fascinating article by Penelope Overton in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, published this past Sunday, and which I found out about thanks to the always informative Facebook page of the community group We Are Here Venice, describes how this specialized Venetian knowledge may now play a vital role in combating the destruction of Maine's fisheries by a very close relative of the small crabs common to the lagoon.

It seems that moeche (also known as moleche, which is the term used in the Press Herald piece) have been thriving in the warming waters off Maine and wreaking widespread underwater ruin. As the ever-proliferating small crabs feasted on the area's clams, mussels and scallops, scientists at the University of Maine at Machias studied them to determine whether the marauding mollusks might be turned to account and brought to market themselves.

They concluded, however, that "the crabs did not give any external clues to their molts and thus could not be harvested commercially."

Thus, the small crabs continued their rampage, impervious to all efforts to contain them, until an art conservator, Jonathan Taggart, who'd recently been doing research in Venice, introduced marine biologist Marissa McMahan to the Venetian tradition of crab fishing, and, ultimately, to the Venetian crab fisherman Paolo Tagliapietra.

Overton writes that other people had asked Tagliapietra to teach them how to identify the signs of impending molt upon which the business of crab-fishing depends and he had always refused. "But as a fisherman," she writes, "he wouldn't turn away a request to help other fishermen [in Maine] overcome a problem."

And if you click on the link in the second paragraph above to Overton's article, you can read for yourself Tagliapietra's detailed description of the long-secret signs that a crab (Carcinus maenas) is about to molt--as well as a generally captivating article.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Two Great Ferragosto Films for Today's Holiday

In Venice Ferragosto is best spent on the water    (photo credit: Jen)

Today is the Italian national holiday of Ferragosto, whose name--in spite of the date's later incarnation as the Feast of the Assumption of Mary--hearkens back to its origins in the age of Caesar Augustus.

Traditionally, one is supposed to take a trip today, and a Ferragosto trip is the starting point for Dino Risi's 1962 dark comedy Il Sorpasso, starring Vittorio Gassman. The title literally means "the overtaking," or "the passing", as the mis-matched pair of main characters quite literally do to other motorists a number of times in the course of their free-wheeling road trip. But the title also refers to the Italian "economic miracle" of the late 1950's and early '60s, and the changing manner of Italian life that was the focus of so many Italian films of the period (La Dolce Vita being perhaps the most famous).

If Il Sorpasso is all about the hazards of getting too caught up in the desperate rush of modern life and the glossy promises of a swinging '60s Italy, Mid-August Lunch, written, directed and starring Gianni di Gregorio, and released in 2008, is a wistfully comic depiction of the end of the road.

Not only are the racy days of the film Il Sorpasso long past, but so too is the seeming promise of another "Il Sorpasso": the term by which Italian media referred to Italy's 1987 overtaking of Britain's economy in terms of GDP.

The Italy of di Gregorio's film is just about out of gas, and except for a beautiful sunlit sequence in which he scooters around a holiday-empty Rome to scrape up enough food for the Ferragosto lunch that he must prepare for his elderly, sovereign mother and her friends, the film's protagonist goes (and is going) nowhere--but with a hang-dog charm, warmth, and shoddy elegance that is somehow heartening, displaying the resilience of a very old but not entirely worn out culture, of an abiding grace in reduced circumstances. 

Each film, in its own way, will get you in the mood of Ferragosto, no matter how far from Italy you may be.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Postcard from Lucca: One Source of Venice's Silk Industry

The garden of Lucca's Palazzo Pfanner, with its 18th-century statuary

Venice's knowledge of, and subsequent obsession with silk originated of course with its far-flung Eastern trade, but its silk industry arrived in the city from the opposite direction. As Joanne M. Ferraro writes in Venice: A History of the Floating City (Cambridge U. Press, 2102):
Silk was the social marker of the aristocracy, signaling wealth and ostentation. It first came to Venice from the Byzantium Empire and was widely available to wealthy Venetians after the Fourth Crusade [1202-2104]. Other silks came from China, through Iran and Anatolia (Turkey), together with gold- and silver-wrapped thread. We know from inventories and wills such as Marco Polo's that Asian textiles were plentiful in Venice by the fourteenth century, but between 1300 and 1500 artisans began to adopt the eastern technique of textile making to produce home products. Notably, in the early fourteenth century several families from Lucca immigrated to Venice. They were already familiar with Islamic techniques, owing to their affiliation with Sicilian workshops, and they readily adopted both Persian and Turkish designs for both clothing and home furnishings.
In other words, contrary to what one might expect, the immediate sources of Venice's actual production of silk textiles originated not with travelers from the East, but from the west, from Tuscany, carrying with them knowledge they'd derived from workshops in the south, which had learned it from some of the expected sources in the East.

All of which I offer not only as an example of the curious and circuitous manner in which culture circulates, but as a rather elaborate justification for lovers of Venice to visit the beautiful walled city of Lucca, a little more than 4 hours away by train. The city's silk industry has disappeared, though silk artisans still can be found in the area (such as this one, which offers classes on the cultivation and production of silk: http://lasetadicortegloria.weebly.com.html), but, then, there are plenty of reasons to visit the city aside from silk, anyway. We spent last week there, and enjoyed it a great deal.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Onward and Upward at Ca' di Dio, or, A Door to Nowhere

photo credit: Jen
Given the fact that Ca' di Dio on the Riva degli Schiavoni, presently a retirement home, is now slated to become yet another hotel, the above trompe l'oeil that Jen photographed on its facade might be considered something of a metaphor for the ongoing "development" of Venice.

photo credit: Jen
The "doorway" in context