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.

And while our Developer-in-chief indulges himself in such utterly moronic crack-pipe dreams as that of Venice hosting an Olympics(!), it is a group of young citizens called Generazione 90 that actually takes concrete and immediate action to address the deleterious effects that Airbnb is having upon the availability of housing for residents: https://campaignforalivingvenice.org/2016/09/15/generazione-90-proposes-an-accord-with-airbnb-to-impose-a-tourism-tax-on-apartments-rented-in-venice/ 

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 here in Venice (not to mention almost all recent Olympic host cities)--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. 


  1. Bravo to Generazione 90 and to the environmental groups for taking positive action! We must support them as they attempt to make Venice once again a living, breathing, vibrant city.

    1. I think there are a number of groups here now, Anonymous, that have committed themselves with a renewed vigor to the city.