|One might easily imagine that Mauro Codussi's early 16th c. church of San Giacomo Grisostomo (top) would be just the kind of thing tourists would come to Venice to see (as it's centrally located, possesses two beautiful paintings--one by Gio Bellini, one by Sebastiano del Piombo--and entrance is free). But it typically sits empty and unseen, while tourists pack the chain candy store directly across the narrow calle from it (bottom).|
"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|
The latest and largest example of this is last month's closure of the department store Coin, a short distance from the Rialto. Originally opened in 1947, a couple of years ago it underwent a makeover in the interest of appealing more to tourists, foregrounding the kinds of portable "luxury" (ie, useless or at least unnecessary) items which the contemporary tourist seems compelled to hunt compulsively like Easter eggs in every location they visit.
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.)
|Tourists admire the dripping chocolate in the window of one of Salizada S Giovanni Grisostomo's two chain candy stores. There is another, identical outlet of the same chain just a five minute walk away. Judging from the number of tourists I've seen stop to snap pictures of this fascinating phenomenon, both store windows would rank higher on Trip Adviser's list of Things to Do in Venice than Codussi's church. |
Not that it's not crowded. On the contrary, the narrow
Salizada San Giovanni Grisostomo that runs past Coin is one of the city's worst bottlenecks of tourists. But that stretch has become almost indistinguishable from any mall in any number of places in the Western world: you could be in New Jersey or Iowa or my hometown of Modesto, California. It features an American fast food chain (which replaced a decades-old local restaurant), not one but two
chain candy stores, two gelato shops, and then the same mix of disposable clothing and souvenirs aimed squarely at a tourist market which, it seems, can be counted upon to snap up absolutely any mass-produced crap you choose to put behind a shop window.
|The existence of this junk souvenir shop on the Rialto Bridge(!) attests to the willingness of tourists to buy absolutely anything (though it's hard to imagine it earns enough by selling trinkets at 1 and 2 euro each to afford the high rent of its once prestigious location). |
The huge number of tourists passing through the area has made landlords feel justified in demanding higher rents, and the higher rents make it impossible for any local-oriented business to survive there (not least of all, because locals avoid such tourist-clotted bottlenecks as they'd avoid a boatload of pestilential rats). So, the only businesses that can afford such high rents are chains: like the American fast food joint, and the two candy store chains within 20 yards of each other.
|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|
Among the local businesses that have closed in recent months in this area was the children's bookstore that my wife helped start not quite two years ago. A not particularly prepossessing space, small and broken up into two separate rooms (the larger of which is without windows), it was still close enough to this booming strip of shopping mall to make its landlord feel justified in asking for a 100% increase in rent.
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)|
Thus, the city, the city of resident life, closes down.
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.