Saturday, August 4, 2018

Closing Time

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. 


  1. Steven, I didn't know about the Marco Polo bookshop. Bugger. Just bugger. I know bookshops are closing everywhere, but still...hugs to Jen...

    I could have bought fish in Cannaregio this morning but decided I had to stick with Rialto, given the recent news. Two fillets of San Pietro, half a kilo of sardines and a small amount of change from ten euros.

    "Read and Eat Fish for Venezia"...hey, it's a slogan...

    1. I think that's a pretty good slogan, Philip, and aren't both activities supposed to improve one's mind, too? We opted for branzini from the Rialto after the news; too bad I didn't run into you there. Perhaps those tourists who are only in town for a few hours can't really buy fish, but they could certainly buy at least a piece of fruit or two from the Rialto fruit & veggie sellers if they're going to be snapping pics there. I hope you see you and C soon.

  2. Is there any conceivable way to stop this trajectory, or do we just watch the demise of Venice in real time?

    1. As individuals we can of course try to make good choices when we're in Venice, such as, as you well know, buying whatever we can at the Rialto or other local vendors instead of from supermarkets, etc. But what's really needed are changes in public policy (eg, if the city council would stop approving the conversion of places like resident retirement homes into hotels), and to try to affect those kind of changes requires group action. I suppose for English speakers a local activist group such as We Are Here Venice (to whom I've contributed photos) might be a good place to become acquainted with the kinds of actions being taken, or the Campaign for a Living Venice also provides an overview and some names of local groups.

      Another important take-away from what's happening in Venice is to also realize it is not ONLY happening in Venice, nor even only in famous tourist destinations: the same kind of undermining of the public good by private interest (which typically involve the misappropriation of public funds and corruption of public policy to favor private interests) is going on all over. As important as it is to oppose such forces in Venice, it is also important to oppose them wherever one lives, as the very notion of the public good has been so long & successfully targeted (most precipitously with the administrations of Reagan and Thatcher in the US and UK) that the very concept that a community might make it a priority to fund things like schools, libraries, roads, etc rather than funnel public funds to private interests seems to have been forgotten.

  3. It's a old refrain but I believe it's truth. Venice has no values to share with Mestre and Marghera. And still one single administrative entity controls both. This historical miscalculation removes some of the potential for Venice to revive, focussing instead on an impossible to achieve shared growth. De-industrialization and large scale industrial pollution are on one side of the lagoon, sustainable quality living and potential to inspire the world about a future rich in social interactions and without cars on the other side. The one city with a future is, not surprisingly considering the status of politics in general, the same being used purely as cash cow.

    1. I think you're right, Anonymous, and you remind me that I need to look into what's going on with the long-delayed proposed referendum into splitting Venice and Mestre each into its own government.

  4. Part 1. I saw this article first in a Telegraph article, then via “Campaign for a Living Venice” (CFALV). They both seem to incorrectly position it as “tourists are killing the Rialto Market”, but if one takes the tourists away the business is still slow, and I would argue much slower. The tourists I personally witness there are buying products to take back to their Airbnb’s to prepare. Boo-Hiss Airbnb, but that is the reality of Venice. CFALV, and other like groups, has yet to put forth viable ideas for the future of Venice. They march, they demonstrate, they chant, all the while wishing for an end to tourism, as if that will magically fix Venice.
    The sad, but wholly true, fact is Venice has no industry other than tourism. Venice will likely NEVER have any industry other than tourism. If you get rid of tourism Venice will still have no industry, and its problems will be exacerbated, not fixed. The few younger Venetians that stay around do so because they can find jobs in tourism or start their own businesses that cater to tourism or expats like yourself. It’s the same reason rural areas around the world are seeing a mass exodus. Venice, although it is a city, is more like a rural area in many ways. It will never be an I.T. hub, a banking center, or a shipping power. The geography, the history, the historic protections that limit infrastructure make ANY other form of Industry just too inconvenient and expensive.
    That is not to say Venice government is any better, and the management of the city is just purely laughable, and arguably criminal. The corruption is inarguably criminal. If it were a Hollywood movie one would think it too outlandish to be true.
    The problem is the two sides are on polar extremes. Groups like CFALV offer solutions with zero economic viability, leading me to think that they believe in magic. They act purely on emotion and don’t have any real viable plan for the future. It seems to be step 1: stop the tourists, step 3: Venice is saved. It’s a bit like West Virginia coal miners that think “coal is the future”.

    1. Part 2. The government offers solutions of poor economic viability, but they are at least somewhat economically viable. The problem, we all know, is they sell the soul of the place. But the world runs on money, not hopes and dreams. Until groups like CFALV come up with something at least partially economically viable, the government’s agenda will win.
      I am a person that would normally be sympathetic to groups like CFALV, but I am so aggravated they can’t seem to put forth viable ideas. They are too caught up in anger and outrage, which seems to have pushed them beyond thinking through functional ideas that could save Venice. Every article they post is on how “tourists are bad” and “tourists behaved poorly” and “tourists are killing Venice”. I would love to see just 1 article laying out an economically viable plan for the future. In addition groups like this can harbor people that are xenophobic at best and racist at worst. Where are the groups with sensible solutions and rational people with viable ideas for the future? (This is not unique to Venice right now)
      One viable idea used by markets around the world, even in cities with smaller permanent populations than Venice is the following. Many realize that markets have become cool, and not just as photo ops, but as places to discover a culture and to learn. Market operators in other countries have seen this and taken advantage of it. At any fish market in Asia, from modern and sleek Tsukiji in Japan to the literally 100’s covering Indonesia, all have stalls that will cook the seafood you just bought from a vendor for you. Japan started it as a way to feed the workers but it has become something much more. Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and even France have similar operations. Many Asian and Hispanic markets in L.A. and N.Y. will also do the same thing. You want Mojarra Frita at Numero Uno market in Carson, CA? Just buy the tilapia from the vendor and the guy next to him will throw it in the fryer along with some French fries! You want that stingray in Sibu, Malaysia, they guy next door will cook it with some sambal and serve it on a banana leaf with a plastic spork for you. You want to eat that live octopus in Korea, buy one on the ground floor of Noryangjin market and take it up to any restaurant on the top floor. They will chop it up, put sesame and soy sauce on it and serve it to you, still wiggling, on a plate with chopsticks.
      Why can’t Venice adopt such a thing, a “Venetian Hawker Center” if you will? Have 3-4 vendors/hawker stalls that each have a special Venetian preparation. The customer would by the fish from a Rialto Vendor, take it to a different vendor that would then prepare it. The customer then sits and eats in a special area reserved for people who have done so. You pay X for the fish, X for the preparation and table. This model works in countless countries around the world. It would increase business for the fishmongers, create jobs for the cooks, and preserve Venetian food all at the same time. Given the prices of Venetian restaurants there is plenty of room for profit for real Venetians. These are jobs for real Venetians right? It’s bringing money to the Rialto market right? It’s preserving a Venetian cooking style right? The problem is this economically viable solution still involves tourism and tourists, so you will never see the groups like CFALV get on board. There are about a dozen other solutions I could think of, the problem is they involve a combination of locals and tourists.
      Venice, and the Rialto market needs tourism. I encourage anyone to try and explain a solution where Venice can survive without it. I love your blog, you post quality content and are a great writer. I am not angry or frustrated with you, just the situation. I only want real, viable solutions for Venice.

    2. But if tourists start shopping, I mean REALLY shopping, at Rialto market. The headline on the CFALV page will be "Tourists destroying the Rialto Market by purchasing all the good seafood".

  5. Thank you for taking the time to think about and write about the situation here in Venice, Prancer cise, and I think your idea about the preparation of the fresh fish at the Rialto is an interesting one, worthy of being explored. But the fact that you yourself have not seen local groups putting forth specific proposals aimed at redressing the issues of uncontrolled tourism and resident population decline does not mean they do not exist; it merely means you yourself have not seen them. In fact, they do. And your claim that local activists want only to stop tourists from coming to Venice and foolishly believe that in doing so Venice will be saved is, I must say, simply false.

    I linked to the Campaign for a Living Venice website as a source for local news translated into English: they themselves are not, nor do they claim to be, local activists; they do not even claim to be be residents. The website explicitly states that its aim is to support local groups, not to make policy. Now you may debate the value of such broadly-stated outside support, but you can't really attack it for not doing the very types of things it explicitly states should be left to locals.

    What the CFALV does do is refer to local groups, such as Gruppo 25 Aprile, #Veneziamiofuturo and Generazione 90, which have indeed put forth very specific proposals that go far beyond demonizing tourists and tourism.

    Forgive me for not rehashing everything you've missed, but to give one example: local groups have long pointed out how the city council's excessive approval of "change of use" applications, by which a building that has been oriented toward local usage is given over to be turned into yet another hotel, for example, has needlessly shredded the local fabric of the city with very little to show for it.

    Indeed, there have been no lack of very specific proposals put forward to try to address uncontrolled mass tourism and local depopulation--none of which proposals bear any resemblance to your gross mischaracterization of them.

    What has been lacking, however, is any inclination of those with power to even consider them: to, more generally, consider anything beyond what is in their own short-term interest. Looking out only for their own interests, they mischaracterize every other idea as impossible "fantasies"--along the lines of what you've done. And given the fact that you seem well aware of the corruption here, I have a feeling their company is not the sort you'd be happy to find yourself among.

    You can have a look at proposals put forth by Generazione 90 here:

    Meanwhile, the city's mayor and the American owner of Venezia-Mestre soccer team (brothers in bluster) put forth their own fantasy:

  6. So sad, so sorry, I so often had to dash into Coin when I'd forgotten things, or my luggage had been mislaid by the airline, whatever will I do in future....
    sounds selfish, sounds trite, but no-one needs a souvenir hat or gondola in plastic, but at times a jumper or bra can be essential. Oh dear.

    1. I'll miss the place, Ella, because it was the largest vendor in town of, as you pointed out, necessary items. Even after it's renovation a year or two ago, which was clearly oriented toward tourists, you could still find things like socks. In contrast, I've never heard of a single local who's bought anything at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, which is nothing more than a large duty free shop, created by a Hong Kong-based chain of duty free shops and specifically aiming, as its German CEO professed in an interview I saw soon after it opened, to sell specifically to the Asian tourists here. He actually said, "we have followed our market to Venice." And it's a market for which I feel sorry, as they're being lead in mass tours to this large duty free shop by guides who one can only suspect are getting kick-back instead of to the flagship stores of the very same brands on the luxury shopping calle just west of Piazza San Marco. In other words, they're being led to buy "luxury" goods, but to a second rate selection of them, when the full array of them is just a short walk away.