Monday, June 6, 2016

Venice Has No Future, Says the Mayor of Venice?

Ever more tourists, ever fewer residents: the "finest drawing room in Europe" resembles a bus station during a transit strike

I don't know about you, but I find it rather dismaying when the mayor of the city in which I live says that our city has no future--which is what the mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, was recently reported as having said in his remarks at the opening of the 15th International Architecture Biennale on Friday, May 27.

His exact words, as reported by local newspapers, were "il futuro di questo Comune non è Venezia, è Mestre, dove c’è la gente che vive" ("the future of this city isn't Venice, it's Mestre, where the population lives").

Now, in a historic city whose population, after decades of decline, is according to some demographers less than 15 years away from completely disappearing.* In a city that in recent years has just barely managed--thanks to local protests--to prevent its hospital from being closed and moved to terraferma (that hospital which, as it is, my own Venetian physician always sadly refers to as "only half a hospital"). In a city which has also had a good number of its administrative offices--offices that once offered that rarest of things in Venice: non-tourism-based employment--moved to the mainland. In a city whose schools are so badly maintained that parents have taken to the streets to protest the squalor (and the quality of education is usually at about the same level as the schools' physical condition). In such a city, this is not the kind of thing you want to hear from your mayor.

After a good deal of public outcry, the mayor "explained" his remarks a couple of days ago, saying that they were taken out of context. After all, his remarks were made at the opening of an exhibition which explicitly took urban peripheries, and their development, as its subject.

Indeed, as you can see in the newspaper account to which I link above, Brugnaro's Biennale remarks are very clearly oriented toward the occasion. From his pugnacious opening reminder that the Biennale facilities themselves are owned by the city of Venice and given to the Biennale for its use (ie, otherwise the Biennale on its own would not have so much as--as the saying goes--"a pot to piss in") to the no less hostile implication that what this area needs is not the high-falutin' aesthetical notions of those architects and thinkers in attendance (and on display throughout the Biennale), but simply people who know how to get things done and create jobs ("...per quanto riguarda le periferie non serve il buonismo, ma posti di lavoro. Meno riunioni, meno convegni, meno mostre e più fatti." "the peripheries don't need the best intentions, but jobs. Less meetings, less convocations, less exhibitions, more doing"), it's obvious that he assiduously tailored his remarks to insulting the specific audience he was addressing. And, not so coincidentally, to asserting his own "plain-spoken," anti-intellectual, businessman's earth-shaking ability to get things done (echoes of both Berlusconi and Trump here).

Therefore, given the context, Brugnaro insisted at the end of this past week that it was an absurd falsification cooked up by his "usual three opponents" who always attack him without reason to say that he believes Venice has no future ( 

On the contrary, Brugnaro said, he has very big plans for the future of Venice and Mestre and the way their inter-connectedness will benefit the area. And then, with his usual sophistication of argument, he declared that anyone who questions his plans for striding boldly into the future is "not a true Venetian, because Venetians are not afraid of anything" ("Venezia è una città del mondo, chi pensa che non sia più una priorità ti fa capire che livello ha. Non merita di essere considerato un veneziano, perché un veneziano non ha paura di niente.")

Given the fact that "real Venetians" (ie, people actually born and raised in the lagoon city) chauvinistically consider someone like Brugnaro--born and raised on the mainland in Spinea (or anywhere else outside the lagoon, for that matter, whether Milan, London, Tokyo or New York)--un campagnolo (a hick), his demagogic appeal to fearless Venetian authenticity is a bit comical. 

But the mayor is completely serious and, lest we harbor any doubts about his feelings for the historic city, he concludes with the assertion that "Venice is the center of the world" ("Venezia è il centro del mondo. Chi ha paura del contrario non è veneziano"
"Venezia - conclude Brugnaro - è il centro del mondo").  

Okay. The problem, however, is that there are actually more than just three people who have some serious doubts about the kind of future he envisions for the historic city of Venice, and what kind of center he is intent on turning it into.

For one thing, his remarks at the Biennale were not the first time he's emphasized the "periphery" of Venice and its population. This past March he was quoted as asserting that Marghera would become a new Manhattan, with new facilities for the port, for production, for accomodations, and residences ("A Marghera una nuova città, modello Manhattan. Con il porto, ma anche attività produttive, ricettive e residenziali.")**

The redevelopment of Marghera and the population on the mainland is, of course, of vital importance here. But it's the population of the historic city that is vanishing and our blustery "Mayor Can Do" has done very little on that issue. 

Indeed, his biggest plan to help out the disappearing population of Venice was simply the resurrection of an old idea that had failed before: starting this month, Venice residents will be allowed to board vaporetti before non-residents at a few selected stops along the Grand Canal.  

I recently asked someone in the administration of ACTV (the company that runs the vaporetti and  local bus lines) what he thought about this and he was emphatically unimpressed. His main points:

1) There was nothing in this re-hashed version of an old idea that would make it any more likely to succeed than the prior attempt.

2) The majority of locals who utilize the Grand Canal lines governed by the new rules board the vaporetti before the selected stops, and therefore won't benefit from them (eg, the locals who board the number 1 line at Lido, or Giardini, or Arsenale, or San Zaccaria, to go to someplace on the Grand Canal).

3) The new/old regulations require the already-budget strapped ACTV to employ more people to implement the rules at the selected stops.

4) Venice must be the only place in the world where those who pay top price for a ticket (7.50 euro for a single non-resident ride) are guaranteed far worse service than those pay far less (1.50 euro per ride for a resident).

5) This was a hollow bit of political grandstanding. Something Brugnaro could promise in his campaign and take credit for (eventually) implementing if he won, but which does absolutely nothing to address the real issues affecting the residents of Venice. It panders to some Venetians' resentment toward the tourist mobs, but accomplishes nothing more.   

And this gets to the real problem with Brugnaro's remarks at the Biennale: not that he is concerned (as the area must be) with developing the mainland, but that he seems perfectly content with a future Venice devoid of actual residents ("the future of this city isn't Venice, it's Mestre, where the population lives").

It is estimated that 40,000 people who live on the mainland work in the historic city of Venice. A mayor actually concerned with the future of Venice as a living city might concern himself with the question of what might be done to lure some of those people back to Venice. Berlin, Iceland, Cornwall, Barcelona***, among other places, have all taken concrete steps to try to protect or remedy the deleterious effects of tourism on the affordability of housing for residents. Though Brugnaro sells himself as someone able to cut through years of red tape with a single mighty slash, has he shown any actual leadership in this regard?  

But given the fact that the most powerful players in Venice profit from moving as many people as possible in and out of Venice--the port, the airport (which owns an interest in the port also), the trains, the buses, the lancioni (private waterbuses), the taxi drivers--it's easy to believe that for them a historic city without the expense of schools and hospitals and elderly care facilities and all the other services required by a resident population would be a true "Paradise of Cities" (to use the title of one of John Julius Norwich's books on Venice). 

The fear, in other words, is that when Brugnaro refers to Venice as the "center of the world," what he really has in mind is a shopping/convention center, devoid of all life beyond commercial activity. The fear is that his "center of the world" will turn out to be like the center of a doughnut: completely empty. 

And the good mayor, who likes to present himself as a man of action rather than mere talk, has done nothing to assuage such fears. On the contrary.



* see Newsweek, 2 November 2009 "Venice isn't sinking as much as it is shrinking—demographers predict that by 2030, there won't be a single full-time Venetian resident left."  

** It appears that if Brugnaro has ever been to Manhattan, it hasn't been lately, as Manhattan hasn't had a vital port since the 1950s, and manufacturing is also long gone. One would hope that any plan for the redevelopment of the port of Marghera would take into consideration the global forces that have contributed to such changes in Manhattan, as well as the impact that climate change (eg, the melting of the polar ice cap) will have on future shipping routes.

It might also be noted at this point that the good mayor himself owns a substantial quantity of land beside the port of Marghera, that incipient Manhattan.  

***The mayor of Barcelona specifically cited Venice as an example of the touristic hell her city was trying to avoid becoming. In response, an offended Brugnaro assured her she had it all wrong and invited her to visit and see for herself. 

Wouldn't it have been more helpful if he'd been able to share with the mayor of Barcelona the measures that his own administration was taking to protect local life? But lacking those, he had no other choice but to contradict the obvious. 


  1. Thank you for this, Steve. Your summary of the situation seems painfully accurate. Wouldn't it have been helpful if Brugnaro asked the good mayor of Bracelona how she is implementing her strategies? But to the arrogant Venetian mayor asking questions of people who actually might have solutions does not seem to be part of his dogma. Brugnaro, Trump, Berlesconi, the 3 stooges.

    1. You're welcome, JoAnn, but I'd be happy to be proved wrong about these things.

  2. Visiting Venice (as a "good tourist" according to you) several times per year since more than 15 years, watching local politics and development and looking back: I am convinced things don't happen, they are and have been planned this way. And will be further realized this way the next 20 years. Venice "free" of citizens, a place to generate pure tourism business on every level. An example for global money making tourism not being bothered by local human interests of whom ever.

    Absolutely horrible reality, no nightmare, but not to reverse anymore. And, elected with the help of Lega voters, Brugnaro is the man to take the steps necessary at the time being. Others will follow.

    1. Yes, Brigitte, there does seem to be a certain momentum to all of this over the years that is not merely chance. The "invisible hand of the market place" turns out to be not so invisible after all. But the fact that it is "rigged" raises at least the possibility--or dream--that it might be rigged toward different, better aims. In the fall there will be a referendum on whether the administration of Venice and Mestre--now shared and simply called "Venice"--should be split up into two different civic administrations. One for Mestre, to tend to its own concerns, and one for the lagoon city of Venice, to tend to its own unique needs. I understand that such a split would actually have financial benefits for Mestre, and it seems like the last chance Venice may have to break away from those mainland forces (well represented by the boy from Spinea, Brugnaro) that would empty it out for the sake of making it the mainland's Disneyland.

  3. I completely agree with Brigette, and believe this is a master plan by Costa. There was never any intention to support residents in the city. Steven, I'm wondering if Venice was to be successful in splitting apart (which I doubt Costa would ever allow) who would be the new mayor of Venice?

    1. I really don't know who might run to be the mayor of a separat, Venice, JoAnn, and I'm not sure that anyone I might ask would know at this point. Right now it may be enough of an uphill battle to achieve separation, so people are focused on the referendum. But I should ask...

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  5. Replies
    1. I've thought of Brugnaro as a Baby Wanna-be Berlusconi, Bailey, and Trump as an even more vulgar over-inflated version of Berlusconi, but even Italian friends with nothing but contempt for Berlusconi are now convinced that Trump is much worse, in a league (like that to which Lega Nord belongs?) all his own. I'm not sure Brugnaro is quite up to the blatant racist attacks made by Trump yet--but perhaps give him time...

  6. To a degree, there are some similarities with my own home city, London. Central London is being sold off to overseas investors (who don't visit but rent out the properties) and so Londoners are priced out of living in their own city. Naturally, the Realtors don't see an unhealthy irony.

    1. That's interesting, Anon, as it seems to be happening in places all over the world. I seem to recall what I think was a NY Times article from a couple years back about the unsettling plight of a woman who lives in a high-rise apartment building on exclusive Central Park South which is almost empty of any other tenants: floor after floor after floor of vacant apartments and no one to hear your shouts if you have a problem of some kind. But in small town like Venice the emptying out is even further along and more disastrous.