I have wanted to visit Venice for as long as I could remember. It sounded so unique, and romantic. Then I watched The Tourist with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie and knew I had to visit soon.
My husband visited in 2006, but I couldn’t go with him, and on his return? He said he had no desire to go back. I couldn’t quite comprehend that- how could he not have loved the place? I vowed to be undeterred and go myself when I had the chance. I almost got my chance in 2010, but a scheduling fluke meant I missed it yet again.
Every time I talked to someone about it, they would joke: “Go soon before Venice sinks into the sea!” And they would laugh, as would I. Can you imagine an entire city sinking into the ocean? Like Atlantis or LA after an earthquake? It would never happen… But…I felt the fear it would actually happen (though I guess more accurately the sea is rising up around the city).
I finally got my chance. I made it to Venice. I spent a magical 24 hours walking the ‘streets’ by myself without the contributions of someone who had been there before (read: my unenamoured husband).
And I got it. All of it. I got the romance and the charm and the unique rhythm that had captured imaginations for centuries. But I also got why my husband doesn’t feel the need to go back : the tourists.
I have been to many touristy places, but Venice is different in two important ways: spatial restriction and environmental instability. There is very little space for people to live so housing must be hideously expensive. And the place is sinking (water levels rising – whatever) and that is hideously expensive to maintain. This means that the ratio of tourists to locals is very very skewed compared to other touristy places.
This means, that nobody lives in Venice unless they can afford to, which eliminates anybody who isn’t a movie star. This means that the way of life people are flocking to venice to see is gone- we are visiting a living museum not a working city. Everybody working there works for tourists – hoteliers, your guides, restaurants. Even the traditional glass blowers probably do most of their trade to tourists these days too!
So, the city is spending ridiculous amounts of money to build water breaks, and raised sidewalks, and to shore up collapsing buildings in order to maintain the illusion of a thriving working city. But all the inner workings of the city have been replaced with tourists. It’s like a pioneer village – outer trappings to show what life would have been like, but all the people are tourists or tour guides. The actual city itself has moved to the mainland.
What should we do?
This question is common in heritage, how do we best maintain our cultural resources? This question is even more complicated when we are talking about outdoor public spaces that can’t be protected from the elements. At what stage is a heritage landscape ‘done’? How do you decide which stage to maintain for posterity? This is a question I have pondered with respect to the British prehistoric landscape, where you often have standing stones and other monuments embedded in the landscape of the countryside and even the city. Over time, these monuments are eroded and eventually even collapse. Many councils have decided to restore these monuments, even going so far as to cement them into place. But shouldn’t the landscape be allowed to develop and evolve naturally? If we don’t want things to develop, which stage do we choose for restoration and preservation?
In ernice, I have the same questions. Is it worth the money to maintain the city in its current state? Mightn’t the money be better spent building infrastructure on the mainland, instead of maintaining a city that no longer really exists?
Or maybe the nostalgia is important? Maybe the bonkers craziness of the first person to say “Hey! Why don’t we build our city in the middle of the sea” is worth commemorating, reminding us that a city doesn’t have to be the stereotype, that we can be different.
Or maybe we should build something new that’s bonkers. Where else could we point and say “Hey! Maybe we should build out there!” Moon? Mars? Maybe the money spent on raised sidewalks could be used to build a city on Mars. Now that would be crazy!