We ambled back to the hotel through the warm Venetian evening. Snatches of German, Japanese, English and even Russian drifted from couples peering at their maps. An American woman showed me a postcard of the Rialto, stabbing it with her finger, and said slowly, in a loud voice, "How.. get ... there?"
There were almost no cheering Italians because Italians don't live in central Venice anymore. Walking around the city for five days, we could see easily enough where ordinary life, as expressed in the form of grocery stores, bakeries and so forth, ends and the international enclaves begin.
We're not talking here of a few blocks round the Piazza San Marco. We're talking about half of the six sestiere -- neighborhoods -- that make up the city. Venice, which gave us the word "ghetto" six centuries ago, to mark the little island on its northwestern edge, where the Jews were required to live, is fast becoming the world's first tourist ghetto from end to end.
The writer Andrea di Robilant, author of a marvelous chunk of 18th-century Venetian history in the form of his best-selling "A Venetian Affair," confirms this. When he was writing that book three years ago, di Robilant and his wife Alessandra lived in the Dorsodouro district, west across the Grand Canal. These days, said Andrea sadly, the Dorsoduoro is dying.
When neighborhoods in Venice die, it's not because huge vulgar concrete condos replace delicate 18th century facades. The rules protecting Venice's exterior appearance are rigidly enforced. Nor does it mean T-shirts and underwear with the genitals of Michelangelo's David painted on them (which are plentiful on the Lista di Spagna).
Death comes in the form of moneyed quietness. There's no bustle of everyday life, no local kids in the streets, few old folk, no little food stores or wine shops. Just the bland, well-maintained exteriors of high-end international homes, part of a portfolio that might include a condo in Mayfair, England, or Vail, Colorado, or Hana, Hawaii.
So the locals are moving out. The city's population is down to 70,000, from a high of around 200,000. Di Robilant now has a delightful apartment on the island of Guidecca, a district of Venice half a mile south toward the Lido from the main part of Venice.
Rich Venetians used to have summer homes there a hundred years ago. Then the island slowly nose-dived and became a dangerous slum. Clean-up began in the 1990s, with artists and writers -- as so often -- pioneering the rehab.
If the histories of zones like Manhattan's SoHo are any guide, next usually come the fancy restaurants, art galleries, clothes stores and antique stores. Then the rents start soaring, and the artists and writers become real estate operators. The locals leave.
In Guidecca's case, di Robilant is optimistic. He thinks there are too many modest-income locals who won't quit the island. I hope he's right, but I fear the worst. At the east end of Guidecca, there's already the very high-end Hotel Cipriani, and at the west end, a consortium, including Hilton, has just bought the vast old 19th-century mill.
For now, old Europe can creak at the seams with summer tourists. Soon there'll be two million Chinese a year doing the Grand Tour, joining the Asians who fill three out of every five gondolas passing our hotel window (at $125 per couple, for half an hour). In the end, absent a really bracing plague or huge world depression, the biggest tourist destinations will have to develop some sort of rationing system.
The toxic effects of well-bred international money are more sinister. It's easy to scare off tourists. Shoot a few, as they did once in Jamaica and later in Luxor, and the place empties out for months, if not years. Money just keeps quiet. It's not dangerous, in the way Guidecca was 50 years ago. But it's turning cities like Venice into cemeteries.
© Creators Syndicate
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July 13, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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