Venice is where Venetians cook their meals, go work every day, worry, gossip, complain about their neighbors and go pazzo fighting with their cellular phone service providers. It's not a mysterious dreamscape to them. Venice is their home. But today, even as so many dreamers-of-Venice are envious, hundreds if not thousands of Venetians are looking for good reasons to continue living there.
This week, as grand ballrooms are bedecked with flowers, cables are raised for the flight of the angel and revelers don their carnival masks, some residents of Venice will undertake a decidedly less romantic task. They will affix "No W.C." signs into the doorways of their homes. They're going to do this because they know from experience that people are going to pee in the doorways of other people's private homes during carnival. It's not because they're telling people not to ring the bell in search of a bathroom. Strangers do ring, and then run away. That happens all the time. They also climb the walls and peek into windows and gardens at all hours of the day and night. But, I've never heard of anyone ringing to beg to use a bathroom.
Declining Quality Of Life: The Venetian Heartbreak In Pictures.
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On the right, "Venice in Everyday Reality" released by the Gruppo WSM (Viva San Marco), shows what Venetians encounter everyday in contemporary Venice. This is a long series of painfully not-beautiful images of both the impact of mass tourism on Venice and the neglect into which the city has been allowed to fall despite the massive amounts of money that are spent there each year. It is painful to watch, even for those of us who have only experienced this Venice in our lifetimes, because it is certainly not how we imagine or even see Venice even when we're right in the thick of it.
It is not how I see Venice, though I have certainly seen all of this in my time there. And, it is not a side of Venice that I normally share. These images depict the reality of a degraded Venice that is degrading to our romantic vision of the city. We can only see it if it is presented as brutally as this. But when Venice is your hometown, when you're no longer blinded by its beauty, you will see these things more clearly than will the first, second, third or fourth person who leaves an empty bottle on the ledge of a church. The group who released this video are Venetians fighting for their hometown, for their way of life, for their traditions. But, they are also fighting for the preservation of the beautiful Venice for future generations.
Everybody's Talking About Venice. Who's Talking About Venetians?
That quote from Cocks' review articulated for me my reaction to another recent article about Venice, Venice: Doomed To Become a Historical Disney Land?, that appeared in Business Destinations in November 2014. There were two deeply troubling things about this article which was, ostensibly, a discussion of whether diversification would benefit the Venetian economy. First, the author didn't define the "Venetian" economy. How much of the money spent by tourists in Venice is actually paid to Venetians or even spent in Venetian-owned businesses? How much property in Venice belongs to international hospitality and luxury goods conglomerates with no deeper ties to Venice than to their shop employees? Second, the authoritative quotes from Matteo Secchi, spokesman of the citizens' advocacy group Venessia, were actually taken from a two year old article published elsewhere. Neither Secchi nor anyone with Venessia was informed about or interviewed for the November 2014 article. From the title on down, this well-intended article treated Venice as unreal.
Really, what's real? What are the genuine concerns of people in their hometown? Environment, education, healthcare, opportunity, public services, public space, security... the usual. What is the state of these things in Venice? A Venetian friend of mine who recently had a baby spent part of her pregnancy worrying about going into labor at the wrong time of day. There would be no doctor available to help in case of emergency at night. The environment? You've now seen the pictures of garbage laying around Venice. The city just doesn't have the infrastructure to remove it as quickly as millions of people can produce it. Meanwhile, the Mose, intended to protect the city from high water are both mired in financial scandal and, it turns out, not tall enough anyway! Security? Venice requested that Rome send the army to help with crowd control during the summer of 2014. Rome declined. Public space? If you can find space, guard it with your life. Opportunity? You can work in hospitality, retail, art conservation or as an artisan. But, fortune and fame are becoming more an more unusual for Venetians. A friend of mine calls it the "Riches to Rags" story of Venice.
But there are simpler, even more basic, challenges than these that residents of Venice have to contend with on a day-to-day basis. Grocery stores are closing and basic home goods stores can be counted on one hand. There is literally no room for Venetian commuters on their public transit system. Sending the kids out to play? Venetian's cats are sometimes picked up by tourists for photo ops and then abandoned in strange parts of the City. And make no mistake, these challenges are shared equally by wealthy, middle-income and poor Venetians. All in all, it really takes a huge amount of love for the old hometown and determination to soldier on to make the commitment to live in Venice.
Lots Of Houses For Sale Or Rent & A Housing Shortage?
The quality of life is deteriorating for Venetians, but their property has value. Is it any wonder that Venetian property owners are also trying to cash-out of Venice? You won't see the "For Sale" signs as visibly in the center of town, but on Burano and Mazzorbo you'll see them on more than half of the houses. There is a lot of residential real estate for sale in Venice, most of it at prices beyond the reach of most Venetians in search of residences. For examples, run an online search of "real estate for sale in Venice, Italy". You'll find hundreds of properties, each billed as "an investment opportunity with tourist rental potential". No one is suggesting that the buyer should actually live there. Meanwhile, much of what is not for sale is for short-term rental only.
There is a shortage of affordable housing for Venetian residents who want to stay in Venice. Here's why: Property owners can get more from a tourist rental in a week than they can from a residential rental in a month. Anna Somers Cocks pointed out that Venetian property prices shot up exponentially when, in the 1990's, private residents were initially allowed to convert their homes into commercial Bed & Breakfasts. It is a trend that has continued. And, I don't know of any zoning laws that require a certain amount of real estate to be made available for long term rentals in Venice. (I do know many Venetians who have looked for months and months for apartments to call home while hundreds of tourist rentals stood empty.) The median residential rental price for a one bedroom apartment in central Venice is 730 euros per month. The median income in Venice is around 26,000 euros per year, of which almost 40% goes to taxes. Even if a Venetian can find an apartment, living there is an expensive proposition.
Residents Are Essential To The Venetian Economy, Whatever The Term "Venetian Economy" Means To You.
There are essential services that residents both need and provide which are also needed and desired by tourists. In fact, those pesky little poverty-stricken Venetians who complain about the least little bit of garbage and noise and protest even the smallest 10 million euro sale of an active school house to a hospitality company, those are the people who create the Venetian experiences that all those millions of tourists are paying all those millions of dollars to all of those hospitality companies for. To protect their investment, the commercial interests that control much of Venice will eventually have to support policies that keep Venice habitable for Venetians.
What To Do? Carry On With The Carnival!
Of course, I don't put my faith entirely in the free market economy. I also have faith in Venetians. They love Venice. Venice is their home. It takes a lot to drive a Venetian out of Venice. They drive dinghies into the path of oncoming cruise ships for Christ's sake! They will kick and scream and yell their heads off at anyone, listening or not, before they abandon their islands. And yes, I will do whatever I can to amplify their voices.
Does that sound unsatisfactory? Did you expect me to break my cardinal rule and at least ask tourists to behave themselves in Venice? That I will never do! People don't need to be told not to pee in other people's doorways. And, people who pee in other people's doorways don't read OG Venice Travel Guide. The best thing that we, you and I, can do for Venice and our Venetian friends is still exactly what we came to do in the first place: Direct as many people as we can towards the most enjoyable and authentic experience of Venice they can get. That's how we free tourists from the theme park and support the Venetian economy.
OG Venice Travel Guide is a great place to start looking for the authentic Venice. We know lots of amazing Venetians! And, these are a few other great local and Italian services that we're excited to recommend to travelers who'd like to meet some Venetians, and have a great time, in Venice:
- Italian Stories is a recently launched Italian startup that connects tourists with artisans who offer small classes in their workshops.
- L'Altra Venezia offers eco-friendly lagoon tours.
- Cook in Venice takes guests shopping in the Rialto market and then gives Venetian cooking classes in your rental apartment.