VENICE, Italy — I felt a sense of dread the moment I stepped off the train: That imprisoning feeling of being in the wrong place, with nowhere else to go. Of the 17 million people who visit Venice every year, I needed only an instant to realize that I did not want to be one of them.
Venice is thrilling, of course. It dazzles the eye and motivates the feet. With every turn, intersection, bridge and partial view, you imagine what visual gem lurks around the next corner. One moment you’re in a deserted alley that wouldn’t fit a Mini Cooper. Come around a blind corner and it’s the Grand Canal.
For an urbanist, however, the experience of visiting Venice can feel like dating a knockout with whom you’ll never quite fall in love.
That the charms of density are on display here goes without saying. But it’s not a functional density. Yes, the buildings are set close together and the avenues — for foot and paddle — are narrow. You can imagine the activity that would have coursed through them 700 years ago, when Venetian commerce dominated the known world. This city once built ships like Pittsburgh produced steel. Its Arsenal was the original arsenal, forging cannons, shot and rope.
It’s tempting to think that not until the widespread adoption of the telephone have more people interacted so quickly and intimately — and with such impressive results — as they did in medieval Venice. You can imagine the energy that must have flowed through the city’s alleys and exploded in its piazzas, every moment offering a chance to make a deal and then, to spend the proceeds on another bauble, be it a Rococo palace or some extra filigree for your balcony. In a city with no dry land to spare, the details matter.
All that is gone now. At night most of the windows are dark and tourist wander like lost mall-goers through this quiet city. What’s strange about Venice is that it is still, technically, a city, with residents, an economy and a government. And yet, perhaps nowhere else in the world does the relationship past and present fall so surreally, credulously out of balance.
My best moment here was sitting at a coffee shop at 8am watching the few locals left start their day — elderly men in oversize sweaters and tweed, women with briefcases, kids going to school. Word is a few shipbuilders remain, but I never saw a hint of them. Instead, every business visible seems to exist only to serve tourists. The restaurants all serve the same dishes. The trinket stores all sell the same trinkets. I am the reason why they turn their ovens on each night.
I have my quarrels with Joel Kotkin, but I agree that becoming a “boutique city” is one of the worst things a city can become. Venice became one a long time ago. Some 200 years ago, following Napoleon’s conquest, Venice’s traditional merchant and solider-of-fortune economy was disrupted, leaving only the lavishness that those profits bought.
It’s safe to trace Venice’s official death to The Stones of Venice, the three-volume work in which English critic John Ruskin, writing in the 1850s, ruminated on the connection between architecture and morality, finding in particular that Venice’s slow evolution towards the Baroque presaged its downfall. The moralist in Ruskin might be gratified to see his theory confirmed in full.
It has been called a museum, but the tide of tourists (of which, yes, I am one) makes me think amusement park is more apt. It’s full of motion but devoid of energy. Part of me wishes they would in fact make it a museum: Shut down the city, control admission and let it be a historical document, like Pompeii minus the volcano.
You can still visit a million live cities and still believe that their best days are ahead of them. And you can believe that you can be a part of them. That goes as much for historical giants like Paris and London as it does for upstarts like Dubai and Bangalore. For all of the challenges in the U.S., it applies to nearly every American city.
American cities are now retreating back into the past, drawing cues from the Old World. For those on the verge of boutiqueness — the San Franciscos and the Manhattans — the best thing that could happen is not just that they keep growing, but that other places become more like them. We need more choices and more vital, dense places so that density no longer seems so rarified. As challenging as urban development may be, it’s still easier to build new, great places than it is to walk among watery graves.
I remind myself, of course, that Venice had a good run. Every city should be so lucky. As American cities now return to the past — to walking, to living compactly — we musn’t fawn over the history that we resurrect but must instead take it seriously. We must let our cities be as good to us as Venice was to the Venetians. Then maybe our civilization too will stick around a while.
Josh Stephens is the editor of the California Planning & Development Report. Opinions expressed herein are his alone.
Josh Stephens is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Planning Magazine, Sierra Magazine, the Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report and Planetizen. His website is joshrstephens.net.