Dying Cities

Back in 2009, Venice held its own funeral to mark the decline of the city’s population below 60,000, with mourners lining the banks of the canals as the symbolic coffin of La Serenisima, aboard a gondola, passed by draped with red and pink cloth. If the population of Venice continues to decline at its current rate, in fifty years there will be no locals left.

I haven’t been to Venice, but I did go to Florence last year, and it too is suffering a similar fate: exorbitant rent and property prices are pushing many Florentines out to the bleak outer suburbs like Novoli, where ugly high-rise towers dominate, and where, every morning, they wedge themselves into buses bound for the city centre – a trip that takes 30-45 minutes despite only being about six kilometres.

The city is extending its tram system to alleviate some of its congestion, but it won’t be enough: Florence, like Venice, is not a modern city. There were no cars when its cobbled streets were laid. It does not have wide avenues like Paris, and it never will, unless Florence instates the modern-day equivalent of Haussmann – even then, it’s hard to imagine the bulldozers doing a number on the centre of Florence.

On the streets of Barcelona, a stencil reads, ‘Tourists, you are the terrorists!’ I was reminded of seeing it by the recent terrorist attack there, one in which many tourists from around the world lost their lives. I understand why the locals feel the way that they do, but it’s not the fault of tourists that rent has gone up, nor it is the fault of Air Bnb. People and companies can only do what a given country’s laws allow, and governments need to do more to protect not just their cities, but the culture to which they give life.

At the centre of the problem is what happens when cities give themselves over too readily to the lure of tourism commerce. It is a delicate balancing act: cities need revenue, but they also need to maintain the commodity that provides this revenue: we don’t just travel to see architecture and paintings and scenery, we travel to see how people live.

A Venice without Venetians is basically a theme park. You will still be able to visit the galleries and see the buildings, but you won’t see how people live because there won’t be any locals left. The less people there are to practice the city’s culture, the less that culture will have any meaning. If the Renaissance has taught us anything, it is that miracles happen in science and art when old ideas are reinterpreted and given new life. A culture without people to live it is nothing more than a text, a history, a painting on the wall.

View down the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio, Florence. Copyright Simon Bonneau, 2016.

It reminds me of what Baudrillard says about class struggle: the more this social phenomenon is picked apart and conceptualised, the less it is itself. Moreover, the more a concept defines a lived experience, the more it determines the nature of that experience. A simple way of understanding what he means is by considering that you can read all you like about class struggle with out actually encountering the dynamics that make it an important concept in the first place.

The same is true of cities: the more desirable a place becomes, the more commercialised it becomes and that commercialisation begins to determine people’s experience of it: instead of exploring Venice ourselves, we are sold the ‘Venetian Experience’ by a tour company, for example. The more a city gives itself over to this sort of commercialisation, the more it becomes a theme park, a place as desolate of culture as it is of people to practice it.

After travelling to Florence, I go back to Paris. I sit down at a local café near my mother’s apartment and watch on as a waiter chats to one of the regulars. He comes over, shakes my hand and asks me how my trip was. Later on, the staff sing happy birthday to the owner and she stands among them looking embarrassed, but obviously very moved. It struck me that it is this that we risk losing by turning cities into theme parks, this type of interaction. We need to start treating the ways of life that these precious cities afford with the same reverence we do the great artworks that they house.