A Fragile Urban Ecology

Filmmakers looks at tourism’s threat to Venice’s centuries-old way of life

Perhaps ever since its setting by Shakespeare for one of his most enduring plays, Venice has been a worldwide magnet for tourists. The influx, which has now reached record levels, creates tensions between commercial interests in the tourism industry and the people who actually live and work in the city of canals, whose lament for decades has been, “Venice is sinking.” Some of the city’s aggrieved citizens are organizing to change the policies of a municipal government that they complain puts tourism concerns over the daily needs of Venetians.

Filmmakers Carole and Richard Rifkind are New Yorkers who live part-time in Venice and their new documentary, "The Venetian Dilemma," shows both sides of a long-simmering problem that some Italian officials would rather not have spoken of publicly. The Rifkinds interview citizens and public officials caught in the conundrum of wanting the best for their city but not at the expense of losing their way of life.

A glimpse at some statistical markers highlights the problem. In 1950, Venice had 174,000 residents and 500,000 annual visitors; today its population has dropped to 64,000, while the pace of annual tourist visits has skyrocketed to 14 million. Two-thirds of the city’s residents work in tourism-related businesses, but left behind are people like Danilo Palmieri, a produce vendor, whose fruit and vegetable stand has to compete with ever-expanding bars and their outdoor table areas.

Also neglected are working mothers like Michela Scibilia, who is fighting to get the Venetian city government to provide day-care facilities. Paolo Lanapoppi is a writer who spends his free time fighting to control the speed of motorboats, whose rough wakes damage the fragile foundations of the landmark buildings lining Venice’s innumerable canals.

The film focuses on the pros and cons of a municipal plan to diversify the city’s economic base by developing the derelict Arsenale region, a former ship-building location, and digging an underwater tunnel that for a subway connecting the city to the mainland. Roberto D’Agostino, a charismatic deputy mayor, speaks convincingly of the important urban development projects that would "bring Venice into the 21st century," including projects like a convention center, a high-speed train link to the airport on the mainland and other modernization efforts.

Opponents of these plans have their doubts, though––doubts that the promised jobs will happen, and doubts that these plans will do anything other than bring more tourists to Venice, faster than ever before. The long-time residents are concerned out of love for their city. As one woman points out, unlike Padua and Vincenza, two mainland cities, Venice’s slower pace and idiosyncratic ways are what makes the city unique.

The Rifkinds help these longtime residents make their point in part by the way they use their camera. Palmieri, the produce vendor, tells how most of the people he grew up with have moved elsewhere, and also talks about what growing up there was like, as the camera shows schoolboys trying to play soccer in a piazza area shrunk by the al fresco bars that ring it. Palmieri counts all the new bars that have opened in the immediate area of his produce stands that now sit alone among them. The bars, he explains, are run by managers, not owners, and cater more to tourists and university students than longtime residents.

Others Venetians interviewed claim that the decision 30 years ago to shut down heavy industry in the Arsenale was a plot to turn Venice into more of a theme park than a real city.

Venice, a city of canals that sits below sea level, may be unique among the world’s great cities, but the Rifkinds, who dedicate their film "to people everywhere who love their city," explore themes that apply to any urban area facing change and redevelopment. Just think about the prospect of a sports stadium transforming Manhattan’s far West Side or an Ikea disrupting a residential neighborhood in Brooklyn’s Red Hook.

“The Venetian Dilemma" celebrates what makes Venice distinctive, and how tourism run amok can diminish it into a massive work of staged urban theater. At its core, the film shows us regular people trying to maintain a viable quality of life in the face of grand civic schemes that offer no guarantees they will work.

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