Edward M. Gómez
Migropolis: Venice, Atlas of a Global Situation, a book in two volumes (photo courtesy of Hatje Cantz)
Venice is sinking.
For decades, even before reports of global climate change brought attention to the hazards of rising seas, the elegant “water city,” as Hermann Hesse dubbed it in his travel journals, had wrestled with acqua alta routinely flooding canalside walkways and popular sites like the Piazza San Marco, that grand, majestic urban space Napoleon reportedly called “the drawing room of Europe.”
While the French emperor’s quip is the stuff of legend, today a feeling of despair has come to overwhelm many Venetians and sensitive observers who admire their unique floating world; their fear for its survival is something very alarming, painful — and real.
For many years, Venice has struggled with environmental pollution from industrial plants on the nearby mainland; a declining population; episodes of political-governmental corruption; assorted harmful effects of gigantic cruise ships plying its lagoon; the rising cost of living for locals; and unstoppable invasions of destructive hordes of tourists from all over the world, many of whom breeze through its fragile, architecturally distinctive islands for only a day or two before stampeding off to other famous — and vulnerable — locations in search of the same fast food and luxury-brand goods they could easily find back home, all the while snapping those must-have trophies of 21st-century consumers in motion — ego-boosting, I-was-there selfies — as they go.
Only last week, The New York Times signaled just how dire Venice’s current crisis has become, but its news report came late to the alarm-sounding party. In fact, such superficial offerings as the paper’s regular “36 Hours In _____” articles, which guide “travelers” on pass-through junkets through various target cities, help encourage the kind of consumerism-focused incursions that are killing places like Venice.
A typical view along the real Venice’s Grand Canal, December 2015 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Perhaps unwittingly, but no less impressively, in response to such news items, along comes Migropolis: Venice, Atlas of a Global Situation (Hatje Cantz), an in-depth examination of what makes Venice tick today, providing a data-filled, revealing analysis of this fabled and alluring place’s complex, interwoven pageant of attractions, challenges, peculiarities, and woes. First published in 2009 in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title that was presented in Venice at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, this is the book’s second edition, in two volumes.
Like the original exhibition, it showcases research findings about the city that were gathered and analyzed by a team headed by Wolfgang Scheppe, a German-born professor of the politics of representation and image theory at the Università IUVA di Venezia, Venice’s well-known school of architecture, art, and design. Migropolis provides a substantive model for how urban studies at their most penetrating may be pursued today, with implications for law- and public-policy-making to be gleaned from the wealth of data it exposes and examines.
Migropolis looks at the causes and effects of many of the crisis issues cited above, but its real focus is Venice’s ongoing role as both a desired destination and transit point for some of the steadiest, and seemingly most ceaseless, flows of migrants to be found anywhere in the world today. With regularity, they pour into Venice from such places as Bangladesh, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, China, and Senegal. With or without legal-residency or work permits, they often end up making their livings as maids, care-givers, dishwashers, waiters, street vendors, or prostitutes.
Street vendors, mostly from Senegal, selling counterfeit versions of luxury-brand handbags have become a visible part of Venice’s commercial landscape (photo from Migropolis: Venice, Atlas of a Global Situation, courtesy of Hatje Cantz)
Writing in the book’s lead essay, Scheppe notes that this study “makes a fundamental distinction between two motion patterns associated with globalization that intersect in [Venice’s] city center.” One reflects a “desired,” and the other a “forced” “movement of place”; the former is that of immigration, while the latter is that of tourism. Scheppe writes, “In the terminology of this [book’s] investigation, they are called leisure-based mobility and subsistence-based mobility.” In short, some people go to Venice for pleasure, because they want to and can; others make the journey for survival’s sake.
Scheppe and his team gathered the information that fed into Migropolis over a period of several years. Most of the people they identified as migrants explained that they had headed to Venice, either en route to other destinations or with the intention of staying there, in search of money-making opportunities. Many were expected to send large portions of their earnings back home to their families. The book includes probing interviews with a range of non-Italians who arrived and stayed in Venice or its neighboring Veneto region, legally or illegally, over the past two decades or so………..