28 August 2009

Invisible Cities

Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast four years ago this weekend. This piece originally appeared in 2005.

Every time we speak of certain cities, we are saying something about Venice.

When CNN.com asked its readers for their thoughts on the reconstruction of New Orleans, one Mississippi resident responded, “New Orleans has always had a European feel to it. Why not enhance this by making it like Venice, Italy? Leave the areas that didn’t flood as they are and make the rest like Venice with canals for roads and the houses and properties on concrete ‘islands.’” This was not one individual’s fantasy. Elsewhere, numbers of Americans confirmed the idea. “Rebuild New Orleans as a water-street city,” wrote a blogger. “It’s the natural way to solve all its problems,” a post that received a significant number of affirmative comments: “Good idea …”; “I really like this idea”; “It’s interesting that you’ve posted this idea, because I was thinking the exact same thing today”; “I think that this is a beautiful idea as long as someone finds a new home for all of the alligators.”

As the hurricane was a “natural” disaster, Venice would be the “natural” outcome. Where did this sort of thinking come from? Bombay, which in early August suffered the worst floods in its history—at least a thousand dead, and twenty million displaced or homeless—never aroused a whisper of Venice. Its charming colonial architecture aside, to most observers, Bombay is already a disaster, not merely one waiting to happen. Its poverty and overcrowding are so visible as to elude the claims of constructed tourist history. Bombay cannot successfully manage its image, the way that Venice and New Orleans have. As such, Bombay’s “functional anarchy” seems to demand the sort of human catastrophe that takes place daily anyway.

It was not only that the photographs of a beautiful, flooded New Orleans brought back memories of chronically waterlogged Venice—a “Venice from Hell” as a BBC report called it. In a deeper sense, New Orleans has long been considered the Venice of the United States. Damp and decaying, vice-ridden and vaguely European, rich in culture but dead in industry: visitors have long insisted on its essential strangeness, foreignness, and insolubility—an impossible city, too beautiful and damned to survive. A putatively shared cultural heritage—hybridized Euro-American architecture, extraordinary jazz, and the notoriously “licentious” Mardi Gras, all buffered by deep lines of racial segregation—has been rigorously preserved, to ensure that its exotic uniqueness remains intact and visitable. Like Venice, New Orleans has been burdened with an accumulated and shared touristic vocabulary that everyone uses to describe its character, and which, for various reasons, remains the sole content of its foreseeable future.


In his review of John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels (a review entitled “The Invincible City”), Jonathan Yardley wrote, “in this hour of national crisis and dismay, when the mercy killers and doomsayers are arguing for a ‘carefully planned deconstruction of New Orleans,’ we can do well to look at Venice. Those of us who love New Orleans and are not ready or willing to let it go can take heart from the city in the sea.” Venice had apparently endured; so would New Orleans. “New Orleans and Venice are both subject to the vagaries of the water gods,” wrote Michael Ledeen in the National Review, “and both have acted sporadically to fend off their seemingly inevitable fate. But their basic response to the looming disaster has been defiance, a ritual assertion of life in the face of the inevitable, and an embrace of human frailty that echoes the frailty of the city itself.”

The Venice and New Orleans that Yardley and Ledeen depict live in the shadow of inevitable disaster but are therefore—paradoxically—invincible. When we insist that these cities are doomed, perpetually dying, we manufacture sublime visions of distress that prevent us from understanding how they might be saved, or how this “embrace of human frailty” boils down to oppression and neglect that could be relieved through tiresome politics and social action. We develop a tourist’s gaze, which allows us to feel a bittersweet pity for “doomed” people and “vanishing” ways of life that we will never know, nor be forced to feel responsible for. When we travel to such cities, we believe that we might learn something about ourselves, “other” cultures, “human frailty”—but often we are learning precisely the habits and ways of seeing that will preserve us from such experience.

Venice, like New Orleans, is perceived to be “doomed.” But much of what dooms it is the romance of doom. Exceeding the physical facts of its decrepitude, its status has acquired a spectral dimension, as if the city were chained to a ghost that, despite our best efforts, would sink the city. That ghost isn’t really, as we might imagine, the sea itself. It’s rather a literary history, which has developed since the city’s end in 1797 at the hands of Napoleon. Thereafter Venice became little more than a backwater in European politics, occupied first by Austrians and, ever since, by tourists. Outsiders like Lord Byron began to develop an aesthetics of the city that focused less on its imperial past and possible future, and more on its apparently depressed, moribund, and timeless present. The idea of a “sinking city” became irresistible as symbol. In the fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron wrote, “Venice, lost and won, / Her thirteen hundred years of freedom done, / Sinks, like a seaweed, into whence she rose!” (Followed by gibes against Austrian occupiers, which could as easily apply to tourists: “Better be whelmed beneath the waves, and shun, / Even in Destruction’s depth, her foreign foes, / From whom submission wrings an infamous repose”).

By the time John Ruskin brought his love of the Gothic to Venice, he believed he was arriving in a place that had long since expired, and whose relevance consisted only in its rich architectural history. He made no effort to understand the city’s social population, and became perhaps the central figure in solidifying its “sinking” status. Ruskin’s successors—Henry James, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Mary McCarthy, among many others—have merely confirmed and reconfirmed his view of a dead, Narcissus-like city, so much so that McCarthy was able to declare in 1963, perhaps wistfully, that “tourist Venice is Venice,” and attempts to find the “real” city would always already be forfeit.


It’s true that Venice has long been troubled by subsidence and eustatism—that is, the ground of various parts of the city has been sinking, while the water levels in the lagoon have been rising. The modern image of Venice “sinking,” consolidated over a century, crystallized in 1966, when unexpected catastrophic floods claimed many of the low-lying areas of the city. Recently, fearing echoes of New Orleans, Italy ratified legislation that had been languishing in Italian politics for 37 years. This plan to “save Venice” is called the MOSE—Modulo Sperimentale Elettromanico-system. The echoes of “Moses” are no accident. Scheduled for completion in 2011, the plan calls for some 70+ barriers to rise in the lagoon at periods of high tide to close in the city, and stop the flow of canals in the city—which normally flow into and out of the lagoon. Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia consider it their crowning infrastructural achievement.

Environmentalists and various scientists are justifiably angry at this capitulation to grand tourist fantasies of “saving Venice.” Many believe that the project will create an ecological catastrophe: limiting the flow of the lagoon waters will drastically increase the level of pollutants in the water. The probable effects of global warming have already made outdated the kinds of barriers that are planned: a severe flood could breach the system and turn Venice into an enormous swimming pool. Smaller, more diverse, less expensive projects (MOSE will cost at least 4.3 billion euros), such as limiting traffic in the canals, and better managing the flow of tourists into the city, would accomplish similar goals, with fewer fireworks and chances for failure. “MOSE is a colossal waste of public funds,” said Alfonso Pecario Scanio, head of Italy’s Green party. “This pharaonic and useless work is born from an obsolete project that will produce more damage than good.”

But plausible reforms would get no attention, and no visitors would approve. In Italy—and increasingly elsewhere in Europe now—conservative forces work to reassert a carefully manicured spectacle of “national pride,” based largely on fabricated histories and futures. Venice, in that sense, is a perfect tool. The project’s swift passage reflects a long history of grand gestures toward Venice in Italian politics, based on the external mythmaking that has made up Venice’s perceivable past. Tourism is more than an industry: it becomes a political principle, a religion of foreign things, which comes to regulate all policy.

The residents of Venice, as a result, inhabit an invisible city, unvisited and underrepresented. Half of its homes lack adequate plumbing. There are not enough hospitals; not nearly enough day-care centers. Its old industrial base—in ships and in heavy industry on the mainland—has been failing for some time. Once noted by Ruskin and Henry James for its appalling poverty, it is now nearly uninhabitable: the most expensive city in Italy. With significant decreases in welfare services, many Venetians feel that they have become a contingent and expendable people. Even worse off are the refugees and illegal immigrants who find themselves roped into the tourist industry. Large numbers of Senegalese and Sri Lankans, among other immigrant groups, have taken up the fake-fashion industry, selling knockoff Prada purses and Gucci sunglasses. Italy has long been developing strict policies toward immigration and harsh consequences for those who are caught without visas, making the lives of such immigrants increasingly strained and impoverished. In Venice, these people have become part of the spectacle. The sight of police chasing vendors through the streets becomes another opportunity to snap a photograph.

As long as Venice does its only job, which is to be “beautiful,” the city will continue on as it always was, at least for visitors like Jonathan Yardley. The number of tourists has increased to 14 million per year. When compared with a dwindling number of permanent residents—65,000 by a recent count—we can see how vastly tourists outnumber the Venetians, and what sort of dismal future they can expect to be a part of, if they stay at all. The calls to “save Venice” largely come from outside the city, from individuals and organizations who have been happy to visit the city and buy its real estate, and who must ensure that it continues to belong to them.


In this way, Venice “endures.” New Orleans may endure in a similar way. As the Venetian floods quickly exceeded their actual significance to achieve a charged, symbolic meaning, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is likely to alter the symbolic, and consequently physical and social, structure of the city. Tourism in New Orleans, though not so global a force as it is in Venice, led to a certain sort of vision that was blind to whatever did not accord with the spectacle. A doomed New Orleans has no history to answer for, and can be remade into any whimsical vision that visitors have of it. When we visit such a place, we can pretend that it has no past other than the one we see pleasantly deteriorating with exotic, carefully manicured negligence. With such a New Orleans, we needn’t engage in any handwringing over racism, poverty, or any injustice at all, except the sort that finds accord with our own nostalgia. If a city’s fate is already determined by “water-gods,” well, that’s no injustice after all—certainly nothing we could help. In a doomed place where only the inevitable takes place, nothing can be reformed except purely mythic problems, in colossal, “pharaonic” ways. To the resolution of particular issues, we prefer catastrophic visions. We like to have objects of reform that are too grand to fix but lovely to contemplate and pity, even if it’s the particulars that will add up to the very catastrophe we spent so long dreaming of.

It was such thinking that rendered New Orleans’ poorer, mostly black residents invisible, beyond contemplation, before the hurricane. Now the districts where many of them lived have been destroyed, and are not likely to be rebuilt. The former residents have become refugees, stateless citizens, within their own country. Meanwhile, the enactment of harsh bankruptcy laws, coinciding with Mayor Ray Nagin’s cutting in half of the city’s workforce, has all but ensured a severely reduced New Orleans—one that appears increasingly difficult to return to. No allowances are being made: New Orleans’s former residents are being asked to get over their loss, and to accept their fate in stoic, Job-like terms. It’s no wonder, then, that talk of reconstruction leans ever more toward the consolidation of a more Venetian city, where the relevance of the residents to the city’s future is void, where even local companies treat the city as a place they are happy only to visit. “I think of New Orleans sort of like Venice,” said the CEO of New Orleans-based real estate firm HRI Properties, “which has a real water problem yet is a national treasure in Italy.”

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  • Nikil Saval
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