Exploring the Original Boutique City
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.
I first visited Phoenix probably 30 years ago. Now that I’ve been to Venice, I figure I’ve probably beheld the extremes of human cohabitation. It’s just barely a coincidence that the latter will, one day, sink beneath the waves while the former will, probably around the same time, run dry and give itself up to the desert.
The remaining shell of Venice can still reveal a great deal about what cities are and what they can turn into. Even as we digitize, reconstitute, and reproduce just about every other form of expression and commerce, a true, linear history can still be read in these old stones, from upstart to empire to backwater and now a tourist attraction. Venice floats in the Po delta like Miss Havisham among her jewels.
Venice is thrilling, of course. You can hardly stop walking because, 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. As an urbanist, visiting Venice is like dating a knockout with whom you are simply not in love. Behind the physical beauty – of the sort that professional planning could never yield in a million years – I see regret.
That the charms of density are on display here goes without saying. Venice has the strongest sense of place of any city on the planet. But distinctiveness does not equal placefulness. 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 when Venetian commerce dominated the known world.
Venice too used to trade goods with the ends of the earth, and it had a good run. One of the best. It built ships like Pittsburgh used to produce steel. Its Arsenal was the original arsenal, forging cannons, shot, and rope. Now it just sits here, watching the tides.
You can imagine the energy that must have coursed through its alleys and exploded in its piazzas. Each business deal was like a moonshot, hauling spice and metal back from unseen lands—or sending young men there in the name of holiness. Every moment offered 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.
But they’re all gone now. Today's Venice is what happens when creative class stops being creative.
At night most of the windows are dark and tourist wander like ghosts through this quiet city. My best moment here was sitting at a coffee shop at 8am watching locals go by: elderly men in oversize sweaters and tweed, women with briefcases, kids going to school. They still build ships here, hidden from view. And yet, every single business that I have seen exists only to serve tourists. The restaurants all serve the same dishes. The trinket stores all sell the same trinkets. And there are hundreds of each of them: each an endearing copy of the others. 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. California has its share of them: Santa Monica, San Francisco, Laguna Beach, and, arguably, Venice Beach rank among the most notable offenders. Venice, Italy, 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, in which John Ruskin ruminated on the connection between architecture and morality, finding in particular that Venice’s slow evolution towards the Baroque presaged its downfall. That was, notably, at the time when England had invented industry—or, rather, reinvented it, long after the Venetians had come close to developing a the assembly line method for shipbuilding. How else to produce one galley per day? Today, Venice has not so much decayed as it has been frozen.
You can still visit a million 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 United States’ challenges, it applies to nearly every American city.
Taken to extremes, the smart growth movement would have all cities resemble Venice. We know that's not going to happen. But, as American, and especially Californian, cities rebuilt themselves, it's important to bear in mind the relationship between density and vibrancy. We probably don't need any more office parks, but we don't want places that are too cute or too inflexible either.
Even when California gets me down, I drive to the ocean and look towards the horizon. There’s nothing like the expanse of the Pacific to stir the soul. I know that Venice once felt the same way when it looked out at the world.
A version of this essay appeared on Next American City.