Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Rome: the city is falling apart
Trastevere: It doesn’t feel as uncomfortable as it looks.
In a well timed article today, the NYT examines Rome’s growing tourist party problem. Having just returned from a wonderful 4 days there, I can attest to the problem. Few other cities in the world—certainly European ones—have as overwhelming a tourist element. They are everywhere. But this is an old problem, and it is not just a problem. The 20 million (!!!) tourists who visit in 2007 are going to pump a ton of money into the city, and everyone benefits from this. The city should make more than enough money to pay for its upkeep, which is essential given the wear and tear inflicted by visitors and natives alike. This, of course, creates full-time jobs. And so on. The problem, of course, is the long term erosive effect of so much activity. There comes a point where the natives just want their city back. Thus a city historian (and apparent reactionary?) claims that if this recent tourism boom continues for 10 more years, they will no longer have a historic center at all.
I hate to side with the cynic, but I can’t help but see Rome as a bit of a kitschy wonderland if things are only getting worse. The city will remain lovely and lively, the sites incomparable, but it will only get more crowded in all the wrong ways—at museums, at touristy joints in and around town squares, and around the big ruins sights, which already look from a distance like ant colonies. This coming from someone who absolutely loved Rome.
One must feel for the poor natives. How can they stand it? Not that there is nowhere to go in the old town to escape the foreigners, but let’s say there are very few places. One of our little side games while wandering around for hours this wknd was trying to spot places that, as natives, we would go to avoid being overwhelmed by turistas (a few are always ok—but sometimes you want to be alone). Aside from neighborhoods outside the center and the studenty San Lorenzo neighborhood, and a couple parks, the only place we could really find was Trastavere (the main 'drinking plaza' is pictured above on the morning after). Which is also sort of a studenty neighborhood, but not as hard-to-reach as San Lorenzo; it is right in the thick of things on the Tiber.
It’s a shame that before one can even talk of the beauty of Rome, one must address the tourist question. But the fact is that, for the classic EuroCities like Roma, Paris, London, etc, there will only be more tourists each year, and the industry will grow accordingly: more hotels, more average eateries, more boisterous outdoor drinking wherever and whenever possible. It is only natural that natives complain--as a scraggly 50 year old, I probably would too.
Restless natives have mobilized. They hang unsightly "People live here" signs from balconies and pressuring local politicians to enact anti-partying, pro-peace-of-mind legislation. The key factor here is public alcohol consumption, a sore subject for Spanophiles like me. In the good ol’ days, Spain used to be like Rome in that one could wander freely with a beer—something that seems innocent enough--until it is abused. Teenagers used to take over entire plazas with botellon parties (calimocho = cheap wine + coke, often accompanied by hash + tobacco joints and lots of noise). The inevitable botellon law prohibited this Spanish institution in many plazas across the country. Now residents are sleeping better at night, but you have to look around when having a beer in the park or anywhere in public outside a bar or restaurant. Shouldn't that be allowed? Shouldn't the law be against large groups of revelers, rather than a few people chilling out? We all know how much the laws against drinking in public in say, New York, really suck, especially in the warm weather.
It seems that Rome, in contrast, is sort of like Spain in reverse: apparently, 5 years ago, people weren’t permitted to walk around with alcohol. But the police have stopped penalizing it, and everybody does it. I would like to know why they've turned the cheek, and how long they plan to look away.
Later this week: other stuff on Rome.