How Venice, Italy Resembles Any Old City, USA

In most older American towns or cities, even or especially ones that are doing well economically, you'll see the sad sight of the grand front door of an old building locked up or barely used, while most of the customers or residents enter via the parking lot in the back. This has happened because most people drive now, so walking entrances are no longer primary.

A similar evolution has happened in fabled Venice, which I visited recently. Only rather than going from a street-oriented door to a car-oriented door, the trend has gone from a canal-oriented door to a street-oriented door. It was ironic to feel this same sense of sadness toward an endangered form of urbanism, and hostility toward what I had long regarded as a friend -- the pedestrian-oriented street.

Venice is, as anyone who has visited there knows, amazing. A republic and a commercial empire for more than a thousand years, the city built up its unique form of urbanism on the watery land in a lagoon on the Adriatic Sea. The city relied on boats, and the many canals were their principal streets. The city's grand homes, usually called "palazzos," as well as smaller apartment buildings and businesses, were all built with the primary door opening up onto water.

Although I had read about Venice somewhat obsessively over the years, I was not prepared for this physical reality. You would see an enormous mansion, with a giant-sized set of front doors garlanded with figures and scrolly stuff, and then a set of formal stone steps descending into the water. It was as if some oil executive in Dallas had built his suburban mansion opening onto his swimming pool.

But while the canals are still used today, they are no longer the principal streets. Some deliveries are made via boat. Famous guests at famous hotels sometimes arrive by boat. But most people now use the smaller street doors for entering and exiting. And this is ironic, because the land streets in Venice were once really more like their alleys.

Venice once had no physical connection to the mainland and this separation was viewed as a security asset. But in the 1840s, when Venice had lost its independence and fallen under the rule of the Austrians, their masters built a land bridge to Italy, over the Venetian's objections. That land bridge now brings travelers by train, bus and car, and only a minority enter the city the proper way, by boat. So am love was I with the city's water-oriented urbanism, I found myself wanting to tear out the land bridge, get rid of the trains (something I'm usually a fan of), and return Venice to its watercourse ways.

Another chipper-away of Venice's watery ways was Napoleon. He conquered the city in 1797, the first to do so, and then filled in some of the canals. Perhaps he thought he was modernizing the city. These filled in canals are now major pedestrian streets, often identified as a "Rio Terra," or a river of earth.

Rather than regretting what has been lost, I should take comfort that so much of Venice still exists. I am hardly the first to become bewitched by the city and its unique, decaying charm. Travelers in the 1400s marveled at Venice. I am relatively certain I will go again, although next time I will eschew the bus or train, and arrive by boat. The city will never have space for the car, and in that I can take some comfort.