Fires and Floods Now Then and Later

Fires and Floods, Now, Then, Later

Again in October, California burst into flames. Winds to 100mph, 250,000 acres charred. Blackouts imposed capriciously by a bankrupt energy company, crippling campuses and hospitals. 

Once again we watched from six thousand miles away, perched in an old city in the middle of a laguna. After yet another flood tide, we joined a crowd of Venetians gathered in pouring rain to protest the failure of their government to cope with the rising waters and the sinking city. In Rome a panicked parliament voted more millions of euros to complete the MOSE sea barrier network, still untested, already rusting, encrusted with mussels, clotted with sand. 

Unlikely as it seems, Venice has also had a long and terrible history of fire. Palaces and bridges of brick or stone rest on ancient wooden pilings, their interiors lined with wood. Given bone-chilling marine winters, buildings were heated with fireplaces, later with large tiled stoves. Creative chimney design, on display in Carpaccio’s view of the Rialto Bridge, in did not stop every spark. In 1105, great fires decimated 23 churches across the city. A truncated campanile is all that remains of the church on Campo San Boldo, where we were living. It burned first in 1105 and several times thereafter. By 1291, fires had become so frequent and destructive that the great Venetian industry of glassmaking, with its red-hot furnaces, had been ordered by the city government to move to Murano. 

The nearest functioning church to San Boldo is in Campo San Giacomo, where in the early evenings children play and old men shout into their telefoninos.  Instead of fires, the neighborhood is now threatened by the gutting of old buildings to house a boutique inn or yet another fish restaurant. Several mornings a week we went to the Rialto market. The pretty neo-gothic loggia of the fish market dates only to the last century, when it was finally rebuilt after the last big fire. Today the fishmongers (6), butchers (3), and produce stands(20) at the Rialto are fast disappearing. Not only because of the depredations of tourism: German supermarket chains and Dutch coops are everywhere.

Last year Chinese investors proposed establishing a cooking school in the loggia above the fish market. This failed, although the space had been empty for three years. Now an Italian foodie forum, Gambero Rosso (Red Shrimp) proposes to slick up the fish market to offer prepared street food, local specialties of course. The upstairs may house a museum of the history of Venetian commerce and some kind of unspecified commercial activity. Mayor Brugnaro blessed, but did not fund the project, estimated to cost 7-10 million euros. An enraged local activist saw this is the latest move to make Venice into a soulless “toll city.”   

La Fenice, (Phoenix) the Venice opera house, burned to the ground in 1996, not for the first time. Aside from the romantic tale of arson and corruption, in 2004 it was rebuilt, with international funding. Only last October, another fire broke out in the theater, blamed on the backup power system. Failure of electrical providers, ENEL in Italy, PG&E in California,has become common in the age of climate-driven disasters. 

A dramatic winged phoenix emerged in Berkeley, California’s environmental art show, made of lacquered eucalyptus leaves by Sophie Dua. We hope to give it to friends who rebuilt their house following the Oroville fire of 2017–also caused by an electrical malfunction.

The penetrating fragrance of eucalyptus trees stays with me from a childhood on the California coast. That tree, native to Australia, is now prey to fire safety removal measures. The Oakland firestorm of 1991 had spread more quickly via the flammable migrants. Driving back to the bay from the north coast with a Czech friend, I told her that the blazes we could see along the Oakland ridge were reflections of the sunset in hilltop windows. She, with darker experience of war and revolution, thought not.   

A centenarian eucalyptus stands in front of our Berkeley house. Corymbia ficifolia, with abundant pink flowers and tough little urn-shaped nuts that resident squirrels use to sharpen their teeth–and a sturdy trunk that pretends to be supported by a scrawny iron pole. One winter day, gazing vaguely out an upstairs window, I noticed a soft slow drift of white through the eucalyptus leaves. Snow seldom falls in Berkeley. I looked more closely, and made out on a branch a hawk, perched atop a dove, sending feathers floating as it pecked at its prey.  

 Just before the California fires, news from Berkeley had focused on an attack on the Gourmet Ghetto–not upon that unassuming stretch of shops and eateries between the campus and the hills, but upon the breezy sobriquet it had borne for decades. Probably it was christened by a young comedian then working for the Cheese Board Collective. Serious people tend not to traffic in irony. Alice Waters  never liked the term in the first place, and street banners celebrating the “Gourmet Ghetto” have been furled forever.

In 2016 the Venetian ghetto marked its 500th anniversary with a new production of Merchant of Venice. The shallows of political correctness surrounded the project from the start, provoking strained comparisons of Shakespeare’s Venetian ghetto with the current status of refugee enclaves in Europe. William Shakespeare, in any event, appears not to have visited Italy, although thirteen of his plays are set there. 

In 1516, when the Venetians cleared one of their islands to house Jews, this was no act of benevolence: the city at that moment was in sore need of moneylenders. Venetian commerce was suffering because of the new trade routes across the Atlantic, and because of the costly War of Cambrai. In fact, the Jews themselves had to pay the guards who enforced the curfew on the walled ghetto. 

Ghetto came from the Venetian word “geto,” or foundry, which had preceded the Jewish settlement on the Venetian site. Later, “ghetto” came to be the name for any closed community of Jews across Europe. The Venetian ghetto was not opened until 1797, in one of Napoleon’s liberal reforms. Later still, in 1866 when Jews gained full Italian citizenship, many moved into palaces in other parts of the city. After World War II, of some 200 Venetian Jews sent to the camps, eight returned. In Venice today, of 500 Jews resident in the city, few choose to live in the historic ghetto. 

Today, 1500 years after Marco Polo and William Shakespeare, China hopes to recreate the famous if somewhat apocryphal Silk Road trade route, Their BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) invests in the infrastructure of Adriatic ports such as Genoa– and Trieste, already activated– as a gateway to Central European markets. Venice, with its troubled laguna, does not much interest them.

Mayor Brugnaro has been assuring all tour planners, so basic to the Venetian economy, that Venice is still beautiful and awaiting more visitors. Meanwhile, the flood tides have continued through December, and the incomplete MOSE network of underwater barriers has failed to protect most of the laguna. There is no Plan B.


Marine archaeologists continue to excavate the ruins of the ancient port city of Thonis-Heracleion, located thirty feet underwater near Alexandria, Egypt. Temple columns litter the floor of the bay, and a retrieved boat from the 5th century B.C. exactly jibes with Herodotus’ description. 

ADDENDUM?

Early in 4,000 C.E., let’s say, in the northeastern corner of what was once known as the Adriatic Sea, underwater excavations reveal ruins of what appears to be an ancient port. The site is crisscrossed by a network of canals that give some credence to identifying it as the lost city of Venezia. Further evidence is provided by the remains of various slender boats, distinguished by their high prows and extensive traces of black varnish, often mentioned in records of the lost city. Also present on the excavation site are the hulls of very large ships, with space for thousands of passengers.

In the same time frame, but 6,000 miles away on the southwestern edge of the continent once known as North America, significant remains have been found at a depth of a thirty feet in the mud at the bottom of what appears to have been a deep bay, narrowly open to the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by urban settlements. The finds include a wheeled transport system, tunnels, and several large bridges.

Each of these sites appears to have been abandoned during the rising of the seas in the Great Planetary Meltdown that began in the 21st century C.E. 

Acqua alta

14 November 2019 This year, from the other side of the Grand Canal, the warning siren keens closer– and longer, as if keyed to the 50-year flood tide approaching in the laguna. Not much is otherwise different: another video of someone swimming in the floodwaters in front of San Marco, photos of boats stranded on … Continue reading

Consider the Crow

credit Takiako Nakashi

Watching crows feels right just now, in the shadow of a resurgent plague and Halloween followed hard on by our frightening election. While crows in increasing numbers crowd smoky Bay Area skies, humans think of migrating to more hospitable climes far from Trump’s America. Crows, handsome and black, loud and smart, line up on electrical wires above us or linger in the middle of the street for a scavenged snack. Are they attracted by the spread of homeless settlements with those exposed middens so repellent to the tidily housed? 

Cities are perhaps safer now for crows than fields protected not only by scarecrows, but farmers with real guns, and enthusiastic hunters. Here the young daughter of an “NRA family” has scored her first crow kill. It seems safe to say that her parents are Trump voters, although Wayne LaPierre and the NRA are in disarray. A few million votes like theirs could give us four more years of our incumbent incubus.   

Crows, science has recently informed us, are not only crafty, but possess conscious awareness. I.e. they know what they know–which is more than can be said for many humans. Crows mate for life, though according to one source they are only “monogamish” and like a bit on the side  now and then. But young crows, instead of looking to start a new family, hang around the nest for a couple of years and help out with the chicks. Whether that is also typical of human adolescents is debatable. 

We planted some redwoods–such lovely trees– between us and the student apartments next door. “Madness,” said a friend who knew California as only a midwestern native could. “They are just giant weeds.” Years later, as redwood roots grew intimate with the neighbors’ plumbing as well as ours, the redwoods were taken over by two nests, one crows’, one squirrels’. In the spring we sometimes heard squirrely sounds of rutting, but more often it was hard to distinguish the angry scolding of a squirrel from the assertive cawing of a crow. All of them fled during last month’s tree work, but they seem to be returning, if only to check out the new perch of the plaster seagull above the porch. 

Crows used to come uninvited to meet a few of our friends sharing distanced drinks and close-in anxieties on our pandemic terrace. The corvids were more likely to appear when shrimp or smoked salmon was on offer. And they seemed to be more interested in our older friends…as are we, often enough.

One summer when my mother was recovering from serious surgery, crows collected on her redwood deck in the warm Los Gatos afternoon–not, I guessed, to wish her well. I chased them away with blasts from the garden hose. Watering her garden, daily and plentifully, was an important strategy in her plan for eternal life. During a year when we were living in Italy, she took me to Venice for my birthday. The traditional souvenirs were all arrayed on the Riva degli Schiavoni: glass from Murano and China, gondolier’s hats, masks of all descriptions.

The Venetian tradition of masks is much older than Carnival, with their earliest regulation recorded in the 12th century. They were worn commonly by the prosperous and somewhat amoral citizenry, who might prefer to conceal their financial and amorous adventures. Four hundred noble families were rich and aristocratic enough to lead a life of fairly unrestrained pleasure. These included various dependent relatives, but not of course the enabling household servants–who sometimes benefited from hiding their own identity behind masks, as we learn from Mozart operas.

In the 1530s the master mask-makers guild had eleven busy members, including one Barbara Scharpetta. The decadent life of the Venetian aristocracy continued until the end of the Republic in 1797. Masks were forbidden altogether, and Carnival itself was not resumed until 1979..

In the time of the Black Death, the curved beaks of Venetian plague doctor masks were filled with dried flowers, herbs and spices, or camphor. The mask was worn to keep away foul smells, known as miasma, that were thought to transmit the plague. 

Miasma had been regarded as the main cause of disease as far back as ancient China. A Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty, Han Yu, was sent into exile. (Poets in ancient China were more politically significant than in 21st-century America.) In the unhealthy southern province, expecting to die, the poet wrote:  I know that you will come from afar. . .and lovingly gather my bones, on the banks of that plague-stricken river.

From miasma came malaria (literally “bad air”) in medieval Italian. Though miasma is mainly associated with the spread of contagious diseases, early in the 19th century the theory went rogue, suggesting, for example, that one could become obese by merely inhaling the odor of food.

Even after scientists and physicians realized that specific germs, not miasma, caused specific diseases, getting rid of odor through underground sewage systems and garbage cleanup in urban ghettos became a high priority for city governments. The observed connection between foul air, poor sanitation and disease lasted until the mid-nineteenth century and beyond. Plague doctor masks, however, are still available in any Venetian kiosk–and of course online, since Americans in the coronavirus era are not currently allowed in Italy or many other countries. Do we have even now a more useful term than miasma to explain the spread of our latest pandemic? Or any protection more effective than masks?

Five hundred years after the Black Plague, crows were still keeping bad company. In the 1830s, “Jim Crow” was a kind of dancing jester created by a popular white minstrel singer, wearing blackface. “Jim Crow” came to refer to the many forms of segregation and injustice toward African- Americans that followed Reconstruction after the American Civil War and far beyond.

In World War II, “Old Crow,” mostly known today as a cheap bourbon, was a codename for Allied military personnel carrying out fairly primitive electronic maneuvers, such as jamming enemy broadcasts. Today there is an international Association of Old Crows boasting some 14,000 members, promoting conferences, classes, and lobbying among researchers, industry, and government in the hugely more sophisticated arena of EW, electromagnetic warfare. This seems to be a lesser known corner of the Big Picture in which the U.S. is far and away the world’s largest arms supplier. The Old Crows are surely deep in that Washington Swamp so decried yet so essential to our incumbent autocrat.

Enters war again:  “Eating crow” is a traced to a War of 1812 encounter in which a British officer forced an American soldier to consume part of a crow that the Yankee had shot over the border in British territory. Whether or not the story is true, crow meat is said to taste like the dark meat of any wild bird. Roasted slowly in red wine, it has been declared delicious. An Australian recipe suggests simmering the bird with a stone for three hours, then draining the liquid and eating the stone.

This morning I went across town to retrieve some 75 pounds of co-op-farmed vegetables to be shared with friends. Two crows were trotting around self-importantly, pretending to be supervising the operation–a fine example of the today’s urban-agricultural interface that will surely survive after the third of November. 

 

 

Fire, Fear and Unnaming in Berkeley, Budapest, and Parnassus Heights

  As the world knows, California is ablaze once again, and there is blame enough to go around–starting with Trump, our climate science denier-in-chief and crown prince of fossil fuel protection. Despite the repeated charring of millions of acres of the Pacific northwest, as well as the planetary pandemic and social and economic collapse, we … Continue reading

People’s Park June 4, 2020                                                                                                                                                   photo f.s. starn

Second night of the George Floyd curfew in Berkeley, steps from People’s Park. Once built over with old shingled and clapboard houses like mine, after a long and troubled history, the space now holds a variety of tents. These tent people are quiet, unlike the angry crowds in Oakland five miles to the south. Police are not being sent to evict them from university property, possibly because the Berkeley campus is closed during the pandemic.

Tent camps, now sanctioned city locations, are the latest, if also the oldest, response to California’s housing emergency. Sadly, Project Roomkey, meant to house many thousands of vulnerable homeless in empty hotels, seems to be faltering with too little staffing and reluctant or unstable occupants. Colonies of new trailers intended for the unhoused also sit vacant. What seem to be working, still and again, are tent communities, evenly spaced, with services, on public land.

Large numbers of homeless in this prosperous land are hardly a new phenomenon. They have existed since the mid-nineteenth century, with a brief interlude of full employment during and after the Second World War. During the Great Depression in the 1930s homeless encampments were called Hoovervilles to spite the sitting president. What is relatively new is the migration of these encampments to city centers where they cannot be ignored. Their high visibility and persistence painfully signal, any way you look at it, a broken social contract.

I live on Hillegass Avenue, which begins (or ends) just south of People’s Park. The park rose some 50 years ago on a muddy, debris-strewn  space where the University, using eminent domain, had levelled old housing and left it with a parking lot and a stalled plan for new dorms. In 1971, having just settled on Hillegass, we were soon breaking up asphalt in People’s Park to plant trees, and marching against Nixon’s mining of harbors in Cambodia. When not protesting the war, we joined Berkeley’s new architectural preservation group, too late to save the houses demolished on Block 1875, People’s Park. We had no problem reconciling our protests for and against  the Establishment:  we oozed righteousness on both counts. I ascended to president of the Berkeley neighborhoods’ coalition, my husband led the preservationists.

Many of the demolished homes in People’s Park had been re-purposed as rooming houses, and when our kids emigrated to points east, we rented rooms to students. All kinds of housing were scarce by the 1980s, no little thanks to the NIMBY concerns of neighborhood groups and preservationists like us. The median home price in Berkeley had bloated 300 percent in less than a decade. The twenty-five houses demolished for People’s Park would today, if not next week, be worth upwards of $50 million.

While we were passively amassing real estate, I was writing about local soup kitchens and shelters as well as local writers and bookstores. This led less to poetry readings and more to volunteer work with homeless support groups and a food recycling network . After the Berkeley Gazette expired, I wrote a novel about homelessness and a soup kitchen, folding in feuding academics and the gourmet revolution. …Soup of the Day. A [comic] sequel, Property Rites, involves competing native American and Mexican land claims on a campus not unlike, as they say, the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

Westward the Course of Empire, by Emmanuel Leutze, 1861 actual size 20′ x 30′

The founding of the University of California does most often evoke eminent clergy shading their eyes as they gaze across the bay, quoting Bishop Berkeley: Westward the course of empire….  

More recently, the University has been described as a group of entrepreneurs seeking a parking place. In 1868, jesting aside, the location of the new university campus vastly inflated the property values of four local investors. Francis Shattuck, William Hillegass, and their partners had divided a square mile of land just south of the projected campus, for which they had paid about $31 per acre. The loser in this deal was ultimately the holder of the Mexican land grant, Jose Domingo Peralta–if you don’t count the natives, those who survived, who didn’t share the western imperialist view of property rights.

Francis Shattuck’s eventual heir was philanthropist Weston Havens, born in 1903, whose family had lived around the corner from our Hillegass house. The maiden lady who sold us her own family home had grown up with him. When we moved in, he gifted us with sacks of fertilizer meant to sustain the viciously rampant Silver Moon rose over the driveway arbor. He had given it to her to soften the view of the four-story apartment building to the south of us. There’s more to tell here, and whether Weston Havens ever actually occupied a wing of our house is an unwritten story. But in 1940 he built a radically modernist house on Panoramic Hill where he lived until his death.   

 

 

 

 

 

Single-family home, ca. 1901, last sale 1971 44K; Zillow est. 2020 $2,049,000

 

Meanwhile, our Colonial Box on Hillegass Avenue was continuing to amass unearned value as the Bay Area economy boomed. In the century after the Gold Rush, there was the pulsating prosperity of Silicon Valley and its garage geniuses. And the rich grew richer, billion by billion, and the poor poorer, year by year, decade after decade.

As Henry George, 19th-century political economist, journalist, and social reformer wrote in Progress and Poverty,  

I mean that the tendency of what we call material progress is in nowise to improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. Nay, more, that it is still further to depress the condition of the lowest class.… It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.

George saw the root cause as the inevitable rise in wealth via unearned land value–such as the vast increase in the value of property adjacent to the new transnational railroad lines. Rents were already rising as fast as or faster than wages. He could have adduced another example in the shrewd purchase by Shattuck, Hillegass, and partners of a square mile of land next to the projected campus of what was soon to become the world’s preeminent public university.

George’s Progress and Poverty was the most important American economic treatise of the 19th century. But his prescription against income inequality, a single tax on land value, soon proved unworkable, since land’s value depends on its potential and its improvements. In 1880 he left the west coast to carry his ideas to New York City, where he became United Labor’s mayoral candidate. He finished well ahead of Republican Theodore Roosevelt, but  lost narrowly to a Democratic candidate whose name I and others have forgotten.

Property tax in whatever form is still the most significant source of funding local government services, particularly education. The most important initiative on the 2020 ballot in California concerns Proposition 13, passed in 1978, drastically reducing all property taxes and devastating everything from school quality to street maintenance. The 2020 measure would tax commercial and industrial property valued over $2 million at its assessed value rather than its purchase price. It could bring billions of dollars to what is now our broken state economy.

Peralta camp, in Oakland

After a world pandemic, after our racial conflagrations, our planetary climate crisis and national reckonings in housing, health care, and education, our stock market seems to be making the much-touted V recovery. This is all too likely to baffle financial and social reform efforts, not to mention the frantic struggle to rid ourselves of our current president. But the future may be full of surprises, and not necessarily locusts or earthquakes.

 

Glenapp-Castle

Not the Majestic Hotel, but very like

Trouble at the Majestic 

The year is 1919, the scene a decaying imperial spa in County Cork, Ireland. The owner of the Majestic Hotel is an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who cares more for his dogs and piglets than for the starved villagers who raid his potato patch by night. His beloved piglets are housed in the former squash court and fed yesterday’s pastries. 

The Majestic Hotel figures in Trouble, a tragicomedy about the Irish rebellion against British rule–performed against a background of guerrilla attacks by the rebels and vicious reprisals by the British. The “Troubles” exploded again in 1970, the year that J.G.Farrell’s remarkable novel appeared.

PROJECT ROOMKEY

A century after the partitioning of Ireland, amid the planetary chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, California’s vacant hotels suddenly figure in a social and economic crisis of survival. 

California governor Gavin Newsom, confronting the vulnerable and potentially infectious mass of 150,000 homeless in the state, has engineered an ingenious deal. Hotels and motels, most notably Motel Six, have made available for lease some 15,000 hotel rooms for housing the most fragile homeless–the aged and those with underlying health conditions.

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Newsom announced Project Roomkey at a press conference in front of a Motel Six in Campbell,California. Campbell is an unremarkable Santa Clara Valley town where I went to high school, when prune orchards were just giving way to housing tracts, highways, and the garage startups that transformed the farmland suburbs into Silicon Valley.  

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Looking west over Silicon Valley

In the early days, Campbell, California had at least one street of “affordable housing,” inhabited by poor people, then generically called “Okies”. Gilman Avenue was a few blocks of small greyish bungalows, some with junked cars as lawn furniture. Betty the Moocher lived on Gilman. She was pallid and grimy with a plaintive, small-featured face. During lunch hour she would stand nearby, gazing silently at your sandwich. Sometimes we would give her something. It never occurred to me that she could actually have been hungry, though there were no free lunch programs then. 

One of those Gilman bungalows is for sale right now as a “vintage” fixer-upper, for $1,220,000. Down half a million from its earlier listing. Most people cannot now afford any sort of home in California, but there are more free lunch programs. Just no housing.

 

 

Given the continuing pandemic lockdown, Project Roomkey hotel rooms would have been vacant anyway–a seemingly perfect solution, with FEMA ready to pay 75% of the costs. But two weeks ago only some 4,000 of the 15K available rooms were occupied. Tidy charts showed how many rooms had been leased for the project, how many were being prepared for occupancy, and the relatively few which were actually occupied.

It is not a simple process. The first challenge is the vetting of would-be occupants, by experienced social workers already overstretched by the Covid crisis. Applicants range from the responsible but roofless and medically fragile to lifelong addicts who may trash their rooms if not regularly supplied with their drugs. Medical records and background checks are needed. Staffing has to be arranged  to provide food, housecleaning, medical help–and security. 

Several counties have already signed onto Project Roomkey.  But a number of southern California townships have rejected any use of their local hotels as homeless housing, either temporary or permanent. And anecdotal reports  from some of the occupied lodgings are not good. Social distancing, along with housekeeping and private property, are unfamiliar concepts for many formerly homeless folks.

California has the fifth largest economy in the world, one of the highest costs of living in this country, and the largest number of homeless of any state. Some see this as flagrant evidence of a failed government–the inability to provide for the welfare of its least able citizens. Newsom, as governor, and earlier as mayor of San Francisco, took on homelessness as his central issue. There was the controversial Care Not Cash, which reduced cash support and increased shelter and social services. Now there is Project Roomkey.

Here in my present hometown of Berkeley, 40 homeless have moved into two Oakland hotels that are part of Project Roomkey. Each room is $186 per day, to be 75% reimbursed by FEMA. For whatever reason, Berkeley jokes aside, these are not Motel Six rooms like those claimed by other counties, which normally rent for $76 per night. Meanwhile the proposal for 16 stories of housing to be built at People’s Park brings out opponents pointing to its 50-year history as a political symbol and a refuge for the homeless.

Newsom and his allies would like to see Project Roomkey succeed and extend beyond the pandemic. This cannot happen without aligning funds from state, local, and federal sources. And so far, even money has not proven to be the answer. Homelessness was a serious problem in California long before COVID-19, and will doubtless increase afterwards, given the economic devastation of the work stoppage as well as earlier problems with local zoning and construction workers’ unions.

Bond issues for building affordable housing have been passed and then failed dismally to address the need. In California it costs $450K to construct one no-frills unit of subsidized low-cost housing. This is based on rising costs of labor and material and the expensive delays between securing funding and local approval of the project and the site. Given the cost of new construction, adapting ready-made housing seems a rational solution to the very immediate needs of California’s 150K homeless.

Some say that this apparent emergency will shrink back into perspective once our society returns to normal. Others point out that “normal” has included indifference not just to homeless encampments under our clogged freeways, but to the climate crisis, to enormous income inequality, to mass shootings, and to the continuing partitioning of our electorate that gave us Donald Trump.

Magnolia Street and the Vienna Model

  This story cut a path between impeachment fatigue and the coronavirus right into the California governor’s office and the international media. Four homeless mothers moved with their children into an abandoned house on Magnolia Street in Oakland, California. They cleaned it, connected the utilities, decorated for the holidays. Before long, of course, the owner, … Continue reading

 

Noted recently in a Roman paper, as reported by Roberto, who had taken a local bus to Villamaina, his hometown in Campania. Another passenger boarded just after him. The news photo indicates a slight resemblance to the young Tiger Woods, black cap and brown arm stretched confidently, possibly tensely, across the headrest.

Several nonnine, grannies, on the bus, far from any country club fairway, took an immediate interest in the young stranger. One asked his name, another his birthplace, his story, his plans. He was Omar from Gambia, living at the refugee center in Lacedonia, on his way to visit friends in the next town.

Lacedonia’s modest center accommodates sixteen unaccompanied minor refugees. When it opened in 2017, Italians were still rescuing drowning migrants from the Mediterranean, taking in more refugees than any other European country.

Here you don’t see the townspeople marching in solidarity, but they did.

Two years ago the mayor of Riace, a crumbling medieval village in Calabria, had become the international hero of migrant resettlement, having integrated several hundred refugees into his depopulated community, using good sense, good will, and government stipends for migrants (39 euros per day).

Then last November, the so-called Salvini Decree was passed, and in April five hundred refugees were evicted from one of the largest migrant centers. The new decree abolishes the two-year humanitarian residency permits granted to migrants who don’t qualify for asylum status yet are deemed too vulnerable to be deported. No longer eligible for assistance, they are now effectively homeless. Critics of the decree say it will push thousands to live on the streets, unable to rent housing, work legally or go to school. The remaining centers in the CARA  system(Centers for Refugee Welcome & Accommodation) are set to close in coming months.

Meanwhile, Riace’s mayor Domenico Lucano

has just been indicted by the Italian supreme court for  specious fiscal violations. Laura Boldrini, former speaker of the Italian parliament, says that Salvini plans to dismantle a model of refugee integration that has worked and is known around the world. “Every cent of public money should be accounted for, but how can the head of a party that has stolen 49 million Euros from Italian citizens tell a Calabrian mayor that there can be no irregularities in the public finances.” A recent court ruling called out Salvini’s League party for fraudulent claims of 49 million euros in electoral expenses. 

Two ancient Greek statues washed ashore near Riace in 1972.  In the 7th and 8th centuries BCE, the coasts of the Italian boot and the island of Sicily had hosted—willingly or not—such large numbers of Greek immigrants that the area became known as Magna Graecia.

Aeneas, legendary shipwrecked warrior, found a warm welcome at his Mediterranean landfall in Carthage. Maurizio Bettini, the widely respected Italian humanist, begins with Aeneas and traces vivid continuities between the acceptance of basic human rights in antique and modern times,  despite the ancients’ slavery and subordination of women. Strangers in the ancient world were to be welcomed, the hungry fed and the thirsty given drink.  Lost travellers were to be guided.  Bettini evokes the true horror in the many corpses of refugees floating today in the Mediterranean. 

While the Italian government turns away refugee rescue ships and closes migrant centers, it manages to accommodate the far-right takeover of a 13th century monastery, the Certosa di Trisulti, on a hilltop south of Rome.

Certosa di Trisulti

Spearheaded by Trump’s former chief strategist and international populist extraordinaire, Stephen K. Bannon, the Dignitatis Humanae’s academy aims to prepare students to become “warriors” against secularizing enemies of the Judeo-Christian tradition who persist in denying that man was created in the image of God.

 Bannon and well-connected Catholic friends hope to counter the influence of the pesky liberal pope Francis, with his compassion for migrants and his warnings about the dangers of growing nationalism in Europe. 

Mr. Salvini and his allies contend that an erosion of the traditional family by liberal values has contributed to Italy’s low birthrate.. They argue that if Italians don’t have babies, they risk replacement by migrants–Muslims–from Africa. 

In the wake of the Salvini Decree, several Italian mayors have declared their intention to ignore it. Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, has been joined by other left-leaning mayors in Naples and Florence who say they will bypass parts of the decree which they believe to be unconstitutional. The mayor of  Naples has also offered to take in migrants stranded at sea that Italy has turned away. Maurizio Bettini has been declared an honorary citizen of Palermo.

Meanwhile, the bus holding Roberto, Omar, and the grannies arrived at Sturno, pop. 3,083, where the ladies descended. But before leaving, they turned to wave at Omar. “Bye, Omar, stay strong, you are fine, don’t worry, we love you.”

Roberto, who had originally passed the story on to La Repubblica, said that the incident was a small testimony that “the other Italy” still exists and resists, even though mostly unobserved in the cascade of violence that the press faithfully reports almost every day.

With that ficcanasare (nosiness) typical of old people in the provinces, those grannies managed to bring normality to center stage, to remind us that there have always been those who sought to escape, “even from here”.  One woman cited her husband, away in Germany for twenty years, and a nephew who emigrated to England. “There is always a north and a south, wherever you are.”

 

Genoa Now and Then

    After three years in Florence, we returned to California shortly before the flood of November 1966. We watched our heroic friends in the news, cleaning oily mud from priceless paintings and manuscripts.  We flew out of Damascus just months before Syria first began to implode in March 2011 and cannot forget the backdrop … Continue reading

Rings of Fire

In May this was a Tuscan landscape at sunset,  an etching by the friend of a friend.  Yesterday, our copy, fresh from the framing shop, had morphed into a row of blackened trees in the foreground of an inferno. In the interim, we had spent several days on the Mendocino coast, just a few hours … Continue reading

WAITING FOR VERDI

     1506619958-Nabucco_tickets

 

Last month I was in Italy, where summer had steamed in early and politics had moved into operatic extremes of drama and imbroglio only slightly leavened by farce. Finally running the new coalition government are the boy wonder of the Five Stars populist movement, founded by a comedian, and the head of the proto-fascist League, who is no longer a joke. The two chose as the new premier an amiable law professor with a  CV padded by drive-through sojourns at prestigious universities in Europe and the U.S.

Five Stars leaders

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Luigi di Maio and Matteo Salvini

While peculiar politics also reign in my own land, in Italy we tend to see their aberrations as a familiar comedy rather than a dark threat to the survival of the planet. Hard to remember that our Yankee republic was founded almost a hundred years before the bickering regions of the Italian boot could be laced together.   

At least Italy’s revolution was accompanied, if not actually orchestrated, by music—with Giuseppe Verdi as its figurehead.  Verdi’s poignant chorus from Nabucco, “Va Pensiero, sull’ ali dorate,” sung by homesick Hebrew slaves, has come to symbolize the patriotic fervor that led finally to Italian unification.

  Waiting for Verdi is the title of a long-awaited new book by Mary Ann Smart, a music historian who writes brilliantly about opera and society. The title clearly contains an ironic reference to Samuel Beckett’s play, but also  to the high anxiety shared by struggling Risorgimento patriots, artists and revolutionaries as they struggled toward Unification.

 

     Often as Verdi’s work is linked to Italian revolution, A Masked Ball  is set instead in colonial Boston, replete with an a doomed romance, an assassination, and a dusky-skinned fortune teller. Not very diligent research has revealed that the original libretto required Ulrica, the fortune teller, to be played by a “negro.”

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial

Thus the Metropolitan Opera debut of the sublime contralto Marian Anderson, in 1955 the first African-American to sing there.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nabucco was also playing at the Vienna State Opera when I was a student living with the family of an impoverished baron just a block from the opera house. But the concert and opera posters reminded me of periodic tables, and knowing next to nothing about opera, I went to the Richards, Wagner and Strauss, but never to Nabucco. Little did I know that it was a thrilling tale of King Nebuchednezzar, proprietor of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and featured madness, passion, betrayal, and wanton destruction of selected temples and gods.

In 2015, the Greco-Roman Temple of Bel at Palmyra, 32 CE, was destroyed by ISIS vandals soon after they had beheaded Khaled al Asaad, Palmyra’s much respected chief of antiquities. The Temple of Bel, according to another archaeologist, Khaled’s friend, had actually been a kind of a monument to religious coexistence. The main altar of the temple had been used for sacrifices to different gods, sometimes even side by side. The archaeologist also pointed out that ISIS had announced the destruction of Palmyra well in advance of the fact, but the international community had done nothing.

ruins of the Temple of Bel, 2015

In any case, peaceful coexistence in Syrian lands is hardly even a memory. Now the best expectations are that some 75,000 Syrian refugees fleeing Daraa—where the so-called civil war began—can be sheltered in Jordan. Four million other Syrians are still homeless.  

Meanwhile, the tragic histories of the ancient Middle East have fueled many operas besides Nabucco. How many works of art and music will commemorate the refugee flights of this century, and to what end?  

For some years it has been proposed, and rejected, that Italy’s national anthem be replaced by “Va Pensiero,” the haunting Hebrew slaves’ chorus in Nabucco. Only recently it has been adopted by the far-right League, as its official hymn.  Matteo Salvini and his League are committed to  labeling and expelling all immigrants, including thousands of Roma who are legal citizens. Here, whatever Verdi’s politics were, we could use the intervention of the Anvil Chorus.    

 

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