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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.
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.
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.
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. ∞
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, a southern California real estate corporation, threatened to evict them. Although public support was growing, a local court ruled against the mothers. County sheriff’s deputies in riot gear promptly staged a dawn raid on the house, complete with drones, tanks, robots, and AR-15’s. The sheriff declared himself well-satisfied with the timing and efficiency of the operation.
Meanwhile, sympathy for the mothers was feeding outrage against real estate speculators profiting at the expense of local tenants and the homeless. Some 6,000 vacant houses have been tallied in the city, while homeless encampments are everywhere–under freeway overpasses, on sidewalk strips, in public parks, at busy intersections.
As homelessness spreads globally, it overlaps with the migration crisis and gross income gaps, euphemized as inequality. Today’s Germany, with its generous welfare provisions, attracts not only masses of refugees, but investors looking to take advantage of both the housing shortage and government subsidies of skyrocketing rents. The German government spends about 4 billion euros on public housing projects and subsidies each year, and covers some 15 billion more in rent for social welfare recipients. One economist noted drily that the government program could be described as an “economic stimulus package” for property-owning landlords. In Berlin protesters have succeeded in extracting a five-year rent freeze from the government. Landlords and developers say they will simply move their operations to other German cities. Meanwhile, another economist estimated that given the current rate of construction, it would take another 185 years for Germany to provide housing for those in need.
The VIENNA Model
Just across the border in Austria, Vienna is often rated the most livable city in the world. 60% of the population live in social housing, mostly by preference. Large, well-designed housing estates are built and managed to attract and maintain tenants with a broad spectrum of income. The daughter of a former president was on a wait list for one of the most desirable projects.
When I was in Vienna as a student, three of us shared a large bedroom in the apartment of an impoverished baron and his family, just a block from the State Opera House. At the end of the Habsburg empire, not much had been left for the Austrian aristocracy. The staff of our institute included an overworked countess, and our landlord, the baron, could not have been happy to rent part of his home to a gaggle of American girls. Our room had high ceilings and tall, glass-windowed doors that rattled when the Frau came with our breakfast tray, laden with milchkaffee and precisely measured tiles of butter with just enough apricot jam for each of the fat kaiser rolls. After all, the Frau had managed to feed her family through the postwar shortages.
Much earlier, after the First World War, having exiled the troublesome emperor, the new Austrian republic did not sell off land to private bidders, but created a series of housing estates. Under the social democratic government, from 1919 to 1934, in so-called Red Vienna, the projects and their fittings were designed by world-famous artists and architects. And after the Second World War, the Austrian government resumed building and restoration. In today’s Vienna, residents live in some 420,000 apartments in assorted social housing projects owned and managed either by the government or by selected nonprofits.
In America, housing projects are often poorly-maintained and crime-ridden, a form of ghettoization that people want to escape. In Vienna the projects (Gemeindegebau) are where people want to live. But this network is expensive to build and maintain, and given the influx of asylum seekers needing housing, the city’s housing blueprint may be changing. While all profits from rents are ploughed back into new construction, the system relies on heavy taxation that Americans have historically resisted.
Wedgewood, Inc. was founded in 1985 in Redondo Beach, California. Its corporate headquarters inhabits some 50,000 square feet in this pleasant beach community. The company describes itself as “an integrated network of companies concentrating on real estate opportunities.”
Redondo Beach was until recently also the corporate home of Northrop Grumman, the second-largest defense contractor in the USA. Northrop’s highly diversified operations included in 2003 a $48 million contract to train the Iraqi army, and more recently, the design of the Global Hawk drone downed last year by Iran. The US has only three remaining of this $200 million aircraft, but replacement should be simple given the $718 billion budgeted for defense in 2020. This same budget apportions $44.1 billion for Housing, which is a fairly clear illustration of national priorities.
Northrop recently moved its headquarters to Washington D.C. to be near its main client. But Wedgewood, Inc.remains in Redondo Beach–as does a great deal of discretionary income. Real estate investments reap historically high profits. The current ROI (Return on Investment) for so-called fix and flip investments often exceed 100% of the original investment, although the current ROI (Return On Investment) clocks in at a relatively low 40%.
Wedgewood owns around 120 other Bay Area properties besides 2628 Magnolia Street. In the agreement negotiated by Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf and Governor Gavin Newsom’s office, Wedgewood agreed to sell the Magnolia Street house to the Oakland Community Land Trust–and to offer their other properties as well to the tenants before putting them on the open market. This “right of first refusal” has been a successful principle of tenant activism in other progressive cities. This is a serious victory for the local branch of housing activists in the Alliance for Community Empowerment, and a cautionary development for real estate speculators.
Wedgewood does not own the Oakland apartment complexes where residents have been withholding rent because of poor maintenance, and even organizing to buy the building. These tenants will welcome the breaking news that the Alameda County district attorney’s office has withdrawn all charges against the Moms4Housing collective and their supporters.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 for the human and historical disasters of the past seven years.
This spring we happened to spend some time in Genoa, not entirely by choice, but that’s another story. In fact, we had always wanted to explore this live, functioning port on the other side of the Italian boot from Venice, our alternate reality. Arriving and departing from Genoa Brignole by train, we never had reason to cross or even to view the deadly Morandi Bridge.
The tragedy of the bridge’s failure, the death and destruction, was immediately blamed on every political or institutional body extant in the past fifty years. The left chalked it up to the corrupt privatization of the Italian infrastructure. Before long the lion’s share of the blame settled on defective maintenance by Autostrade per L’Italia, a division of Atlantia SpA. Atlantia’s owners are the Benettons, whose dossier also includes the 2013 collapse of a Bangladeshi clothing factory that killed 1,134 workers. You may remember the Benettons from a cloying ad campaign touting the putative diversity of the “United Colors of Benetton”. (A rags-to-riches family from Treviso, they might have done better to invest in local prosecco vineyards.)
Autostrade per l’Italia’s license to manage the Italian freeway network may (or may not) be revoked. Atlantia has offered 500 million euros toward helping the victims as well as a quick reconstruction of the bridge. The Italian government is (or may be) debating nationalization of the whole highway infrastructure, which may (or may not) result in less corruption and safer roads and bridges.
“Genoa is fragile, but nobody cares,” said native son Renzo Piano in an interview discussing the collapse of the Morandi Bridge, in a rainstorm. “I do not know what happened, but I can say that I do not believe in the fatalism that considers nature, lightning and rain uncontrollable. Nobody can come and tell us that it was an accident.”
We stayed in the eastern part of Genoa, where the old city slopes down the hill to the port. The quarter is still called the Maddalena, after the winding street where women have been marketing themselves all day and all night for several centuries. Recent municipal efforts to restore the ancient neighborhood have apparently not affected the puttane.
As early as the 1300s, the Maddalena was the financial center of the city. Now the narrow streets near the harbor are home to various mild-mannered immigrant communities. We were often lost in the web of alleys, threading our way past dark-skinned people clustering at markets and sitting in rows in doorways, all much more interested in their own pursuits than in us. There seemed to be no mendicants, perhaps because of a large police and military presence, also mild-mannered, not to mention a 75-euro fine for begging. Last year a conservative anti-immigrant city administration was elected.
(Note: Beppe Grillo, the comedian who founded the populist Five-Star Movement, is from Genoa.) The new Italian government is headed by an uneasy coalition of the Five Stars and the neo-fascist League.
Five hundred years ago, there was no Italian state to be consumed by conflicting interests or rampant xenophobia. In the vicious battles among the merchant republics of the Renaissance, Genoa’s mercenary soldiers and ships for hire brought enormous wealth to their city. Genoa had at that time the greatest concentration of successful bankers on this planet. Their families built the outsize columned and marbled palaces along the Strada Nuova, the new street. They paid Rubens, Van Dyck and Caravaggio to paint portraits and decorate walls, and local artists imitated them quite successfully.
Of their famous shipyard (in no way a rival to the Venetian Arsenale) they have made an excellent naval museum, with myriad mythological and literary allusions to the sea, interactive historical maps, and the reconstruction of a full-size galley. In the entry is Renzo Piano’s blueprint for a new waterfront. Meanwhile, he left a large glass sphere and the Bigo panoramic lift, modeled on the old derricks for loading and unloading merchandise in the port.
Since the early 20th century, funiculars have run up and down the steep slopes of the city. Whether or not their cost is justified by commuting residents, tourists are happy to find pleasant restaurants at the top. However, panoramic views of the city have been cut in half by the construction of cheap public housing and a huge belt of highway above the waterfront. This is not unlike the situation in San Francisco, before they decided to demolish their Embarcadero freeway–rather than rebuild it after the Loma Prieta quake.
Of course blue jeans originated in Genoa, not San Francisco. Denim was a twill fabric of Nîmes (de Nîmes) manufacture that was used for sailors’ trousers in Genoa (Gênes in French). Levi Strauss only added the rivets.
In the Gold Rush years and after, San Francisco and the north-central coast were settled by Italian immigrants, the first wave largely Genoese fishermen and farmers.
My mother grew up in the fishing town of Santa Cruz, California and went to school with the Stagnaro boys whose fathers came from Riva Trigosa near Genoa. When my father went overseas during World War II, she returned to her home town with her small children. Another young “war widow “with a child lived across the street, and her Italian in-laws often invited us all to Sunday lunch at their farm in Soquel. Mrs. Conrado made delicious ravioli and memorable marinated artichoke hearts–although my mother had trouble downing the roasted uccelletti.
Many of the Italians who came to San Francisco left the city for the suburbs as soon as they could. Among those who stayed, some entered politics, others ran popular restaurants, and still others did both. But Little Italy in North Beach has been nearly absorbed by the growth of Chinatown, which now counts for more than 20 percent of the San Francisco population.
In 2014 Genoa’s immigrant population was 55,000 of almost 600,000. 18,000 came from Ecuador, the rest from Albania, Bangladesh, China, India, Morocco, Peru, Roumania, Russia, Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine. Most recent immigrants come from North African and sub-Saharan countries.
Given that the Genoese have the lowest birth rate in Italy and the oldest population in all Europe, the fast-growing immigrant presence will play an increasingly important role in the city’s future, for better or for worse, depending on one’s political views.
Immigrants, anyway, cannot be blamed for the failure of the Morandi Bridge.
What’s the old Chinese curse? May you live in interesting times!
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 from what became the largest fire in the recorded history of California. We had rented a house with gas grill, bird feeders, and wifi. We watched the birds, grilled salmon, combed the beaches, hiked Fern Canyon under a blue sky. Upstairs we identified orioles and woodpeckers and kept track of the fire news and presidential gaffes, while others below stairs engaged the video screens and hot tub. Meanwhile, the west wind kept the coast gloriously clear as it continued inland to feed the flames.
We had also been watching the Carr Fire’s progress above Redding and around the Whiskeytown Lake. The fire had begun in French Gulch, a former stagecoach stop southwest of our family camp on Scott Mountain. We heard that the local Van Ness cousin, a kindly fellow with a deep voice and a long, weedy beard, a legendary grasshopper fisherman, had been burned out.
The good news was a photo of my Smith cousin, one who had, like us, been exiled for decades. She was astride the ceremonial cedar stump in the middle of the camp, smiling through the smoky haze.
The several hundred thousands of incinerated acres would have been many more if not for tens of thousands of firefighters from as far away as New Zealand. Some 3,500 of them were firefighters from California’s prisons. The women receive two days off their term for each day of service, two dollars a day for active firefighting. After they are released, it might reasonably be assumed that these incarcerated but experienced firefighters would find work as professional firefighters, who make $73,000 annually, but they are presently excluded from this possibility. Governor Brown may or may not be presenting a bill to change this. He has a lot on his plate.
Naturally wildfires would be political. The Oakland firestorm of 1991 was blamed partly on the local defense of flammable stands of non-native eucalyptus from the east bay hills.
“I go with what the Australians say about eucalyptus — they call them ‘gasoline on a stick,’” said an Oakland resident who had watched a flaming eucalyptus grove explode just yards away from her family van, stuck in a line of evacuating cars. But other residents still want to preserve the ridgeline pines and eucalyptus, although those that survived the 1991 fire are yet more flammable today, and many more have matured since.
In other news, I read, not long after midnight last Thursday, that shortly after Thursday midday, a third major earthquake had struck (or would have struck) the island of Lombok, Indonesia.
Indonesia has three time zones, and Lombok appears to be in the middle longitudes, so let’s say that the Lombok quake struck about fourteen hours ahead of the hour that I read about it on the Pacific coast. WIB (Western Indonesian Time) = GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) + 7 hours.
I boated once along the Thames to Greenwich, the home of GMT, Greenwich Mean Time. The Old Royal Observatory was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, an astronomer better known for his architecture, and of course I had my photo taken astride the Prime Meridian.
In 1851, Sir George Airy established the Royal Observatory as the zero degree line of longitude. His line is the starting point for longitudinal lines that run north-south, the measurements that form the basis of our geographic reference grid.
And yes, I do accept the concept of global time zones, but there’s that occasional seismic disjuncture that fogs the brain. Along with global time gaps, anxiety about the Indonesian temblors led me to look up the so-called “Ring of Fire,” the horseshoe of active volcanoes and faults around the coast of the Pacific Ocean.
More specifically, I was wondering about the chain reaction among quakes, faults, and volcanoes along the Ring of Fire, flames and faults colliding along the horseshoe and curving south along the Pacific Coast. This line of insomnia may seem on a par with anxiety about our president’s late-night tweets, but I live with my near and dear atop the Hayward Fault, recently assessed as more dangerous than the San Andreas Fault that ravaged San Francisco in 1906.
In 1989 the Loma Prieta quake clocked in at 6.9: I was sitting in a corner of the living room, complacently perusing proofs of my novel, when the house began to shake, wrenching around like an unbalanced washer. On TV, cars were hanging off the broken Bay Bridge. Husband returned, having felt nothing on campus, but noting plume of fire downtown, where our car, in for a new headlight, had been incinerated in the body shop. Calls began to arrive, from children across the bay, from Italy, from Prague.
Somewhat earlier in the century, at my Girl Scout camp on Loma Prieta in the Santa Cruz Mountains, my counselor’s camp name was Cedar. I l loved that camp, the hikes and the singing, and would gladly have spent the whole summer there. Cedar was smallish and acerbic, with short hair and a sharp jaw. One night she helped us insert a dead rattlesnake into the sleeping bag of the head counsellor. The backstory of my own encounter with that rattlesnake is perhaps too well-known in my family.
This summer the youngest grandson stoically suffered several weeks of camp, but was reported early on for having filled his water bottle (twice) with dirt. An older grandson actively resented the interruption of his electronic pursuits but kept his water bottle potable. At his age, his big sister had already assembled her own earthquake survival kit.
Our president has at latest count nine grandchildren. He doesn’t seem to tweet about them or their future on this dirty, shaky, and ever hotter planet.
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.
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.”
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.
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.