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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. 

Lions, zebras, attack stagecoach

“Elizabeth Warren was not nearly as polite as I was…”

In February I posted an open letter to Timothy Sloan, the avowedly reformist CEO at Wells Fargo, regarding his company’s regrettable sales practices and its retrograde investments in fossil fuels, and our plan to divest ourselves of ties with his bank.

In April, Mr. Sloan himself published an open letter, listing the many ways in which Wells Fargo had been “ acting to regain its customers’ trust” after last year’s nasty scandals. No, of course he didn’t mention my letter, or many others he must have received.  ( Nor did he mention his good works with the Boy Scouts of America, who have had their own image difficulties in recent years.)

Bouy Scouts of America 9th Annual Business Leaders' Breakfast

Center, Timothy J. Sloan, Greater Los Angeles’s Boy Scout Leader of the Year

My letter had circulated in the social media, while Mr. Sloan’s was a full-page ad in national newspapers.  At the time, Mr. Sloan and the head of the Wells Fargo board purchased a total of $5 million of their company’s stock in a handsome display of good faith.

Meanwhile, lacking this good faith, my husband and I began laboriously to transfer our accounts out of Wells Fargo to more socially responsible banks.  At least a few of my readers and friends said they were doing the same.

When the Wells Fargo fake- accounts scandal first erupted in 2016, it had mattered less to us than the bank’s short-sighted investments in oil pipelines and other destructive fossil fuel projects.

Later, in October 2016, the New York Times reported at some length how employees at various Wells Fargo branches had preyed upon the most vulnerable individuals—immigrants with little English, older adults with failing memories, students opening their first accounts.

According to Kevin Pham, a former Wells Fargo employee in San Jose, California, “It was like lions hunting zebras.”  Pham mounted a Facebook campaign to hold Wells Fargo accountable.  He scored 50,000 “shares”.

While there had reportedly been no systematic targeting of vulnerable groups, demographic patterns sometimes emerged, such as Native Americans near Phoenix, looking for a safe place to stow their quarterly distribution checks and being set up with several unnecessary accounts per capita. There were other cases, and dispiriting details.

The bank has been trying to channel new lawsuits away from the two million fake-accounts scandal, by moving them into private arbitration. We just received such a mediation offer and ignored it, having already closed the gratuitous account and shredded the card. Other customers, however, are indeed pursuing litigation.

Meanwhile, the revelations continue.  Recently several plaintiffs have claimed that Wells Fargo changed the mortgage terms of bankrupt borrowers without their knowledge, much less their consent.  Generally the changes meant smaller payments over longer time periods—but with immense finance charges accruing to the bank.  As the New York Times reported in June, in its best imitation-tabloid style, “Wells Fargo, the $270 billion California- based lender, is driving its stagecoach further into the mud.”

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Also in June, Senator Elizabeth Warren sent a letter, this one to Federal Reserve Board chair Janet Yellen, demanding the removal of twelve Wells Fargo board members who had been present and passive during the years when bank employees were setting up the infamous two million fake accounts. While 5300 lower-level employees were fired as a result of the scandal, $185 million fines had been paid, and the CEO sacked, the original Wells Fargo board members had remained in place, drawing their annual average base salary of $187,000— with bonus and additional compensation, $319,000.  (An average Wells Fargo “personal banker” makes $37,000, a teller, $25,000. Why would one use “K” to signify all those thousands?)

Wells Fargo had been cited earlier for poor loan-servicing and foreclosure practices.  In 2012 it was among the five lenders agreeing to a $25 billion settlement with the federal government and 49 states, to rectify these “poor” practices.  In 2015 it settled $1.2 billion against claims of reckless lending under a Federal Housing Administration program.

Elizabeth Warren’s letter was not nearly as polite as mine, which may be why a super-pac has promised $10 million to “Deal Her Out” of re-election in 2018.

Meanwhile, it’s taken months to find what we hope are ethically (and fiscally) sound financial institutions, and to complete the tedious maneuvers of rerouting into new accounts our network of monthly payments to utilities, college funds, subscriptions, charities.  Rerouting our monthly deposits was the easy part.

Why are we doing this, when we could be using more time to address climate change or health care, or at least to haranguing our legislators?  Here’s the thing:  our votes and our protests often seem more self-righteous than effective because they originate in the bright blue state of California.  Our state is viewed quite negatively, it is clear, by the present Potus and his cronies—and with good reason, we hope.

Choosing not only where we spend our money, but where we keep it and who uses it, seems valuable leverage just now, in this thoroughly unhinged capitalist democracy.

To be continued, for better and for worse.

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