Venice Mourns Flight of Residents From City's Heart

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VENICE — At high noon on Saturday, a gondola bearing a hot-pink plywood coffin decked with yellow flowers made its way down the Grand Canal. Onlookers watched from the shore and shouted greetings from the Rialto Bridge before the boat alighted nearby in front of the Venice city hall.

Part photo opportunity, part political theater, the spectacle was the centerpiece of a fake funeral for the city of Venice. A group of prankster-provocateurs organized it to protest the fact that the number of residents in Venice’s historic center has dropped below 60,000, down from 74,000 in 1993, as rising rents and hordes of tourists have pushed thousands to the mainland.

As a result, locals feel like an endangered species. “We’re going to turn into a city of ghosts if something isn’t done soon,” said Matteo Secchi, a local hotelier and a spokesman for Venessia, the group that organized the funeral. “In 30 years there might be zero Venetians left.”

Dressed in black the day before the funeral, Mr. Secchi, 40, was standing near a pharmacy with an electronic population ticker in the window. It read 59,992.

The city, however, places the number at 60,025 for Venice proper, plus another 30,000 in the surrounding islands. In a statement, Venice’s housing commissioner, Mara Rumiz, compared the stunt to “a funeral for a father who is still alive, which in general brings a bit of bad luck.” Still, it is a long way down from 108,300 residents in 1971. And it pales in comparison with the 18 million tourists who visit Venice each year.

Some local residents think the funeral is overdue. “They came too late,” said Massimo Zane, 52, as he stood at his fish stand in the Rialto market. “We’re already dead.”

When his father opened the stand 40 years ago, “we had rows of people lined up two deep,” he said. Not so today. “There are just a few retired people here. I’m sorry for them. Life is expensive.”

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