Sunday, 30 April 2017

Bars, birth rates and gentle decline - Europe's left behind places

Every Italy village has one of these. This one, Bar Centrale, is in Fontanelice a village in the Bolognese Appenines and it's pretty typical. Go inside and there's a bar (and a barman or waitress) dominated by the obligtory coffee machine and, sitting on the cheap plastic chairs around rickedy tables are a bunch of old men. They probably won't be drinking, it's not an Italian thing really, but may be playing cards, reading Corriere dello Sport or one of the seemingly endless local papers Italy enjoys, and talking in that 'putting the world to rights' way loved of men in bars everywhere.

The wall behind the bar will feature a large poster, maybe framed, of a football team - usually from some victorious season long, long ago rather than the current team. In Fontanelice it was a black and white framed photograph of a Juventus squad from (judging from the hairstyles) some time in the 1970s. I'm guessing that, like bar decor everywhere, it's just there not causing offence but gradually losing both definition and relevance as the years pass by.

Just as for us in England, the pub was the heart of the world, these bars represent that old Italy of community, the shared experience of the place we live. It's true that little Italian towns and villages also have trattoria and even full blown restaurants but the bar, its decor and regulars slowly fading, is the common factor, the thing that every little place has. And I guess that, just like the English pub, these bars are finding times tough. I'd note that the slightly posher place we stayed - Dozza just outside Imola - didn't have a bar of this sort in the old town (an osteria served this function in the evening but during the day there was just the cafe and gelateria in the public park).

There are lots of demographic factors driving this decline - the bars may still be there but for how much longer? The most important though, like a lot of other places in Europe, is that Italians are quite literally dying out:
Italy’s birth rate has more halved since the ‘baby boom’ of the 1960s, with the number of births falling to 488,000 in 2015 – fewer than in any other years since the modern state was formed in 1861.

“If we carry on as we are and fail to reverse the trend, there will be fewer than 350,000 births a year in 10 years’ time, 40 percent less than in 2010 — an apocalypse,” the minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, said in an interview with La Repubblica on Sunday.

“In five years we have lost more than 66,000 births (per year) — that is the equivalent of a city the size of Siena,” the minister added. “If we link this to the increasing number of old and chronically ill people, we have a picture of a moribund country.”
Italy has Western Europe's lowest birth rate - just 1.39 well below the accepted replacement level of 2.1 - which is why you see so few children in these little towns and villages. The wonderful culture of these places - relaxed, welcoming - that us visitors want to celebrate is threatened by this low birth rate. And the result - just as we've seen in Japan - is that villages and small towns depopulate and are eventually abandoned:
The phenomenon is happening across the country, from mountain-top villages in the Alps and the Apennines to tiny terracotta-roofed hamlets in the sun-baked valleys of Sicily and Sardinia.

Nearly 2,500 villages are at risk of turning into ghost communities, with a startling two million homes abandoned or left empty by their owners, according to the report, which was compiled with the help of the National Association of Italian Councils.
We will see this process repeated elsewhere in Europe, at least in places that either don't attract or don't welcome immigrants. And, as we know, the problem with those immigrants is that they arrive without the cultural legacy that might sustain the bar, the cafe and the pub. Moreover they're not heading to those deep rural areas of Europe but to the towns, resorts and cities that provide the work they came here for. In France it's clear:
The visible decline of so many historic city centers is intertwined with these anxieties. Losing the ancient French provincial capital is another blow to Frenchness — tangible evidence of a disappearing way of life that resonates in France in the same way that the hollowing out of main streets did in the United States decades ago. A survey of French towns found that commercial vacancies have almost doubled to 10.4 percent in the past 15 years. As these towns have declined, voters have often turned sharply rightward. Albi is traditionally centrist, but the same conditions of decline and political anxiety are present, too.
Politics aside (although this sense of decline is an important factor in the kick-back against the Great City of the West and its denizens) we're seeing the same problems. A glance at the people walking the high street - older, wearier, less content - in an English provincial town will be matched in France, Spain and in that lovely little bar in Fontanelice. We tend to talk of these people as 'left behind' which is unkind and largely untrue. What we should talk about is how the places themselves are left behind, victims of the ageing population, too few young people, out-of-town shops and the World Wide Web.

In Italy, with a sclerotic economy, high unemployment and Europe's lowest female participation rate (just 37%), the problems are reflected everywhere - in the deathly quiet daytime streets of small towns, in the industrial zones littered with empty factories, rotting teeth in the once mighty bite of Italian manufacturing, and it the desperation of a government offering payments of eighty Euros a month as a 'Baby Bonus' for new mums.

If we're seeking Europe's problems we shouldn't be looking at immigrant ghettoes in Montpelier or Rotterdam, nor should we be screeching about house prices in Central London or Barcelona, rather we should be turning our attention to the left behind provincial places where the things we treasure in our cuture are at their most profound. The slow death of the English pub, the struggles of the French provincial high street, and the decline of the Italian village's cafe-bar - these are what people see and don't understand even if, as we know, they are partly to blame.

International 'anywhere' people - Flat Earthers as geographer Harm de Blij called them - may be right about global trade and business (and my head tells me they are) but when I look at those quiet, backwater places once comfortable and thriving my heart tells me we've got something wrong. And worse that the only people talking about that feeling in my heart are those blaming others - immigrants, foreigners, Muslims, bankers - for the problem rather than looking for a way forward. If this doesn't change, if the Flat Earthers continue to see the Great City of the West as the answer, then Europe and America's political divisions will only worsen and deepen.



Curmudgeon said...

Sadly, if the mainstream politicians refuse to acknowledge the problem, it is the extremists who will take advantage. And surely this is a theme that should be close to the conservative heart.

omnissiuntone said...

Excellent post - your comment about the head/heart conflict really resonates with me. On an intellectual level, I think globalisation has been largely a force for good, but when I see the hollowing out of small towns, my emotional sympathies lie with the anti-globalisation campaigners who argue that it erodes local customs and identity.

The decline in Italian birth rates is to some extent a phenomenon across the whole of the developed world - a product of greater prosperity, female education, access to birth control and so on - but the fact that Italy's is particularly acute suggests it's a good idea to look for solutions there. One article I've read blames it partly on low female participation in the workplace, though this is somewhat at odds with the other explanations offered: that Italian workplaces are inflexible and childcare expensive. Besides, I can't imagine birthrates were lower in the more traditionalist age of male breadwinners and housewives. Probably Italy's high levels of unemployment have something to do with it.

Perhaps low birth rates are part of a cultural malaise which politicians can't do much to address, in which case we'll just have to ride it out and hope it corrects itself. In the meantime, politicians can help matters by giving more money to local government, particularly to funding for transport, so that people can easily commute to where the jobs are while keeping small towns alive.

James Higham said...

Politics aside (although this sense of decline is an important factor in the kick-back against the Great City of the West and its denizens) we're seeing the same problems. A glance at the people walking the high street - older, wearier, less content

And look who's coming in to replace them.