If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And when the last citizens of the Old City of Dubrovnik yawns loudly will they actually have yawned at all.
Every year I go through this dilemma. Every year I scratch my head and worry how many years it will be before the end finally comes, before the city inevitably remains an empty shell, bereft of children’s laughter. When do we stop calling the Old City a city? For can it even be described as a city if next to nobody lives there.
I know why this time of the year, at the end of the tourist season, it hits me. During the summer months the influx of tourists give me an artificial feel that the city is alive. Well indeed it is alive but only on a temporary basis, like being put on life support for a few months. But as soon as the swallows fly home the city empties like a cup with a hole in the bottom and the reality hits home again. The once vibrant Stradun now only needs some tumble weed rolling down to give it the complete picture of a ghost town from a cowboy movie.
“90 percent of the apartments and houses I have sold recently have been to people to use as apartments for tourists and not as homes,” answered one real estate agent to me the other day. He was talking directly about the Old City as he closed a deal to sell yet another classic terrace stone house to a company in Zagreb to make three apartments. “No, let me correct that 99 percent,” he added. The more he remembered the more depressing it became. When he finally dug through his memory banks and some paperwork he discovered that the last property he had sold for people to actually live in was seven years ago.
The Old City will soon have a sign as you enter that reads “Sponsored By Airbnb.”
The figures are just as heart-breaking. In 1961 around 5,500 people called the Old City home. Forty years later, 2001, that number had halved to just over 2,700. Although during that time there had been a war as well as lots of new development. But another five years pass, in 2006, and the number of citizens halves again to 1,100. And over those short five years no wars and limited amounts of new housing. It is clear that capitalism murdered the Old City.
Today I guess that figure is down to 700. The last stubborn few are still hanging on but as time goes by and nature takes its course these stubborn few are getting to be like endangered species. Has it lost its charm? Of course it has. The City is charming and unique because it is just that a City. How many more years before we have the largest museum on the Adriatic?
The last stubborn few make their way to the cemetery and the death bell tolls for Dubrovnik.
I can’t help thinking that we didn’t do enough, well didn’t really do anything, to stop this catastrophic event. What incentives did people have to stay? We should have been bending over backwards to think of ideas to entice citizens not to leave their homes. The short-sightedness is shocking. We are a city that lives from tourism and yet the jewel in the crown has been left to wilt and die like an under watered plant. I can’t help thinking that any measures now would be “too little too late.”
I am pretty sure that in my lifetime I will live to see the Old City empty. And I can remember when it was not only the heart of the city but also the soul. It is now merely an afterthought that is visited on special occasions. I am constantly being told by Croatian diaspora that I shouldn’t call it Old City just City. This may have been true 20 or 30 years ago but not today. Like I said pretty soon we won’t be calling it city at all, then what “Old Museum.” How long before we start charging people entrance tickets to actually get through the gates? That would certainly be the final nail in the coffin of this once proud city. A city that took many centuries to build and yet was destroyed in only a few decades. Never underestimate the stupidity of man.