See Web Cams of Surreally Empty City Streets in Venice, New York, London & Beyond

The lack of human pres­ence in major­ly pol­lut­ed cities these past cou­ple months has had some peo­ple see­ing utopias as the skies begin to clear. But emp­ty cities seem a lit­tle more dystopi­an to me. Dystopias are “a kind of sur­re­al­ism,” writes Kim Stan­ley Robin­son. They unearth the dream­like dread beneath the veneer of the nor­mal. No mat­ter when they’re set, dystopias don’t depict the future so much as “the feel­ing of the present… height­ened by exag­ger­a­tion to a kind of dream or night­mare.” The events in dystopi­an fic­tion approach the truth of someone’s sit­u­a­tion some­where in the world and make vis­i­ble what has been hid­den.

We know ghost cities exist as ancient dis­as­ters like Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum and mod­ern ones like Pripy­at, Ukraine, out­side Cher­nobyl. But there are more of them than many of us know. Gleam­ing cities like Ash­ga­bat, Turk­menistan, which broke ground in 1991 and con­tains the largest num­ber of mar­ble build­ings in the world.

The 4.5 mil­lion square meter metrop­o­lis has almost no inhab­i­tants, an enor­mous gov­ern­ment fol­ly. Towns and cities around the world have been aban­doned for for all sorts of rea­sons, and they con­tin­ue to as sea lev­els rise. Which is what makes view­ing live cam­era footage of some of the world’s most icon­ic streets—almost com­plete­ly emp­tied by the pan­dem­ic at the height of tourist season—so… sur­re­al.

It’s true that peo­ple haven’t fled these cities, but made cozy bunkers of their apart­ments. Yet see­ing the vacant streets live on cam­era, in Venice, Lon­don, New York, and else­where in the world,  I get the uncan­ny feel­ing of look­ing at pro­to-sur­re­al­ist painter Gior­gio de Chirico’s The Enig­ma of a Day, a depic­tion of a shad­owy, unin­hab­it­ed street through which we expect the Ital­ian ver­sion of a tum­ble­weed to roll. Sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy has inad­ver­tent­ly become a medi­um of mod­ernist art.

There is so much beau­ty in the live view at the top of the Ponte delle Guglie in Venice from the Hotel Filù Venezia, and there is also such lone­ly melan­choly, depend­ing on the time of day and where the shad­ows fall. See a live view of Times Square, above, and anoth­er Times Square view at Earth­Cam, where you can also catch a feed of a most­ly emp­ty Abbey Road (some times of day emp­ti­er than oth­ers, as in the ear­ly-morn­ing screen­shot below). Sky­line Web­cams hosts even more live cam­era views of Venice, includ­ing feeds from the Rial­to Bridge and the Piaz­za San Mar­co, as well as live feeds from sev­er­al sites in Pad­ua and oth­er places in Italy.

These real-time visions are trans­port­ing in their strange­ness. Are we liv­ing in the present or the future? In a dystopi­an world, there isn’t any dif­fer­ence. All futures are fore­closed by cat­a­stro­phe, “all dis­tances in time and space are shrink­ing,” wrote Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger, a thinker who under­stood dis­as­ter, and who fell in line behind it. In that same essay, “The Thing” (as trans­lat­ed by Albert Hof­s­tad­er), the Ger­man philoso­pher made his famous com­ment, “the ter­ri­ble has already hap­pened.”

The ter­ri­ble that has hap­pened to us is not only a dead­ly pan­dem­ic. The virus is not like­ly to dis­ap­pear on its own; who knows how long this will go on? But not far behind the cur­rent cri­sis are more cli­mate events that threat­en to emp­ty streets. If we emp­ty cities not only as indica­tive of tem­porar­i­ly social dis­tanc­ing, but as images of the pos­si­ble near-future, maybe we’ll be far less inclined to come out of this sur­re­al expe­ri­ence and get right back to busi­ness-as-usu­al.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Venice (Its Streets, Plazas & Canals) with Google Street View

Google Lets You Take a 360-Degree Panoram­ic Tour of Street Art in Cities Across the World

Spring Break vs. COVID-19: Map­ping the Real Impact of Ignor­ing Social Dis­tanc­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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