The Marginalian
The Marginalian

A Theater for Living: Anatomy of European Street Life in 1900

What makes a great city? Is it a “sparkle of the highest power”? The magic of how it “compresses all life … into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines”? Its quilt of subjective memories? Its walkability? Its lights? Its dogs?

In The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City (public library), celebrated urbanist Alan Ehrenhalt traces the aliveness of today’s city to the vibrant street life of early-20th-century European hotbeds of culture:

To admire London, Paris, or Vienna in 1900 is not to admire squalid tenements, lethal working conditions, or the absence of privacy. It is instead to admire other qualities that those cities possessed.

Street life, for one. The late twentieth century considered the street so preeminently an instrument of movement that we forget what it was in the great European cities of a century before: a center of activity, much more than of motion, a center of commerce and sociability, of nonstop human drama, of endless surprises and stimulation. One might call it, as many did at the time, a theater for living. To talk about a crowded city thoroughfare of the nineteenth century as ‘mixed use’ urbanism in the modern sense is to miss the point altogether. This was essentially ‘all use’ urbanism.

But underpinning the seeming joyfulness of street life was its contrast with the lamentable state of the home:

Of course, people were out in the streets of London, Paris, and Vienna in part because they did not want to be inside. In 1860, in a piece of social analysis aimed at describing and understanding Parisian social life, the critic Alfred Delvau wrote that ‘as soon as it awakes, Paris leaves its abode and steps out, and doesn’t return home until as late as possible in the evening — when it bothers to return home.’ He went on to write that ‘Paris deserts its houses. Its houses are dirty on the inside, while its streets are swept every morning …. All the luxury is outside — all its pleasures walk the streets.’

Indeed, it was in those early 20th-century streets that the century of the child began — streets that looked remarkably like what Charles Dickens had found across the pond a few decades earlier. Ehrenhalt describes the gritty mesmerism of the urban chaos:

These were streets in which traffic was often gridlocked and nothing moved very fast, so there was plenty of time for the resident or visitor to take in the human drama at leisure. At first glance, there was little charm to them. They were not the quaint European streets down which foreign tourists like to stroll today. To a great extent, they resembled the streets of New York’s Lower East Side that nearly all of us have seen in pictures: unrefined, menacing to some, and occasionally violent, but full of the raw energy of day-to-day human existence.

Everything and everyone was visible on these streets: prostitutes; horse-drawn carriages filled with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen who traveled at speeds of no more than a few miles an hour, or walked if they wanted to arrive at their destination more quickly; vendors who crowded the sidewalk; peddlers with no fixed place of business carrying their goods in handcarts or wheelbarrows, or on their backs; children inventing games and playing them all day in the midst of the confusion.

But, above all, street life was a stage for extroversion, the performative part of the social fabric:

In a work published in 1862, Delvau had argued that ‘we find it tiresome to live and die at home … we require public display, big events, the street, the cabaret, to witness us for better or worse … we like to pose, to put on a show, to have an audience, a gallery, witnesses to our life.’ Some Parisians even warned that the street was becoming too enticing, almost irresistible. The Goncourt brothers, perhaps the city’s most important publishers, lamented that ‘the interior is going to die. Life threatens to become public.’ As a later historian put it, Paris was an extroverted city.

Though the latter part of the twentieth century saw the demise of this magnificent chaos, Ehrenhalt argues American cities today are experiencing a renaissance of street life, returning to the dynamics of Europe’s early-twentieth-century cultural epicenters:

American cities all but lost their street life in the last decades of the twentieth century; anybody walking around downtown Philadelphia or Boston or Chicago after five in the afternoon found the streets deserted and dangerous. Today, in various forms, street life is returning. One can walk down Michigan Avenue in Chicago or Walnut Street in Philadelphia long after dark and find the place throbbing with activity and nearly always safe.

The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, which explores the demographic inversion that transformed poor inner cities into wealthy downtowns, comes as a fine addition to these seven essential books about cities.

Public domain images courtesy LSE Library

Published April 15, 2013




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