>Time for Walkies

>Those of my readers who happen to live in larger cities are well-aware of the infinite number of opportunities available to get out and about and meet people after work. Here in Washington, for example, there are lectures, receptions, discussion panels, exhibitions, screenings, and so on, on a daily basis; one could easily have somewhere to go every night of the week, if so inclined. I attended such an event last evening, and will be attending another this evening.

Usually these events are somewhat disappointing apart from seeing old friends and making one or two new ones. We mill about at the cocktail hour before the talk, and exchange pleasantries or are introduced to people via mutual acquaintances, an exercise which is sometimes rather painful. As the unnamed, older preppy gentleman at the bar of JG Melon’s explains in Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan”, “The acid test is whether you take any pleasure in responding to the question ‘What do you do?’ I can’t bear it.”

At first I had declined the invitation to last evening’s talk on Islam, since I was somewhat suspicious of the speaker’s thesis. Although I eventually agreed to attend, due to my friendship with the organizers, I should otherwise have followed my first instinct given some of the content that was aired. (Let it never be assumed that bad manners are to be expected solely from those on the Left.) Yet that being said, such events are often a source of joy for the flâneur, for we find ourselves dropping in on a bit of conversation and then dropping out again, with no requirement that the conversation later be continued.

The flâneur of course, for my readers not familiar with the term, is not someone who particularly loves the Spanish custard known as “flan”, or has a preference for flannel trousers (though this particular flâneur enjoys both.) Rather, he is an educated man who enjoys being out and about in his city, observing what is taking place, and commenting on it. While it is predominantly thought of as a 19th century concept, epitomized by figures such as Charles Baudelaire and others who went about in Paris strolling the boulevards and popping in here and there, I have always seen it as a more universal concept with respect to city life, even if not strictly adhering to either Baudelaire’s (or later Walter Benjamin’s) theories on the subject.

To that end, one can make the passing observation – which you are welcome to reject, of course – that in London both Samuel Peyps in the 17th century and the great Dr. Johnson in the 18th century were of this type, though of course neither was particularly interested in issues such as fashion or personal vanity. And Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist, with his ever-ready camera and keen eye as he wanders the streets of whatever city he happens to be in, is clearly one of the 21st century. None of these gentlemen would be caught dead taking a turtle for a walk, of course, but their pleasure in city life, in observing the people and places and how things change over time – sometimes in a matter of days or weeks – is something that urbanism encourages, at its best, in direct contrast to the kind of fortress mentality which characterizes suburbia.

We know from things such as census results and population studies that, in American cities like Washington which have experienced a renaissance of their downtown core, there has been a correlated resurgence in the number of people moving into town, rather than out of it. These people tend to be educated professionals in their 20′s and 30′s, most of whom actually grew up in the suburbs, who are turning their backs on lawn mowing and cul-de-sac hockey matches in order to benefit from the many amenities which urban centers have always offered, including events such as those I attend. They are willing to forgo square footage and acreage in order to live in a community where one cannot help but run into one’s neighbors and interact with passersby on a daily basis, in order the reap the rewards of city life.

Of course, these people are comparatively young, in the scheme of things. A good percentage of them will probably find themselves constrained by their circumstances and the arrival of children to leave the city when they must choose between being a parent and being a hipster. Yet not all of them will leave, I wager, and it will be interesting to see what the net effect of Generations X and Y living the majority of their adult lives in urban centers will have on the appearance and functionality of cities in the future.

At the present time, most 20- and 30-somethings do not have either the political power or economic means to exercise serious control over the development of the cities where they live. For now, that power remains in the hands of the Baby Boomers, who turned the modest Levittowns of their parents’ generation into the hideous suburban sprawl of McMansions and other atrocious architectural nightmares adding to the ruination of the countryside. Yet as more and more younger people reject the hypocrisy of the “me” generation which led to the decimation of the inner city, it is very exciting to contemplate what might happen as that older generation begins to slink off to Florida and Arizona, where they can mull over the mess they have made of things in their homes constructed of plastics manufactured in China.

For example: will there be a resurgence of the construction of entertainment venues such as concert halls and theatres? Anyone who has read of or seen images of early 20th century cities, including Washington, is well-aware that there were far more of such venues at the beginning of the last century than there are today, and if city populations continue to increase existing facilities cannot hope to accommodate all of the people who might like to attend a concert, play, or the like. Will trees finally come back to American cities after a many-decades-long absence, often blamed on Dutch Elm disease but in reality more due to inefficient planning designed to favor the automobile and not the human being? Take a look at an image of any major American city in about 1950 and you will see how much more pleasant a time the flâneur had in wandering his town before the attitude that “trees are our enemy” took hold – and it is an attitude which is still holding sway over city governments, no matter how supposedly “green” they are.

In any case, those of us who have the good fortune to live in the reviving American city, I would argue, have a duty not to hole ourselves up in our houses and flats as if we were still in suburbia but merely lacking a lawn. Going out to the numerous events offered of an evening allow us the opportunity to learn something and to meet people, but most of all to contribute to the fabric of a vibrant, urban life. There is nothing like the sense of comfort one feels in walking along a well-lit city street in the evening, looking at the people who are going to and fro on their way to an event, or meeting friends, running errands, and so on, particularly when compared to the almost funereal silence of suburbia – a place generally lacking the friendliness and simplicity of the countryside as well as the intellectual stimulation of the city.

Young women strolling the Gran Vía (1959)
by Francesc Català Roca
Col.legi d’Arquitectes, Barcelona
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Filed under cities, flaneur, suburbia, urbanism

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