Iain Sinclair, in the London Review of Books, mourns his constantly-transforming city. There was never just one London, but for Sinclair, London as he understood it is crumbling, and his essay is a loving, fascinating, melancholy, rollicking look at how technology and globalization are transforming urban spaces.
Drifting in a lazy, autopilot trajectory, my own cloud of unknowing, down Bethnal Green Road towards the pop-up shopping hub by the London Overground station at Shoreditch, I register a notice in a window that says: ‘No coffee stored overnight.’ Once upon a time, white vans (for white men) were nervous about their tools and ladders, but now the value is in coffee, barista coffee, gold dust: the marching powder of the shared-desk classes who are hitting it hard in recovered container stacks and bare-brick coffee shops glowing with an occult circle of pale screens and fearful concentration. Why do these digital initiates always look as if the screens hold bad news, as if the power is on the point of shutting down permanently, leaving them disconnected in outer darkness?
That coffee sign was a border marker, preparing me for a series of designated smoking areas, puddles of stubbed-out cigarettes, and a chain of opportunist businesses promoted by oxymorons: FREE CASH, IMPERIAL EQUITY, CITY SHEEPSKINS, RESPONSIBLE GAMBLING, TAPASREVOLUTION, PROPER HAMBURGER. And of course Sainsbury’s Local. When, in truth, there is no local left. Those signs confirm the dissolution of locality. The last London, Smart City, is nervous about unreformed localism, nuisance quarters with medieval borders clinging to outmoded privileges, like schools, pubs, markets or hospitals hungry for funds and resistant to improving the image of construction.
The California I most deeply reside in is the California of personal imprint—generations of it. It’s the stuff of absorbed histories—the weight and heft of personal adaptations, language, and traditions. You brought a little of your past with you—how to string beans or devein shrimp or how to make a roux; you brought a lullaby; you brought coming-of-age rituals. You compared and shared with your neighbors because you were creating a community. All was integrated into the rhythm and space of your new environs. You brought your pride and joy along with your cleverness or itch for adventure. You brought what was road-worthy, meaningful, something worth handing down.
That ability to “make do,” or improvise, applied in many ways. “Placemaking” is the work of the mind as well as the hands. Living in California has often meant that you have to become familiar with and conversant in both the mythic place and the real place, and know where they come together—that seam where the extrapolation and the real meet.
As I moved out of my teens and into my twenties, I understood that seam—this place—as negative space, that area between two visible knowns. It was a trick of perception, in a sense it became an empty room to fill. If what has been promised doesn’t exist, or what my forebears came to find fell short, then what did they encounter? What is it that we celebrate, what is that we think of as home?
Below is the first chapter fromFlâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s incisive hybrid book of memoir, cultural criticism, and social history about the female urban walker, the contemplative, observant, and untold counterpart to the masculine flâneur. Our thanks to Elkin and FSG for sharing it with the Longreads community.
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Where did I first come across that word, flâneur, so singular, so elegant and French with its arched â and its curling eur? I know it was when I was studying in Paris at university, back in the 1990s, but I don’t think I found it in a book. I didn’t do much required reading, that year. I can’t say for sure, which is to say I became a flâneur before I knew what one was, wandering the streets around my school, located as American universities in Paris must be, on the Left Bank.
From the French verb flâner, the flâneur, or ‘one who wanders aimlessly,’ was born in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the glass-and-steel covered passages of Paris. When Haussmann started slicing his bright boulevards through the dark uneven crusts of houses like knives through a city of cindered chèvre, the flâneur wandered those too, taking in the urban spectacle. A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway, has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.
In my ignorance, I think I thought I invented flânerie. Coming from suburban America, where people drive from one place to another, walking for no particular reason was a bit of an eccentric thing to do. I could walk for hours in Paris and never ‘get’ anywhere, looking at the way the city was put together, glimpsing its unofficial history here and there, a bullet in the façade of an hôtelparticulier, leftover stencilling way up on the side of a building for a flour company or a newspaper that no longer existed, which some inspired graffiti artist had used as an invitation to add his own work, a row of cobblestones revealed by roadworks, several layers below the crust of the current city, slowly rising ever upward. I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings. My most meaningful experience with the city was not through its literature, its food, or its museums; not even through the soul-scarring affair I carried on in a garret near the Bourse; but through all that walking. Somewhere in the 6th arrondissement I realised I wanted to live in a city for the rest of my life, and specifically, in the city of Paris. It had something to do with the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other.
I wore a groove into the Boulevard Montparnasse as I came and went between my flat on the Avenue de Saxe and school on the rue de Chevreuse. I learned non-textbook French from the names of the restaurants in between: Les Zazous (named for a kind of jazzy 1940s hepcat in a plaid blazer and a quiff), Restaurant Sud-Ouest & Cie, which taught me the French equivalent of ‘& co,’ and from a bakery called Pomme de pain I learned the word for ‘pinecone,’ pomme de pin, though I never learned why that was a pun worth making. I bought orange juice on the way to class every day at a pretzel shop called Duchesse Anne and wondered who she was and what was her relationship to pretzels. I pondered the distorted French conception of American geography that resulted in a TexMex restaurant called Indiana Café. I walked past all the great cafés lining the boulevard, La Rotonde, Le Sélect, Le Dôme, and La Coupole, watering holes to generations of American writers in Paris, whose ghosts hunched under café awnings, unimpressed with the way the twentieth century had turned out. I crossed over the rue Vavin, with its eponymous café, where all the cool lycéens went when they got out of school, assertive cigarette smokers with sleeves too long for their arms, shod in Converse sneakers, boys with dark curls and girls with no make-up. Read more…
Throughout New York’s history, Times Square has served as a bellwether of the city’s current mood — as well as the perceptions of the city, both for those who live here and those who don’t. Once, Times Square was a high temple of glamour, the glowing heart of a go-go metropolis. Then it, like the city around it, slid into seedy decline. When much of New York was sleazy and dangerous, nowhere seemed sleazier or more dangerous than 42nd Street. And when Times Square came to feel too touristy, it mirrored a parallel worry that New York itself was losing some of its intrinsic grit. Times Square exists less as a crossroads than as a repository for our collective hopes and fears for the city. Now it’s entering a new phase — perhaps the strangest, most inscrutable one yet.
But at what point should cities make this decision to stop subsidizing for-profit development? And how do they know when enough is enough? That’s the question being asked in Kansas City and in cities around the nation as downtowns bounce back from years of abandonment only to find that developers still expect the aid they were receiving when downtowns were far less profitable places to be.
“Urban leaders still tend to overpay for development because they internalized low civic self-esteem bred by decades of being told they were too polluted, too dangerous, or too school-deficient to attract investment,” says Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, an organization that advocates for economic development policies that lead to better job opportunities for working families. “When the back-to-the-cities trend started taking root, albeit very unevenly, cities were so glad to finally land deals that they routinely overpaid, not having a solid grasp of the demographic and market forces they should have been channeling instead of subsidizing. It’s especially true for retail and entertainment projects, which generate very poor-quality jobs. I have yet to find a city that has figured out how to ‘take the foot off the pedal’ and stop over-subsidizing, even when gentrification becomes a problem.”
—Sandy Smith writing for Next City about Kansas City’s KC Live development, and and why cities are still paying developers to build in their downtowns—despite the fact that many downtown areas have become profitable again.
As I described in the Making of Ferguson, the federal government maintained a policy of segregation in public housing nationwide for decades. This was as true in northeastern cities like New York as it was in border cities like Baltimore and St. Louis. In 1994, civil rights groups sued the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), alleging that HUD had segregated its public housing in Baltimore and then, after it had concentrated the poorest African American families in projects in the poorest neighborhoods, HUD and the city of Baltimore demolished the projects, and purposely relocated the former residents into other segregated black neighborhoods. An eventual settlement required the government to provide vouchers to former public housing residents for apartments in integrated neighborhoods, and supported this provision with counseling and social services to ensure that families’ moves to integrated neighborhoods would have a high likelihood of success. Although the program is generally considered a model, it affects only a small number of families, and has not substantially dismantled Baltimore’s black ghetto.
In 1970, declaring that the federal government had established a “white noose” around ghettos in Baltimore and other cities, HUD Secretary George Romney proposed denying federal funds for sewers, water projects, parkland, or redevelopment to all-white suburbs that resisted integration by maintaining exclusionary zoning ordinances (that prohibited multi-unit construction) or by refusing to accept subsidized moderate-income or public low-income housing. In the case of Baltimore County, he withheld a sewer grant that had previously been committed, because of the county’s policies of residential segregation. It was a very controversial move, but Romney got support from Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had been frustrated by unreasonable suburban resistance to integration and mixed income developments when he had been the Baltimore County Executive and governor of Maryland. In a 1970 speech to the National Alliance of Businessmen, Agnew attacked attempts to solve the country’s racial problems by pouring money into the inner city as had been done in the Johnson administration. Agnew said that he flatly rejected the assumption that “because the primary problems of race and poverty are found in the ghettos of urban America, the solutions to these problems must also be found there… Resources needed to solve the urban poverty problem—land, money, and jobs—exist in substantial supply in suburban areas, but are not being sufficiently utilized in solving inner-city problems.”
The city’s origins are clouded in rumour and speculation. Some describe it as a vanity project of Than Shwe, the former military leader of the country. Many believe the “audacious” name given to the city might reflect “illusions of grandeur or … perhaps another sign of [Than Shwe’s] possible dementia”, according to one 2006 US government diplomatic cable, released in the trove of documents published by Wikileaks.
Other theories have pointed to an increasingly paranoid junta wanting to move the capital away from the sea, fearing an amphibious US invasion. Instead, the seat of military and political power now sits closer to the restive regions where separatist movements and ethnic groups are pushing for greater rights for bitterly oppressed minorities, including the Karen and Rohingya.
The regime, and Than Shwe, pitched the move to Naypyidaw as akin to building a new Canberra or Brasilia, an administrative capital away from the traffic jams and over-population of Rangoon. Not many believe this story. “By withdrawing from the major city, Rangoon, Than Shwe and the leadership … sheltered themselves from any popular uprising,” suggest activists Benedict Rogers and Jeremy Woodrum in their book Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant.
Hillel Aron’s “The Last Freeway” was published in Slake in 2011 and appeared as a Longreads Member Pick in September 2013. It’s a story about a city (Los Angeles), a freeway interchange (where the 105 meets the 110), and a man (Judge Harry Pregerson). Aron explains:
“Well, my friends Joe Donnelly and Laurie Ochoa had this great quarterly called Slake, and I wanted to write something for them, so we sat down and talked about it… I think maybe I pitched it to them, I can’t remember. I’d was just always fascinated by freeways, growing up in Los Angeles, and I loved that Reyner Banham book, The Architecture of the Four Ecologies. When I was kid, I was completely enchanted by that 105 / 110 interchange, the carpool lane one, which towers above the city. It’s basically like a rollercoaster. Actually it kind of sucks—since I wrote the piece, they’ve turned that carpool lane into a “toll lane,” so normal carpoolers can’t use it anymore without one of those fast pass things. At any rate, I did some research and it turned out that (a) the 105 was the last freeway built in Los Angeles—the end of an era, really. And it was so tough to build that it basically set a precedent of not building freeways anymore. And (b), there was this nutty judge who turned the whole thing into a New Deal-style public works program to benefit the communities that were being bisected by this massive beast of a freeway. And he also ordered them to stick a train in the middle of it, which didn’t quite go to the airport, but that’s a different story…”
Driving down the Sunset Strip has always felt a little like being in a magazine. The billboards loom and beckon, towering and untouchable and yet still totally in your face. Today they advertise luxury brands and new TV shows, but once upon a time—back when the Sunset Strip was at the heart and soul of rock ‘n’ roll—they were hand painted musical monoliths, larger-than-life variations on album art and psychedelic interpretations of soon-to-be hit records. As Hunter Oatman-Stanford put it, “in the 1970s, you knew you’d made it big if your record label paid for a hand-painted billboard on the Strip.” The hand painted rock billboards on the Strip were an art form specific to LA’s car culture, intended not for gallery walls but to be seen through a windshield at cruising speed, and preferably with the convertible top down.
According to the Los Angeles Times, each billboard took roughly ten days to produce, with costs ranging from $1,200 to $10,000. Craftsmen would hand paint the illustrations on individual wood panels at warehouses in Mid City, before ultimately reassembling the pieces on location in the wee hours. And they were by nature ephemeral—each was destroyed after its contract ended.
Luckily for us, a photographer named Robert Landau documented many of the billboards during their roughly decade-and-a-half heyday (from 1967 to the advent of MTV in the early 1980’s). Landau was a teenager living with his dad in the hills above the legendary Sunset Strip Tower Records when he first started documenting the fleeting masterpieces, shooting with a Nikkormat camera and Kodachrome film. A few years ago, he published a complete catalog of his photos with Angel City Press, and in a few weeks the billboards will finally grace museum walls, when an exhibit of Landau’s work opens at the LA’s Skirball Cultural Center.
Collectors Weekly: Who started the music industry’s billboard trend?
Landau: As far as I can tell, it was the Doors in 1967 for their debut album. I talked with Jac Holzman—the head of Elektra Records who signed the Doors—while writing my book. In 1967, he had just come out here from the East Coast and opened an office on La Cienega Boulevard, not far from Sunset Boulevard, and it occurred to him that billboards were being used for everything except promoting records and music. A lot of radio stations where popular disc jockeys worked were farther east on Sunset, and he knew they drove on the Strip, and that the entertainment industry in general was based there.
The Doors were really into it; the whole band even climbed up on top for a photo shoot. Jim Morrison was quoted as saying he thought it was cool he’d be hanging over the Strip like a specter. I think at that time, it cost about a thousand dollars a month, which was quite a bit of an investment then. Elektra signed on for a year, and they had several different billboards. Little by little, the other record companies caught on.
The Berlin Wall still exerts incredible power over our imaginations, 25 years after Germans on both sides of the city began the process of demolishing it. Its existence had always invited wildly divergent reactions, making it not only a physical structure, but also a canvas on which political and cultural dreams could be projected. This is as true today, for a generation that has never lived in its shadow, as it was during the Cold War. Here are four stories that attempt to trace its legacy. Read more…