2/26/13 - london, paris, and vienna in 1900

In today's selection -- in London, Paris, and Vienna in 1900, life was lived on the streets more than in homes, and the streets were crowded and alive with all manifestations of society:

"Let us stipulate one point right away: 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. 

"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.' Delvau did not specify particular streets, but he did not need to. In mid-nineteenth-century Paris, anything wider than a narrow lane, any street twenty-five or thirty feet across, was bursting with activity day and night. Left and Right Bank, east or west of the city center, all hosted essentially the same form of raucous street life. They differed considerably in the wealth and status of their residents, but the scene at ground level was essentially the same throughout. 

"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. 

"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."


Alan Ehrenhalt


The Great Inversion




Copyright 2012 by Alan Ehrenhalt


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