Here is my Urban Cultures Essay and rather stressfully finished on New Years Eve at 11.45pm. I have left in all the typos I didn’t see until after it was digitally submitted. 50% is the minimum mark. If I reach 51% we can all have a ball and I will dance in a giant champagne class while stuffing my face with holistic jaffa cakes..,
Certain business have been left vague so they aren’t so easily traced. p.S-Ackyrods book is fascinating me now I’ve time to read more of it but as all essay annoyances, I needed an argument.
‘Certain streets or neighbourhoods carry with them a particular atmosphere over many generations’ (Peter Ackroyed). How is such an idea of memory and/or ‘haunting’ manifested in different modes of representing urban space and culture?
London celebrities have huddled in unison asking the mayor to hold back development on the tight cluster of backstreets that is Soho. The announcement that nightclub Madame Jojo’s is to close its doors on decades of drag and burlesque acts has sparked the latest campaign. In a city perpetually changing the concern is that the creative workers and independent traders that gave the area its atmosphere will be pushed out by higher rents. Already a large chunk of old buildings has vanished to make way for new rail links and already, what was once passed daily is quickly forgotten. Stumble sideways down any of the cracks along the bus clogged, shopping mayhem of Oxford Street and the city closes in. The hyperstimulation of giant logos, Christmas lights and sidestep dancing through the crowd gives way to confusing alleyways and cramped buildings. Depending on the hour Soho can be an empty dawn walk of uncertain directions or vibrant with pubs spilling over late into the night. For centuries it has been a place associated with entertainment, hedonism and crime. From a place where the Hugonauts settled weave silk to the being London’s red light district, Soho still wears traces of its history and those who passed through it.
The narrow pavements and one way streets, like many corners of the West End, invite more possibilities of chance encounters where the most efficient way of moving is on foot. To truly capture the atmosphâere of a place requires time for observation and an allowance of being lost, guided by feeling and intrigue. It is the place of the flâneur: the stroller, urban explorer of dwellings and the aesthetic. Charles Baudelaire defined the flâneur as the person absorbed and swept in to the crowd, his place of encounters is in the masses. In ‘A Painter of Modern Life’ he describes the activity in its perfections as;
“A joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, among the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet feel everywhere at home; to see the world and be at the centre of the world- and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define…thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy.” (Baudelaire p9)
Baudelaire’s depiction of the flâneur is to delight in movement and beauty of the city. He writes of ‘fine carriages and proud horses…the beauty of the children, happy to be alive and nicely dressed.’ (Baudelaire p11) The wanderer of Baudelaire’s Paris is dazed in its greatness and sees the world in a poetic reality. Would the same person delight in standing alone in a dripping dank alleyway, echoing with disembodied voices from the pubs beside it? Is it a displacement of the flâneur, out of the crowd to the more intimate spaces that catches a feeling of being haunted? People never claim to see ghosts in a crowd. The most atmospheric streets of the city seem to be those on the fringes of the crowds, not the centre. A displaced, unsettled feeling is what Sigmund Freud termed as the ‘uncanny’. Much of Freud’s theory is difficult to place in the context of urban culture as his reasoning consistently refers to repressed sexual fears or upbringing. His examples in ‘The Uncanny’ all stem from fictitious characters. The core theory is that ‘the uncanny is that class of terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.’ (Freud Loc 22) According to Freud the repressed or forgotten familiarity was not necessarily terrifying to begin with. To notice a change in atmosphere turning a corner can also involve a sense of déjà vu. The other key feature of all the locations that will be discussed here are old or degenerated architecture. Whether that is the historic sites of Paris or recently outdated tower blocks of the 20th century. All contain the uncanny notion of stirring up what has been there before.
A district of the city retaining its historic imagery produces emotional reactions of both nostalgia and the uncanny. If Soho kept the creative demographic consistent but altered the architectural appearance would it lose its character, a notion that is mostly subjective to begin with? The visual effect of buildings that still inhabit trades connected to their origin adds to a places character. The idea of a city being characterised as though embodied with human traits arises often in written descriptions. A Huffing Post article on the Soho developments by Jason Holmes states that London is a city of two hearts ‘one known as the square mile keeps our metropolis firmly upon the world map, but so too does the other and no less vital.’ (Holmes 2014)
[The second heart is described by Holmes as its creative one in Soho. It is as though the ‘mother city’, the metropolis takes on the all the complexities and personality tropes of a human being. Benjamin called the flâneur the ‘priest of the genius loci’ (Benjamin 264) as though the wanderer has the power to tap in and absorb the spirt of locations they discover. The genius loci, from Benjamin’s explanations of flânerie, is a bricolage of the physical inhabitants of a place as well as spirits and fragmented images that give the effect of one immense interior.
“for it is they [the streets] that are the dwelling place of the eternally restless being who is eternally on the move, the being that experiences, knows, learns, and imagines as much between the houses as the individual between his four walls. For the masses as well as for the flâneur, glossy enamelled corporate nameplates are as good as a wall decoration, as an oil painting is for the homebody sitting in his living room, or even better; the fire walls are their desks, the newspaper kiosks their library, letter boxes their bronzed statuettes, benches their boudoir, and the café terrace the bay window from which they can look down on their property. (Benjamin 264)
This idea of the city perceived as an interior can be seen in those that perch on the steps of St Martins in the Field to eat, the tourists that clamber and lounge on the lion statues of Trafalgar Square and graffiti artists leaving an urban form of wallpaper. If the exterior of the city becomes the interior, the true interiors; what is behind all those corporate nameplates and shuts doors, can remain greatly unknown. This plethora of inaccessible dwellings emits the notion of secrecy, mystery and seclusion. If all the elements of the streets are furniture to the flâneur then the closed doors and dark windows of historical streets, courts and squares, are the locked trunks found in attics with lost keys. The older a street is the more people over generations have passed through it and so the sense of secrets and curiosity increases.
Traces of generations now lost permeates both nostalgia and mystery. You cannot walk long through the city without a fleeting wonder to who else has walked those steps before you. Even though visually historic places can evoke particular emotional responses it cannot be the soul factor of what creates an atmosphere or haunting sensation. We think of Soho, in the last century, as a place of creativity and back street entertainment because that is what it still functions as. The silk weavers and rag shops of Soho’s past, originally purchased by a tailor have given way to the Silk House and numerous other bespoke fabric stores along Berwick Street. The market still remains there in some form too. Marshall Streets 19th century baths have reopened as a gym and swimming pool.
Peter Ackroyd associates distinct atmospheres in London not from displacement or curiosity but either an influence of the area’s original use, or a loss of past architecture replaced with the bland and uninteresting. In ‘London the Biography’ the examples Ackroyd gives are interesting because they read as negative emotional responses. He fails to capture the vibrant, intoxicating parts of the city haunted by the ghosts of nostalgia or fond memories. He claims that “the entire area of Southwark and Borough has for centuries conveyed an impression of meanness and mournfulness,” (Ackroyd p104) because the area originally contained many prisons and places of punishment. Is this a true description, where past events leave a permanent stain for the next generation? Maybe others interpretations are completely different; they only remember the inviting smells of Borough Market on winter mornings and picnicking with strangers in Potters Fields beneath screens of the Olympics. Centuries of mournfulness are lost on others who form their own individual experiences not merely the recorded history. Using the history of Soho with this theory, the district should be one of stinking misery and sickness. An excerpt from Thomas Beames’ ‘Rookeries of London’ describes both the origins and 19th century state of Berwick Street and the surrounding neighbourhood.
“The famous Pest House was erected here for the reception of those stricken with plague, where was what was called a lazaretto, consisting of thirty-six small houses; and near it, at the lower end of Marshall Street, was a common cemetery, where some thousand persons were buried during that dreadful pestilence…There is a mouldy, smokey, dilapidated air about the whole; some of the houses have evidently sunk much; others are closed up with shutters, the windows in many cases, broken or mended with paper…The usual number of idlers lounging about, so that should you stop a minute to make enquiries, a crowd of suspicious looking characters would assemble, many youths among them. (Beames p108, 110)
People swim in a chlorine smelling gym in Marshall Street above graves of the diseased and yet leisure centres do not contain the melancholy that Ackroyd gives to Southwark. The only idlers are to found on one mass cigarette break every lunchtime in Soho Square. Beames’ continues to describe a cow house containing up to thirty cows on two stories and how the stench carried into the entire quarter of houses. Although Soho has kept some of its uses and appearances throughout the last two centuries, its origins of death and squalor, and the atmosphere those conditions created, have not continued in the way that Ackroyd suggests.
Although, vague elements of Ackroyd’s examples of how the original feeling of a place can linger through time can be found in St Giles. Separate from Soho by Shaftsbury Avenue, the site of London’s most notorious rookery slum, on a wet Saturday still contains homeless men crouched beneath a stolen pub umbrella and tenement (albeit 20th century designed) apartments. The sounds from the churchyard of St Giles are still those of a beggar, a drunk man singing, cutlery being washed and all the coughing, barking dogs and shouting at children of life from the open apartment windows. It is a dwelling place where the style of the buildings have changed and rents have excessively increased but there is a repetitive cycle of the people within it. The bricks may be new but has anything really changed?
Ackroyd also explains that streets that have excessively changed appearance by modernity, such as the Essex Road, are places of “emptiness and ennui, manifest greyness and misery.” (Ackroyd p504) It is almost a lack of atmosphere, an anti-atmosphere that provokes such blandness, as though the spirit of London mourns for pieces that have been bulldozed for new roads and apartments. To be miserable from removal of the old relates to the modernist view that form follows function. New roads and non-descript office buildings are part of the progress of the city to increase movement and production yet emotionally and visually the ‘greyness’ of concrete and conformity paradoxically emits a feeling of deadness. They are haunting from the lack of life. To be in the financial area of Docklands between lunchtime and the start of rush hour is an extraordinary discovery of emptiness. Surrey Quays station can be danced through like Fred Astaire with only CCTV camera’s watching. All is grey, flat concrete and escalators churning up no people; it is silent and begging for something extraordinary to inhabit the space. If Le Corbusier had built London with his ideology of zoning areas for specific roles on a grid layout of sky scrapers there would be none of the haunting atmospheres of the past or places led to by curiosity. (Le Corbusier 1929) It would be a city entirely of function and not one of remembering or rediscovery.
St Giles in some ways is closer to its original use then other areas that keep up an ornate image of the city’s past. London likes to cling to its Dickensian youth. Take for example areas such as Covent Garden Market or Hays Galleria on the river bank and both present a constructed atmosphere to entice tourism and consumers. It is atmospheric London bottled and branded. These places have kept their historical structural framework in the same way as Soho (Covent Garden piazza being a marketplace and Hays originally a wharf bringing in hay) yet the latter hasn’t succumbed to false gas lamps, decorative costermonger barrels and other ornaments. In Covent Garden the street artists must audition and pay license fees. If visited often enough they become as unchanged and recognisable as the international brand logos on the shops around them.
Ghost walks weave tourists around the West End with the final stop being announced as the most haunted house in London where a murder took place in Berkley square. How many ghosts the tourists have actually seen along the route remains dubious. Ripper walks map out the murder spots of mutilated prostitutes under the apartment windows of those striving to pay the rent in Durwood Street. Mass produced copies of books on ‘secret’ London tell of what can be found away from large attractions, the ‘off the map’ locations and ‘hidden’ walks. It cannot be history alone that produces an atmospheric state. So many books on the city advise where to go yet rarely do any explain what was encountered personally or what will be felt. London explained in a tour guide cannot really suffice to blindly walking a city alone without map or historical knowledge. Knowing where Oscar Wilde bought a scarf or that the Rolling Stones dropped a cigarette butt on a certain corner does not produce a distinct atmosphere however unchanged the architectural lay out is. There has to a more emotional connection.
An analytical, individualistic approach to emotional reactions in urban environments was investigated by the Situationists and what Guy Debord described as Psychogeography. In his essay ‘An Introduction to a Critique on Urban Geography’ his theory was that we are all capable of noticing the change of emotion but it is not necessarily a result of how the area appears on the surface. Where Benjamin wrote of the flâneur being the priest of the genius loci, Debord seeks to investigate how and why the individual is seemingly led aimlessly and the connections between emotion and place.
“The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance that is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the terrain); the appealing or repelling character of certain places — these phenomena all seem to be neglected. In any case they are never envisaged as depending on causes that can be uncovered by careful analysis and turned to account. People are quite aware that some neighbourhoods are gloomy and others pleasant. But they generally simply assume that elegant streets cause a feeling of satisfaction and that poor streets are depressing, and let it go at that. In fact, the variety of possible combinations of ambiences, analogous to the blending of pure chemicals in an infinite number of mixtures, gives rise to feelings as differentiated and complex as any other form of spectacle can evoke. The slightest demystified investigation reveals that the qualitatively or quantitatively different influences of diverse urban decors cannot be determined solely on the basis of the historical period or architectural style, much less on the basis of housing conditions.” (Debord 1950)
The places that emanate a sensation that all is not as it seems, that give shivers on warm days, although preserving their past, must contain other qualities and reasons. Walter Benjamin wrote on flânerie that the tourist and the native could never write of the city in the same way that for those that live in the city, locations can only ever be connected with memoir and attachment.
“To depict a city as a native would call for other, deeper motives – the motives of the person who journeys into the past rather than to foreign parts…he has nothing of the excited impressionism with which the travel writer approaches his subject.” (Benjamin
It is not that areas such as Covent Garden lacks ambience; it has a cobbled charm and bustling market. Yet Soho still emits an air of individuality in its aging buildings not yet polished into a tourist spot. Even the few remaining sex shops seem quaint and outmoded in an era of internet porn and Ann Summers stores on every high street. To the flâneur, the drunk man singing in St Giles churchyard bares far more beauty and poignancy than the busker dressed as a Victorian singing opera in Covent Garden Piazza. The narrower and more cluttered streets, the ones that do not reveal everything in one gaze, present an atmosphere of unpredictability and where getting lost becomes a game. Walking the streets without a destination requires time and freedom. The person cutting through Soho Square late for work every morning will never see the street the same as the person who can stand still and notice the intricate things. A distinct change in atmosphere is also formed through the act of returning. The connotations between personal memories and spaces bring an eternal attachment in the emotional reaction of the person who retraces their own past. Atmospheres are formed not only by History but the histories of the individual and the simultaneous effect of both.
Around the back of what was once the Astoria nightclub there used to be tableaux paintings in upstairs windows portraying 17th century bar wenches and drinkers like a crude attempt of presenting the areas past. The images remain now only in a chipped memory of drunkenly waving and laughing at the paintings while shivering for the doors to open on another punk gig. Atmospheres like Soho’s are built upon a great conglomeration of memories and experiences like these. A memory is cherished of singing CocoRosie songs with the staff in a fabric store because it was the first time the album was heard beyond headphones in a gushing, childish moment to share previously unshared songs. An overstuffed shop selling props with an operatic propriter rubled as they would bellow down to the basement from the top of the stairs, in an operatic cockney voice, things she would be inclined to if catching shoplifters; while we argued over which fake blunderbuss gun would be a good hair accessory. All those little things, the memories and the connections, build up the perception of the places character within the walls of a lingering era never lived in.
The individual connections between parts of the city and the sensation of being haunted by memories are exemplified Iain Sinclair’s ‘London City of Disappearances’. If London is one great ‘redundant mausoleum’ as J G Ballard is quoted as saying in the opening paragraph of the book, then Sinclair is gathering its ghosts. These are not the supernatural spooks of tourists nightly tours but a collection of the vanished, spectres of memories; those on the brink of obscurity. In some ways the ethnographic preface is as valuable as the compendium of recollections of those that have slipped through the cracks in the vastness of the city.
If the individual moments and fragments of the city are preserved it reveals streets of personal ghosts. These influence the perceptions of a places character like an immense invisible collage of past encounters tacked to the walls. London is populated with statues and monuments to mark the nation’s history. Sinclair documents histories of people there are no grand monuments or visual reminders of but concretes their place in the life of the city and their connections to particular districts. Sinclair’s own psychogeography is mentioned in how the city changed for him the night his child was born.
“After she was born I slid home, on private rails, finding London an altered landscape. I saw, that one time, more truly into the dream of things: Strand, Fleet Street, Smithfield, Bunhill Fields. A route that became a mantra for the years to come.” (Sinclair p7)
He claims that his own memories are overridden by others memories of a city and reading the book does the same to the reader in what becomes a cycle of personal and collective history. His own impression of Soho is from working backstage in the strip clubs and the different worlds of what happens on and behind the stage. The Soho of his student days is already, mostly lost.
“The glitz of front of house, where the businessmen and Japanese tourists eased their elbows and sharpened their gaze, was balanced by the narrow quarters allocated to the stage staff…We were the ashtray of the vanities. Pounding sound, cracking whips, coloured lights flashing on chrome: androids of the night. We darted forward as the curtain closed, to pick up discarded wisps of costume that were like skin changes, surgical dressings improvised from unsuitable materials: vinyl, peeled dog, diamante. We skidded sweat pools.” (Sinclair p6)
Like the ‘Cookie Man’, a familiar stranger who bought Sinclair’s book in a time of financial need, people appear and vanish again. Somewhere they are out there but invisible to us connected only by thought and the last place seen. My own twin is lost to me in the metropolis with no knowledge of address of workplace. He reappears once a year for Christmas dinner in Essex and then vanishes again, excommunicated. I often wonder if I would know if it was the back of his head I stare at while ascending escalators on the underground. We trace the same streets invisible to one another. The filtering down of the poignancy of certain locations is demonstrated in Sinclair’s journey mapping train stations; places of connections and passing through, relates the history of the railway men, the tube bombings of July 2005 and the present journey he and his wife embark on. Each layers the atmospheric distinction of place. The documenting of such happenings are like little revolutions of claiming a footprint on a city that is progressively vanishing under new developments. My own barley filled, rural past is replaced with identikit, executive family homes and a rarely used bypass where the bales were once rolled. Yet it will always contain ghosts of childhood adventures. In a video interview Iain Sinclair describes the city as confrontational and overwhelming yet it contains ‘ a sense of elements of the past. And yet at the same time it is not sentimental or nostalgic. You just believe that there were extraordinary things that happened to you in the city. To think back on them is to live in some kind of dream or reverie that keeps the glory of the place alive.” (Sinclair 2008). The revolution is that the personal cities of our past can be kept alive even if it is all bulldozed away. ]
It may seem obscure to link writing such as Sinclair’s with the Surrealists but ‘Nadja’ by Andre Breton defines the way in which collective and personal memories of the city are ignited by a chance encounter. Breton’s ambiguous account of a surreal perception of 1920’s Paris is a city linked by meanings and symbols. The locations are those degenerated, the older boulevards, bohemian cafes and hotels. It is a city haunted not only by the ghosts of revolutions and violent deaths but of the memory of Nadja herself. Both Sinclair and Breton focus on lives within the city who have become, or are on the edge of becoming, untraceable. The personal revolutions of reclaiming urban histories of a city through the stories of individuals in Sinclair’s book coincides with Walter Benjamin’s critique of Surrealism and revolution. The revolutionary acts in Nadja were to possess the places, objects and imagery that were recently out of fashion or no longer in use.
“He [Breton] can boast an extraordinary discovery: he was the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the “outmoded”- in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, objects that have begun to be extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them. The relation of these things to revolution- no one can have a more exact concept of it then these authors. No one before these visionaries and augurs perceived how destitution- not only cultural but architectonic, the poverty of interiors, enslaved and enslaving objects- can be transformed into revolutionary nihilism.” (Breton p210)
There is revolution in the ability to preserve and reclaim places and imagery, seen partly through poetic visions of the unconscious. Nadja and Breton have freedom in their moments of the uncanny or illuminations while walking the outmoded areas of Paris, free from work. Nadja says “If you desired it, for you I would be nothing, or merely a footprint.” (Breton p116) Ghostly, she could vanish from him back into the depths of the city. It makes them the exception in the way they perceive things and goes against conformity. Atmospheres are passed through generations because of those who experience the uncanny or surreal moments. To live by chance and a unique vision of reality tuned to the unconscious is, in some sense, utter freedom in a place of order and capitalism. Benjamin said that ‘they bring the immense force of “atmosphere” concealed in these things to the point of explosion. What form do you suppose life would take that was determined at a decisive moment precisely by the street song last on everyones lips?” (Benjamin p210)
Breton himself begins the opening lines of Nadja by describing himself not by who he is but who he “haunts.” Does the word haunt refer to places and people he frequents or is it more subjective to describe his self as differing beings and that part of him lingers in the atmosphere of where he has been? Breton himself explains that using the word is misleading. “Such a word means much more than it says, makes me, still alive, play a ghostly part, evidently referring to what I must have ceased to be in order to be who I am.” (Breton p11) The book begins with the feeling that whoever its namesake turns out to be, Breton’s experiences with her are fated.
In ‘Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution’ Margaret Cohen relates revolution to the uncanny by pointing out that all the places that unsettle Breton and Nadja are those where historic insurrections took place with particular focus on the statue of Jean Rousseau and the statue of Ettienne Dolet at Place Maubert. Cohen describes the location as that of as “the centre of past bohemian activity” (Cohen p87) as well as Dolet’s insurrection. “While the insurrectional past comes down to only a memory of “certain riots” vaguely collected around Etienne Dolet’s statue, guides [of Paris] concur that the bohemian past lingers on as viable in the present.” (Cohen p87). Nadja is the embodiment of lingering bohemia, in Breton’s memory alongside the uncanny fear of the collective past. Nadja is alive again every time she is read. By writing who he knew her as, although briefly, preserves her free spirit and doesn’t leave her to be forgotten in an asylum where Breton claims that ‘madmen are made’ (Breton 139)
This attempt of an essay began in a coffee shop in Soho and ends on a tube approaching Camden town to step into old haunts. In Camden I always feel like a ghost, shoved along unseen by the crowd. They flock there in recommendation of an atmosphere that has already left with the punks that once gathered on the bridge and the bootleg music dealers. Like Covent Garden and its reconstructed gas lamps, statues of Victorian women loiter on corners, statues of horses mark the entrance to what was once the Horse Hospital. Shadowy lanes have been replaced with open spaces and a sky overhead instead of low brick arches of obscure encounters. There used be African drummers echoing in dark, disused railway tunnels, vintage clothing shops in the sidings. All is one continuous falafel and slogan hoodie stall. Canarvan Castle pub has been demolished, the ‘phantom architecture’ (Koolhaas 1994) of a Camden before the Hawley Arms fire. I keep expecting to see my old self across the street, all red dreadlocks and plastic dresses. This visit is not for the market but a house in Hawley Crresent that has been derelict and wished to live in since my teens. I have to check the peeling black columns and rusted balconies have not vanished; my private monument to Camden. The place is haunted with every lost building, lost friends and half-forgotten strangers, down to the last puddle that used to rot the hems of flared jeans. In trying to fathom a conclusion to why hauntings slide down the generations it suddenly stared me in the face – all of has been written down. The documenting and literature of individual histories of the metropolis are surely a huge proponent to the next generation discovering the places haunted.
Ackroyd Peter London the Biography Random House 2001
Baudelaire Charles A Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays Phaidon Press
Beames Thomas The Rookeries of London Frank Cass and Co Ltd
Benjamin Walter The Return of the Flâneur
Benjamin Walter Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligensia from Benjamin Walter Selected Writings Volume 2, Part 1 2005
Breton Andre Nadja Translated by Richard Howard Penguin Books 1999
Cohen Margaret Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution University of California Press 1984
Le Corbusier A contemporary City taken from The City of Tomorrow and its Planning 1929 http://courses.washington.edu/gmforum/Readings/LeCorbusier.pdf
Debord Guy Translated by Ken Knabb Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography 1950 cited at www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline
Freud Sigmund The Uncanny 1919 Kindle Edition
Sinclair Iain London City of Disappearances Penguin 2007
Sinclair Iain Interview for BBC https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbnW0j2cFSE