What We Remember When
We Walk in the City
Lauren Elkin on the Yearning to Leave an Imprint
In 1929, after eight years living abroad in Paris, the photographer Berenice Abbott returned home to New York. While she was away, the city had transformed from 19th-century city to 20th-century metropolis. The city had gotten tall. Everywhere you looked, there were cranes shooting up to the heavens, hauling brick and steel as high as the eye could see, building the skyscrapers that would come to define the skyline. Exhilarated by the changes and eager to document the city she knew, Abbott would spend the next ten years photographing it as part of her Changing New York project, funded, beginning in 1935, by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration.
“How shall the two-dimensional print in black and white,” she asked, “suggest the flux of activity of the metropolis, the interaction of human beings and solid architectural constructions, all impinging upon each other in time?” Her photos capture an old New York that she saw vanishing before her eyes, but they use the medium of photography to express something about the ways in which people experience daily life, ever-shifting, in the cities they inhabit. “The form of a city changes, alas! faster than the human heart,” as Baudelaire writes in Les Fleurs du mal; but the camera may do its part to freeze some small corner of the heart of the city, and the way one woman, one day, looked hard at the light, the shadow, and framed the interplay of human heart and metropolis.
Her inspiration for this project came in the form of a wizened old man who lived up the road from Man Ray’s studio in Paris. Abbott worked as Man Ray’s assistant, and then collaborator, and came to know the photographer Eugène Atget during that time. Over a period of thirty years, as the 19th century gave way to the twentieth, Atget, an actor by trade, tirelessly lugged his camera, tripod and glass plates up and down the streets of Paris to document the changes he saw wrought in his own city. Abbott would spend the rest of her life promoting his work. When he died, she gathered together the money to buy his 1,400 glass plate negatives and 7,800 prints, producing a book of them in 1930 and eventually selling them to the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1968.
Flipping through Abbott’s photographs, I scrutinize them for traces of the city I know. I recognize names of streets, and here and there something is familiar—the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, for instance—but very little in them recalls to me the city of my birth. That is, until her lens finds the edges of the city, the bridges connecting the island of Manhattan to everything surrounding it. Those haven’t changed so much.
This is the opposite of what I usually do, by habit, when walking down the street in New York City, or in any city, really: look for traces of an unknown past, hoping they will come to life in a flash of historical overlap. Walter Benjamin, that scholar of the Paris passage, called this the “now of recognizability” (das Jetzt der Erkennbarkeit), when the moment from the past is welcomed into the present day. The now of recognizability has the power to stop time and reason, putting “dialectics at a standstill”; to place us outside real time, allowing traces of the past to emerge and play tricks on us.
“In the dusty, cluttered corridors of the arcades,” he writes, “where street and interior are one, historical time is broken up into kaleidoscopic distractions and momentary come-ons, myriad displays of ephemera, thresholds for the passage of what Nerval (in Aurélia) calls ‘the ghosts of material things.'” We begin to read the city not only as it is, but as it was. I live for moments like that, actively go out looking for them, or find them, unexpectedly, as I round a corner and get that distinct feeling, even if I’m alone in the street, that someone else is there.
We city-dwellers are recording devices, forever observing the micro-adjustments time works on our neighborhoods, noting what used to be where, making predictions about what will last and what won’t. We note, privately or to our friends, the locations of certain personal landmarks, places on our private maps that glow with intensity. We are continually negotiating the interplay between the visible and the invisible. While Abbott was living in Paris, a young Surrealist poet called Louis Aragon tried to capture the ongoing changes in his own city in his work of proto-psychogeography Paris Peasant; he called it building a “modern mythology.”
He devotes the first chapter to the Passage de l’Opéra, one of the “sunless corridors” which deviate from the large boulevards into secret warrens of shops stalked by the flâneur and the lèche-vitrine, and which was soon to be destroyed to make way for the extension of the Boulevard Haussmann. In their endangered state, these passages become “the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and professions. Places that were incomprehensible yesterday, and that tomorrow will never know.”
He worries about the fate of the actual living people who will be affected by the arcade’s demolition, and how little they will be compensated for the requisition of their property. But what, he asks, as well, of the spirits who dwell not in the sacred spaces but in the marketplace, in the square, in the everyday spaces of being, the “dimly lit zones of human activity”? As we move through our cities, looking, we come to understand their shape as a blend of the machinations of industry, municipal jockeying for control, and the occasionally successful resistance of the inhabitants. The shape of the city is the shape of power. And I am forever trying to defy that power in order to touch the past.
But what is that past? I suffer from no illusions of an idealized “then”; I’m not trying to get out of the now. If anything, I’m trying to climb further into it. And I am persuaded that the now is steeped in the then; if not its sum total, perhaps its reduction.
In 1926, the cinematographer Claude Friese-Greene made a film of London street scenes. In 2013 it was restored and colorized by the BFI and uploaded to YouTube, split-screened with a contemporary video of the city. Tinting them into color gives the images a certain kitschiness, but it also helps us to see the world they depict as coextensive with our own, without the aestheticizing, historicizing distance of black-and-white photography. There are many salient differences, for example the many deformed skyscrapers that have shot up in the City (a London skyline without the Gherkin, what bliss!). The automobiles are different and so are the clothes; there are more directional markings on the traffic lanes; the hand-based signals dictated by one solitary brave crossing guard have given way to automated lights; but otherwise it is more or less the same. It’s not, or not only, for the variations between now and then that I scrutinize the video, or the street I’m walking down. It’s because I’m trying to get access to the world I spend so much time reading and writing about: the world of Virginia Woolf.
As the 1926 bus moves across London Bridge, accompanied, in a literal representation of Benjamin’s “now of recognizability,” by the 2013 bus in its parallel frame, I think: this is the view Virginia Woolf would have had riding the top level of the omnibus, as she writes about doing in her journal. Woolf herself was alert to the phantasmagoric charge of the city streets. Her essay “Street Haunting,” written the year after Friese-Greene filmed the city she loved so dearly, recounts a casual walk from Bloomsbury to the Strand on the completely non-essential errand of buying a pencil, merely for the pleasure of walking in the city in the evening, a time of day when, thanks to “the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow,” “we are no longer quite ourselves.”
In our homes, Woolf writes, we are surrounded by the things that we have chosen, that make us who we are. But once we are out on the street, our individual identities dissipate as we become part of the “vast republican army of anonymous trampers,” merging with the groups of men and women who “for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip.” They have, in other words, become ghosts, and they haunt the city quite merrily, unlike the sad ghosts in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, flowing over London Bridge (“I had not thought death had undone so many”). Woolf’s narrator stops in a shoe shop, walks along Oxford Street, looks in at a second-hand bookshop, overhears conversations, and no one seems to notice her, until the very end. She is the witness, gliding now here, now there, to the life of her city; through her narrator—the ghost of Londons past—we peek in these long-vanished shops as well. Perhaps the walker in the city is always a ghost, on the lookout for others of her kind. Certainly she is always a future ghost.
A while back the London Underground was celebrating its 150th anniversary. In commemoration, they designed a poster depicting commuters ascending the escalator of a station. At the bottom, we see the kinds of people who would have been riding the tube back when it was opened: a man in top hat and tails, then a woman in an old-fashioned outfit and a First World War soldier in uniform, first in black and white and then in the old-timey filters of the Claude Friese-Greene video. As we go up the escalator the clothing gets closer and closer to our own day—a mod, a punk, a guy in a flat cap—until, at the top, a greenish, blurry kind of woman represents the passengers of the future. It’s a weird, creepy image; she is an unsettling memento mori injected into the daily commute. By the time she rides the rails, we all will be ghosts, as remote to her as the man in the top hat is to us.
But she does fall under the heading of the Surrealist marvelous: an unexpected flare-up of beauty or the uncanny in our otherwise monotonous daily existences. That’s what we’re after, out here on the city streets, when we peer so hard at the facade of a building we think we might slough off some of its layers, exposing the stone Virginia Woolf’s own eye considered, that Aragon’s hand brushed past, that Abbott’s camera found. We walk in the city because we don’t want to forget, and also because we don’t want to be forgotten.
This piece originally appeared in the print journal 1903, published by Tiger of Sweden.
Previous ArticleOdetta, the Shy Folk Singer Who Defied McCarthyism's Fear Tactics
Next ArticleHow Did Writers Survive the
First Great Depression?