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On Becoming a Flaneur

Through my adolescence I was a flaneur, and never knew it. When I was a boy I wandered through the streets, parks, and schoolyards of my South Bronx neighborhood just avidly looking at everything that I encountered, and taking mental notes. Sometimes I would sit in the hard concrete stands of our local sandlot ball field watching the Puerto Rican league teams play, but also listening to the middle-aged men (taxi drivers? letter carriers?) watching the game. The men wore white ribbed undershirts and caps, smoked harsh smelling cigars, exchanged insults, and vented about their jobs that only seemed to oppress them. There was camaraderie but no intimacy between them — much loud, declamatory talk thrown out for their own pleasure and self-esteem, but little connection with the people they were talking to.

At other times I took long walks down the neighborhood’s main shopping street, observing how the stores changed over time; in the early fifties they were individually owned, comfortable, and welcoming jewelry, toy and clothing stores, dress shops and ice cream parlors, and then gradually they turned into a string of ninety-nine cent chain stores— their inventory sloppily laid out in cartons and on tables; cheap pizza -slice places; and a variety of other characterless, shabby, down-scale shops. The neighborhood was in decline by the late fifties, rows of stores were burned down for insurance, and clumps of vaguely menacing gang members in black leather jackets and ducktail haircuts and their girl-friends in their gang auxiliary sweaters hung out and postured in front of a luncheonette — signifying the street’s deterioration to anybody who passed by.

The walks I took, to be meaningful, had to be solitary ones; otherwise, I would lose myself in conversation, and miss much of the social detail that aroused my interest. And even when alone I had to avoid becoming involved in my own thoughts and feelings, and focus on what was outside myself. The fervor for walking held, and I have continued to take these walks in Manhattan, London, Seattle, and other cities for close to half a century. However, it’s only when I began to write about them that I discovered that my passion had a name.

It was Charles Baudelaire, the great 19th century French poet and prose writer (Flowers of Evil), who described walking down city streets as one of the most exciting adventures a person could have. He saw this act as far more dramatic than any play, richer in ideas than any book. And the term he used to describe a person who did this type of walking was “flaneur,” translated literally as a stroller or saunterer.

Baudelaire distinguishes his flaneurs from other people who either walk to work, or to meet somebody— for the flaneur’s walking is more fanciful, it doesn’t have a particular goal in mind. What he or she does is to open himself up to the scene around him. The flaneur observes how people eat, dress, speak, and play, their interest being whetted by daily living as much as by classical objects of art or historic monuments.

The crowd is the natural home of the flaneur— in Baudelaire’s words it’s “his domain. His passion and creed is to wed the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, it’s an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite.” Baudelaire also compares the flaneur to a kaleidescope armed with a consciousness that at every shake of the tube captures the movement of the elements it observes.

Flaneurs my be men or women of leisure who have a great deal of time for undirected wandering, but one shouldn’t overstate the flaneur’s amateur standing. For those flaneurs who are writers, like the American novelist Edmund White, a walk through Paris’s Marais in White’s book The Flaneur leads to a discusssion of the history of Jews in France. A visit to Belleville where Arabs, Asians, and blacks live, leads to White writing about how black American entertainers like Bricktop and Josephine Baker triumphed in Paris in the years between the wars. The writer flaneur doesn’t just respond to what he sees, but often threads his impressions with historical memories and sociological analyses.

I’m no Baudelaire or Edmund White but, just as they have evoked the sights and sounds of Paris, I try in my modest way to reveal what New York’s daily urbanscape feels like. A few weeks ago I took a walk to Union Square, once known for the left wing and labor rallies and demonstrations that were held there; and in more recent times, until it was renovated, a dangerous, forbidding spot almost solely inhabited by drug dealers and their customers. In 2008, there are homeless men still sleeping on the Square’s benches, and the addicts from the Beth Israel methadone clinic noisily congregate on weekday mornings there as well, but the majority of the people one sees are office workers reading their newspapers and lunches, NYU students chatting and studying, and upper-middle-class mothers watching their children playing in a sandbox.

And what surrounds the Square these days is not only the city’s most bountiful Farmers’ Market, but a once-abandoned, handsome, elaborately detailed 19th century building now housing a Barnes and Noble, and the famous landmark Guardian Life Building has reemerged as the chic W hotel complete with fashionable bar and restaurant. A number of new residential buildings are going up in the area, and with them upscale stores replacing the more marginal and seedy ones that provided bargains for their once working class and poor clientele.

I find the city’s eternal flux continually fascinating— little stays the same in New York, and there is always something new to discover on my walks. And like any good flaneur, I desire to persist strolling and observing until I have lost the will and energy to go on.