The Rebirth of Flâneur
Greetings and salutations. My name is Matthew Fleischer and this is a blog about wandering, specifically about wandering in Los Angeles — wandering through her streets, her bars, her crime scenes, her corridors of power and (with a little postmodernist nod) her blogosphere.
In short, this is the blog of a flâneur. What is that exactly you ask?
It’s pretty simple. Charles Baudelaire, one of the fathers of the concept, described a flâneur as “a person who walks the city in order to experience it.”
My friend Will likes pointing out that the original flâneurs were a bunch of pretentious French pervs who needed an intellectual pretext to justify ogling girls all day long into their middle ages. He’s got a point. Baudelaire died after contracting a particularly virulent strain of gonorrhea from a French prostitute named “Squint-Eyed Sarah.”
Still, there’s a little more to it than that. The great German theorist Walter Benjamin spent much of his career penning lofty praise to the flâneur: “Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd. He . . . enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes.”
Guy Debord essentially crafted the entire field of psychogeography — “the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals” — around the concept of the flâneur.
But why dredge up a relatively obscure philosophy (discredited by your friend Will) and pin a blog around it? And why Los Angeles, a notoriously unwalkable city? Well, I’ll explain. It goes back to Paris.
In the mid-19th century, Paris was a city of slums — a disgusting hole whose reputation as the armpit of Western Europe even an army of sexually enlightened French women couldn’t help overcome.
Then something happened. The cramped quarters of Paris’ ghettos were demolished in favor of grand boulevards, parks and arcades. Paris became the city of beauty and romance most people associate it with today. The flâneur was born out of this transitional period. Philosophers like Baudelaire found inspiration in observing how the masses interacted with these new spaces — how the use of space impacted culture. Aside from helping top hat wearing French philosophers pick up chicks, the physical transformation of Paris gave birth to a century of great art and literature, eventually launching the modernist movement and the works of Matisse, Picasso, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.
Like 19th century Paris, Los Angeles is in the midst of a similar physical transition. Long derided as a city of cars, shopping malls, backyard hermitage and disconnected sprawl, Los Angeles, under the leadership of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has, in rhetoric at least, embraced the concept of the walkable city. Instead of the white picket fences and single family homes of the old California dream, urban density is the new panacea for the city’s past development failures. Bigger and crammed together is better.
So far the implementation of this vision hasn’t gone too smoothly. It’s a strange, Orwellian time in Los Angeles. A time when the city government uses the language of green to justify subsidizing the construction of more sprawling Southern California shopping malls, because they’re located next to a bus stop. It’s a time when the city is crying poverty in the midst of a growing budget deficit, but it has tens of millions of dollars for the construction of new parks squirreled away unused.
And yet, despite the hallow rhetoric of enlightened reconstruction, the recent passage of Measure R in L.A. County brings the promise of real citywide public transportation. New subway and light rail lines are being built, and the dawn of a walkable, carfree Los Angeles could actually be near.
Or the whole scheme could fail miserably in a wave of NIMBY obstructionism, bureaucratic incompetence and cynical giveaways to wealthy developers.
Will we become Paris, or will the entire city of Los Angeles be converted into a giant shopping mall (next to a bus stop)? It’s up in the air right now.
If you’re going to be a flâneur, there’s no better place to do it than contemporary Los Angeles.
How will all this manifest in writing? Who knows? Perhaps some work on the continuing pernicious legacy of Proposition 13 and its impact on the public sphere, or a critique of the latest taxpayer subsidized blight of monumental corporate architecture. Or maybe something on the fascinating and sometimes troubling ascent of L.A.’s new immigrant communities to positions of political and economic power. Or maybe I’ll just wind up a postmodern Baudelaire, in the protracted death embrace of venereal disease, chasing girls around L.A. Live with my point and shoot (camera that is), doing a bad Cobrasnake impression.
We’ll see where my wandering takes me.