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The urban spectacle

The term flâneur is a French noun that more or less translates into lounger or saunterer. Its origins date back to probably the 16th century, but it was really during the 19th century that it was imbued with its new modern associations. A flâneur is a person about town, a person of leisure, and a kind of urban explorer. Their goal is to take in city life.

In the middle of Haussmann’s overhaul of Paris, the flâneur emerged as an important literary and artistic figure in the new modern metropolis. They showed up everywhere from poems to Impressionist paintings. The flaneur was both a spectator, as well as an urban detective of sorts, responsible for hanging out and surveying the changing nature of city life.

Being a modern-day flâneur is one of my favorite things to do. I love to do it when I’m traveling, but I also love to do it when I’m at home. Always with a camera. (The last year has been particularly helpful at encouraging aimless walks outside.)

The flâneur is also a reminder that city life is indeed a kind of spectacle. Sometimes we walk around just to be seen and sometimes we walk around just to see others. Presumably, it is one of the reasons why many cafes in Paris arrange their seating so that you face outward toward the street. That’s the important view.

When the flâneur figure was coming into its own, Paris was going through a profound transformation. And it was unsettling to many. These urban detectives were grappling with modernity and trying to make sense of where city life was heading.

Though the causes are very different, we are similarly living through a period of adjustment. What will our cities be like in the the post-COVID world? That is, of course, the question. But we shouldn’t forget that our desire for urban spectacles is deeply entrenched. And I am certain that the spectacles will return much faster than most people think.

This weekend, I set out with a couple of friends to be flâneurs. We came with cameras and drones and with the goal of documenting construction and real estate activity in a chosen meetup spot. Everything was then posted to a shared Twitter account (@unlyst). We’d like to make this a habit. So if any of you would like to join our next meetup, drop me a note @donnelly_b.

Photo by Latrach Med Jamil on Unsplash

1 Comment so far

  1. Myron Nebozuk

    Our choice, post Covid is simple: freedom or safety. Towards the end of her life, Jane Jacobs wrote an essay on safety, the gist of which is this: if safety is all you have in defence your position, you have no argument.


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