Word // Flânerie

Oxford English Dictionary:

Flânerie Aimless idle behaviour

Flâneur A man who saunters around observing society.


Larousse Dictionnaire de Français:

1. Action ou habitude de flâner, de se promener sans but  (The action or habit of strolling, of aimlessly wandering) 

e.g. Ses interminables flâneries dans les rues de Paris (His endless wanderings in the streets of Paris)

2. Action de perdre son temps, de paresser (The action of wasting one’s time, of lazing around)

e.g. Cette chaleur invite à la flânerie (This heat invites dawdling)

A little amatuer vagrancy

london

CHARLES DICKENS ON WALKING the streets of London, quoted in Judith Flanders’ The Victorian City:

Whenever we have an hour or two to spare, there is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy – walking up one street and down another, and staring into shop windows, and gazing about as if, instead of being on intimate terms with every shop and house…the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind.

Although undoubtedly a man of great imagination, Dickens was also a reporter – a mirror for London. He described the city as he saw it (and he saw a lot of it, always on foot). He absorbed its quirks, its pockets of pleasure and its pockets of darkness, its characters and its many moods, and reflected them back at the city itself, just as a traveler would describe a foreign city to those in his homeland.

What do we see – how do we see – when we shed the eyes of an intimate and view our own city as ‘an unknown region’?

Longform // The Awakening of Forgotten Space

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INCREASING POPULAR AWARENESS of the presence of street art prompts a collective revision of neglected space — indeed, graffiti and street art are almost always associated with abandoned or interstitial spaces.

In Melbourne, graffiti tags appear ubiquitous; they are in backstreets, on building sites, factory walls, along the train lines, under bridges, and on street corners. For those who create this kind of graffiti and for those to whom its language is legible, it has the power to awaken into action those idle spaces in which it flourishes. Yet the audience of such graffiti is limited: personal tags usually either simply ignored by the wider community or vilified as aesthetically contemptible and symbolic of disorder.

Street art, on the other hand, is seen as more accessible and publicly inclusive — although sometimes carrying a political message, it is most frequently intended purely to delight the viewer or to vitalise a drab, colourless surface. Calling out to passers-by, street art draws a greater number of people into engagement with the city.

In Melbourne, this enlivening of urban space has been most evident in the central city’s laneways, where much of Melbourne’s most sophisticated and most viewed street art is created. Originally rarely even noted on maps, these narrow alleys and lanes were built to service the greater streets of Melbourne’s 1830s grid; their public neglect and concealed presence has made them ideal places for artists to put up unsanctioned stickers, posters, stencils and pieces in privacy.

Now, where once dwelled only rats and garbage cans, chic Melburnians sit at ‘hole-in-the-wall’ bars, cafés and restaurants (changes to the licensing laws in the nineties were concurrent with the rise of stencil art in Melbourne, both encouraging active reoccupation). Along with unsanctioned street art, official public art programs — like the Melbourne City Council’s Laneway Commissions — facilitate the development of the laneways. Under these influences, the once lost spaces of forgetfulness are reinvigorated and reaffirmed as lived spaces in which colourful graffiti art has become, for a segment of the population at least, a prized aesthetic; the laneways are now populated well into the night.

Alongside the rediscovery of forgotten urban spaces, it is also in the nature of all street art to reveal anew the very textures of those spaces. Walls, the basic but often unseen building block of the urban environment, become newly visible when painted or pasted upon, revealing the peculiarities etched into their façades by time. In the image of ‘the girl in the tunnel,’ the poster is pasted within an inset archway in the tunnel’s wall and its rounded shape mirrors the contour of the arch, emphasising its construction; red tears streaming down an otherwise black-and-white face underscore the bright, deep, crumbly red of the bricks.

Urban dwellers cognisant of the city’s embellishment begin to walk the city in a different manner: their gaze becomes conditioned to seek textural detail, increasingly receptive to these physical landscapes of the past and of the past’s reworking.

Essay // A Serenade in My City

street art

THE TOWN IN WHICH I wasn’t born, the town in which I grow. The town in which I go exploring, the town in which I show to all. Windsor, the town in which I live.

There are places I remember, or, rather, that I store away for future remembrance. Places of familiarity, cultivated, romanticised, true? The antique shop on Chapel, where, confused and a little infused by the thickening, chuckling air, you pay happily for cocktail shakers priced at three dollars, but she’ll give it to you for five. Only as you walk further down the street, past the other op-shops, and as you hover on a corner outside a glitteringly full-bodied pub, only then do you realise you’ve been taken for a fool and a ride. Taken in the flood, perhaps, carried away and drown-ed.

Then there is the other one, the op-shop down the road, where another strange lady in another strange fog — not of the same source, they say — sells you shavers of old, trolls under woods and bridges, and measuring sticks o’ pink.

Walk on, to the left, crossing at the grocery shop. And there, the building repurposed, lost to its former function, its halls empty and windows boarded and bare, there is the old department store that still proclaims its wares. Hidden rhyme to long-lost time. Back we go, down the measure to the past, where a different woman than I or you strides with purpose down the walls, paces the boards, gentle, oriental umbrella in hand.

Bright juices and greasy foods in windows that shine. Herbs in pots, tall, overgrown, wild, trapped in their greenhouse cafe.

Here we take a small detour, down a street less known. It is the tyranny of distance that we seek, the furthest trip to another world, somewhere in Miami perhaps, or far-flung Mexico. Sweet music, dj obscura, drifts around the room in whirlpools powered like a dam by the rotating fans above, a touch of Singaporean glamour or rustic Australian ‘charm’? Drinks, they’re cheap, beers brought to you. Above, hanging there, the remnants of a fuselage.

But no. That part wasn’t true.

Here now, back to the street where we don’t live, the one down which we traversed before the detour that took us willowing and wandering through the tortures of a mind. We had supped and sweated in the tropical heat.

Turn back. Take me home. Upwards, not upwards, but away from the Chapel, and on to the winnowing alley, blue and grey, spotted like a dog, portrait frames on a midnight wall. Way in; way out. Look this way. Walk this way, hand in hand. Back to the back door, the one from which we sprung at first, and through it with the correct key, of course, into the house where we live. It’s warm inside, although we don’t have a fire in the hearth or onions on the stove, making our eyes cry as our chests say, ‘no.’

A shelf for shoes, and all in order, and key (correct of course) back in the bowl by the bright red door.

Longform // Seeing the city as palimpsest — part I

johnston streetThe city at large and at small

I LIKE TO THINK of the city, particularly an old city like Melbourne, as a palimpsest — like a parchment, the city is a field of inscriptions, some faded and barely visible, some newly made, the traces of all layering themselves into the thickness, complexity, and sometimes illegibility of urban history and life. As you walk around the city in which you live, or as you view it from afar and above, opening yourself to the vision of the palimpsest allows new glimpses and new pleasure in the small alongside the large.

From a suburban window overlooking Melbourne’s centre, layers signifying the city’s history of change and continuity stretch forth and stretch upwards in echoing forms: Victorian church spires, industrial chimney stacks, the lights of the MCG, the Eureka Tower, and the tilted cranes that signify the ongoing reshaping of the city. Not seen is the change to which only the landscape has borne witness, the invisible traces of a long history of human relationship to the land before it became ‘Melbourne.’ All are interspersed with the vestiges of the natural environment that — from the standpoint of the evolutionary geologist — merely waits its turn to reappropriate the land.

But urban memory may also function on a spatially and experientially more intimate level. Within the centre’s labyrinthine pathways, the soft-textured surfaces of the city, like the plentiful Victorian brick, plaster and stone walls throughout inner Melbourne, are inscribable: bricks chip and erode, paint fades and flakes from the surface. Inhuman forces — the sun, the rain, the wind — operate in alliance with human action over time, eroding and texturising space. Thus memory writes itself indelibly on the literal surfaces of the city.

Essay // A Walk in My Melbourne

Melbourne walker

IT’S LATE AFTERNOON ON A WEDNESDAY in August, late winter in Melbourne. I’ve ventured out from my native Carlton North, heading out on foot to cross Nicholson Street, the Carlton-Fitzroy border and a mental barrier between my territory and the unknown. Ostensibly a rare act of exercise (I have on my trackies and runners left over from school hockey trainings), my walk has become an act in observance. I have taken on the eyes and ears of the (sub)urban flâneur, discovering the pleasures of the pavement under my feet, letting those feet take me where they will to wander. Opening myself to the city experience, I take a new interest in the people, the architecture, the life going on around me. This is my Melbourne.

The heart of my Melbourne doesn’t lie in its geographical, geometric heart, the grid between the Yarra, La Trobe, King and Spring Streets. My city’s heart lies in the inner suburbs that grew up around it in the nineteenth century, in Carlton and Brunswick with their swarms of students and bohemians, leafy Parkville, and the nineteenth-century slums of Collingwood and Fitzroy.

Here, my walk takes me winding through residential streets and across busy Brunswick Street to the Edinburgh Gardens, where the hefty but elegant trees stand bare against a patchy sky that threatens to spoil the day of a foolish Melbournite who has forgotten her umbrella. Groups of schoolboys are playing scratch footy matches in their club jumpers as their dads watch from the sidelines of the oval. The old green cricket stand waits for summer, when the colours of the AFL will be replaced by the cricket whites of school, university and amateur teams, and when the lush green turf will give way to scratchy tufts of dry grass and dusty earth. I join those wandering the path around the edge of the oval, trailing behind an elderly man with his huge, peacefully trotting dog, and two schoolgirls on their way home. Footy dads and old men sit on the park benches, waiting.

Striking out across the grass, I leave the oval behind, heading for the rows of houses on risen ground that look out across the gardens. Melbourne’s inner suburban streets, like those of every city I know, have a distinctive style, characterised by the profusion of terraced cottages sprouted by the rapid expansion of the city after the Victorian gold rush, peaking in the boom of the 1880s. On this street, Alfred Crescent, the houses are grander, the terraces wide and tall, interspersed with detached villas, Victorian and Modernist, and dark, grey mansions. I resist the temptation to keep heading up away from the gardens towards Clifton Hill to continue my architectural tour, conscious of the clouds gathering in the east, and circle along the crescent.

In the yard of the North Fitzroy Primary School boys are throwing tennis balls against the red brick wall of the old schoolhouse, competing for accuracy and bounce. Beyond the gardens the 1880s Hungarian Reformed Church rises up on St Georges Road, an edifice of dark bluestone picked out in cream brick, before the street gives way to little row houses. I begin to wend my way through the streets, back across Nicholson and into North Carltonian territory. Along the way, I take in a few of the delightful surprises that Melbourne offers the observant wanderer, glimpses into the history of this truly nineteenth-century city: cobbled rows behind the terraced houses, an ornate lamp post, a foot-wide old sewer drain running between two shotgun homes, and a 1970s brown littering warning from the council of Fitzroy North.

My flâneur’s feet take me home to where I can sit at my desk and look out into the rooftops and chimneys of Carlton North, beyond which rise up the Lygon Street Housing Commission flats, and beyond that the city high-rises. This is my Melbourne.

Essay // And that was New York

As a lover of cities—of the pavement and the steel, of the bustling shops, the rushing people—I have been wanting for sometime now to put down in words my experience of that ultimate metropolis, Manhattan.

The simplicity of that phrase—New York, New York—belies the sheer enormity of what it signifies. New York can never be just a dot on a map, a confluence of islands and waterways at the point where New Jersey, Connecticut and New York State converge. It is more than the streets that, unlike the spidery web of a medieval city like London or Paris, assert themselves on the landscape in a stark, mappable grid.

I have hesitated because I feel that my knowledge of the city, after just five visits of no more than a week each, can only be very scant. I have never left the comfort zone of Manhattan to explore any of the unique boroughs, never in fact taken myself further uptown than 104th St and the Museum of the City of New York, or to any part of the West Side above the High Line elevated park. With that disclaimer, I can only present my vision of the city as it has presented itself to me, as a place that, impudently for someone who grew up more than ten thousands miles away, I would call a kind of home.

This sense of familiarity may be experienced perhaps by anyone who has ever watched a Woody Allen film, seen the images of John Lennon’s New York years, or listened to Simon and Garfunkel’s Bleecker Street. My sense of the city was shaped by these, and by the artists and poets who comforted me through the aches and buoyed me through the highs of young adulthood. There are Catcher in the Rye and Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Summer Crossing, with its depiction of the crushing heat of New York summer. There is the broken longing of Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel #2, and the self-assured thumb biting of Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’. There is the image of a young Dylan arm in arm with Suze Rotolo in Greenwich Village, warning off the cold with that iconic tan jacket and the comfort of spontaneous affection. Most of all perhaps, there is Bruce Springsteen, who revealed to me the aching, tainted beauty of an abandoned railroad track, a rusted fire escape, of rumpled sheets damp with sweat. These have been the conduits for my senses of belonging, fulfilment and voracious hunger, tying them inextricably to the idea of New York.

You cannot find New York in the hollow glare of neon lights in Times Square, nor will rising above the grid to one of the tourist-thronged observation decks reveal to you the tangible core of the city. Rather, the metropolis will gradually divulge itself through small and scattered experiences, fleeting moments and encounters. It is in the catcall of a construction worker on Park Avenue, in the warm glitter of a lighting shop window in winter, it is in the eyes of children skipping through the fountain in Washington Square.

It is a city of contradictions, made possible by the endless variety of inhabitants and the rapid and complete change in tone from area to area, street to street. It is at once harsh and warm-hearted, a place where a haughty-seeming Madison Avenue woman in fur will kindly offer directions to the bewildered tourist unasked, but a moment’s fumbling of change will earn you the terse rebuff of the convenience store clerk. Bustling and overwhelmingly frantic at any hour of the day, the city is also punctuated by serene oases and public spaces, like Bryant Park, the High Line, the main reading room of the New York Public Library, the rooftop at the Met and the courtyard at MoMA.

I have been fortunate enough to see New York under many of its guises – I have seen the city under a blanket of snow and felt the biting chill of the wind rushing down the avenues, I have seen it fine and clear and warm, cloudy, rainy, experienced the sweltering heat and humidity of July, felt the suffocating build-up of a thunderstorm and watched the clouds break, hailing a cool change. I have seen the Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree and seen it bedecked with red, white and blue flags for the 4th of July. I have seen the doormen of the Upper East Side clad in heavy winter coats, and the children of the Village in flip-flops and swimsuits.

I have had my fill of the city’s tourist sights, museums and stores, and relished in these encounters. But my most powerful experiences of the city have been those few fleeting moments when I have stepped into the real life of the metropolis – I have plunged into the subway system in summer, where the hot air hits you with literally breathtaking force, and jostled with commuters at rush hour for a hold on the sweaty rail. I have drunk vodka on the rooftop of a block of apartments on the East Side below Midtown, with an uninterrupted view of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State, steadily glowing green on a warm, clear evening. I have sat in a bar in the Lower East Side on a Sunday night and joined in conversation with the local residents who dropped in for a solitary beer and the company of the bartender, aware of their cliché.

To return each night to a nondescript hotel room after these moments of urban participation, passing glimpses of an alternate life through the open blinds of lit apartments or the rolled-down windows of yellow taxis, fills you with an unutterable sense of longing. It is a love affair for which the end is already mapped out. It is as if you had borrowed, for a brief time, a friend’s diamond necklace or expensive car, and felt the thrill of admiration and the inner-glow that it affords you, and that now must be returned. You can only hope that one day, you will be able to cast off the pall of pretence, and call those pavements, those bits of brick and tufts of grass, and that skyline, just a little bit, your own.

A BIT OF MY DAY THAT MAKES THE WINTER OKAY

FOR TWO WEEKS I’VE BEEN WALKING a particular path at a particular time of day that is, in my mind, too early to be about in winter. Yet there’s one corner of my route that, in its mundane way, gives me a strange sense of pleasure. There’s a hum about the space there, brought into being through the joint efforts of the senses and the imagination of one hoping to imbue the ordinary with the romantic. Sounds are central: the constant deep purr of the traffic that gathers in frustration at the tapering of Flemington Road to Grattan Street; the intermittent whirs and cracks of the construction site that, if you listen but don’t look too closely, echo the never-on-pause progress of New York. Then there is the sense of scent that brings the bitter warmth of the cigarettes smoked religiously by the pyjama-clad patients who emerge from the hospital, hooked-up and bound to the entryways, into the cold morning. It’s a concentration of tobacco that you’ll encounter little in this city, where the haunts of the smoker are less and less. The olfactory mingling of the smoke with the faint trace of cheaply baked danishes, hospital-grade coffee, and the chilled air of the a.m. allows the walker to almost transport themselves—again, with a little less looking—to the streets of the great metropolises of the imagination: London, Paris. The moment makes the morning pass a little more warmly, in spirit if not celsius.