Drifting and striding with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Sometimes I fret that I don’t love Walter Benjamin quite as much as I ought to.  Sure, I dip around in The Arcades Project from time to time, and of course there’s some good stuff in there, but then there are paragraphs like this one:
‘The ‘colportage phenomenon of space’ is the flâneur’s basic experience.  Inasmuch as this phenomenon also – from another angle – shows itself in the mid-nineteenth-century interior, it may not be amiss to suppose that the heyday of flânerie occur in the same period.  Thanks to this phenomenon, everything potentially taking place in this one single room is perceived simultaneously.  The space winks at the flâneur: What do you think may have gone on here?  Of course, it has yet to be explained how this phenomenon is associated with colportage.”

Pellucid?  You think?  Having looked it up previously, I know that a colporteur was an itinerant seller of books and pamphlets, often of a religious nature, and clearly a profession that required a lot of walking, but still, what’s your man actually banging on about here?  

The notes in my edition of The Arcades Project tell me, “Last three sentences adapted from the protocol to Benjamin’s second experience with hashish,” which explains something and nothing.

Opening the book more at or less at random I just found this paragraph in the section “Painting, Jugendstil, Novelty” - “No decline of the arcades, but sudden transformation.  At one blow, they became the hollow mold from which the image of ‘modernity’ was cast.” 

Well I do wish Walter could have been with me the other day.  I was strolling around in downtown Los Angeles, and frankly it was too damn hot to do much serious walking, and although I like downtown a lot, I don’t have much reason to go there very often, and consequently my knowledge of it is patchy.  So I was reasonably surprised to find an honest to goodness arcade running from Spring Street through to Broadway, between 5th and 6th Streets.  Obviously I walked along it.  It looked like this:

It had an air both of not quite gentle decay and not especially energetic refurbishment.  There are some new loft-style apartments in the upper reaches, I understand.

The place, I also learned, is known both as the Broadway Arcade and the Spring Arcade, and variations and combinations of those names, and before it became an arcade (in 1924) it was a “real” street. 

The L.A. Conservancy website tells me, “The Arcade Building is actually two twelve-story towers connected by a skylit, three-level arcade … The exterior features intricate Spanish Baroque terracotta arches that rise up over the arcade entrances … The arcade itself measures 826 feet by 26 feet and originally housed sixty-one shops. It is covered with a glass-roofed skylight in imitation of the Burlington Arcade in London. The Venetian-style bridge that spans the center of the arcade was a later addition.”
Well, I know the Burlington Arcade in London somewhat, and believe me, the one in Spring Street, Los Angeles is an extremely inaccurate imitation.  But in truth neither of them is really much a place to go for a real walk.

 Even worse was the arcade I knew best when I was growing up in Sheffield (it may have been the only one in the city at the time – it’s certainly gone now): Cambridge Arcade.  It was very short indeed, and although I walked through it often enough there was never much reason to go there.   There was a barber, but he wasn’t very kid-friendly, at least not to me, and at the top end there was Sugg’s, which sold sports equipment, and The House of Barney Goodman, who was reckoned to be the best tailor in Sheffield, and where my dad got his suits when he felt flush.  
          To be honest, I never really got the sense that I was walking through the hollow mold from which the image of ‘modernity’ was cast.

But as I thought about it, a lot of memories came back, and I remembered there was always a blind man at the entrance to the arcade, standing there selling, I think, shoelaces and boxes of matches.  So I dug around online and blow me down (as my dad might have said with at least some degree of irony) here’s a picture, pretty low quality alas, but exactly as I remember it, showing Sugg’s, Barney Goodman’s and even (especially) the blind man. 

Walter Benjamin would have had a lot to say about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment