Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, 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.
Showing posts with label Arcades Project. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Arcades Project. Show all posts

Monday, April 9, 2018


This is how it sometimes works when you’re a determined pedestrian in Los Angeles. I was heading for the first annual Independent Art Book Fair, taking place as a pop up in a building on Maple Avenue, on the edge of downtown. I vaguely knew there was a street called Maple Avenue, but I had never knowingly set foot there, and I also knew it was part of the Fashion District, just a hop, skip and a jump from Skid Row.

I could have driven all the way there but there’s no joy in that, and besides, I have to protect my reputation as a walker.  But equally I wasn’t going to walk the whole of the eight miles each way, so the idea was to combine some walking with some other forms of locomotion.


So I got in the car, drove down the hill and parked, then walked the three quarters of a mile to the Metro station, got on the subway, traveled six stops, got out, then walked a circuitous mile and a half to the book fair, knowing of course that I’d have to do most of it again in reverse on the way back.  That pretty much adds up to a day out walking in Los Angeles. 


You know, I don’t hear the term “gendered space” as much as I used to, but that may say more about me than it does about space and gender.  I was by no means the only man on Maple Avenue, but it was interesting how out of place a man can feel when he's in a street festooned with strange, gaudy fabric, all of it for sale.  

Did I feel marginalized?  Well, maybe a little.   Did I experience the inverse tyranny of patriarchy?  Not so much.   Did my presence feel transgressive?  Well no, but it did feel like a small adventure, that I was in a place where I had no business and no involvement.  Clearly needs were being met, transactions were taking place, but they all seemed completely inscrutable to me.  What would you actually make out of fabric that looked like this?

I'm sure that Walter Benjamin has a fair amount to say about this. It didn’t seem to me that I was watching “high capitalism” at work but obviously commodities were involved and were changing hands.  Benjamin writes in The Arcades Project, “Empathy (in German einfühlung) with the commodity is fundamentally empathy with the exchange value itself.  The flâneur is the virtuoso of this empathy.”
I don’t know that I felt a great deal of empathy with the commodity in this case, kind of hard to have empathy with fabric that looked like this:

But I did notice one thing, that although some of (by no means all) the things for sale had prices on them, I had absolutely no idea whether this was a reasonable exchange value.

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.