The Flaneur

by Kim Steele


Champs Élysées, Paris


In the eighties, I proposed to LIFE Magazine, where I had already published a few articles, a piece on “Promenading.”  I had spent considerable time in Italy, including my year aboard in Florence, and began to understand the essence of The Promenade.  Often partaking in the Passagata (Merriam: evening stroll after work hours by the residents of a town before dinner, arm in arm, with children and friends).  It is a social time to reflect on the day and inspect the shop windows and sometimes to show off a new item of clothing.  An activity unknown in the United States by that time, I proposed to investigate the pastime in Europe.  My suggested locales were the Champs Élysées in Paris, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, the Grand Promenade in New York’s Central Park, and Maximilianstraße von Anna-logisch in Munich. It failed to gain traction at Life, but I never let go of the notion.


Champs-Élysées during the Paris Fair of 1867, Pierre- Auguste Renoir


The early Internet introduced a similar activity called ‘surfing.’  An exciting enterprise for the curious,  as pundits have titled it “cyberflaneur” was the title  of the activity.  Baudelaire gave meaning to ‘flaneur’ as a person who walks the city in order to experience it. Because of the usage, it took on a more meaning as a thinker in economic, cultural, and literary fields, moreover as one who understands the urban condition. This is the fundamental difference between reading a traditional newspaper and reading the Internet.  One comes across items of great interest that one would not seek out. But reading on the Internet is a function of purposefully seeking or now Googling an item or subject.  Analogs ease this by tracking your activity and handing up to you what is thought to be of interest to you.  Amazon excels at this.


Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan


Lifting from an author, Evgeny Morozov, Baudelaire and the favorite German critic, Walter Benjamin, the ‘flanerie’ was an emblem of modernity.  “The art of flauneur masters is that of seeing without being caught looking,” the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once commented.  The flauneur masters, strolling the city Boulevards, were not asocial-he needed these crowds to mingle, but did not fit in, preferring his solitary perspective. He had all the time in the world, there were even reports of flaneurs taking turtles for a walk.  His interest was not in consumerism but in indulging his sensory experience. This was the definition of Cosmopolitanism-observing, bathing and commenting on the crowds.


Maximilianstraße, Munich


The urban development in the ninetieth Century strove to eliminate the dark passageways, steeped in Dickens literature, the arcades and alleys that feed the flauneurs.  Haussman broadened the boulevards of Paris, Lafayette followed suit in his design of Washington, DC and New York set up the ‘grid’ of the urban fabric, under the wash of the newly established gas lanterns that brought all to light. Safety was the apparent motivation.
















The shift from shopping on the streets, to Internet shopping takes this social activity one more step removed.  Why bother rubbing elbows with other folks when we can do it in our PJs from home?  The Sear’s catalog introduced this concept in the fifties, but now the notion of Promenading on the Boulevards seems as foreign as Proustean comedy. So now there is no Cyberflaneur or Flauneur…alas!


Paris Boulevard in the Rain, Maurice Prendergast


Boulevardiers: This post from our Managing Editor, Kim Steele, is in honor of our 50,000 site visit, our 6 month anniversary, and to thank all of you who are contributing to our dialogue. Perspective on the language of culture…here’s to the next 50,000!


Champs-Élysées, Paris

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