By Brian Ladd

Chicago University Press. 303 pages. $30. ISBN 978-0-226-67794-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It was André Breton who said “The street -  the only valid field of experience”, a debatable proposition, perhaps, but not one that can be easily dismissed. And I think of the man who claimed that two things had destroyed sociability in much of the United States – cars and television, both serving to isolate people from each other by keeping them off the streets. I also recall how, when I was growing up in England in the 1940s, the street was the focal point of activity. It offered a form of freedom from the restrictions imposed by the presence of several others (mother, father, a brother, two sisters) in cramped living conditions. The street was where I met my friends and planned what to do next.

Ladd’s survey looks at four major cities – London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna - and it primarily deals with them in the nineteenth century, though he does delve back into the eighteenth, and forward into the twentieth, to indicate how various social, architectural, political  and other developments were carried out that now determine how we experience contemporary life. I live near a city that arose out of the industrial revolution. When I visit it I’m aware of its past, despite the changes that have been made over the years.

Ladd says: “The quintessential place of crowds and strangers, of stimulations and surprises, is the city street, especially in the enclosed form it developed up to the nineteenth century. There has been a recent revival of interest in this kind of street, as cities across the world have proclaimed or pursued a resurgence of street life. Civic leaders hope to recover something that was lost during the twentieth century when street life was deliberately impoverished or abandoned”.  Pedestrianised areas have appeared in many cities and towns, and encourage citizens to stroll and not worry about cars, though they increasingly have to be wary of cyclists.    

Sometimes the “destruction” of street life came about because older concentrations of housing were demolished for health and hygiene reasons and people moved into high-rise flats or out to estates away from city centres. And the determination to drive roads of one sort or another through urban areas to facilitate the faster movement of traffic also played its part. To be fair, there may be  several suggestions that can be made about why established systems of streets were destroyed. But I suspect that the question of traffic flow will loom large in any objective study. Ladd has a couple of quotes relating to Berlin which seem apt. A 1910 proclamation by the chief of police said “the street is exclusively for traffic”. And a later planning document stated: “And the pedestrian? The new street has no place for unreconstructed Neanderthals. Anyone who has a destination should be sitting in a car. Anyone who doesn’t is on a stroll and should proceed immediately to the nearest park”.     

When Robert Moses pushed his freeways through Manhattan it was said that, as well as the need to quicken traffic flow, there was a social aim to drive out the old garment industries. When the working-class women from the sweatshops spilled out to socialise and window-shop at lunchtime it disturbed the shop-owners and the well-to-do who patronised their establishments. It may have been a minor consideration for Moses and his planners, and some people will dispute that it ever became one, but it seems possible in my view.  Tidying up towns and cities to make them attractive to visitors and shoppers with money to spend happens everywhere. Like gentrification it’s a sign to the impoverished or down-and-out to stay away.

It is stressed by Ladd that the move towards turning streets into highways largely designed for traffic got underway before the nineteenth century. Horse-drawn carriages, often driven to speed, were a fixture in London and Paris in the eighteenth century. As streets then rarely had any form of pavements for pedestrians to make their way from one place to another, they were frequently at risk of being run down or crushed as they huddled against buildings for safety. The idea that streets were places where people could socialise became harder to sustain. In some ways the authorities possibly welcomed methods that helped to disperse people and keep them hurrying. Crowds could be dangerous, and as Ladd puts it, were sources of “vitality or worry”. Everyone has heard that Haussmann designed his boulevards partly to give troops and police easier access for crowd control.

Streets, of course, were never free of danger from other sources besides coaches, or cars when the latter started to appear. Criminals thrived in crowds, where the opportunities for pick-pocketing, selling poorly-produced good, and operating crooked deals of one kind or another, were more likely to prosper than in quieter locations.  Cities after dark were, and still are, prone to violence, whether from opportunistic individuals looking for the lone pedestrian to rob, or from street gangs intent not only on robbery but also a chance to indulge in their taste for rough-handling of anyone they encountered. And worse when it came to women.

The founding of police forces in major urban centres was meant to act as a curb on crime. Prior to their existence it was often left to poorly-paid night-watchmen and the like to try to prevent the excesses of both criminals and high-spirited and usually drunken young men who thought it good fun to vandalise street furniture, such as it existed. Eighteenth and nineteenth century cities were not noted for the provision of waste bins and too many street lights. Pierce Egan’s 1821 Life in London chronicled the “rambles and sprees” of Jerry Hawthorn, Corinthian Tom, and Bob Logic the Oxonian, as they toured the city, looking for adventures among high and low society.  

Improvements in public hygiene did begin to change the sights and smells of cities. The “Great Stink” of 1858 when a hot summer almost caused the River Thames to dry up is a case in point.  It had long been used as a dumping ground for all kinds of waste, and that, combined with “the outflow from the growing number of new water closets”, produced a smell that was so strong that politicians in Parliament “suddenly proved eager to expedite the construction of a comprehensive sewer system”. Other cities such as Berlin and Vienna soon followed with improved drainage facilities.

Public toilets were “a rarity in every city in 1800”, though “makeshift urinals” could be found in parts of London. Without them, people living or working on the streets were forced to urinate or defecate in an alleyway or any other suitable spot. Ladd suggests that “new standards of privacy and public hygiene” were largely responsible for the provision of public toilets¸ though some people spoke against them because they were seen as “places of gay male sexual encounters”. Was there substance in such allegations? Ladd says that “anti-gay hysteria” may have been partly responsible, but adds that “scholars who have combed through nineteenth-century police records confirm that the nexus was a real one”.

The closure of so many public toilets in more-recent years may have had something to do with their being used for male assignations, but from my own observations working in a local authority environmental health department for a time, economics mainly brought about decisions to shut them down. The money just wasn’t available to employ staff to inspect and clean them. Whatever the reason they are now often sadly lacking in most towns and cities. There may be some humour in the fact that a man might have to revert to the old practice of finding a quiet back-alley if he’s caught short on the street. As for women, as usual they are sure to be disadvantaged even more than the men.

Organised and comprehensive public transport systems were largely an invention of the nineteenth-century, whether with private or public funding. And, at least in cities and major towns, they seem to continue to function reasonably efficiently for the most part. My personal experiences of visiting different European cities convince me that one can get around quite well without a car. There are opponents of public transport, those who claim that anyone on a bus or tram is probably some sort of failure who can’t afford a car. And someone with that kind of attitude would no doubt resent having to share a seat with a stranger who might not be wearing very clean clothes. Ladd uses illustrations by Daumier in his book, one of which shows people on an omnibus. One of them appears to be nodding off and leaning towards his neighbour who has a disdainful look on her face.

Public transport might be a good example of the democratisation of urban life, but the lessons from it could be that not everyone is as democratic as they claim to be if they are pushed into too close a contact with their fellow-citizens. Cars are not only meant to get us from one place to another in quick fashion. But, as an acquaintance of mine who regularly makes a busy bus journey connecting two northern cities told me, it’s a form of theatre as different characters get on and off, greet friends, address the bus generally, sometimes argue, and occasionally even sing. Daumier would have understood what he was talking about.

Ladd makes the interesting observation that: “Most historian who write about ‘the crowd’ mean only the kind that posed a political threat”. There is truth in what he says and it perhaps points to some wishful thinking on the part of armchair radicals who like to dream of the working-class or the masses, whichever term is preferred, as almost always on the brink of revolution. But, as he goes on to say: “Yet the nineteenth-century saw more orderly urban crowds in their daily routines, less prone to random violence and bloodshed in the streets”. He ascribes it to more-professional policing, less tolerant attitudes on the part of the authorities to rowdy behaviour, and “changing standards of decorum”. This isn’t to say that crowds didn’t still assemble for reasons other than a celebration, a sporting fixture, or some other largely-peaceful purpose. They did and we have plenty of examples from history to remind us of how crowds can quickly get out of control. But the streets were probably less likely to explode in sudden acts of rebellious violence than they were a hundred or so years before.

And what of the noise in the streets? It was complained of in the eighteenth-century where the cacophony of street cries, organ grinders, disputes, traffic noise, children playing, and other distractions in the then-narrow streets, inclined people to protest and call for bans on at least some of the sounds. There is an amusing Hogarth illustration, “The Enraged Musician”, which shows a despairing man, his hands clapped over his ears, staring out in dismay at the crowded street and the makers of the offending din. The later nineteenth-century saw a decline in the amount of street activity in terms of the numbers of entertainers and purveyors of goods for sale as they increasingly required licences to be on the streets. A little of it lingered on into the twentieth-century, and I can recall a fish-seller and a rag-and-bone man calling out their trades in the 1940s. But the noise now mostly comes from cars and loudspeakers blaring out the music that few people seem unable to live without in the modern world.

By exploring who originated the sounds in the streets, where the smells came from, and what could be seen, Ladd creates a picture of different cities in various stages of their developments. Not everyone liked to live in urban centres, though the opportunities and experiences they offered, both good and bad, were seen by some as far superior to what could be found in rural situations. Ladd quotes part of a letter from Charles Lamb to William Wordsworth in which Lamb pokes fun at the poet’s rhapsodising over mountain scenery, and exercises his preference for life on the Strand: “I have lived all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments, as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead nature”. And he goes on to enthuse about the “the lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street…..the innumerable trades……all the bustle and wickedness around Covent Garden, the very women of the Town, the Watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles….”, and more. I was reminded of a wonderful essay, “Ramblings in Cheapside”, by Samuel Butler, dating from later in the nineteenth-century, but which is just as vivid a picture of urban life.

The Streets of Europe is an informative and entertaining book by a well-read writer. Ladd directs us to the ways in which city life was changed over the years. No-one can regret the passing of the kinds of violence and poverty he describes, though we can refer to how both survive in the contemporary urban landscape. But could it be that, as the cities were cleaned up and life became more-ordered and behaviour less varied, something essential was lost somewhere along the way in terms of human contact? I’m not one to sink into nostalgia for times I never knew, but in an increasingly authoritarian society, in which we all seem to be under constant surveillance when outside our homes, I find myself wondering how cities can now thrive on street life? Ladd acknowledges that streets have not always been “orderly”, but “they have often been diverse and vibrant places, and as such, they sustain possibilities of encounter and inclusion”. Are the streets only to be locations for people to shop or can they offer something else? And do the authorities, and particularly the police, like the idea of people lingering in the streets?