Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital by Franz Hessel
The MIT Press, 2017
304 pages / MIT
la forme d’une ville / Change plus vite, hélas ! que le coeur d’un mortel
Berlin, Paris, San Francisco, Barcelona, Istanbul… great cities of the world entreat walking. San Francisco however is perhaps the only city so contained by water to be conceivably walkable in a single day. Of course to properly walk any city is not to get from Point A to Point B. It is to discover your surroundings anew. Interpreting how the action comes across—whatever the business of the day-to-day this set of trees is up to in the corner of some park, or how that shrill sounding group of pesky birds goes about bombing passersby—intersects with and expands upon one’s own affairs. It is to further understand one’s own place in a particular time alongside so many others going about their daily lives. To learn bits of what happens in the buildings and on the streets of the city every day along with possessing an appreciation for what has happened in the distant and not so distant past. Franz Hessel’s Walking in Berlin reassures that you’re keeping good company pursuing such activity.
City walking and observing—epitomized by Baudelaire’s “Flaneur” (as the poet found him in Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”) directly named in Hessel’s title—does come with its own bit of paranoia. As Hessel notes in his opening chapter “The Suspect”: “I attract wary glances whenever I try to play the flaneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket.” And yet “Walking slowly down bustling streets is a particular pleasure. Awash in the haste of others, it’s a dip in the surf.” There’s certainly nothing quite like it. Coming after Hessel’s encouraging nod I’ve always found plenty to reflect upon with my own city strolling over the years.
When I first came to San Francisco in 1997 to attend the Poetics program at New College of California on Valencia street the city was on the verge of what’s now recognized as having been the dot com bubble followed later by the current boom. Yet while there was change happening in town at the time things felt downright homey compared to now. Much of Valencia street, including all of the old New College buildings themselves, have been turned over to boutique shops and restaurants. There’s a massive chocolate shop that was packed last Saturday night on the site, or anyway quite near to, what once was a mechanics garage. A red ledge out front beneath a window was where smokers used to sit and I remember managing to grind across on a few impromptu skate sessions between classes and readings. Where a straying would-be anarchist keyed a car yelling out at the pained and bewildered mechanic the rather antedated “go home yuppies!”
The city transitions ever faster. New condos are everywhere on Valencia, it has the feel of a little west coast Brooklyn—or what’s worse: the next Marina district, i.e. white rich frat types; or wait, isn’t that what Western Addition’s Divisadero street is now? Small Press Traffic was housed at New College back then. The then director Dodie Bellamy joined in with Poetics faculty to address incoming students on orientation day. There were regular readings on both sides of Valencia between 18th and 19th, often in the theatre that is now known as The Chapel where Peter Brötzmann has rather frequently played an annual gig of late. Valencia, no less than Divisadero, in its current manifestation really trips me out, like they say. I just have that “what in hell happened here” feeling every time I step out. As Walter Benjamin paraphrases a favorite French poet-daddy: “Baudelaire spoke cruel words for the city, which changes faster than the human heart.” It sure does!
And Benjamin would know, being a flanuer among flaneurs; the ultimate streetwalking small-time philosopher, he was a pal of Hessel’s and reviewed Walking In Berlin when it first appeared in 1929. Benjamin’s review is reproduced in this first English edition. Which comes at a good time for those who live in this thing called the city that is in such an ongoing state of change, for as Benjamin remarks “Hessel’s book is full of consoling forms of valediction for its inhabitants.” Not to say it’s bon voyage for the rest of us! But rather that while the streets will indeed undergo alteration right under our feet, we might still walk them in our way, taking it all in stumbling stride.
Even if, as Hessel remarks on the Alexanderplatz in the east of Berlin, “it will have disappeared by the time these lines are printed. The trams, buses, and crowds of people must already bypass the fenced construction sites and deep lacerations in the earth.” Those of us who get out and about, digging the scene, have access, as we always have, to the pounding vitality of life flowing all around. That streaming throng of humanity trafficking by foot, bike, car, and train—Hessel includes car trips (you can’t walk all of huge metropolis Berlin, even in the 1920s). So round San Francisco, Hessel’s work encourages trips down to San Mateo on Caltrain or hitting up those new tunnels on a drive down Highway 1 to Half Moon Bay. Most important of all, his work reminds us that writing requires not only living with(in) the wider world surrounding but likewise continually informing ourselves afresh of new discoveries regarding it.
Hessel’s narrative carves its own path—including nifty historical snippets along with trends current in his own time, surveying a broad cross section of buildings, parks, and businesses from nearly every territory of Berlin’s colossus zones. The mixture of the contemporary with the historical presents an eye-opening take on a multi-leveled reading of walking city streets. As when he references writing by the previous generation’s Jules Laforgue while reflecting upon strolling across the Schinkelplatz:
Laforgue superbly describes the military appearance and essence of this square, and of the street Unter den Linden, and all of Berlin in the 1880s. Once he froze in a moment de torpeur involontaire as in a dream, on the corner of Lindenstraße and Friedrichstraße. All he could hear was the sound of which dominated the street: that of a dragging saber. This era—when the military greeting was common practice for every rank with the exception of the dregs, and even the little cadets greeted each other stiffly on Unter den Linden—has since then come to a close.
To be this aware of a previous “era” of a place come and gone is to fully inhabit the space in the moment of one’s own experience. It is to merge with the physical locale itself, observing the accrued measure of events across many years, discerning the stains of archival lore passed on via the accumulated vestiges of time.
Little surprise then that Benjamin wagers Hessel’s book might best be seen as “…an inventory, an Egyptian dream book for the waking.” I myself find that it is most definitely a book for that dedicated streetwalker who, as Benjamin writes, “looks for other allures in [our] city than those promised by the neon signs,” whether the signs be that purple lyft in the front windows of oncoming cars or the Twitter label running down the side of the corporate headquarters building. The most recent attempt at renovating the middle stretch of San Francisco’s iconic Market St. Hessel pushes us one step further into the future moment that is happening now in the present, without disinheriting past enrichments which have led the way forward. We owe it to both ourselves and the city itself to bear witness at once to its past, its future, and its present. And, what’s more, to recognize our ongoing role interacting with features from each epoch.
* this writing, as well as Hessel’s book, is fully supportive of enabling all. “Walking” takes many forms and none should feel excluded. I regularly “walk” when riding muni (city transportation) due to swelling from gout flare-ups myself.