Alexander Wells interviews urban historian Brian Ladd about his new book “The Streets of Europe”…
The Streets of Europe: The Sights, Sounds, and Smells That Shaped Its Great Cities, the latest book by urban historian Brian Ladd, looks at how streets and street life has changed in four major European cities—London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna—between the seventeeth century and the early 1900s.
In particular, the book is interested in conjuring a sense of what these streets looked like before the rise of the automobile: what people did, what people bought and sold, and what laid a particularly strong claim to people’s senses. Throughout, Ladd conveys his love for the metropolis, a place where, ideally, “everyone coexists and old hierarchies crumble”, and for city streetscapes: “The quintessential place of crowds and strangers, of stimulation and surprises, is the city street,” he asserts.
Local history buffs may already be familiar with Ladd from his excellent 1997 book Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape, a thoughtful examination of arguments and controversies about the presence of the past in Berlin’s cityscape—in particular the debates over what to do with the remnants of Berlin’s Prussian, Nazi and Communist histories.
Ladd’s interest in, and connection to the city goes back to its years of division, as he explains during a video interview from his home in Washington, D.C. “What drew me to Berlin,” he smirks, “was in fact the Cold War money for Americans. I got a couple of grants to continue my work in German history, one was from the Stiftung Luftbrückendank, which by its name expresses how these things existed to keep Americans attached to Berlin, as a Cold War initiative.”
Afterwards, Ladd jumped at the opportunity to live in this “totally weird” place, a divided city where many of his friends lived in apartments with a toilet in the stairway and no central heating. “You had to buy your coal briquettes and lug them from the cellar to your oven,” he remembers. “And the air was, uh, aromatic, shall we say.”
Ladd eventually moved back to the States in 1988, watching from afar as the Berlin Wall came down. “As a historian, the world I had lived in was now history, and fair game,” he says. “So I started writing about the transition.” Since Ladd’s early days in Berlin, the city has changed considerably, not least its streetscapes. “It’s mind-boggling,” he says, “and it’s fascinating to go back to places that I’ve known for decades and feel a sense of familiarity, and also go to other places and not recognise anything.”
His old neighborhood in Schöneberg, near Kaiser-Wilhelm-Platz, is physically pretty much unchanged. At the other extreme is Potsdamer Platz: “I remember spending many hours there working at the Staatsbibliothek, and you looked out the back window and there was just this open area and the Wall in the distance. And then I didn’t go there much for a decade. When I came back in the late 1990s, they were completing the construction of all that, and it was an utterly alien environment. I think many people in Berlin still feel like Potsdamer Platz is some kind of alien imposition.”
The idea for Streets of Europe came to Ladd after he finished 2008’s Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age, about cars and what they have done to modern cities. The new book looks at what came before the rise of these automobiles, vividly describing the rise, heyday and fall of the general streetscapes in his chosen quartet of metropoles, with a focus on activities—commerce, socialising, waste disposal, transportation, imposing order—that were largely destroyed by modern planners who preferred to use streets primarily as vehicular thoroughfares.
Where Ghosts of Berlin was largely focused on the built environment and the intellectual debates around it, Streets of Europe is focused on sensory experience. As in his previous work, Ladd skilfully synthesises the history of architecture with the history of how people relate to it, but here his accounts are filled with firsthand reports of the city’s sights, sounds and smells, and enriched by descriptive colour and relevant insights from diarists, travel writers, authors and artists. As he explains in the introduction:
We can investigate the experience of the street only through our perceptions of it. Physical sensations were the raw material of our historical sources, and they are ours as well. … We cannot actually be jostled by the crowds on the 18th-century Strand, nor can we imbibe the aroma of revolutionary Paris (not that we would want to). We will always be seeing – or hearing or smelling or feeling – the past through the eyes, ears, noses, and elbows of contemporaries, as transmitted through the words, pictures and architectural fragments they have left us.
To Ladd, such sensory experience is not just the essence of street life, it can represent the real heart of a city. While researching the cries of street vendors in London and Paris, he realised the full importance of such sounds when he found a vast range of art prints representing various hawker ‘types’ through their appearance and typical cry. He remembers realising that “the sight and sound of these hawkers was central to the identity of the street and the identity of the city.” (Sometimes the prints were accompanied by musical notation; such tunes have been incorporated into musical compositions since the Renaissance.)
Berlin readers need not felt left out on this count; Ladd includes one Maximilian Rapsilber’s fond memories of nineteenth-century Unter den Linden, lounging on the benches in the vicinity of Prussian war veterans and watching the much-loved pickle sellers: “With a fork the men pulled out the pickled cucumbers, and regular customers or other good friends were also permitted to take a swallow of the juice.”
Ladd dedicates another memorable passage to the Eckensteher, the porter-messengers that proliferated on Berlin’s 19th-century street corners and grew notorious for their insolence, drunkenness and sharp-tongued wit. “They have a deal of sly cunning and drollery; a dry manner; will have the last word; and are sure to turn the laugh against their antagonists, be they high or low, educated or uneducated…They are always ragged, fond of drink, and ready with their repartee,” explained William Howitt in 1842, drawing on familiar ethnic stereotypes to describe them to his fellow Englishmen. “They are a most un-German sort of fellow—the Irish of Berlin.”
Local readers will also enjoy fascinating tidbits about (for example) the origins of the Litfaßsäule, the rotund advertising columns that are still scattered throughout the city; the ornate iron public urinals still standing in Senefelderplatz and other places; and the passionate fin-de-siècle arguments about whether life in the rapidly growing city was nerve-wrecking, exciting, or some combination of both. (Not everyone was as inspired as Alfred Döblin, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, who declared in his 1913 “Berlin Program” for authors: “I am not me, but rather the street, the lamp, this and that event, nothing more.”).
Berlin, of course, was something of a late-comer metropolis compared to the other cities in the book. But as the city rapidly industrialised and swelled, its expanding belt of factories and tenements earned it the nickname of a “German Chicago”, officials worked hard to manage the challenges of housing, sanitation and transportation. The first, and longest, of the book’s chapters is concerned with commerce, and is at its most memorable in its portrayal of street vendors, and the various developments that gradually forced them away from public view.
These developments were social as well as technological; Ladd notes that Berlin property owners back in 1900 were complaining that having to see “uneducated and poor” street vendors was harming “the morals and manners of our streets”, especially for the children. He also notes how Berlin became known for the rising confidence—or at least the lack of deference towards social superiors—of its working classes.
He shows how visitors were fascinated by the crowds at Friedrichstraße and Potsdamer Platz, the first real urban crowds seen in Germany, but also how their responses varied considerably, with some calling for the return of conservative mores and others celebrating Berliners’ metropolitan conduct. Radicals, artists and thinkers were fascinated by Berlin’s famous “tempo”, although both before and after the First World War, this intoxicating energy had a vertiginous edge to it.
The development of large-windowed luxury stores and the enclosed arcade represented early steps in an evolution that would culminate in the American-style system of shopping mall and highway, a system that definitively separated commercial activity from automobile thoroughfares. Yet the automobile alone is not to blame. as Ladd argues in his book:
Already in the eighteenth century, the most exclusive shops catered to what became known as the carriage trade, customers who arrived by carriage and were escorted directly inside. As these shoppers became more numerous, shops increasingly boasted of their exclusivity and comfort. The sights, sounds, and smells of the streets might stimulate shoppers’ appetites, but they could also become too democratic, or perhaps too human.
Streets of Europe also gives a strong impression of the civic value of street life—the importance of being reminded, as Ladd writes, “that we live in a world of strangers”, a point he develops during our interview: “When we make other people invisible, that’s going to have bad consequences,” he says.
“On the other hand, we have to be aware that forcing people to go through the street and deal with crowds, that’s not always going to be pleasant, if nothing else because you’re in a hurry and you’re slowed down. Or things like dealing with beggars, most of us don’t find that a pleasant experience. The question is, if you confront people with that, does that make them more empathetic or less? Some of both does happen. I do like the idea of making everyone visible and physically present—but there are limits to how effective that can be.”
Like many others, Ladd seems eager to defend (or help resurrect) a healthy street life after the various abominations of twentieth-century planning; abominations that flourished on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and in both Autoländer Deutschland. Yet he refuses to engage in romantic nostalgia. He certainly makes it hard, in a thoroughly vivid chapter on urban waste disposal, for even the naivest reader to believe all was fine on Europe’s streets before cars came along.
The narrow and crowded streets of Paris, one learns, were notorious for their boue, a “sticky brew of food scraps, animal fat, and human and horse excrement.” In Berlin, meanwhile, English tourist William Howitt was shocked by stagnant gutters during his afore-mentioned 1842 visit, describing a “stinking festering kennel, rank with bubbles of a putrid effervescence.”
Yet, as Ladd explains, many of the problems that had caused European streets to flow with filth have since been solved. While there are broader problems with our current waste-disposal systems, most obviously the polluting of places outside the city, streets themselves can now be cleaned. “The most easily grasped horrors of the street—the awful smells of human and animal excrement, of butcher’s blood, things like that—have actually been solved to a great extent,” explains the author. “So we can go back to the old streets and find the good without entirely having the bad.”
While things were perhaps not ideal before the advent of automobiles, the most definitive threat to lively streetscapes in Berlin and beyond has been, according to Ladd, transportation. Streets of Europe describes how the 20th-century doctrine of “functionalism” (planning and designing separate facilities for each purpose) saw the three traditional uses of the street—transportation, shopping, and recreation—split off into the highway, the shopping mall and the park; people, meanwhile, would live in low-density suburbs or high-rise satellite towns and commute to the inner city.
It’s easy to blame the auto-industry lobby and its prominent friends, from Bild to the Bundestag, for the grim consequences of this planning misadventure. But Ladd cautions against such a simplistic explanation. Pro-car forces in Europe and the U.S., he notes, were able to able to capitalise on pre-existing beliefs and on processes that sought to clear the streets of commerce, waste, and encounters with strangers in order to provide speedy thoroughfares for the upper classes’ carriages, trams and, eventually, automobiles.
“I still hate cars,” he says with a smile, “but we do have to get beyond the idea that it’s simply a matter of the car being evil, and if we get rid of the car then everything will be fine.” The automobile, he explains, has taken advantage of other factors, like the political fear of the mass and the privileging of speed (the latter a topic he is currently researching). “We can’t reverse the course of history, but if we can take some of these forces into account, we might be able to think about how to make better streets and better cities.”
Ladd is also interested by recent efforts to restore street life to Berlin, noting that the “critical reconstruction” philosophy of architectural guidelines since the Wende has aimed to restore nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century streetscapes, for instance by restricting buildings to the traditional five storeys). At Friedrichstraße, one of Berlin’s most famous and historic thoroughfares, reconstruction has also included undoing some of the street widening conducted by the GDR.
Most recently, the temporary pedestrianisation of Friedrichstraße—autofrei since August 2020, with the current trial run recently extended until the end of October 2021—has triggered a frenzied response, particularly among the tabloid journalists and politicians on Germany’s right. It has raised the question of whether the pandemic offers some hope for the streets now that people are walking more and commuting less, and perhaps even rediscovering their neighbourhoods on foot. Or could the threat of infection make us retreat even further?
“It could go in either direction,” muses Ladd, “It’s made many people aware of what we’re missing: that there was something in street life that, depending on how and where you live, you might have taken for granted. And you realise there was something about being in the proximity of people that was fascinating, energising, attractive. I’m hoping that my book will help people think more about the value of that. On the other hand, that will only work if the fear goes away—if we can get past the coronavirus, which actually brings us back to one of the impulses that did destroy street life: the fear of other people.”