Street Life and City Space

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W. Scott Haine

The topic of street life and city space is burgeoning at the forefront of social history. Its vast scope embraces the gestures and actions of people—vendors pitching their wares, patrons conversing in taverns or elegant cafés, children playing on back streets, dandies promenading on fashionable boulevards, beggars cowering from the gaze of affluent shoppers. Streets may be host to the explorations of tourists; the daily routines of people walking, driving, or taking mass transit; the carnivals that echo medieval sites of sociability and festivity. The study of city space has recently led historians to ask about the functions and meanings of buildings—from majestic cathedrals, imposing city halls, and banks, to factories, residences, hospitals, and asylums. Streets and other open spaces also reflect the history of transportation (from walking to the use of horses, carriages, subways, cars, and in-line skates) and communication (from the gossip of neighbors to television and other electronic media).

For most of history, streets and their places of commerce, their squares, and their parks have comprised a large part of any city, often one-third of a city's area. Why has it taken social historians so long to focus on these central urban spaces? The anthropologist Gloria Levitas offers one of the best explanations, quoting the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857): "We reserve till last research into subjects closest to our social selves." Another probable cause is that face-to-face interaction on streets or in cafés and bars, once a given in all societies, has become rare, fascinating, and exotic in the contemporary developed world and endangered in developing countries. Telephones, cars, and televisions—and now various computer technologies—have rendered much face-to-face interaction optional rather than mandatory in daily life. Those coming of age after the year 2000 may not realize that streets are not simply traffic routes, that home and work are not always separated, and that the street can be a center of sociability as well as mobility.

Streets and the spaces intimately dependent on them, such as bars, taverns, and cafés, are in essence the interstitial spaces of a city, at the intersections of public and private life, home and workplaces, and male and female spaces. Not only are such spaces at the center of the recurring patterns of daily life, they have also played a vital role in wars, rebellions, and revolutions. What would the Middle Ages have been without its street vendors, singers, and magicians? Carnivals and processions were central to Renaissance life. Much of the fighting of the French and Russian Revolutions occurred on the streets of Paris and Saint Petersburg, respectively. And how could the social and intellectual life of Paris, Vienna, or London have been as vibrant, from the seventeenth century onward, without cafés?


The origin and foundation of modern European street life and city space emerged during the Middle Ages. In general, medieval cities developed without the elaborate planning characteristic of urban growth during and after the Renaissance. Weak and undeveloped national and local governments did not have the power to design, decree, or enforce specific street layouts, much less to regulate the activities that went on within them. Instead, urban communities built their houses around the principal buildings of the powerful, the holy, and the wealthy: the castles of the warrior nobility, the monasteries and churches of the Catholic clergy, and the markets and fairs of the merchants and traders. Those who built medieval towns had in mind shelter, commercial activity, and military or religious protection rather than a rational street plan. Across Europe, the typical medieval house had a ground floor shop or workshop (production and retail usually shared the same space), with living quarters on the second floor. Houses lacked halls or corridors, so rooms simply opened one upon another, and windows tended to be small and primitive. The best facades, often with porticos and balconies, usually faced the street, and the best and biggest rooms opened onto the public realm. As one scholar has noted, the medieval house "forced the members of an extroverted society into the street." (Contemine, p. 443).

Apart from churches, however, few truly "public" buildings existed. During the medieval (a.d. 400–1500) and Renaissance (1300–1600) eras, taverns and inns were virtually the only enclosed spaces where the public gathered. Untamed countryside reigned outside the city walls, and often inside as well, for wolves often ravaged cities during the winter. Parks were nonexistent; the only green or open spaces were small gardens or the cemeteries next to the churches.

Streets, an afterthought in medieval construction, became the center of urban expression in the medieval and Renaissance periods. Aside from a few main thoroughfares devoted to horse-and-cart traffic, most medieval streets were more like footpaths, residential and haphazard. With living and working quarters in the same building, people met on the street, and a dense fabric of sociability developed. Bakers, butchers, carpenters, apothecaries, and craftsmen often sold their products at their own doorsteps. In addition, the streets swarmed with a wide variety of vendors hawking products and services: old clothes, food and wine, haircuts and shaves, medical and dental services. Letter writers and knife grinders mingled with magicians, cardsharps, mimes, and minstrels.

Each crier tried to create a distinctive call. As a result, medieval streets reverberated with sounds and songs, and scholars down through the ages have found much musical, artistic, and theatrical merit in these street trades. Indeed, the mid-nineteenth-century French scholar Georges Kastner believed that the polyphonic quality of medieval music was inspired, in part, by these street vendors. Modern research has shown that traveling vendors played a vital role in linking long-distance trade networks and allowing the poor of the countryside or mountainous regions of Europe to make a living.

The romantic image of conviviality and song wafting through narrow medieval streets would be quickly dashed, however, if one looked downward. Cobblestones or bricks were reserved for main streets, and lesser routes were not only unpaved but lacked any efficient means of waste and water disposal. Medieval streets thus had a horrifically pungent smell in summer and became swamps or ice rinks (depending on latitude) in winter. At best, a gutter running down the middle of the street served as a sewage system, and in some cities pigs ran loose as all-purpose garbage eaters.

City space in medieval cities showed little of the segregation by class that became prevalent later. In Italian cities, such as Florence, powerful families often staked out a section of the city and would be surrounded by their own retainers and servants rather than by other wealthy families. Any segregation in these densely packed cities was based upon trade rather than economic status. Artisans, such as jewelers or carpenters, often organized into associations called guilds, which protected the skills and economic status of their members by fixing prices and standards of quality, and setting the terms of apprenticeship. During the medieval period, guildhalls became vital centers of economic and social life for these artisans, and some guilds remained influential into the nineteenth century.

Gender differentiation in the use of space was clearly defined. Paintings and illustrations reveal women at home; in a favored scene, a woman is portrayed at the window. Other female spaces included churches, markets, ovens, water wells, and flour mills, as well as courtyards and alleys around the home. When venturing out into the street, women often traveled in groups. Historians have found that during the course of the Renaissance, upper-class women lost much of the access to street life they had had during the Middle Ages. Women from the lower classes continued to be a a vital part of the street trades and the markets throughout early modern and modern European history.

The distinction between public and private life was blurred in medieval cities, and interactions within the family blended into a broader sociability encompassing the neighborhood. Street and tavern life was subject to a detailed series of customs enforced by designated groups. Social drinking, for example, was often governed by rituals surrounding the passing of a common cup. Groups of young unmarried males in their late teens and early twenties known as youth abbeys often organized festivities and monitored morality in their neighborhoods. Especially strong during the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, these associations of young men led the celebrations at the end of Lent, for example, and censured husbands who were too submissive to their wives or couples who could not produce children. In addition, guilds and groups of lay Catholics joined together in confraternities and also sponsored street processions and entertainments.

All told, medieval urban society, accustomed to vendors hawking their wares in markets and streets, did not make rigid distinctions between work and leisure, freedom and constraint, or individual and group. The notion of a lone, detached observer walking the streets, reflecting on the crowd and the urban spectacle (the French "flaneur") was inconceivable in this age of customary, constraining, and obligatory sociability. Instead of the artistic individuality that would prevail in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the medieval world spawned a convivial communality, especially in the marketplace. Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975), one of the most penetrating and influential interpreters of the role of the marketplace and carnival in medieval and Renaissance life, discerned in the rough, foul, jocular, and boisterous language of the marketplace and carnival, as exemplified in François Rabelais's (c. 1483–1553) Gargantua and Pantagruel, a language freed from social norms and hierarchies, a language that created a solidarity among the poor and commonplace people. Not merely verbal, this communication also included the gestures, singing, and hawking of the marketplace. Indeed, this festive "grotesque body" eluded the spatial and moral constraints and decorum embodied in churches, palaces, courts of law, and the homes of the wealthy. Confirmation of Bakthin's thesis can be found in a description of London's fish market as "the college of bad language." (Schmiechen and Carls, p. 16). On the other hand, groups widely developed rituals and rules to govern various social occasions and interactions. Popular spontaneity thus had its limits.

The marketplace was not simply a place of ribald revelry, as Bakhtin has himself acknowledged. In the popular mind, market transactions were supposed to embody what E. P. Thompson called a "moral economy." This concept, found across Europe, held that there was a "just price" for staples. When the price of bread soared, for example, whether from poor harvests, economic dislocation, or war, the populace suspected merchants of hoarding staples in order to make excessive profits. In such an instance, people would stage grain riots, seizing the stock of grain or bread and distributing it to the people at the "just price," then giving the money to the merchants. Public authorities did not usually view such riots as a threat to public order, but rather as a safety valve or what might be called a primitive public opinion poll. The prevailing assumption was that after the poor had had a chance to act out their power—during a carnival, for instance—they would return to their lowly position.


As far back as the fourteenth century, more orderly sites for commercial transactions began to emerge. First commercial exchanges and then stock markets were a vast improvement over exchanges on streets, courtyards, porticos, churches, or taverns, permitting merchants, traders, wholesalers, and insurance brokers to conduct their transactions with greater efficiency. When the Amsterdam stock market was completed in 1631, it set the standard with its modern, freewheeling form of speculation and its spatial layout, in which each banker, broker, or trader had a numbered spot. Moreover, only those deemed to have sufficient capital were permitted into this temple of enterprise and speculation.

The latter part of the Renaissance was more important for ideas, ideologies, and innovations concerning street life and city space than for a radical change in the texture of urban life itself. The consolidation of monarchical and papal bureaucratic governments (new monarchies), the increasing wealth of the urban merchant and commercial elite, and a rising cult of antiquity combined to produce ambitious plans to redesign cities along Renaissance notions of perspective. Straight and broad streets, on either a grid or a radiating axial, provided dramatic vistas for monumental buildings and easy access for troops and military supplies to the more elaborate fortifications needed to resist increasing cannon power. These broad streets also allowed for easier surveillance and repression of urban disorder.

The most dramatic example of Renaissance urban transformation occurred in Rome under the popes. Following the sack of Rome (1527) and the rise of the Protestant Reformation, the papacy was determined to recreate Rome, building a more secure and imposing capital of Catholicism. The project culminated in the papacy of Sixtus V, who ruled from 1585 to 1590, and employed such Renaissance artists as Michaelangelo (1475–1564) and Bernini (1598–1680). A new network of streets connected the Holy City's myriad monuments, from Roman ruins to Saint Peter's Basilica. A series of fountains and obelisks also brought coherence and unity to the urban plan. Along the new streets, typical of Rome and other Renaissance cities, construction conformed to the street pattern rather than dominating it. In Florence, which pioneered these new trends in urban planning during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, merchants and bankers built sumptuous townhouses along the broad new avenues. These neighborhoods were among the first in which segregation by income and status became the norm.

Although this wealthy urban elite also built social welfare institutions such as hospitals and foundling homes, the growing wealth of cities was most prominently expressed in the construction of purpose-built sites for leisure activities. As had happened in the case of markets and exchanges, more of the activities that had once occurred on the street now found their own individual spaces. After 1650 theaters, tennis courts, opera houses, cockpits, bullrings, racecourse tracks, and an assortment of pleasure gardens arose across the European urban landscape. Although these places of amusement and recreation were primarily intended for the upper classes, they were frequented by a wide spectrum of urban society. Class distinctions were nonetheless maintained: in theaters, for example, the upper and middle classes sat in side loges, apart from the lower classes who were relegated to the pit in front of the stage. These centers of diversion initiated the process by which communities tied to specific neighborhoods and streets became more fully integrated into the larger urban environment.


The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the historian Philippe Ariès has argued, produced a wide variety of social institutions based upon friendship and affinity: clubs, intellectual and scientific societies, reading rooms, academies, bookstores, art galleries, and freemasonry. Ariès also noted a proliferation of taverns and the arrival of coffee and chocolate houses, thanks to coffee from the Middle East starting about 1650 and the new chocolate beverages from the Americas. (Ariès, 1989, pp. 2–17). Italy stood in the forefront of the new street patterns, and England was home to many of the associations based on friendship and affinity. The fifteenth-century Court of Bone Compagnie was one of the first clubs, and Masonic lodges emerged a few centuries later. The emergence of these sites of sociability reflected the gradual decline of street life, owing in part to the increased ability of national and local governments to regulate street life and in part to the creation of structures (as noted above) that absorbed some of the street's functions. A small but telling indicator of the decline of the intimate and sometimes promiscuous medieval community is the declining use of communal cups during these decades and the smaller number of youth abbeys willing to counter governmental regulation and repression.

Although streets remained remarkably "cluttered" by modern standards, important changes resulted from the growing power of monarchical and urban governments. For one thing, streets became increasingly and truly "public," that is, unencumbered and open to any pedestrian or vehicle. The French town of Limbus, for example, banned chicken pens and the parking of hay carts in the street, while within the premises of numerous other cities and towns, pigs were forbidden to run free. Civic authorities prohibited the dumping of garbage in the street. By the end of the eighteenth century, Paris and other cities had begun to place numbers on buildings, the better to identify and to regulate them. Police forces became more organized and elaborate. In an attempt to impose order on streets and other urban spaces, Louis XIV (1638–1715) created the position of Lieutenant General of Police in Paris in 1667 and established a network of asylums for the insane, the poor, and the idle. As policing of the street increased, public life began retreating into shops, taverns, and parks. For instance, capital-poor Amsterdam traders transacted their business in cafés near the stock exchange, such as the Café Rochellois, the Café Anglais, and the Café de Leyde. In London, the famous Lloyds of London insurance firm first conducted its business in a coffeehouse.

Growing segregation by neighborhoods led to increasingly differentiated street life. The upper classes, in their luxurious townhouses on broad avenues, used the street to display their elaborate sartorial fashions and their carriages and fine horses. Esplanades were developed on both sides of city walls, which had their original military importance, and became fashionable places for upper-class promenades and also, unfortunately, for depredations by the city's youth. The lower classes, out of necessity rather than pleasure, continued to use city streets as they had in the Middle Ages—as extensions of their cramped living quarters and as work and leisure spaces. The middle class, on the contrary, retreated increasingly into their homes. Bourgeois children were not allowed to play on the street, young women were severely restricted to the home, and even the males felt out of place among both aristocratic display and what they perceived to be lower-class depravity. In England, where middle-class domesticity was most fully developed, Georgian terrace houses were built with the servants' quarters and kitchen on the street side and the bedrooms and living areas in the interior. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, English Protestant Evangelicals—among them William Wilberforce (1759–1833), Hannah Moore, and Sarah Stickney Ellis—were advocating a rustic domesticity in newly emerging English suburbs outside of London. In these verdant enclaves, virtuous middle-class families could avoid the immorality and drunkenness of the city streets.


The growing reach of central governments and the decreasing pull of local communities led to the emergence of modern politics in urban space. The expanding literate stratum of urban society, which included the middle classes as well as the nobility, became concerned with governmental actions and demanded that their own views be considered in what is today called public policy. Private individuals gathered in the coffeehouses that were spreading across Europe along with the popularity of this beverage introduced from the Middle East. They discussed public matters, with reason rather than status as the main criterion for the validity of their arguments. The emergence of newspapers in England, Holland, France, and Italy in the later seventeenth century added another morning ritual to these spaces. Still too expensive for most of the literate population, newspapers relied on cafés for subscriptions and circulation among their clientele.

London and Paris developed two of the most important café societies of this era. During the early 1700s, such writers as Joseph Addison (1672–1719), Sir Richard Steele (1672–1729), Henry Carey (1687–1743), Eustace Budgell (1686–1737) met at a coffeehouse in Russell Street known as "Button's," were Addison and Steele published their influential newspapers, the Tatler and the Spectator. Later in the century, the Paris café La Procope in particular was frequented by the central figures of the French Enlightenment: George-Louis Buffon (1707–1788), Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1717–1783), Paul-Henri-Dietrich d'Holbach (1723–1789), Denis Diderot (1713–1784), Nicolas-Joseph-Laurent Gilbert (1751–1780), Henri-Louis Lekain (1729–1778), Jean-François Marmontel (1723–1799), Alexis Piron (1689–1773), Jean-Jacques Roussea (1712–1778), and Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet [1694–1778]).

In one of the most influential studies fusing social and intellectual history, Jürgen Habermas has termed such spaces and intellectual critical conversations the "public sphere." Habermas believes that the rationality and equality in evidence in coffeehouses also surfaced in clubs, debating societies, and other academic and scientific associations that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Montesquieu (1689–1755) captured well the ambiance of these cafés in his Persian Letters (1721): "It is a merit of the coffeehouse that you can sit there the whole day and half of the night amongst people of all classes. The coffeehouse is the only place where conversation may be made to come true, where extravagant plans, utopian dreams and political plots are hatched without anyone even leaving their seat." In one of his most memorable images, the nineteenth-century French historian Jules Michelet (1798–1874) imagined café philosophers peering into their coffee cups and seeing the approaching 1789 French Revolution.


At the end of the eighteenth century, political upheaval in France and the industrial revolution in England inaugurated a century of contestation, dislocation, and transformation in street life and city space. The storming of the Bastille fortress in eastern Paris in July 1789 and other riots across France redefined the market riot and politics in public spaces. No longer could collective popular demonstrations be dismissed as periodic expressions of frustration and excitement bound to dissipate. Now they had the potential to overthrow monarchies and replace them with republics. This new concept of popular street mobilization became enshrined in the French word "journée," literally "day" but also carrying a new revolutionary connotation. The specter of revolution in the streets has haunted Europe ever since.

The French Revolution created new urban spaces and rituals. A series of monuments, holidays—centering on 14 July, the day that the Bastille fell—and parades celebrated and made concrete the new French nation, founded, according to its ideology, upon the will of the people. This "national liturgy" was adopted by the other nations of Europe during the nineteenth century. National holidays became important modern festival days, celebrated with speeches, fireworks, dancing, eating, and drinking.

Two new institutions, at the nexus between taste and leisure, also emerged during the French Revolution: the museum and the modern restaurant. After the fall of the French monarchy in 1792, the revolutionaries turned the former royal palace of the Louvre, in the center of Paris, into the first modern museum. As for restaurants, chefs who had recently catered to royalty and aristocracy now found work in their own commercial establishments, satisfying the appetites of the Paris middle classes. Soon restaurant critics such as Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826) emerged to evaluate the new culinary marketplace.

An innovative type of drinking and eating establishment also emerged for the Parisian lower classes. The working class café, introduced newspaper reading, working-class organization, and political agitation into public drinking establishments and other sites of traditional boisterous and bacchic plebeian sociability, fusing the old tradition of popular revolt, dating back to the grain riots of the Middle Ages, with the radical politics (and newspaper reading) of the Enlightenment and the Revolution. Often these places hosted meetings of labor militants, striking workers, and political radicals. In the nineteenth century, formalized labor unions, socialist and labor political parties, and workers' clubs continued to meet in the café, which had become a veritable working-class institution. In 1890 Karl Kautsky (1854–1938), leader of the German Social Democratic Party and disciple of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), well summed up its role as "the proletariat's only bulwark of political freedom" under the politically repressive conditions of that era, concluding that "the tavern is the only place in which the lower classes can meet unmolested and discuss their common affairs. Without the tavern, not only would there be no social life for the German proletariat, but also no political life." This type of working-class drinking establishment spread to England and later to Germany and Russia. In contrast, the labor movement in the Scandinavian north relied more on the temperance movement than on café sociability for its growth and consolidation.

Industrialization intensified the links between politics and urban space. English cities grew at an unprecedented rate between 1780 and 1850, and by 1851 England was the first nation in the world to have a majority of its population living in cities. French, German, Italian, and Russian cities echoed this growth and soon contained an explosive mixture of disoriented rural laborers, overworked and underpaid in workshops and factories, living in squalid slums and subject to periodic economic crises.

Marx and Engels believed that these new industrial cities were producing a new revolutionary class, the proletariat, that might overthrow the capitalist class. In his study of Manchester and other English industrial areas, Engels noted that the class conflict hidden behind factory walls appeared in all its raw, unvarnished intensity on the city streets in the form of poverty, begging, and theft. The street was also the site of organized working-class demonstrations and protests. For this reason workers and their allies fought throughout the nineteenth century to maintain access to the street, often in the face of police and military repression. Though they had cafés and meeting halls, the workers realized that in terms of space they were still at a disadvantage, vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie. The following editorial from a radical Parisian paper, L'organisation du travail, during the 1848 Revolution is eloquent on this point: "The street is the first, the most sacred of all the clubs. What do you want, Messieurs les bourgeois? The people do not have access to your gilded, ornate salons."

The street during the nineteenth century was the crossroads of hope and despair for the working class. While the French Revolution of 1789 created the modern political demonstration (journée), the subsequent Revolutions of 1830, 1848, and 1871 (the Paris Commune) brought street barricades. After an initial entrance into history during the Fronde rebellion (1648), barricades returned to Parisian streets in 1827 and their use spread to the rest of Europe during the continent-wide 1848 revolution. The space inside the barricade embodied the communal society so many of the revolutionaries wished to create, and often cafés became the headquarters of these incipient revolutionary republics. Although barricades reappeared after World War I and again at the end of World War II, Engels was largely correct when he wrote in the late 1880s that widened streets and improvements in military firepower had rendered barricades obsolete for revolutionaries.


Bourgeois response to the threat of revolution and disorder was threefold. One strategy envisaged the physical improvement of the street to make it a safer, cleaner, and more efficient space. Another strategy concentrated on creating new disciplinary and welfare institutions that would moralize deviants or remove them from the street. A third strategy involved a revived emphasis on urban renewal (inspired by the Renaissance example of Rome) or suburbanization (following the example of the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century middle-class Protestant evangelicals in England).

After 1800 the introduction of the sidewalk—virtually unknown before then—addressed the need to alleviate the increasingly crowded and chaotic streets of rapidly growing cities. The sidewalk (with a convex road for cart, carriage, and other horse traffic) provided gutters, underground drains, sewers, and water and gas mains for sanitation. Lighting, bathroom facilities, kiosks, benches, and newspaper stands reflected an extraordinary rationalization of street functions. (Bedarida and Sutcliff, 1980, p. 386). Street renovation also helped London, Paris, and other cities cope with an unprecedented rise in traffic, seen even before the arrival of the automobile. While the population of inner-city Paris grew by 25 percent between 1850 and 1870, its traffic leaped as much as 400 percent (Berman, 1988, p. 158). After 1850, further improvement was made by paving the street with natural asphalt, a better surface than the earlier British macadam. These new methods were an essential part of the urban renovations that transformed many, especially continental, cities.

The two most dramatic examples of nineteenth-century urban renovation were Paris and Vienna. The transformation of the French capital under the Second Empire of Louis Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoléon III [1808–1873]) and his Prefect of Paris, Baron Georges-Eugéne Haussmann (1809–1891), resulted in an updating of the Renaissance principles of urban beautification. Broad, straight boulevards appeared, along with uniform facades and the latest innovations in sewers, water supply, and lighting. In addition, department stores, terrace cafés, sumptuous music halls, and an ornate opera house made Paris the showpiece of nineteenth-century European cities and insured that its international fairs, especially those of 1889 and 1900, were the most spectacular of the world expositions. A similar transformation occurred in Vienna when, after 1850, the old fortifications were demolished and a new circular boulevard, the Ringstrasse, surrounded the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a range of public buildings, stately residences, and impressive recreation sites. The broad boulevards also provided ample room for armies to repress demonstrations and destroy barricades.

On these new domesticated and shimmering boulevards, the bourgeoisie felt at home. Especially in Paris and Vienna but also in London, the middle class no longer disdained display on public thoroughfares. The protected semipublic arcades, passages, and galleries of Paris and London, popular during the first half of the century, fell into disfavor with the advent of the bright new boulevards (Bedarida and Sutcliff, 1980, p. 386). Those known as ramblers or idlers in London became known in Paris as flaneurs or boulevardiers. These detached observers of the street scene might be wealthy and discriminating bourgeois or journalists, writers, and painters. The French writers Victor Hugo (1802–1885), Charles-Pierre Baudelaire (1821–1867), and Émile Zola (1840–1902) all used "flaneur" to encapsulate the strange mixture of rootlessness, disorientation, exhilaration, and freedom that seemed to be part of the fabric of the "modern" city. Walter Benjamin's (1892–1940) insightful reflections on commodification, alienation, and identity formation under modern capitalism were inspired by the writings of these authors. He dubbed the Paris of that era as "capital of the century."

Anthony Vidler and Thomas Markus (inspired by Michel Foucault [1926–1984]) designated the nineteenth century as essentially the age of confinement and discipline. Hospitals, prisons, schools, reformatories, asylums, dispensaries, orphanages, and workhouses emerged by the hundreds across Europe. "Crippleages" incarcerated disabled people—those who, in past centuries, had lived and begged on the street but who were now judged to be impediments to efficient movement or flow.

Marketplaces and their raucous ambiance remained a vital part of urban life through the early nineteenth century in most European countries. Then growing concerns about public morality, sanitation, and street congestion surfaces, particularly in England. Markets were moved off the streets and into specially built facilities that often resembled churches or Greco-Roman temples, an architecture the Victorians believed would ennoble the act of buying and selling. As in exchanges and stock markets, each vendor had his own booth, stall, or shop. Rationalized commerce led to fixed pricing, which diminished the tradition of bargaining at the market. The "grand age" of these market halls lasted from 1830 to 1890.

The nineteenth century also accentuated the trend of spatial segregation by class. England's system of class separation was the most overt: not only did the bourgeoisie now live in exclusive suburbs, but they also frequented cafés, now transformed into exclusive gentlemen's clubs, admitting members only. The continental bourgeoisie, for the most part, stayed in the city, in the newly renovated districts. Instead of turning their cafés into English-style clubs, the bourgeoisie of Vienna and Paris relied on the high cost and fashionable ambiance of their establishments to keep out the proletariat. They also chose western sections of their cities for these establishments, where prevailing easterly winds blew any bad odors toward proletarian areas.


More than ever before, working-class districts were pushed to the periphery of cities. On working-class streets, vendors remained central suppliers of commodities, and most shops catered to a population that could seldom buy more than what they needed for each day. Street life still centered on sociability rather than self-display or spatial mobility.

During the second half of the nineteenth century and first quarter of the twentieth, a distinctive working-class subculture evolved. Although still possessing minimal purchasing power compared to their social and economic superiors, workers nevertheless developed a unique pattern of social life. For instance, they were increasingly able to own several sets of clothes, including the famous "Sunday best." After work, they often changed into clothes that diminished the sartorial distance between the classes. Hats, however, continued to signal class difference: the bourgeois wore the formal top hat while the proletarian stayed with the cap. The laboring population also adopted the bourgeois ritual of promenading, usually not on the fashionable central boulevards and parks but rather on the outer boulevards and fortifications of their own parts of town. With the advent of cheap train trips to the seaside or riverside, workers began to develop their own limited notion of the "weekend."

The central institutions of proletarian culture, however, were the café, the dance hall, and the music hall, often combined in one shop. To the chagrin of labor leaders, these institutions remained much more popular than labor halls, workingmen's clubs, or universities. The number of cafés in France and pubs in England provides an indication of the popularity of these establishments. In France the number of cafés jumped from some 365,000 in 1870 to 482,000 in 1913 and to 507,000 in 1938. In England and Wales, the number of pubs and alehouses stood at around 40,000 in 1800 and more than doubled by the 1860s through the 1880s (105,552 in 1860 and in 1880, now including beer houses, 106,751).


After the turn of the twentieth century, new technologies and new urban and architectural theories led to radical changes in the urban fabric. London had developed its underground subway system by the 1870s, and mass-transit systems in most other major cities became fully operational after 1900. These forms of rapid transit began to break up the solidarity of working-class neighborhoods. This process of social fragmentation would proceed much more quickly after it finally became feasible for the working classes to own automobiles in the 1960s, some forty years after the middle classes had become car owners. The most important impact of mechanized mass and individual transportation was the definitive separation of work from home; with cars, even the lower classes could now contemplate living outside the city. (This trend, towards a seperation of work an home life, incidentally, began to reverse with the rise of Internet communication.) The English reformer Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850–1928) was an early and influential proponent of the proletarian urban exodus. His vision of "garden cities" purported to moralize the workers through a return to the country, taking much the same course Protestant Evangelicals had advocated for the middle classes a century earlier. Variants of Howard's ideas helped shape suburbanization throughout Europe, especially after World War I.

Although influential, Howard's pastoral vision paled in comparison to a set of radical new theories developed by a generation of architects and urban planners who came of age after 1900. This cohort included the Swiss-born and French-based Charles Édouard Jeanneret (1887–1965), who became famous under the adopted name of Le Corbusier; the Bauhaus school in Germany, including Ludwig Miës van der Rohe (1886–1969) and Walter Gropius (1883–1969); the Italian Antonio Sant'Elia (1888–1916); and the Spaniard Arturo Soria y Mata. These visionaries were inspired by leftist ideologies, such as anarchism, socialism, and communism, and their projects were often imbued with utopian zeal. Although each proponent developed nuanced and complex theories of space, their basic goals were similar: to overcome crowding, congestion, dirt, disease, and lack of ventilation and sunlight, all factors they saw as typical of the nineteenth century. They urged the building of new towns, cities, or districts with broad highways to accommodate the automobile and high-rise housing, thus supplying sufficient space, sunlight, and hygiene for the masses. "Form must follow function," they declared, and denounced architectural ornamentation and embellishment as decadent and bourgeois. This purely functional approach included separating home from work space and creating separate but integrated sites for shopping and leisure.

Traditional street life was doomed to disappear in the face of these heady futuristic visions. According to Le Corbusier, the street was "no more than a trench, a deep cleft, a narrow passage." Few of these architects received commissions to build or redesign cities during the 1920s or 1930s, although they propagated their theories through various organizations and in manifestos and books. Le Corbusier was especially active as an organizer. In 1930 he promulgated the Athens Charter and formed the International Association of Modern Architects (Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne, CIAM). Neither the Russian Revolution (1917) nor the rise of European fascism, first in Italy then in Germany, produced any distinct practical or theoretical breaks in street life or city space. The radical right in Europe adapted to their own purposes such left-wing tactics as street demonstrations and café organizing. Revolutionary workers in Russia created a new type of workers' organization, the soviet, or council, to take over and run the factories. Under the Popular Front government in France during the interwar era, radical social movements achieved a unique development in the use of public space. After the left-wing electoral victory in the spring of 1936, French workers, rather than taking to the streets as they had done traditionally, commandeered and occupied factories and forced employers to grant unprecedented concessions.

The unparalleled destruction of the European urban fabric during World War II provided a golden opportunity for the architectural and urbanist visionaries to implement what became known as the modernist or international style of architecture. Old city centers were rebuilt and "new towns" emerged on the periphery. The spare and functional style of modern architecture ensured a clear visual and social distinction between buildings devoted to home and those designed for work. Zoning ordinances consecrated this rigid distinction in law. Increasingly streets were given over exclusively to cars. As a result, the old-fashioned working-class neighborhood disintegrated or was bulldozed into oblivion. Face-to-face interaction on streets or in cafés, once a given of city life, became ever rarer. This decline in sociability was exacerbated by the arrival of television in the 1950s and 1960s.

New suburban developments or satellite cities tended to be built without any commercial establishments or, indeed, any type of shop within walking distance. English Mark I and Mark II new towns did not even include such intermediate spaces between public and private space as porches or porticos. High-rise apartment complexes were especially stark in their juxtaposition between home space and the newly emerging distant shopping center. Many workers, clerks, supervisors, and managers adapted and enjoyed this novel lifestyle oriented around work, the commute, and the now-affordable panoply of new consumer durable goods (refrigerators, washing machines, stereos). Even in areas where traditional street and café life remained an option, neighborhood sociability became much less dense due to the faster pace and greater variety of options brought about by affluence.


A profound alienation came to plague a significant number of the inhabitants of these new towns, and by the end of the 1950s some urbanists and architects called for a renewed orientation toward street life, neighborhood values, and sociability. The researchers Michael Young and Peter Willmott in England and Henri Coing in France, finding that even gossip networks could not develop in high-rises, documented an increase in alienation and a decline in mental health. During the 1950s two other researchers, Allison Smithson (1928–) and Peter Smithson (1923–), argued that the more traditional street life of inner-city London's East End exhibited a liveliness and effervescence that could be an antidote to the excesses of technological changes. These observations were confirmed subsequently by a number of American scholars, such as Jane Jacobs and Herbert Gans (1927–). Inspired by these sociological findings, a new generation of architects and planners, some from Le Corbusier's CIAM, started an architectural and urban movement concerned with reviving the social functions of streets and cafés. In 1962 the Danish architect Jan Gehl promoted the prohibition of cars on Copenhagen's Stroget, thus initiating an international movement to create pedestrian walkways in downtown areas.

The revalorization of the street also found advocates among social movements that emerged in Europe, as well as in the United States, during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The most utopian postwar vision of the streets found expression during the events of May 1968. Paralyzing France for several weeks, students and workers in this revolt proclaimed that retaking the street for life and freedom could transform society. Of the thousands of slogans and graffiti this popular explosion produced, one of the most famous was "Under the street, the rage." A new wave of feminism also developed during this time, declaring that women could not be fully liberated unless they had as much right as men did to explore the street. During the last decades of the twentieth century, such English feminists as Elizabeth Wilson and Doreen Massey even explored the possibilities of a woman as flaneur (that is, as a flaneuse?) in the contemporary city.

After 1970 the movement to restore a social dimension to street and urban life became incorporated into the plans of many developments. For instance, English Mark III towns incorporated city centers, and Cergy-Pontoise, a satellite town in the region of Paris, created intermediate zones for sociability between the residences and the freeway. In 1985 the socialist Mitterrand government in France initiated a cultural and architectural program for suburban enrichment ("Suburbs '89–Banlieues '89") aimed at constructing cafés, libraries, and other public amenities for housing (often high-rise apartments) built after 1945. Gehl's concept of pedestrian malls also became popular across Europe. For example, the southern French city of Toulouse renovated old marketplaces, as London did with Covent Garden. In general, street life revived more successfully than café life. The number of cafés in France and England, respectively seventy-five thousand and fifty-five thousand at the turn of the twenty-first century, continued to decline. Currently, the largest number of drinking establishments in Europe is found in Spain, where urban renovation never reached the level achieved in the rest of western Europe.

By the 1990s a new generation of critics had begun to argue that the attempt to rebuild urban communities was often elitist and artificial. Most of the renovation had led to gentrification that benefited the tourist and upper classes more than the working class. In addition to being drained of all historic association with the popular culture once at the heart of street and café life, many of these new city centers had become subject to a new technological form of surveillance. Great Britain led the way in the installation of closed-circuit television cameras. Indeed, Great Britain had more public closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems than any other advanced capitalist nation: by August 1996 all major British cities except Leeds had them. Such systems can pose severe threats to civil liberties and to the simple enjoyment of urban space. On the other hand, television surveillance does respond to the perception of many government, business, and public establishments that urban spaces, especially streets and malls, are no longer safe. Nan Ellin, in his Postmodern Urbanism, summarized this approach as "form follows fear." How to balance recreation of urban community and the latest techniques of surveillance is one of the dilemmas facing the twenty-first century.


This summary of the social history of street life and city space challenges any simple notion of "progress" in social and cultural history. On the one hand, innovations that removed sewage, dirt, and dust from the streets and sidewalks that separated pedestrians and terrace café and restaurant customers from carriage and then car traffic on the street were significant improvements in terms of sanitation, safety, and sociability. On the other hand, especially since World War II, changes that have turned streets over to cars and to an unprecedented degree separated the spaces of work, family, and leisure, have spawned as much alienation as efficiency. The result has been, since the 1980s, an attempt to restore multifunctionality, the hallmark of city life in the medieval and Renaissance eras. An opening and welcoming urban environment will be crucial during the twenty-first century, as European cities will undoubtedly accept millions of new immigrants—now, however, not from the hinterlands of their own nations but from the rest of the world. It is on the streets and in the public places that the process of cultural assimilation, expression, and creation will continue.

The popular French singer Edith Piaf (1915–1963) captured the vitality of the street when, in a reflective moment, she told a friend:

Life is not given to you as a gift when you come from the street. You learn to live at the maximum at each instant as it passes, before it bids you bye-bye! You also learn how to cry and to laugh and to play. This is a rough but good school, a thousand times more worthwhile than the schools of the rich. You learn to give to the people what they want without too much fuss.

See alsoCivil Society (in this volume);Social Class; The Middle Classes; Working Classes; Moral Economy and Luddism; Urban Crowds (volume 3);Festivals; Holidays and Public Rituals (volume 5); and other articles in this section.


Introduction to the History of the Street

Anderson, Stanford, ed. On Streets. Cambridge, Mass., 1978.

Çelik, Zeynep, Diane Favro, and Richard Ingersoll. Streets: Critical Perspectives onPublic Space. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1994

Fyfe, Nicholas R., ed. Images of the Street: Planning, Identity, and Control in PublicSpace. London and New York, 1998.

Leménorel, Alain. La rue, lieu de sociabilité? Rencontres de la rue. Actes du colloque de Rouen, 16–19 novembre 1994 avec la participation d'Alain Corbin. Rouen, France, 1997.

The Street Throughout History

Ariès, Philippe. "Introduction." In A History of Private Life. Vol. 3. Passions of theRenaissance. Edited by Philippe Ariès and and Georges Duby. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass., 1989. Pages 1–11.

Brown-May, Andrew. Melbourne Street Life: The Itinerary of Our Days. Kew, Victoria, 1998. An excellent study of streets in a European settler society.

Leguay, Jean-Pierre. La rue au Moyen Age. Rennes, France, 1984. Covers the medieval street.

Farge, Arlette. Fragile Lives: Violence, Power, and Solidarity in Eighteenth-CenturyParis. Translated by Carol Shelton. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Farge, Arlette. Subversive Words: Public Opinion in Eighteenth-Century France. Translated by Rosemary Morris. University Park, Penn., 1995.

Farge, Arlette. Vivre dans la rue à Paris au XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 1979.

Garrioch, David. The Formation of the Parisian Bourgeoisie, 1690–1830. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Garrioch, David. Neighborhood and Community in Paris, 1740–1790. Cambridge, Mass., 1986.

Muir, Edward. Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice. Princeton, N.J., 1981.

Trexler, Richard C. Public Life in Renaissance Florence. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1991.

Weissman, Ronald F. E. Ritual Brotherhood in Renaissance Florence. New York, 1982.

Winter, James H. London's Teeming Streets, 1830–1914. London and New York, 1993.

Overviews of Literature and Urban Life

Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York, 1988.

Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca, N.Y., 1986.

Tester, Keith, ed. The Flaneur. London and New York, 1994. Covers the literature of the flaneur.

Buildings and Living Spaces

Bedarida, Francois and Anthony Sutcliff. "The Street in the Structure and Life of the City, Reflections on Nineteenth-Century London and Paris." Journal of Urban History 6, no. 4 (August 1980): 379–396.

Contemine, Philippe. "Peasant Hearth to Papal Palace: The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries." In A History of Private Life. Vol. 2. Revelations of the Medieval World. Edited by Georges Duby. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass., 1988. Pages 425–505.

Fishman, Robert. Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York, 1987. On the rise of English suburbs.

Markus, Thomas A. Buildings and Power: Freedom and Control in the Origin ofModern Building Types. London and New York, 1993. An exploration of buildings and their meaning in urban life.

Young, Michael, and Peter Willmott. Family and Kinship in East London. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1992. Discusses the rise of English suburbs.

Gender and Urban Space

Bladh, Christine. "Women and Family Structure in Late 18th Century Stockholm." In Women in Towns: The Social Position of Urban Women in a Historical Context. Edited by Marjatta Hietala and Lars Nilsson. Stockholm, 1999. Pages 89–109.

Brown, Judith C., and Robert C. Davis. eds. Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy:Men and Women in History. London and New York, 1998.

Cohen, Samuel Kline. Women in the Streets: Essays on Sex and Power in RenaissanceItaly. Baltimore and London, 1996.

Nord, Deborah Epstein. Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1995.

Tebbutt, Melanie. Women's Talk? A Social History of "Gossip" in Working-Class Neighborhoods, 1880–1960. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1995.

Von Ankum, Katharina. Women in the Metropolis, Gender, and Modernity in WeimarCulture. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1997.

Walkowitz, Judith R. City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London. Chicago, 1992.

Street Life: Commerce, Leisure, and Politics

The Concept of the "Public Sphere"

Darnton, Robert. "Presidential Address: An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris." American Historical Review 105 (2000): 1–35.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Street Vendors and Markets

Fontaine, Laurence. History of Pedlars in Europe. Translated by Vicki Whittaker. Durham, N.C., 1996.

Milliot, Vincent. Les "cris de Paris," ou, Le peuple travesti: Les représentations des petits métiers parisiens (XVIe–XVIIIe siècles). Paris, 1995.

Schmiechen, James, and Kenneth Carls. The British Market Hall: A Social andArchitectural History. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1999.

Taverns and Cafés

Brennan, Thomas. Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Princeton, N.J., 1988.

Clark, Peter. The English Alehouse: A Social History, 1200–1830. London and New York, 1983.

Gutzke, David W. Protecting the Pub: Brewers and Publicans against Temperance. Suffolk, U.K., and Wolfeboro, N.H., 1989.

Haine, W. Scott. The World of the Paris Café: Sociability among the French WorkingClass, 1789–1914. Baltimore and London, 1996.

Hurd, Madeleine. Public Spheres, Public Mores, and Democracy: Hamburg and Stockholm, 1870–1914. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2000. Covers taverns and cafes.

Phillips, Laura L. Bolsheviks and the Bottle: Drink and Worker Culture in St. Petersburg, 1900–1929. DeKalb, Ill., 2000. Covers taverns and cafés.

Roberts, James S. Drink, Temperance, and the Working Class in Nineteenth-CenturyGermany. Boston, 1984.

Segal, Harold B., trans. and ed. The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits, 1890–1938. West Lafayette, Ind., 1993.

Tlusty, Ann. The Culture of Drink in the Early Modern German City. Charlottesville, Va., 2001.


McClellan, Andrew. Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics, and the Origins of the ModernMuseum in Eighteenth-Century Paris. New York, 1994.

Ravel, Jeffrey S. The Contested Parterre: Public Theater and French Political Culture,1680–1791. Ithaca, N.Y., 1999.

Sherman, Daniel J. Worthy Monuments: Art Museums and the Politics of Culture inNineteenth-Century France. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Spang, Rebecca L. The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern GastronomicCulture. Cambridge, Mass., 2000.

Thacker, Christopher. The History of Gardens. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1979.

Children and Adolescents

Davin, Anna. Growing Up Poor: Home, School, and Street in London, 1870–1914. London, 1996.

Humphries, Stephen. Hooligans or Rebels?: An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth, 1889–1939. Oxford, 1981.

I wish to thank all scholars who helped me online, especially Christine Bladh, Andrew Brown-May, and Edward Stanton.