Friday, May 04, 2018

Liberate the past!

In 1926, there was an attempt to put into place a new kind of sidewalk at Rue Championnet in the 18th arrondissement – now known, if known at all, for being the last address of the Iranian author, Sadegh Hedayat – which would incorporate one of H.G. Wells’ vision of the future: it would roll. The speed of the sidewalk was set at 1 to 7 kilometers per hour. The experiment was reported by Paris Soir. But evidently it did not catch on: Rue Championnet today has returned to sidewalks that support the movement of the pedestrians, rather than vice versa. The future didn’t happen.
I am, for some reason, fascinated by the sidewalks of Paris. Outside of our building and all down our street, this winter, they have been reinstalling pipe. To do this, they had to remove the blocks of stone that constitute the sidewalk and dig a trench, going down a good three feet – or so I judge from watching the diggers step into it, which sank them to a chest high view of street level. The diggers seemed to have been a good natured bunch, as they would have to be: all of us residents of the street cast the evil eye, at one time or another, at this disturbance of our routine. We were forced to walk into the street rather than on the sidewalk, for one thing. On the other hand, we depend on those mysterious pipes and cables. Without them, we are fucked.
In the US, the destruction of the sidewalk would have been the work of jackhammers, and the pieces of concrete would have been carted off. In Paris, however, history is an arm’s length away. The sidewalks on our street are not mere anonymous sheets of concrete – the Mafia’s fave substance. Rather, they are paving stones – the kind of thing that, during revolutions, are dug out and piled up in the street to make barricades. Dallage, quoi. What the workers did was rather marvelous: they numbered each stone, spraying the numbers on them with a dayglo paint.  Then they piled them in a little area at the end of the street, which was surrounded by a little nylon green barrier. Now that the pipe and cable are laid, they are putting back the stones in the order in which they were numbered. This, for an American, is so amazing that I can’t walk down the sidewalk without feeling the urge to take out my phone and photograph. Although the photographs don’t really capture what is happening here. Instead of viewing the past as something to be preserved – in a sort of competition with the present and the future – the past is viewed as something living in the present, something that floats in our everyday life. This is so alien to the view of things in the American city – or at least the cities I’ve lived in, Atlanta, Austin, Los Angeles – that one has to shift the frame, or crash the frame, to get it to conceptually fit.
Liberate the past. Why give it to the reactionaries?

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