Writing about Street Life and Thinking about COVID

The Metropole Bookshelf is an opportunity for authors of forthcoming or recently published books to let the UHA community know about their new work in the field.


By Brian Ladd

My new book, The Streets of Europe, mostly ends a century ago, so it’s not about cars, but it would not have happened without their presence weighing on my mind. After writing a previous book about the effects of automobiles on cities (Autophobia), I began to ask what came before. Although I have long been willing to endorse the claim that cars ruined cities, I was well aware of the counterarguments. Nineteenth-century city streets were no paradise. Their dirt and disease were notorious (if sometimes exaggerated), and historians have excavated the corrosive class and gender tensions there.[1] Even traffic jams and mortal danger to pedestrians predate the automobile.

For me—and I never thought it was just me—there is an ineffable thrill in the full sensory stimulation of the street, with all its serendipitous encounters. An automobile closes off most of those stimuli and diverts motorists’ attention to the road ahead—with striking consequences apparent both in daily life (road rage, among much else) and in policies shaped by motorists. I thought that perhaps the pre-automotive street must have been a richer place.

But how? My historian’s instincts resisted the technological determinism that would blame the infernal machine for ruining the pedestrian experience. That tension fueled a productive exploration of the ways the street was experienced in the nineteenth century and before. I began reading, taking full advantage of the many obscure out-of-copyright publications now accessible online. In a seminar I taught as a visiting professor at the University of Oregon, many years ago now, graduate students and I worked through some of the scattered scholarship on street life. Urban histories that have focused on “the crowd” (nearly always meaning political protest), government, and architecture left gaps for me to explore. As I traced developments back well before 1800, I left North America behind and drew most of my material from London, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin, Europe’s four largest cities as of 1900.[2]

Marcellus Laroon the Younger, “Buy my dish of great Eels,” 18th century. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

There was plenty of tension and discord to be found. I wasn’t really surprised to find that people in a world without cars displayed both the desire and the means to evade social contact or assert dominance in public. Assertions of class privilege and power can be found in all streets, and have often been mediated through transportation technology. Self-fashioning in the streets took many different forms. Some of them could be largely framed as assertions of official authority—cleanliness, traffic—while in others the role of government was secondary—social display and especially commerce in all its varieties.

I also found full-throated endorsements of the very thrill I get from street life, voiced centuries ago. To appreciate them, though, I needed to reconstruct daily habits and rituals as they emerged and changed over the centuries, sometimes in identifiable response to structural changes in urban economies and technologies.

Part of my work entailed assembling fragmentary evidence of sensory impressions. Smells proved to be a vivid, if elusive, topic. Soundscapes lent themselves somewhat better to reconstruction, as is apparent in the recent growth in historical sound studies. Here lay perhaps my most striking if not entirely original discovery: the vital role of itinerant street vendors in the daily experience as well as the public memory of the street. I gradually became aware that for centuries, well into the nineteenth, the identity of the street—in city after city, in remarkably similar ways—was defined by the presence of men and women who sold food and other goods or provided services and entertainment. The extent to which they shaped the auditory as well as the visual experience of the street has been highlighted by a few art historians who have called attention to the genre of popular prints known as “street cries.”[3] The great number of these prints, across continents and centuries, suggests that street cries shaped urban identities and memories to an extent that has not been appreciated. (I have written a little more about the value of these images here.) For centuries, the characteristic sounds of hawkers’ melodic incantations accompanied any trip through the streets. This once familiar world faded away as a variety of forces diminished street activity, and my book also traces the change from a soundscape of human voices and interactions to one of mechanical noise and speed.

John Thomson, “Halfpenny Ices,” London, 1870s. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, http://www.lacma.org.

Then came COVID. My book was done, its release was delayed, and from my self-quarantine I had time—too much time—to reflect on the meaning of the eerie silence that prevailed, even in streets that had remained lively up to then. Suddenly there was a widespread, palpable fear of other bodies, comparable to fears of disease that had long cast a pall over street encounters. At the same time, though, many people who missed their street experiences were commenting on the voids in their streets and their lives. Others spotted new opportunities. As automotive traffic diminished, cities began converting car space—travel lanes and parking—into space for walking, breathing, and dining. These initiatives, of course, built on a foundation of twenty-first century efforts to reclaim streets from cars.

This, too, was a particular echo of the vanished world I had written about. There is a long and rich history of eating in the street. Today’s “restaurant streets” harken back both to mobile hawkers of penny loaves and pea soup (a reminder that the street could be a place of alluring as well as repulsive aromas) and to early initiatives to pull tables and chairs out onto fashionable streets when they were judged tolerably clean. The decline of street eating, driven in part by the conviction that it was unsanitary, has been countered in recent years by a fashion for “street food.” COVID has given that trend a sharp boost, now that the demands of hygiene offer an unexpected new incentive to linger and socialize on the street.

It is too early to know if these abrupt changes to street design and use will endure. A question of broader import is whether a lingering fear of bodily contact will inflict lasting damage on street life. Predictions of the demise of cities and a renaissance of automotive sprawl are rife, although they come mainly from longtime enemies of urban life. I put more weight on the historical and contemporary evidence of the street’s allure.


Brian Ladd is an adjunct research associate in the Department of History at University at Albany. His research tries to bridge the gap between historical scholarship and urban policy, especially in matters of planning, urban design, and transportation.

Featured Image (at top): Nicolas Guerard, “L’Embarras de Paris, Le Pont-Neuf vu du Cote de la rue Dauphine,” 18th Century.

[1] Examples: Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air (New York: Penguin, 1988); Christoph Heyl, A Passion for Privacy: Untersuchungen zur Genese der bürgerlichen Privatsphäre in London (1660-1800) (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2004); Arlette Farge, Vivre dans la rue à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 1979); Peter K. Andersson, Streetlife in Late Victorian London: The Constable and the Crowd (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Robert B. Shoemaker, The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Hambledon and London, 2004); Thomas Lindenberger, Strassenpolitik: Zur Sozialgeschichte der öffentlichen Ordnung in Berlin 1900 bis 1914 (Bonn: Dietz, 1995). On gender in particular: Judith R. Walkowitz, “Going Public: Shopping, Street Harassment, and Streetwalking in Late Victorian London,” Representations 62 (Spring 1998): 1-30; Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000); Victoria E. Thompson, The Virtuous Marketplace: Women and Men, Money and Politics in Paris, 1830-1870 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

[2] Previous histories of street life have mainly examined London and Paris. In addition to some of the works cited in the previous note, books I was able to profit from included James Winter, London’s Teeming Streets, 1830-1914 (London: Routledge, 1993); Jonathan Conlin, Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London, and the Making of the Modern City (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013); Laurent Turcot, Le promeneur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 2007); and Luc Sante, The Other Paris (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).

[3] Karen F. Beall, Kaufrufe und Strassenhändler: Eine Bibliographie. Cries and Itinerant Trades: A Bibliography, trans. Sabine Solf (Hamburg: Hauswedell, 1975); Sean Shesgreen, Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002); Vincent Milliot, Les Cris de Paris ou le Peuple travesti: Les Représentations des petits métiers parisiens XVIe-XVIIIe siècles (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1995, 2014).

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