During the short interval of my life in which I lived in New York City, I never lacked for a way to spend a Saturday. When in doubt, I just walked out my front door and wandered around. That doesn’t work where I live now; for all the attentive landscaping in my neighborhood (thank you, flower gardeners), I can’t seem to lose track of time here like I could walking in NYC.

I could draw out the punchline, but given the title of this entry you’ve likely guessed it already. What made NYC continuously and invariably interesting was other people, out and around, either watching other people like I was, or doing something else entirely. We call this, unsurprisingly but without variation, “people watching.”

One of the more absorbing books I’ve recently read is City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age by P.D. Smith, a topical treatment of dozens of altogether intriguing things about cities. Smith devotes an entire section to people watching, and prefaces his analysis by setting it within the nineteenth-century urban explosion:

“London led the way, but Paris, Berlin and Vienna were not far behind. As cities grew to unprecedented sizes, people were both awed by their potential but also profoundly unsettled by their scale and energy. Vast crowds thronged the city streets from dawn till dusk, different classes and nationalities rubbing shoulders with each other, ‘a mass of strangers who would remain strange’, to use Rebecca Solnit’s memorable phrase.”

— Smith, P.D. City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age (Kindle Locations 2861-2865). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

This “mass of strangers” either repelled or fascinated (and sometimes both) contemporary observers. A compelling image arose: The gentlemen of leisure aimlessly strolling about, an intensely observant but dispassionate witness to the spectacle of the nineteenth century metropolis. The French actually have a word (of course they do) for such a gentlemen: the flâneur. I am told that there is no exact equivalent in English for “flâneur.” The word, however, evokes an urban anthropologist or detective, anonymously studying the “mass of strangers” and forming hypotheses about their destinations, occupations, and preoccupations.

In 1860s Paris, Charles Baudelaire described this figure as a “painter of modern life.” The urban “painter” prowls the city with no purpose other than to study its scenes and inhabitants, and “marvels at the eternal beauty and the amazing harmony of life in the capital cities, a harmony so providently maintained amid the turmoil of human freedom.” As P.D. Smith notes, authors like Edgar Allen Poe (in “The Man of the Crowd“) and Charles Dickens (in Sketches by Boz) told stories about the faces and mannerisms of the metropolitan strangers, creating speculative mini-narratives about the people they encountered. In other words, they wrote about people watching.

It is odd to think of people watching as a purposeful activity that required invention. It would seem that people watching demands nothing more involved than simply watching people. But, after all, Wikipedia has a separate entry for it, complete with what I guess are rules for doing it right, and there are any number of other “guides” to people watching (including a questionably titled “expert’s guide“). In brief, people watching properly so called involves anonymity, careful observation, and speculation. Which is more or less the very definition of the activity of the flâneur (for which activity the French also have a word, flânerie). I therefore dispute the claim recited above that we have no translation for flâneur; we call such a person a people watcher, but then must pedantically point to the “expert’s guide” to avoid careless misunderstanding of the term.

And so of course people watching properly so called was an activity that required invention, or at least definition. You can’t people watch somebody you know, at least according to the guides cited above. A more nuanced but related point: the people watcher must also be anonymous in the larger crowd, to preserve the self-perceived detachment and hiddenness of the observer. So, if you are well known in your smallish village, and a stranger comes to visit, and you along with the rest of your friends and relations carefully study the stranger, that is also not people watching. Finally, you simply must spin out theories about who these people are, and how they earn their wages, and where they are going, and whether they are nice to their nieces and their cats. If you are wandering a city and see a stranger, whom you carefully observe, and about whom you think, “Ha, look at the silly tall person, his forehead is ridiculously big” . . . again, not people watching. Properly so called.

In short, there is only one place you can truly people watch, and that place is the swarming metropolis.

Is there nothing sinister about all this? Questions about the propriety of people watching are fundamentally uninteresting; we may as well question the propriety of covetousness and envy, and to as much effect, because where there are people we will watch. But perceptive observers have raised questions that are interesting. For example, is people watching (like window shopping) an essentially consumerist activity? Have we somehow compromised our capacity for genuine relationship by so easily turning strangers into objects to be studied? Is people watching nothing but an anxiety-reducing mechanism, a way to tame the threat and unknowability of the city by pretending the ability to read the secrets of strangers? Has people watching contributed to, or at least exacerbated, the alienation and ephemerality of the modern age by diverting us with streams of disconnected, transient mental images?

I make no effort to answer these questions. And to the extent that I find myself troubled by them, even if only a little, I will surely distract myself by engaging in some harmless flânerie.

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