I come out of Green Park tube station into the fleeting city. In the maelstrom of bodies on the dark pavement I move down Piccadilly. In the flow of people I am isolated. Walter Benjamin (1939) writes: ‘fear, revulsion and horror were the emotions which the big city crowd aroused in those who first observed it’ (1999: 170).
Yet, in our present late capitalist age, as I walk down Piccadilly, I am delighted. I travel past the twinkling lights of the Ritz caught in my ‘own dream of a world’; lulled by the secret harmony of mechanised city life and seized by the freedom of the fugitive (Pater 2010: 119). Well-lit objects behind the glass have a constancy that the rushing pavement does not.
I arrive at the Burlington Arcade and enter. An immediate sense of luxury and safety is transmitted by the restored 19th Century features. Today the Arcade is experienced as a window into the past, signalling its construction as historian Pierre Nora’s ‘lieu de memoire’: a ‘spatially constituted’ site of memory (1989: 349). The opalescent arches of the modern ceiling extend and contain the gaze. Each store is encased in a curved wood and glass front; perfumes or patisserie, leather shoes or watches are packed neatly in rows behind the counter.
The Burlington Arcade is an ordered and disciplined environment. The Beadles, the smallest police force in the world, were introduced to the Arcade when it opened in 18191. Dressed in frock coats and gold fringed top hats, they stand at both entrances. On entry, a brass sign informs the public:
‘There is no right of way through this arcade which is private property. The Beadles are employed to maintain order and they are authorised to request any person to leave.’
The sign confirms the private securitization of wealthy enclaves in the city and suggests that the studied languor of visitors in this public private corridor may be the product of discipline over time. As the Beadles have been in the Arcade since its inception they symbolise its lived history. Not only do they give a sense of a clean ordered space but suggest it has always been thus.
In ‘Memory and Place’ (2004) Steven Hoelscher notes that ‘spaces explicitly designed to impart certain elements of the past … forget others’ (350). In Nora’s lieux de memoire ‘memory crystallizes and secretes itself’ (ibid.). I was struck by how memory can be hidden from sight when I discovered a different history to the sanitised account indicated by the present architecture. Opened with great fanfare in the Regency period the Burlington Arcade became a symbol of moral decay, perceived by commentators to be a part of the decadence of high society in the new consumerism.
The modern vaulted ceiling which today creates an expansive and light atmosphere, had more pragmatic origins: both encasing its opulence and boxing in its unsavoury elements. The Arcade’s website describes how:
‘Lord George Cavendish, who lived in Burlington House (now the Royal Academy) commissioned his architect … to build a covered promenade of shops – unofficially to stop ruffians from throwing quantities of rubbish, in particular oyster shells, onto his property’2.
Far from civilising those within, the roof created a shadowy, sarcophagal passage for transgressive behaviours. An 1871 article in the Saturday Review describes how: ‘the light of respectable day suffered to filter fitfully in from either end’ (80). The article explores the Burlington Arcade as ‘a bit of the night side of London’ in which prostitutes were a primary commodity for male consumers: ‘the living wares parade themselves in obedience to inclination or necessity’ (ibid.). By the early 20th Century many prostitutes inhabited the upper level where they and their pimps rented rooms from shopkeepers. The prostitutes had a system of whistles to signal to each other and to the pick pockets on the ground level when the Beadles were approaching so they could escape3. A whisper of this history remains in the fact that whistling is not allowed in the Arcade to this day.
The policing persists but the space feels safe, clean and free from raucous behaviour. The Arcade is also far sparser, originally designed to have 72 single unit shops, there are now only 204. In the 21st Century we have settled into our identity as consumers and the high-end stores convey a spic and span gentility, which responds to a marketable vision of the Arcade’s heritage. However, on my walk unauthorised bodies troubled this sanitised vision.
Just outside the Arcade a homeless woman wearing a bobble hat sat on the floor begging with a cardboard sign. While a man, his cap stamped with the Adidas logo, loaded garbage bags piled high into a cart. Together the pair and their occupations appeared as ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas 2002). Their position contrasted with the nineteenth century Arcade in which marginal figures were part of the fabric. Today marginal figures are literally outside in the cold, in opposition to those within.
Inside the Arcade men gathered: cool and relaxed. In expensive grey suits the men spread between store and passage drinking champagne after most of the shops were closed. Their presence indicated the openness and access granted by the space to those with wealth.
Urban theorist Jane Rendell describes the Burlington Arcade in the 19th Century as: ‘a series of gendered spaces – which served to articulate male concerns regarding women’s presence in the public spaces of the city’5. However, my walk as a whole suggested it was no longer gender that marked difference but wealth. My observation of the ease of consumption and mobility for certain people, spoke to the visible ‘local processes’ of wealth inequality in late capitalist cities (Hannam 2006).
The Burlington Arcade’s passage transports the visitor like the wardrobe into Narnia, you step into Bond Street with wide eyes. Bond Street is open and partly pedestrianised, wide pavements stretch into each other to form a smooth, pearly square at the top. There is a coldness and languor here. People look at each other, but idly, not in a friendly way. Through their dress and manner people present themselves as spectacle. There is a constant play between accessibility and inaccessibility. As I walk I wonder: who are these spaces open to? Is the openness contingent on the capacity to consume? Glass and polished stone attract and repel. Bond Street is remarkably bright for an evening in March.
Looking across the spaces I travel through, many of the romantic imperial consumer objects of the 19th century – chocolate, tea, carpets and diamonds – remain as focal points. Yet today the imperial racial hierarchies are disrupted by a more diverse clientele who have the capacity to consume. An East Asian man chats awkwardly to a brown skinned shoe-shiner in the Arcade as he waits for him to prepare his stool and brushes. In Bond Street an Italian woman coos ‘bellisima’ at a window display to her companion. A black man walks past, hands full of smart shopping bags in different shades of grey.
I detect an orientalist theme connecting many of the store displays along my walk. I see large dragons and blue and white vases. On Piccadilly, suspended carpets up-lit after Essie has closed transport their viewer to an Oriental dream scape.
These oriental themes mix with the large number of young East Asian consumers creating a post/colonial street scene that demonstrates shifting centres of power in a globalised economy. This new market brings into question whether these themes can be described as orientalist. Do they have the same connotations when their purveyor is Asian?
Returning to the cold luminosity of Bond Street we see the moneyed diverse publics tread ‘lightly’ through cosmopolitan centres6. Two East Asian teenagers walk past, one carrying a small Dior shopping bag the other in denim with an iPhone. The young woman in front in a long tawny coat and sling-back shoes reflects a self-assured and melancholic mood.
Her dress and poise suggest she is aware of her role as a figure in a tableau vivant. Jacki Onassis or a Wong Kar Wai heroine come to mind. In a different world her companion walks behind dressed all in denim. She is far away on her phone – hinting at the process of ‘time-space compression’ in the global system (Harvey 1990).
Crossing and re-crossing the space I hear multilingual aural cultures. Despite the streets appearing less marked by race, they are shaped by contemporary migratory hierarchies. In the James Arcade I come across painter decorators. They walk back and forth loading their paints and boards into a van on Jermyn Street, at the back of Fortnum and Mason. They wear yellow and silver vests and call to each other in an Eastern European language. At the other end of the Arcade neon signs mark off a work site. On the wall calculations and writing in an Eastern European language form a trace of the cheap migrant labour that makes and remakes these sites constantly under construction.
The delicate handwritten notes and calculations on the wall cut across and rewrite the commercial, bureaucratic textuality of the arcade.
Walking through Mayfair revealed spaces constantly remade by their occupants. Further research uncovered memory hidden from sight in the physical environment. The openness of the area for a wealthy elite is juxtaposed by lack of access for others. In late capitalist street scenes old inequalities take on new guises, and with them new protagonists.
Eleanor Smith-Hahn is a Third Year anthropology and sociology student at Goldsmiths. This walk is taken from her assessment for the London module which won the Goldsmiths Sociology Award for Outstanding Academic Work in 2017/18.
Amin, A. and Thrift, N (2002). Cities: Reimagining the Urban. Cambridge: Polity. Benjamin, Walter (1999). Illuminations. London: Pimlico.
Douglas, Mary (2002). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Abingdon: Routledge.
Hannam, Kevin et al (2006). Mobilities. Vol. 1, No.1, Taylor and Francis, pp. 1-22.
Harvey, David (1990). The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge: Blackwell.
Hoelscher, Steven and Alderman, Derek H (2004). ‘Memory and Place: geographies of a critical relationship’. Cultural Geography, 5:3, pp. 347-355.
Pater, Walter (2010). Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
‘The Burlington Arcade’. Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art; Jan 21, 1871; 31, 795; British Periodicals pp. 80