It was rush hour on a brisk evening in early March which couldn't decide between winter and spring. I stepped onto a crowded bus and clasped the handrail as it lurched down Parc Avenue. Fifteen minutes and two Metro-stops later, I walked quickly through a few corridors and dashed across Sainte-Catherine-up an unmarked staircase, Café L'Utopik awaited.
I arrived at this crowded, sprawling café-a maze of brightly-coloured rooms, mismatched chairs and squeaky hardwood floors-to participate in a University of the Streets Café discussion on the flâneur. Ironically, I had come in a rush-just another bow-headed pedestrian pressing forward-but I'm usually what is considered to be a flâneur; my favourite pastime is to wander aimless around the city, camera in hand, recording anything that strikes my eye.
At a little after seven o'clock, as a dozen or so people sat near the front of the café waiting for the discussion to start, Mia Hunt, a doctoral student in Design Art and Urban Studies at Concordia University, got things rolling. The flâneur, she told us, emerged in nineteenth-century Paris, the product of a new bourgeois class and Baron Haussmann's dramatic makeover of the city. A dandyish figure who strolled unhurriedly down the capital's boulevards, the flâneur was best captured in the work of Charles Baudelaire. "For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer," he wrote, "it's an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity; in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite: you're not at home but you feel at home everywhere; you see everyone, you're at the centre of everything yet you remain hidden from everybody."
Hunt ends her introduction with a question: does the flâneur still exist? A lanky middle-aged man sitting across from her, legs crossed, looks nonplussed. Of course, he says. "I flânned here tonight." He shrugs wryly. "I'm a big time flâneur-I flân 89 percent of the time."
Still, the flâneur isn't well-respected in North American society. There is no English equivalent to the term and many anglophones are unfamiliar with it. In linguistically confused Montreal, "loitering" is often incorrectly translated as "flânage." When pas de flânage is written in bold on signs in food courts, the negative implications are obvious. In many cities, people who wander aimlessly are seen as eccentric or, worse, threatening. It shouldn't be any wonder why. Most cities on this continent are notoriously disjointed and nonsensical; they've reduced walking to a chore. The entire concept of suburbia is anathema to the flâneur.
But things are changing. In some cities, flânage is attractive once again. Part of the reason is gentrification - after all, the original flâneurs arose when Haussmann rammed his boulevards through Paris in an attempt to rationalize the cityscape. Gentrification has done something similar to North American cities ravaged by decades of disinvestment and suburban flight. But there might be another reason behind the rebirth of flânage: technology-more specifically, the internet and the digital camera.
You see, today's flâneur is the photoblogger. Wandering around town, snapping photos of places and faces, these men and women are urban ethnographers, observing and interpreting the city around them. Of course, street photography has been around for ages, and so have people who wander aimlessly. But not until the popularization of digital photography and the advent of blogs and photosharing sites like Flickr did the two coalesce so perfectly.
Sam Javanrouh is a photoblogger. Since moving to Toronto from Tehran in 1999, Javanrouh has carried a camera around with him, documenting life in his adopted city and posting it online on his blog, Daily Dose of Imagery. "I'm always on the lookout," he tells me. "When I'm going to work, if I'm with friends, if I'm on the bus or on the train, I'm always looking around." When he first moved to Toronto, he adds, he felt like a tourist, a voyeur. "But over the last few years I feel much more connected. It's changed the way I look at the city."
His photography has changed the way other people look at Toronto, too. A lot of the feedback he gets is from suburbanites who have forgotten that the richly detailed urban landscape he depicts actually exists. In a broad sense, Javanrouh says, he hopes that his photos give fellow Torontonians a new sense of appreciation for their urban space. "My photos show that I don't own a car, I don't drive. It shows through my images and that has got a lot of people reacting positively," he says. "I get a lot of emails from people saying they've begun biking again, that they've started looking around or that they've actually taken a walk down Queen Street. They're looking at public space in a different way."
My own experiences with photo-flânage mirror those of Javanrouh. Since I moved to Montreal four years ago, I've wandered down city streets on almost every corner of this island. Not only do photos give me the chance to examine my city in more detail than might otherwise be possible, it's had an effect on others. The most flattering appreciation of my work came from a friend who grew up in suburban Montreal, moved to the countryside and paid little attention to what was going on in the city. My photos reminded him of what he was missing. Now he too wanders around, camera in hand, his eye evaluating the urban landscape.
At Café L'Utopik, as the evening wore on and a jazz band began to assemble in the background, Mia Hunt tossed her audience another question-is the flâneur a voyeur or a participant? Does he or she actually engage in city life or merely observe it from afar? In the case of photoblogging, the answer seems obvious. Exploring the city and documenting what you see is not a passive act, especially if it's shared on the internet. "The more imagery there is, the better," says Javanrouh. "It opens the eyes of people and shows more and more where we live."
Leaving L'Utopik, I couldn't help but look around, at the faces of people on the Metro, at the buildings dusty from another long winter. I am a flâneur.
Christopher DeWolf wanders our streets as Maisonneuve's urban affairs critic. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Christopher DeWolf.