“Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley. This art I acquired rather late in life; it fulfilled a dream, of which the first traces were labyrinths on the blotting papers of my school notebooks.”
- Walter Benjamin, “Tiergarten”, Berlin Childhood around 1900
Over the last few weeks thousands upon thousands of people have been joining a facebook group called ‘Secret London’, and similar groups have been set up for other cities around the world. The point, apparently, is to tell absolutely everyone about those great places that aren’t already filled with tourists. The result, I can only assume, will be for all of those lovely little places to quickly become overcrowded and not-so-lovely little places, but that is only the beginning.
Already we live in a city that is fractured, or rather shattered by transport. If a place doesn’t have a tube station it barely exists in the consciousness of the average North Londoner. Where there’s a tube that will take you somewhere, most people will never walk. London is split into confined areas set around specified destinations, and through this already begins to lack identity as a city.
A few weeks ago, standing outside the Tate Britain, a couple of people asked me and a friend how to get to Liverpool street. We’re both Londoners and gave the answer that the best way would be to “go up the river for a couple of miles, perhaps there’s a bus that will take you along the Thames”, but this way of thinking about London, the geographical connection of places, seems rarer and rarer. It is as a result of a lack of this kind of thinking that people even feel they need groups about how to find cool places to go.
It might seem that I am simply arguing for a quaint old-fashionedness in an approach to a city, flâneurism even, but my point is more that the way that the city is split is of course not a result of the wills of the people who live in it. Maybe a better solution, instead of telling people where they can find a secret spot that is quite cool, would be to demand they challenge this edifice. To reclaim the city through a process of understanding that is so much challenged by the edifice of tube maps, transport systems, tourist information bureaux, city guides, etc. Without a doubt almost all of the secret places listed are random finds, so if we universalise this system of finding good places to go, we not only run the risk of losing our own secret places, but the entire way secret places may be found. And if the same principle is applied across all cities, that they become a mere collection of places rather than spaces, we may lose the entire reason why London is London.