Because the night
Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Lovingly looking at well-lit cityscapes
The nineteenth-century metropolitan night provoked both fascination and fear. Aligned with desire and temptation on the one hand, and with intimidation and terror on the other, it conjured up images of intoxicating pleasure alongside those of crime and violence. This tension lies at the heart of Joachim Schlör’s compelling history of the nocturnal city, first published in German in 1991, translated into English in 1998 and recently reissued with a foreword by Matthew Beaumont. Focusing on three of the great European capitals of the nineteenth century – Paris, Berlin and London – in the period 1840–1930, Nights in the Big City explores the wider social and experiential ramifications of the introduction of gas and then electric street lighting. Founding rather than inhabiting any pre-existing genre, Schlör’s work combines urban studies, cultural history and social history. The wealth of source material on which he relies includes police and church records, newspaper articles, sociological reports and literary texts. Close attention is paid to the ways in which works of the imagination, such as Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man in the Crowd”, supplied the tropes and the motifs for conceptions of the metropolitan night.
There is both a romantic and an aesthetic dimension to the imagery of urban light in all its manifestations – street lights, illuminated shop windows, the signs adorning the entrances to bars and nightclubs, as well as floodlit public buildings. A nineteenth-century observer looking down at nocturnal Paris from his vantage point at Montmartre remarked: “The whole of Paris is studded with golden dots, as closely as a velvet gown with gold glitter. Soon they wink and twinkle everywhere, and you cannot imagine anything more beautiful, and yet the most beautiful is still to come. Out of the dots emerge lines, and from the lines figures, spark lining up with spark, and as far as the eye can see are endless avenues of light”. Yet street lighting also had a pragmatic function: light was about control, about the maintaining of law and order. As Londoners knew: “A light is as good as a policeman”. The increase in night traffic, the spread of prostitution and the rise of the criminal underworld led to the reorganization of nocturnal security services. The hapless night-watchmen were gradually replaced by a restructured police force.
The nineteenth-century city was the principal arena of the modern, in which the challenges posed by industrialization and urbanization were at their most pressing. One of the most radical transformations lay in the nature and degree of nocturnal activity. Before the introduction of street lighting, the majority of the urban populace would retreat indoors at nightfall. If the illumination of the streets led to their becoming the “theatre” in which questions of security, morality and pleasure took centre stage, another crucial factor was the poor quality of urban housing.
Rapidly increasing homelessness, alongside the appalling living conditions of the proletariat, provided a stark contrast to the crowds of night-time revellers frequenting the many bars, restaurants, variety theatres and dance halls, such as the Folies-Bergère, the Chat Noir and the Moulin Rouge in Paris, or the Hasenheide in Berlin. In 1843, F. Gustav Kühne observed that “the opulence of wealth and the misery which digs and burrows through the lower classes confront each other more sharply; here are now more nobility and more rabble than was usual, more perfumed arrogance and more naked crime”. Prostitution and other forms of public sexuality attracted the wrath of clerics, temperance advocates and assorted crusaders against urban vice. The metropolitan night became the battleground for the fight between those who embraced progress and liberalism, and those traditionalists who associated it with decadence and degeneration.
A Benjaminian treasure chest, Schlör’s history is illustrated with haunting photographs by Bill Brandt and André Kertész, among others, and written with an elegance that reflects the evocative nature of its content. By documenting the impact of technological changes both on social organization and on the individual experience, Nights in the Big City brings history to life while also communicating a wistful longing for an era when life was lived in “an eternal whirl”. It is significant that Joachim Schlör should break off his study with the rise of the Nazis, when the nocturnal city suddenly became the scene not of pleasure-seeking but of torchlit marches, raids and persecution. Today, one can only look back in admiration at the urban nightlife described with such loving attention in this book.