Friday, 7 November 2008

The Poetry of Pavements

Paris city pavement, so abused and trampled underfoot. We walk on you, head in the clouds, rushing to school, running for a bus or just dragging our tired, old bones back home. We look at our watches, glimpse into shop windows and just try to avoid colliding with each other, but we never look down at you, poor pavement at our feet.

In the city, your surface is an obstacle course of chewing gum, strewn motorbikes and canine waste. If we look carefully though, we’ll see that you also proudly present to us a curious world of markings, messages and symbols. You are not just a street for feet, but also a roof over a land of tunnels, gas pipes and electric cables. The windows to this world are the messages that engineers pass on to each other, making you also a kind of urban macadam blackboard. These messages are often just date-stamps, but sometimes the symbols have a graphic, almost mysterious beauty.

The bright colours and bold forms of these symbols almost seem to be designed to attract the eyes of children. What do you look like to children? I grew up in a small-town suburb on a quiet side road and had time to investigate you in minute detail. I could crouch down and watch the nests ants had built in you, or just sit and pick at bits of you when you melted on hot summer days. Is it possible to do this in the rush of a city? I wandered around your dull, quiet lengths, seeing significance in everything I passed. Markings on the trees that pushed through you were actually messages being passed between smugglers, and the sticks scattered along you were leading me towards their lair. Do city children read similar messages in the markings we have left on you?

It was not intended, but you have always been a playground for children. In urban environments, you are the track on which we make our first tentative revolutions on bikes, stabilisers removed and parents running behind. We skip on you, and chalk out the shapes of our games. You are a safe zone next to the danger of the road, but in Paris, you seem to be just too busy for children. Cities give little opportunity for adventure, but children could adopt you and include you in their imagined outdoor worlds. Instead they are encouraged to stay indoors, look at you from above and explore virtual digital worlds.

Yet in Paris, you are still awash with life. You are a gathering space for bored teenagers and an observation point for clients at bars and restaurants. You are the working territory of people selling their bodies and people selling illicit substances. You are a giant canvas for artists. You are where we are stopped and asked for money or opinions. You provide additional browsing space for shops and give a home to phone booths and letter boxes. You are one of the last free territories for smokers, who are now forced outside to stand on you in guilty groups. On rainy evenings you are our reflection, a watery neon mirror. You even provide a bed for the night for those who have run out of other choices. You are the city, and we should not forget you.

6 comments:

Peter said...

A wonderful tribute to the pavements! I have a tendency to rather look for house facades, but after this I will start watching the pavements even more closely!

Tim said...

Furthermore, I'm sure there must be some sort of statistical evidence about walking on cracks in the pavement being unlucky... Great piece and, indeed, what about penguins?...

Gina Verster aka ZY-XIN said...

hey Adam...we must be really in sync!
I just posted a pavement pic on my new blog yesterday as well... www.parigigi.wordpress.com
and I'll email you one of my favourite photos of a pavement patch, too!

Cergie said...

J'ai un ami qui habite à Picpusse et nous avons remarqué incluses dans le goudron de son trottoir des clefs anciennes, c'est curieux, non ?
En ce qui concerne les écritures ce ne sont pas des signes sybillins en général mais des codes repères pour des personnes chargées de l'entretien ou d'autres du métier. En campagne c'est pareil, une fois refermée la tranchée comment savoir où passe les canalisations d'eau ou de gaz ? En campagne il y a aussi des repères qui ressemblent en général à de petits nichoirs de couleur (jaune, rouge)
En parlant de regarder à ses pieds à Paris : j'ai aimé traquer les petits tapis roulés pour guider l'eau dans les caniveaux. Et j'ai fini par avoir LA belle photo !!! On a les satisfactions qu'on peut ; mais c'est comme cela, il est un certain nombre de photos que j'ai envie de faire...

Gavin said...

What about penguins! That did make me smile. Have you come across the space invader mosaics that litter Paris? Perhaps a more well recognised symbolism of sorts, but quite bizarre.

Adam said...

Hi Gavin,

I mentioned the Space Invader mosaics in a different post, along with a couple of other familiar wall markings in Paris, such as 'Le Chat'. If you're interested in the Space Invader, one of my favourites is on the fountain next to the Théâtre de Chatelet. See if you can find it!

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