Design by Melia Kenny

It’s some time near the end of the afternoon, and it’s raining in Gustave Caillebotte’s Rue de Paris, temps de pluie, or Paris Street, Rainy Day. In the painting, which is over nine feet long and seven feet tall, people are walking. They slice through the composition the same way Haussman’s boulevards sliced through Paris at the end of the 19th century. No one stops for the picture. Instead, they hurry by, huddling under their umbrellas, unaware of Caillebotte’s gaze, or at least pretending to be. I imagine they have better things to do — trains to catch, cats to feed, ballets to attend — but who they are and where they are going, I will never know for sure. All I know is that they are headed somewhere beyond the frame. 

Rue de Paris, temps de pluie can tell us a lot about life in Paris in 1877, the year it was painted. We can discern the latest fashion trends of the bourgeoisie, a social type that developed in accordance with the urban environment. The cityscape reflects the renovations of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who, under the imperial vision of Napoleon II, replaced spiraling alleyways with wide boulevards. The transformed landscape of Paris allowed people to idle with voyeuristic intent, documenting spectacle and observing new curiosities. Even the cropped framing of Caillebotte’s composition reveals the new ways of seeing that followed advancements in technology. The cut-off figure on the far right of the composition, for example, creates the effect of a camera photograph capturing a moment that is now gone. 

It is a snapshot of a fleeting moment in the eighth arrondissement of Paris from almost 150 years ago that captures the zeitgeist of its time. So why does it feel like an eerily-exact representation of my experience walking around the Lower East Side yesterday? 

My walk was the first one I’d taken since last summer when I left New York City for Ann Arbor. I’d returned home for Thanksgiving Break feeling burnt out and spread so thin I was beginning to resemble rice paper. So I decided to do what I always do when this happens: Go on a walk. 

It was sunny, not raining, and nothing about emerging from the Astor Place station reminded me of Paris. But as I headed down the street, Caillebotte’s French scene began to unfold before my eyes. Thick throngs of bodies hurried past me, unified in their movement but separated by the isolation of their individual thoughts. Like on Caillebotte’s sidewalk, the newly constructed buildings that towered over the travelers made them seem even smaller, more detached and anonymous. A couple dressed to the nines in the latest trends, not unlike the pair on Rue de Paris, strut past me as if the sidewalk was their runway, observing and being observed. And I observe them back, the same way I imagine Caillebotte would have. It was a display of the same tension, the same detachment yet familiarity — the same feeling of newness — of capturing what was happening right now. 

Some say that New York is an impossible, anxiety-inducing city where the word “calm” does not exist, but for me, it is the opposite. I find comfort in being able to meld in with a crowd, become just a regular tourist or local running errands and for a time, have no expectations or obligations to fulfill. My only obligation is to walk. 

According to an old Reebok ad I saw once, walking is faster than buses in New York City, cheaper than taxis and safer than the subway. Even when I ride the train, I like to get out a few stops early and complete the last stage of my journey on foot. There’s something about being the source of my own locomotion, even though at five-two (and three quarters), my rate of walking is typically slower than most of my fellow pedestrians. Moreover, I am most liable to give way in narrow spaces, likely to be pushed out of the way or pinned against the wall by a rogue teenager on a skateboard. It is what I love about the city. New York, in contrast to many other cities in North America, is a city of sidewalks, and the sidewalks, at almost every moment of the day or night, are filled with life. They are the places where I feel most comfortable and the setting from which I observe the world around me.

Like most intellectual attitudes, the French have a name for it. In my city, I am a flâneur, a wandering observer of urban life. Like Caillebotte, I live my life as a wanderer, peering into spaces that interest me, believing in the city and using it as my source of inspiration. It makes sense that Baudelaire is my favorite poet and that Brassai’s photographs of Paris mean more to me than any others. Both men were constantly in motion, and their art came out of rare moments of immobility in which they would capture what they had seen. For Baudelaire, it was scribbling his thoughts to paper as he peered into alleyways and dimly-lit brasseries. Brassai, in contrast, burdened with photographic equipment that weighed about the same as my backpack, would intrude himself into spaces and somehow talk his subjects into posing. They both wanted to translate a living city into their work and knew that to do so, they had to walk its streets. 

As I headed underground to board the C train and return home, it crossed my mind that the whole day was spent alone, but never did the feeling of loneliness pursue me. On the contrary, I felt invigorated and inspired. I put my headphones in and pressed shuffle on my favorite playlist. Down. The first song was “Empire State of Mind:” “These streets will make you feel brand-new / Big lights will inspire you.”

It’s impossible to feel lonely in New York, and not just because it’s full of people — the places give it life as well. My heart lies underneath the sidewalk somewhere between the East and West Villages, and when I want to reunite with it, that’s where I go. The city nurtures me, lets me escape from all stress, doesn’t tell me what is right or wrong, and because of that, it is my concrete haven. So, the next time you feel burnt out or spread too thin, I recommend putting on your most comfortable shoes and taking yourself on a stroll.

Daily Arts Writer Jaden Katz can be reached at jadenk@umich.edu.