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Patricia Acerbi’s “A Long Poem of Walking”

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What constitutes belonging to a place, or more specifically to a city? Is it being born there? Having a house or apartment there? Maybe even going to school there? Or is there actually more to it than that? According to Patricia Acerbi, author of “‘A Long Poem of Walking’: Flâneurs, Vendors, and Chronicles of Post-abolition Rio de Janeiro,” belonging involves much more. Being part of a city means engaging with it and, in the case of the street vendors and chroniclers in Acerbi’s article, walking it, which she argues created a type of urban membership, separate from legal definitions of citizenship and in some ways more homogenous than it. For me, her understanding of belonging holds particular appeal because I believe the only way to really experience a city is to walk it and soak up the sights, sounds, and smells. These aspects were important to Rio’s chroniclers, who were literary journalists, because in walking the streets, they took particular note of the different sounds and sights of street vendors of various immigrant backgrounds.

While Acerbi’s article engages with Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, even using one of his phrases for her title, her concept of belonging does not quite align with his view of walking and the city. For Certeau, “To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper” (Kindle location 1577), yet for Acerbi, “walking the city…fermented a new sense of belonging in post-abolition Rio” (99). I think Acerbi’s view of walking deviates from Certeau’s understanding of it because she is concerned with urban membership, of which walking is a key component. If she adopted Certeau’s view, urban membership would be irrelevant for walkers because he claims they do not belong to a specific place.

In the late 19th and early 20th century Rio de Janeiro, street vendors and chroniclers occupied a liminal space between the traditional and the modern that governing elites were trying to erase. For governing elites, street vendors were problematic because, before abolition, they were mostly urban slaves and, after abolition, many elites categorized them as vagabonds; neither slaves nor vagabonds fit their image of the modern city. Chroniclers could also be considered vagrants as one chronicler, João do Rio, equated wandering through the city (flâner) with vagrancy, albeit of an intellectual nature. While street vendors did not have a place in governing elites’ vision of modernity, resulting in laws and police actions designed to remove them, they were an important part of the everyday lives of much of the urban population, providing them with easier access to a variety of goods. The competing views about street vendors highlight the tensions within modern cities as various groups sought to define what ‘modern’ citizenship was and was not. The survival of street vendors throughout this period indicates that governing and business elites did not have unilateral control over the definition of the modern city; the general population also had the power to define it, and chroniclers helped them do it.

Chroniclers acted as intermediaries because they occupied a space between the elite and lower classes; they were educated yet walked the streets like vagrants. They observed daily life in the modern city and then helped readers make sense of it through their stories. Street vendors became a popular subject of these stories, in part, because they straddled the traditional and the modern and allowed chroniclers to wax nostalgic. Despite this in-between state in which chroniclers and street vendors found themselves, Acerbi argues that both were modern subjects. Their modernity did not originate so much from their appearances, ideas, or mindsets but rather from the spaces they occupied. Their ability to move rather easily through both bourgeois and lower class spaces of the city made them modern because they were able to perceive the positive and negative effects that came with the creation of a modern city. While the urban elites often overlooked or ignored the dark side of their modernization efforts, such as displacing the lower classes, chroniclers and street vendors took notice but also appreciated other changes brought on by modernization, such as boulevards, which provided them with grand places to walk.

By highlighting the importance of walking as the way chroniclers and street vendors used spaces within the modern city, Acerbi provides just one example of the many ways people engaged with the city and, by doing so, found a sense of belonging within it. By becoming a part of the fabric of a city, one can become a part of that city despite all else. Such notions shed light on what it really meant and means to be a New Yorker, a Parisian, a Berliner, and even a Nashvillian.

—–
Jennifer Montgomery
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted November 2014

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