In May, 1968, Central Paris was occupied by students protesting capitalism and the Gaullist ruling government, later joined by millions around France, bringing the economy (briefly) to a halt. A slogan painted across Parisian walls was Sous les pavés, la plage!, loosely translated to ‘Beneath the pavement, the beach’. The beach: literally, the sand upon which Paris’s cobblestones rest; but figuratively, the opportunity to remake a different city, a city not bound by the same rules, institutions, or repressive structures. A city of dreams; of liberation.
From a cafe in San Francisco now, once known as the ‘Paris of the West’ – like Paris, a traditional bastion of left-leaning philosophy, culture, and urban experiments, I watch the rain falling through a cafe window as a particularly menacing Pacific storm rolls through the Golden Gate. Across the cafe sits the City Supervisor from this neighborhood, openly gay and a proud father, the first such official with HIV. This is a city of mercy; these streets wrap the marginalized like blankets.
Beneath the pavement, the beach. On these streets have marched social justice warriors; they rise. They rose. On these streets at night dance the ‘Sisters of the Perpetual Indulgence’, a queer nun troupe, ‘promulgating universal joy since 1978’ (in their words), spreading a gospel of human rights. Of dignity. Beneath these streets, the ghosts of Harvey Milk, shot dead (in 1978); of the flower children (some still dancing); of those urban souls led to their doom in Guyana by the mad pied piper, Jim Jones (in 1978). Of the generation lost to AIDS. The dead ‘cling like chewing gum to the heels of the living’, as that Parisian Walter Benjamin (1935) wrote, the flaneur lost in the city’s spectral magic. Soon, lost forever, as darkness approached. 1940, at the age of 48.
Beneath the pavement, something darker. An undercurrent more malevolent, more ominous. A beach littered with warning signs, eroding away into the anything-but Pacific. How can we – as urban theorists, as urban dwellers, as cultural scientists, see past the everyday city to the rising threat we now face? City streets have always been patchworks of the beacons of light and the shadowy corners of the human condition. But something new is stirring. In 2017.
Two brief anecdotes. At a flea market in nearby Oakland some months ago, I was browsing at a particularly quirky assortment of knick knacks. Old family photos; an old license plate. Some pewter. A portrait of former president HW Bush. A political comment made – admittedly, a snide one about the Bushes. The proprietor of the stall – veteran, based on the clothes and symbols; began a loud rant against liberals – eventually chasing us away from his stall. A violent instant, raised tension. A tear in Elijah Andersons’ (2012) ‘Cosmopolitan Canopy’. And this, in Oakland – ostensibly the most liberal major city in America.
An Uber ride. San Francisco, rainy day. Quiet conversation with driver. Subtle political comment made, complete silence. Probably not sharing my opinion of the new president. Who is the Uber driver? Who is the knick-knack antique hawker? Who are the more than 10 percent of San Francisco voters – this city of Love, of comforting fog, of St. Francis – who voted for Donald Trump? Neighbors.
On the news today, rumors (fake? real?) of the militarization of the national guard to round up undocumented immigrants, no doubt working in the kitchen of this cafe, in countless kitchens, in homes. Neighbors.
Beneath the pavement, the beach. The 1968 Paris uprisings, for a moment, turned France upside down, and a space of hope glimmered like a match before burning out. I fear that the urban revolution lurking underneath America’s streets will not be as hopeful. We must face what lies beneath, as theorists, as citizens. Lest it consumes and drowns us.*