A prolific essayist and poet, British author Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) is also remembered for his travel books, religious writings, and nonsense verse for children. In "The Crooked Streets," he argues that the most vibrant parts of European cities are not the squares and boulevards but the many winding streets with curious names.
The Crooked Streets
by Hilaire Belloc
Why do they pull down and do away with the Crooked Streets, I wonder, which are my delight, and hurt no man living?
Every day the wealthier nations are pulling down one or another in their capitals and their great towns: they do not know why they do it; neither do I.
It ought to be enough, surely, to drive the great broad ways which commerce needs and which are the life-channels of a modern city, without destroying all the history and all the humanity in between: the islands of the past. For, note you, the Crooked Streets are packed with human experience and reflect in a lively manner all the chances and misfortunes and expectations and domesticity and wonderment of men. One marks a boundary, another the kennel of an ancient stream, a third the track some animal took to cross a field hundreds upon hundreds of years ago; another is the line of an old defence, another shows where a rich man's garden stopped long before the first ancestor one's family can trace was born; a garden now all houses, and its owner who took delight in it turned to be a printed name.
Leave men alone in their cities, pester them not, with futilities of great governments, nor with the fads of too powerful men, and they will build you Crooked Streets of their very nature as moles throw up the little mounds or bees construct their combs. There is no ancient city but glories, or has gloried, in a whole foison and multitude of Crooked Streets. There is none, however, wasted and swept by power, which, if you leave it alone to natural things, will not breed Crooked Streets in less than a hundred years and keep for a thousand more.
I know a dead city called Timgad which the sand or the barbarians of the Atlas overwhelmed fourteen centuries ago. It lies between the desert and the Algerian fields, high up upon a mountain-side. Its columns stand. Even its fountains are apparent, though their waterways are choked. It has a great forum or market-place, all flagged and even, and the ruined walls of its houses mark its emplacement on every side. All its streets are straight, set out with a line, and by this you may judge how a Roman town lay when the last order of Rome sank into darkness.
Well, take any other town which has not thus been mummified and preserved but has lived through the intervening time, and you will find that man, active, curious, intense, in all the fruitful centuries of Christian time has endowed them with Crooked Streets, which kind of streets are the most native to Christian men. So it is with Arles, so it is with Nimes, so it is with old Rome itself, and so it is with the City of London, on which by a special Providence the curse of the Straight Street has never fallen, so that it is to this day a labyrinth of little lanes. It was intended after the Great Fire to set it all out in order with "piazzas" and boulevards and the rest--but the English temper was too strong for any such nonsense, and the streets and the courts took to the natural lines which suit us best.
The Renaissance indeed everywhere began this plague of vistas and of avenues. It was determined three centuries ago to rebuild Paris as regular as a chessboard, and nothing but money saved the town--or rather the lack of money. You may to this day see in a square called the "Place des Vosges" what was intended. But when they had driven their Straight Street two hundred yards or so the exchequer ran dry, and thus was old Paris saved. But in the last seventy years they have hurt it badly again. I have quarrel with what is regal and magnificent, with splendid ways of a hundred feet or more, with great avenues and lines of palaces; but why should they pull down my nest beyond the river--Straw Street and Rat Street and all those winding belts round the little Church of St Julien the Poor, where they say that Dante studied and where Danton in the madness of his grief dug up his dead love from the earth on his returning from the wars?
Concluded on page two