Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A spate of new blogs seek out the underbelly of Paris, London and Berlin.
European capitals may draw tourists like moths to a candle, but people who arrive in London, Paris or Berlin expecting only flawless cityscapes of ancient monuments and sidewalk cafés not uncommonly end up in a state of disappointed shock. Even beautiful Paris has its bad skyscrapers and beltway from hell, while striking Berlin can still recall a gorgeous smile with half the teeth knocked out and historic London sometimes does a passable impression of Dubai on Thames. That’s not to deny any of these cities their great charm – but it does help to explain the current popularity of websites that record the seamier, more humdrum side of European city life.
Witty celebrations of urban bathos, London’s Walthamstow Unofficial Tourist Board, Berlin’s Notes of Berlin and Paris’ new WTF Belleville all document their home cities' rougher, crankier side, whether it’s by discovering abandoned mattresses that look like celebrities, snapping northeast Paris's furniture pile-ups or documenting Berlin’s remarkable levels of public grumpiness through its signs. Popular with a local crowd, the former two have developed large followings and have recently published their own book and calendars respectively. There’s more to these sites documenting urban grit than just humor, however. Focusing on parts of their hometowns currently undergoing intense gentrification, they are also germane reflections of cities under stress.
Take Notes of Berlin, for example. Most of its submissions come from the areas of Berlin that everyone from wealthy international speculators to unemployed punks currently seems to want a rentable piece of, a north-south sliver cutting across the line of the old wall. Accordingly it’s full of lamppost notices left by people desperately seeking affordable apartments, something typical for Berlin. In return for information this one even offers €200 and "a self-baked cake of your choice" (rather more than the measly reward this pet owner is offering for a lost guinea pig). This satirical notice offers a windowless dungeon for rent (at a price that would nonetheless have Londoners or New Yorkers lining up around the block) while this poster from the Neukölln neighborhood implores English speakers not to help push up rents.
The site also shows people perceived to be gentrifiers coming under attack, with fancier brands of cars especially likely to get tagged as small penis mobiles. This doesn’t just happen in Berlin, but as a city where a years-long spate of car vandalism led the chief of police to warn people "don’t park your Porsche in Kreuzberg" (a fast gentrifiying West Berlin neighborhood), cars have been a particular focus of political anger about the city’s growing income gap. And there’s also evidence here of how the city that doesn’t always enjoy its role as a magnet for international youth. This Neukölln sign, for example, simultaneously bans American hipsters from a party and welcomes Turks, though in an area where newly arrived hipsters of any nationality tend to be seen as a strange new breed, it’s not guaranteed that the sign author’s enthusiasm for the local Turkish population is mutual.
Now blessed with its own satirical tourist board, London’s Walthamstow is undergoing a host of changes similar to those reflected in Notes of Berlin. The gritty but attractive neighborhood, once mainly known for its dog racing track, has become popular and increasingly expensive as one of East London’s last affordable areas with Victorian housing. For now, it still has a name for its cheap market, vandalized signs, ineptly named fast food joints and endless abandoned mattresses, but even here there are marks of change creeping in. While Walthamstow Unofficial Tourist Board is happy unearthing mattresses that look like Kate Middleton, it’s also recording the prettification of the area and local resentment of real estate agents.
Paris' WTF Belleville, meanwhile, is a spare, slightly surreal look at an inner Paris neighborhood and former working class stronghold where Edith Piaf was said to have been born directly onto the sidewalk. Whether it’s noting rain-sodden soft toys, corner stores proudly announcing a new consignment of Nutella or recording a hamburger chain’s nocturnal residents, the site focuses on the seamier side of Belleville. It’s hard to believe that this is the same Belleville that now one of Paris’ key up-and-coming districts, a place whose grit is being chipped away at by pricey restaurants and late night bars. But then this disconnect is arguably key to all the sites mentioned here. While they celebrate the grubby, their photos are also shot through with nascent nostalgia for humdrum areas whose small businesses and unkemptness are both fading away (Walthamstow’s dog track, for example, is now flats), a process possibly helped along by these sites’ users. While they’re currently records of how much of Europe’s cities still look and feel, some day soon these sites’ photos may become time capsules for looking back on a long-lost world.