Selections from “The Streets of Paris” in The Arcades by Walter Benjamin:
They spoke of Paris as la ville qui remue—the city that never stops moving. But no less important than the life of this city's layout is here the unconquerable power in the names of streets, squares, and theaters, a power which persists in the face of all topographic displacement. Those little theaters which, in the days of Louis Philippe, still lined the Boulevard du Temple—how often has one of them been torn down, only to resurface, newly built, in some other quartier. (To speak of “city districts” is odious to me.) How many street names, even today, preserve the name of a landed proprietor who, centuries earlier, had his demesne on their ground. The name “Château d’Eau,” referring to a long-vanished fountain, still haunts various arrondissements today. Even the better-known eating establishments are, in their way, assured of their small municipal immortality—to say nothing of the great literary immortality attaching to the Rocher de Cancall, the Véfour, the Trois Frères Provençaux. For hardly has a name made its way in the field of gastronomy, hardly has a Vatel or a Riche achieved its fame, than all of Paris, including the suburbs, is teeming with Petits Vatels and Petits Riches. Such is the movement of the streets, the movement of names, which often enough run at cross-purposes to one another.
There is a peculiar voluptuousness in the naming of streets.
Excursus on the Place du Maroc. Not only city and interior but city and open air can become entwined, and this intertwining can occur much more concretely. There is the Place du Maroc in Belleville: that desolate heap of stones with its rows of tenements became for me, when I happened on it one Sunday afternoon, not only a Moroccan desert but also, and at the same time, a monument of colonial imperialism; topographic vision was entwined with allegorical meaning in this square, yet not for an instant did it lose its place in the heart of Belleville. But to awaken such a view is something ordinarily reserved for intoxicants. And in such cases, in fact, street names are like intoxicating substances that make our perceptions more stratified and richer in spaces. One could call the energy by which they transport us into such a state their vertu évocatrice, their evocative power—but that is saying too little; for what is decisive here is not the association but the interpenetration of images. This state of affairs may be adduced, as well, in connection with certain pathological phenomena: the patient who wanders the city at night for hours on end and forgets the way home is perhaps in the grip of this power.