Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Arcade Fire

Burlington Arcade, 2002

Had you going there, didn’t I? Thought this was going to be something about the Canadian band Arcade Fire, didn’t you?

I’m afraid about all I know about Arcade Fire is their name. So if you came here today looking for a music review, you’ll want to move on.

Instead, I’ll talk more about arcades. No, not the kind with pinball machines and video games. Rather, I’m talking about the retail arcades you see in European cities and a few cities in the United States. Can you imagine a more majestic cathedral of retailing that Milan’s Galleria, or a more cozy place that the Galerie Vivienne of Paris? (For more about the arcades of Paris, click here.) America has a handful of old arcades. Cleveland’s might be the most majestic. Norfolk has two, one of which retains its original design. San Francisco has the Crocker Galleria , but it’s so modern that it resembles nothing so more than your typical upscale suburban mall.

Speaking of which, American malls, sad as many of them may be these days, are no doubt a modern attempt to recapture some of the positive attributes of arcades: protection from the climate, walkability, safety, distinct separation of activity and automobiles and a sense of small town-ness in the arrangement of shops between the anchor tenants. There are some fancy malls that you can imagine might have something lasting about them. But most are just metal sheds connecting chain stores.

New Bond Street Arcade, 2002

Some of my favorite arcades are found in London clustered in Mayfair. The queen bee of London arcades has to be the Burlington Arcade, built by Lord George Cavendish and opened in 1819. Cavendish, who lived in the nearby Burlington House, is said to have commissioned the arcade “to stop ruffians from throwing quantities of rubbish, in particular oyster shells, onto his property.” That’s the unofficial story. The official line is that Cavendish built the arcade “for the gratification of the public and give employment to industrious females.”

For more than two hundred years, the Burlington Arcade has remained an important retail venue for London’s gentry, interrupted only by war and a fire in 1936. In 1964, six masked men drove a Jaguar into the arcade, stopping just long enough smash shop windows and steal something like $60,000 worth of jewelry. (They escaped by putting the Jaguar in reverse and backing out the way they drove in.) It was the kind of caper that if ever made into an “Italian Job”-style movie would have starred someone like Cary Grant or David Niven.

Among the most distinctive features of the Burlington Arcade are the Beadles, guards in Edwardian frock coats and top hats, who watch over the place. (But apparently not convincingly enough to stop speeding Jaguars.)

In the Burlington Arcade, 2002

When it was new one can easily imagine that only the well to do were allowed into the Burlington Arcade. Today, visitors are merely asked to respect a modest dress code and not yell up and down the Arcade at each other. Although open at both ends, the Arcade’s a quiet and dignified place, a respite from the noise of Oxford Street. Its mix of retailers—jewelers, bespoke cobblers, booksellers, dressmakers, milliners and watchmakers—remains decidedly upmarket. (Our only souvenirs from there was a glass paperweight and shoe shine.)

Burlington Shoe Shine, 2002


  1. Sounds like a cool arcade. You know, there is an arcade in Providence that was the first enclosed shopping area in the United States.

    I guess it's closed now for renovation. I've always meant to check it out but never got around to it.

  2. It looks pretty--I've not seen it. I do love the Galleria in Milan, though--that place is gorgeous.