This week City Paper steps off the beaten track with a Walking Issue.
It is June in Baltimore, that narrow sliver of time between our miserable wet spring and our baking hot summer when it is still pleasant to be outside and wander around our city.
All old cities, like Baltimore, were designed for walkers in those days before cars were even conceived of by urban designers. Their mixed-use development, with wide avenues for commercial establishments and narrower residential streets evolved as a way for pedestrians to do their errands—pick up a loaf of bread, a bag of apples, a new book—while not venturing too far from home. In contrast are the pedestrian un-friendly suburbs with their lack of sidewalks or crosswalks, areas Wayne Curtis describes his 2014 book, "The Last Great Walk," as "obesogenic" paeans to the sedentary life. Full of cul-de-sacs and enclosed neighborhoods that are accessed by arterials and feeder roads—devoid of sidewalks and crosswalks, far from the nearest grocery store—the suburbs worked for cars and commuters who eschewed the urban hustle in favor of an American dream of quiet privacy and tidy lawns.
In his book, Curtis describes two Orlando homes with abutting (and fenced) backyards. In order for these neighbors to share a cooler of beer at a barbecue, he writes, they would have to travel seven miles by car through their respective neighborhoods, out to several main roads, and then back into a different "neighborhood."
"All unwalkable neighborhoods tend to be unwalkable in much the same way," he writes, in a flipped nod to Tolstoy. "But walkable neighborhoods vary widely—no one would confuse Venice with Manhattan's Lower East Side—each tending to be defined by detail and nuance. But they do share certain broader traits." He goes on to cite urbanist Jane Jacobs who defined livable cities as sharing four qualities: "population density, multiple primary functions, short blocks, and buildings of various ages."
Curtis's book weaves musings like these into a larger narrative about the history of competitive walking and one champion's 1909 walk across the U.S. In these days before cars took over the road, walking was both a sport and leisure activity—and the literature of the time is full of people who thought and wrote about walking.
In literary circles, the term for these urban spectators who strolled the streets observing, wandering, and reflecting was flâneurs. The consummate flâneur in the 1800s was Charles Baudelaire, who strolled the Paris arcades—a kind of indoor/outdoor space whose local equivalent might be Lexington Market. Baudelaire was a big fan of our hometown flâneur, Edgar Allan Poe, who exemplified the term (and genre) in his 1840 short story, "The Man of the Crowd." In this tale, Poe puts his own dark twist on the idea of the meandering pedestrian—no surprise here—by making the flâneur protagonist an invalid who can't walk but plays the game of mingling in the street's flowing crowd from his window perch. He is an observer—both a distant recorder of facts separated by a pane of glass and an intimate participant who projects his own troubled psyche onto passersby.
As the flâneur is bombarded by stimuli of modern urban life, their meandering thoughts are also interrupted by the city's insistent history, reflected in its architecture, neighborhood boundaries, transportation, and psychogeography.
This week, City Paper borrows the flâneur's conceit to turn its wandering gaze on Baltimore, walking stretches of the city to see where our thoughts take us. We have an essay on an evening walk through Charles Village that brings up thoughts of parenthood and babies and the nature/nurture debate (p. 13); a series of photographs from walking the length of North Avenue at dawn and dusk (p. 16); an essay about a commute from Butchers Hill to Middle East and the health disparities in these two neighborhoods (p. 19); a reflection on Guy Debord's theories about walking a "dérive" or a practice of "focused meandering" (p. 20); an article on Olmsteds' historic walking paths in Roland Park (p. 23); a piece on the cat-calls women get while walking (p. 24); a defense of radical pedestrianism (p. 25); and a news story on pedestrian accidents in the city (p. 8). (Karen Houppert)
In the nurture v. nature argument, I have fallen insistently, stridently, all my life on the nurture side. This poses an intellectual—and very practical—problem for me. How do I craft a narrative of my son's birth and who he has become over the years?
There is a political bent to this practice of dérive—for one, in its purest ideal form, a dérive is a small action that at least momentarily disrupts productivity. But it's also therapeutic. Like boredom, or sleep, or a conversation—a walk can clear the mind. What sorts of thoughts flow when we wander? What ideas are generated? Rather than being passive plodders, we can be active expeditioners as we explore Baltimore.
In a city where people define themselves as “east side” or “west side,” North Avenue is a thoroughfare that bridges the divide. I have driven the road hundreds of times, but last week I decided to slow down, get out of my car, and walk its length. I walked west at dawn and east at sunset, the sun to my back, and watched our city rouse itself in the morning and slow down as dusk approached. North Avenue begins with a massive rooted tree on the west and dead ends, literally, with a graveyard on the east, and the images in between are glimpse of life at the edges of the day. (J.M. Giordano)