Archive for Walking Philosophy

Why People Walk, Part 1: Art

As promised in a past post, I hope to devote a few posts to the varied reasons why people walk. Although there appears to be a relatively small number of people who have taken on walks such as mine to walk every street of a city or region, I have found all sorts of other interesting walking projects and motivations for walking. Some that I plan to talk about include exercise, psychogeography, academic explorations of walking, walking meditation, etc. Some of the most interesting and varied walking projects I have encountered have been done as art projects. Now one might ask what makes a walking project “art.” As with the observations on my walks, I am not going to make too many judgments about this question. I also do not feel a need to delve into the “what is art?” discussion; there are plenty of forums for this elsewhere. By no means is my coverage of this topic comprehensive; this is just a sampling of some of the artists and projects I have run across. Note that some of these websites are graphics intensive:

Artist Richard Long has created sculptures by walking in the landscape, walks as “textworks”, and other art resulting from walking.

Artist Hamish Fulton‘s website notes “only art resulting from the experience of individual walks.”

Janet Cardiff is know for her multisensory audio walks.

In One Mile From Home, Julie from the UK has this challenge: “Walk a minimum of one mile from home. Record where you’ve been with a drawing, sculpture, photo or painting and then walk back. Every day for a year.” She posts the art on her blog, and includes links to others who she has inspired to take on similar challenges.

Among the projects of the group of artists Wright & Sites is their series of Mis-guides that suggest “a series of walks and points of observation and contemplation within a particular town, city or landscape.”

The Los Angeles Urban Rangers have offered guided hikes in Los Angeles, including projects at the L.A. County Fair and on Hollywood Blvd.

Also see my post about Kate Pocrass’ Mundane Journeys book and tours.

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Awhile back, I talked about the interesting things one might see by looking down while walking. Here in Berkeley it has definitely proved to be interesting. I am very intrigued by the all of the old railroad tracks that still exist, particularly in West Berkeley. It has also been fun to see where old sidewalks have been replaced by the slightly spongy material that prevents trees from cracking through. I’ve kept an eye out for interesting engravings in the sidewalks as well. But I still have work to do with learning to pay attention to everything around me. This portion of sidewalk is located in front of a violin shop on University Avenue, a street I walk along often as it is an east-west connector. I am intrigued by the violin shop because there are no storefront windows (it is more like a regular house), and I often watch to see if people are coming in or out with violin in hand. The shop also has a nice violin cut-out in its wood entrance. But because I was always looking up at the store, I never noticed the violin engravings in the sidewalk!

Inevitably on busy streets, cyclists will sometimes ride on the sidewalks. Although I have encountered bicycles on the sidewalks while I am walking they have not caused any problems for me as a walker. Likely this is because I am generally comfortable riding and being around bicycles. I know that sometimes this causes problems, though; even on designated shared bicycle and pedestrian paths I have seen startled walkers when bicycles come by. Once in awhile I am a little bit surprised when someone is riding on the sidewalk when there is a nice wide bicycle lane on the street, but otherwise I haven’t spent too much time being bothered even if a cyclist shouldn’t really be riding there. One thing I have found in general as I have walked more and more is that I am less likely to be upset or angry about any incidents. Cars speeding through intersections as I try to cross used to bother me sometimes, but now I just wait and let them go and move on. But getting back to the bicycles, I was surprised to see some discussions recently about how many more bicycles ride on sidewalks now that many cities have incorporated wheelchair accessibility into the sidewalks in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Berkeley, in fact, was a pioneer for curb cuts, as well as for other rights and services for the disabled.) I had never thought about this before, and I am not sure whether any scientific studies have been done on the topic, but it makes sense that this would be the case. Certainly plenty of cyclists are comfortable riding up and down regular curbs, but it is much easier to do so without effort when there are curb cuts. Until thinking about this possibility, it had never occurred to be that there was anything negative that could be associated with curb cuts other than the usual city government arguments that surround priorities in funds used for public infrastructure. But I should have realized that there is always more than one side to everything. I don’t want to make it a priority to try come up with possible negative aspects of things that I see when I am walking, but this was a small wake-up call that there is much more to think about even when I believe I have come to a conclusion about an idea.

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Learning About Landmarks & Architecture

One general guideline I like to stick to for my walks is avoid learning too much about an area before I walk there, and also to go without any guidebooks or reference books. While out on a walk, I might jot down the address or name of a building that I want to look up later, and I may go back to an area for a second look at a later date. The primary reason for doing this is so that I can keep an open mind about what I see on my walks. If I am focused on one thing, I might miss out on something else. I also want to decide for myself what I think of something I see, not what someone else says about it. Using this method seemed particularly important in Berkeley, where architecture, landmarks, and land use is a contentious topic and the subject of endless debates.

A perfect example came up just as I was pulling together information for this post, in fact. I ran across a page on landmarks preservation opinions, which uses examples of to show what Berkeley should and should not look like from a preservation viewpoint. Now I have seen plenty of examples of what I do not like in terms of building and land use, but the building they picture does not fall into what I would consider to be the worst of the worst. the building pictured on the right is located at University Avenue and Acton Street. Most of the building is housing of some sort, though I am not sure of the cost, floor plans, etc. , and at the bottom is retail space. One of these is the Bread Workshop, a bakery and sandwich shop that is known for its sustainable business practices. Also at this corner and on the surrounding blocks is a supermarket, a popular independent coffee bar, restaurants, a copy shop, and various other small businesses. Bus lines and BART are nearby. From my observations out on walks, it seemed liked this a thriving corner and a great place for people to live and be able to take care of many errands without using a car. Seeing this photo now is okay, because I can think about what I have observed on my own and do more research if necessary. But if I had seen this photo of a “bad” Berkeley before walking by this building, would I felt differently about what I saw? I’m not sure, but I do know that it might have distracted me from walking with an open mind.

But getting back to the guidebooks … I do like to find good references to look up the history and other details of buildings I encounter. Luckily, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association has put out a series of house tour booklets for Berkeley neighborhoods. Additionally, they have published 41 Walking Tours of Berkeley, which a friend gave me recently, and some older booklets that are available at the public library. I have one checked out from the library right now, Discovering West Berkeley: A Self-Guided Tour, which includes the history of many of the industrial buildings and paints a good picture of the types of manufacturing activities that have occurred throughout Berkeley’s history.

Much can be learned about Berkeley’s buildings while out on a walk, thanks to the many historical plaques all over town. The nice thing about Berkeley’s historical plaques compared to many I have seen elsewhere is the amount of detail provided about the history of so many buildings throughout town. Currently there are close to 300 Berkeley landmarks; I am not sure that plaques are up for every single one at this point, but the plaques do seem to be everywhere I turn. The plaque pictured above is for a building that now houses the Strawberry Creek Design Center. Apparently before the design center opened, the building was boarded up and the surrounding area was the site of much drug dealing and other crime. Now there are artist and architecture studios, a cafe, a yoga center, and other professional services and organizations. When I have walked through the complex, people are relaxing on the lawn and under the trees, and there does not (at least during the daytime) seem to be much evidence of criminal activities.

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Walking Isn’t Boring, Part 4: Outside Lies Magic

General note: This series of entries is inspired by the idea that walking in even the most ordinary of places can be interesting.

Sometime before embarking on my Berkeley walk, I read an interesting book called Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. Written by John Stilgoe, a professor of landscape history at Harvard University, the book encourages the reader to get out on foot or on bicycle and explore and observe the world around them, learning to notice the details that are often overlooked when travelling by car or when one is out of the car but in a rush or thinking about other things. Well, even before starting this walk I knew I did not need any encouragement on that front. But then things start to get challenging. Stilgoe thinks that a lot can be discovered in the most ordinary of places, the locations without intriguing architecture, interesting landmarks, beautiful landscapes.

I remember that my first read of the book left me with some doubts about whether the ideas presented in the book were really possible, so I went back recently to re-read the book. What I found was surprising. Over the months that I have been walking and trying to keep an open mind about what I see, I have observed many of the things that Stilgoe mentions in the book. Among other things, he talks about looking at old railroad tracks, sidewalk engravings, plants, lawns, and electrical lines. Then I got the part where he discusses exploring rundown commercial strips, particularly the right-of-ways where all of the trash dumpsters and piles of junk are kept. And then he talks about the frontage roads along highways. Way up on the list of my least favorite things are freeways and shopping centers, especially the endless strip malls filled with chain stores. Luckily, Berkeley has more pleasant and unique streets than most cities, but there are still some areas that I have found challenging to walk. One of them is the frontage road to I-8o. As I have mentioned before, this freeway is consistently ranked at the top of the list of traffic nightmares in the Bay Area. Despite the wall separating the walker from the road, there is the constant noise of the cars, the unpleasant smells, and views of trash and broken glass. The areas surrounding the freeways exits can be similarly unpleasant, particularly the black soot that covers all of the buildings and the slick black oil spots on the roads and sidewalks. But in the process of deciding to look objectively at my surroundings, I have found myself forgetting about the unpleasantness and seeing the details that I might have missed in past when I was just in a rush to get through the area.

After reading this book a second time, I realized that despite Stilgoe’s convincing ideas, I did not fully appreciate the book until I actually got out and did what he said to do. And in fact, the first sentence of the book says it all: “Get out now.”

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Political Signs

As I mentioned last week, there have been plenty of Halloween decorations to look at right now while I am out walking. Because we are getting close to the November elections, many front yards also bear signs promoting candidates and ballot measures. It will be interesting to see how close the results of the election are to what I can gather from viewing the lawn signs on my walks. Right now, for instance, I have seen a fairly equal number of signs for the two leading candidates for mayor. Will the race end up being fairly close? I have seen many “Yes” signs for Berkeley’s Measure A, which renews and combines existing taxes (expiring in 2007) that fund the public schools, but so far not a single “No on Measure B” sign. Is this a sign that the measure will pass overwhelmingly, or is just that Berkeley residents against the measure are not putting signs out in their yards (i.e., thinking that regardless of what they argue, a “No” sign would label them as someone who doesn’t care about children)?

If you have been reading Walking Berkeley for awhile, you know that my commentary about Berkeley is based on what I see while I am out on my quest to walk every street in this city. I purposely avoid using this blog as a general place to talk about Berkeley politics, as it is not the focus of my project, and because there are plenty of other places to read about the Berkeley political landscape. The San Francisco Chronicle regularly reports on Berkeley politics and culture, sometimes with a focus on perpetuating the “Berzerkeley” image. The Daily Californian, a U.C. Berkeley student newspaper, writes about the city in addition to campus issues. The Berkeley Daily Planet provides the most newspaper coverage of Berkeley politics. A fair amount of space in this newspaper is devoted to discussing and promoting architectural heritage and opposing development, but the newspaper also covers other political topics and runs many and varied editorials and letters to the editor. Beyond the newspapers, several blogs and political and neighborhood organization websites contain opinions about local issues.

When I started this walking project and was searching for mentions of others who had taken on similar walks, quite a few of the search results that turned up for variations of “walking the streets” turned out to be articles about political candidates pounding the pavement of their districts prior to the elections.

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Walking Isn’t Boring, Part 3: Holiday Decorations

General note: This series of entries is inspired by the idea that walking in even the most ordinary of places can be interesting.

For some of the people close to me, I am not the most fun person to be around during the holiday season. For whatever reason, I do not get that excited about many of the holiday traditions that most people love, and I am not a fan of the shopping excess that is a huge focus of the American holiday season. This year, though, I find I am actually looking forward to something that comes along with the holidays, that being all of the decorations that people put on their porches and in their front yards and on their rooftops.

Over the weekend, I noticed the first of the pumpkins and cardboard Halloween decorations. Those will be followed by gourds, turkeys, and other Thanksgiving and harvest decorations, and then the Christmas lights and displays, menorahs for Hanukkah, and paper snowflakes (yes, even in California) and other winter decor. What most interests me most is finding the unique personal expression that goes into holiday decorations. This display for instance, found last year in a front yard in Berkeley, featured lots of reindeer, lights, and … a frog figurine?

Photo by Joe Reifer

I am not the only walker who has been noticing the holiday displays. Ron, who recently started a blog about walking the streets of Fort Bragg, California, found a scary Halloween display at a house that already seemed haunted during the rest of the year. If you are interested in learning more about the Mendocino Coast town of Fort Bragg (not to be confused with the military town of Fort Bragg, North Carolina), be sure to check out Ron’s blog!

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Gary over at runs brooklyn/brooklyn runs asked to hear more about the planning process for my walks, whether I carry a map, etc., so I thought I would explain it for others who might be interested. Gary, who is in the process of running every street in Brooklyn, documents all of the details of his runs (distance, time, temperature, etc.) in addition to providing interesting commentary on the neighborhoods.

Before I go on a walk, I pull out my map and decide which neighborhood I want to visit that day. I try to vary what part of town I pick with each walk or with every other walk, so that I can compare and contrast different areas. On a small piece of paper I start writing out directions for a walk, with the distance based on how much time I have to walk that day. Sometimes I will write in an optional addition to the route to walk if I end up having more time. With any luck, I can follow the directions without having to pull out the map during the walk. I carry the map with me in case I need to use it, but generally try to be discreet about it. When I am walking alone in neighborhoods that tend to have higher incidences of crime, I never pull out a map or give any indication that I don’t know where I am going. It would be nice to not have to worry about these things, but as woman walking alone I have to be realistic about the potential dangers of appearing hesitant or lost.

Generally on my walks I take notes in addition to photos. When I get home, I mark the completed streets on the map, and transfer my notes into a master notebook for the walk. I do not record details like distance, time, weather, etc. Normally, it would be more appealing to me to keep a detailed journal or spreadsheet, and this is precisely the reason I have not done it for this project. I tend towards more scientific, goal-oriented methods for my other projects and interests, so I thought it would be good to break out of that habit and try to be okay with a more free-form approach once in awhile. Sometimes it is difficult. This weekend my walk was going smoothly until I could not find the street where I was supposed to turn next. It was not a good area to be pulling out the map, so I had to keep going and hope to eventually get back on track. I was frustrated that something had gone wrong, but in fact it turned out okay in the end. I got back to the route and, though I missed a couple of streets I wanted to walk, I walked a couple of other streets that I had planned on leaving for another time.

Of course if I had a limited amount of time to walk (or had to contend with a much larger area and more harsh weather conditions), I would be much more precise about my planning. And as I approach the end of walking every street, I imagine I will be a bit more careful to avoid going back to an area to get one or two streets I missed.

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Thanks to the nice folks over at Yahoo!, who featured Walking Berkeley as a Yahoo! Pick, there may be a few new readers of this blog. The About section and the first post of this blog provide an overview of this project, but I thought I’d take some time to expand on those posts and answer a few common questions:

Why did you decide to walk every street and pathway in Berkeley? Why not just walk some of the streets?
It may seem like a slightly obsessive-compulsive activity to some, but I feel that walking every street of Berkeley will give me a good sense of the city. Often we take the same routes around the places we live and miss out entirely on interesting things. Most of us, myself included, have exclaimed at some point, “Oh, I have lived here for years and I had no idea such and such existed.” I love the excitement of walking down a new street.

How far will you be walking?
Berkeley has around 230 miles of paved streets, all of which I plan to walk. Additionally I will be walking the passable pathways (about 100 out of the 136 in Berkeley), which range from stairs to paved and dirt paths. This will add several more miles. Of course, the amount of mileage will be much greater because I will retrace streets to get to other streets, walk back from dead-end streets, etc.

Do you hope to prove anything about Berkeley by the end of this walk?
Many people associate Berkeley with certain ideas — hippies, People’s Park, the Free Speech Movement, Chez Panisse and the Gourmet Ghetto, radical politics, historic preservation, for example. I have encountered a range of reactions when I say I live in Berkeley, from the “Berzerkeley” and “People’s Republic of Berkeley” comments, to nostalgia for an era that has passed, to feelings of either dislike or love for the city. I hope to walk with an open mind, and observe everything and report what I find throughout Berkeley.

Is this a political blog?
No, not really. I do not have a political agenda I am trying to push, and I plan to report on a wide range of things that I observe on my walks. Often I will include the questions I have asked myself on a particular walk or provide background or further research on a topic, but the focus of this blog is not Berkeley politics.

Why Berkeley and not San Francisco?
San Francisco is a beautiful and interesting place to walk. I have lived in San Francisco in the past and still visit often (a trip from Berkeley to San Francisco on BART takes about 20-40 minutes depending on which stations you are travelling to and from). I have done lots of walking there, and plan to continue doing so. But I want to get to know the city where I live, and I would like provide some ideas for others who are interested in exploring Berkeley.

Do you walk alone or with others? May I come on a walk?
I do quite a bit of the walking on my own, but I am also sometimes accompanied by my partner, Joe, who is a photographer. Some of his photos of Berkeley appear in this blog along with mine. I welcome the company of others on my walks, although I have jokingly warned some people that these are far from guided tours. I am also happy to receive suggestions and feedback about the background and history of specific places in Berkeley.

What will you do after you finish walking every street in Berkeley?
Currently I have quite a backlog of discoveries and topics to write about, so I imagine I will be writing about them for awhile after the completion of the entire walk. I will continue to take walks in Berkeley, and revisit favorite spots. I hope to put together some thematic walks to feature here on the blog and perhaps in printed form, and to collaborate with Hidden Gems of Berkeley, a map and bike tour of interesting spots in Berkeley. Finally, I plan to walk the streets of neighboring communities that are easily accessible either on foot or by transit, such as Albany, Kensington, Emeryville, and Oakland.

I would like to walk every street in my city or town, but it is too big/boring/dangerous/etc.
Berkeley happens to be a fairly good-sized town for every-street walking — not to small or big, and with a mix of hills and flatlands. Depending on where you live, you could walk your immediate neighborhood, or a part of town that you like, or focus on walks that center around something that interests you, such as architecture or gardens or parks. You could also walk in the neighborhood where you work or go to school, or take a subway or train or ferry or bicycle to a neighborhood that you have always wanted to explore. For some more ideas, please visit some the websites of other walkers I have linked to on the right sidebar of this blog.

If you have other questions, please feel free to ask!

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Walking Isn’t Boring, Part 2: Mundane Journeys

General note: This series of entries is inspired by the idea that walking in even the most ordinary of places can be interesting.

San Francisco, being a popular tourist destination, has inspired all sorts of guidebooks. Most of them cover at least some of the popular landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and the Transamerica Pyramid. Kate Pocrass’ book Mundane Journeys does not mention any of these places. This tiny book of tours (which all start with “Walk, bike, or public transit to…”) suggests ways to look beyond the obvious and find interesting details in ordinary places. On a trip to the popular tourist area of North Beach, for example, you will play hopscotch on a playground and look at dot patterns on a sidewalk. In other locations, you will look at garage doors, apartment buildings, sidewalk patterns, window displays, and more. These ideas can be applied wherever you are walking, and can inspire thought and questions. In the photo posted here, for example, the building number appears three times on the front of this Berkeley apartment building (at this size it is hard to tell, but the number is also on the glass front door). This amused me greatly, and I wondered why three times and in what order and under what circumstances was each set of numbers installed on the building.

The other emphasis of Mundane Journeys is interacting with people in shops and businesses. Some of the stops on her journeys having you entering small businesses and asking questions or considering getting something interesting to eat or drink (such as a Cuban soft drink or coconut mochi). I find this more difficult to do. Often I will say hello to people in residential neighborhoods who are pruning their roses or weeding their gardens, but I have hesitated to walk into many of the businesses. Recently, though, I was walking on Telegraph Ave., and had two nice interactions with business owners. I used to avoid this, thinking I was bothering people unnecessarily, but there is a difference between wasting someone’s time and being genuinely interested in their small business. Even if I am not there to purchase an item or service now, I will remember it in the future or recommend it to someone else who needs the service. Also, many people who have small businesses (especially those offerering a service) just seem to enjoy talking with other people. It is unrealistic to think that one could have the same experience in a large urban area as in a small town, but there is often still the opportunity to create some connection with the people who live and work there.

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Walking Isn’t Boring, Part 1: Looking Down

shoe on a stick

General note: This series of entries is inspired by the idea that walking in even the most ordinary of places can be interesting.

One of the easiest ways to get recognized as a tourist in an urban area is to stand on the street looking up — at monuments, skyscrapers, churches, and other buildings. And we look up for good reason; there is much to see in the way of architectural details, signs, lights, and more. This is only part of the picture, though. Earlier this year, during the centennial of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the book group to which I belong chose to read Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast. A few of us decided to walk the entire Barbary Coast Trail, a historical route through San Francisco. Joe took photos of all 160 or so monuments along the way, which are embedded in the sidewalk to lead you along the route. The route, which we walked over two weekend days, winds through the most popular tourist neighborhoods of San Francisco. We did not see anyone else noticing the monuments, and we received more than a few quizzical looks from people wondering what we were looking at.

Manhole Covers, by Mimi Melnick and Robert A. Melnick, contains photos of all sorts of interesting manhole covers in the U.S., along with a historical essay on the topic. This book has inspired me to look at manhole covers in my area, and also to think about other things I can find by looking down. What other grates and openings are down there besides manhole covers? What sort of engravings can I find in the sidewalk (official imprints, initials placed when the cement was wet, street names in another language). What sorts of devices have been used to contain street trees and which trees are cracking the pavement? How are the sidewalks designed or are there sidewalks at all? Are there steps that lead down to another building, courtyard, or underpass? Do the buildings where I am walking have basements? Is there evidence of old train tracks? Are there any interesting items (notes and lists, photos, for example) that have been dropped on the ground? What else can I find?

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