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?



  1. Spike said

    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.

    I hear yer. These people will also stand beside the large sign saying “information” and ask you where the information kiosk is 🙂

  2. […] 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! […]

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