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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5 Comments »

  1. When I started taking regular lunchtime walks at my old job at 8th and Gilman, I got into this. Most of my walk was beautiful, but the parts west of San Pablo (and one block east of it) weren’t so nice. Still, there were interesting things to notice.

    > 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

    On this subject, Berkeley residents should vote yes on Prop J if they want the character of our city to survive.

  2. Ron said

    Thanks for the book suggestion.

    And I really like your blog format. And your thoughts, your writing.

    I’m still wrestling with how to make photos and type end up where I want. Any suggestions?

  3. Suzanne said

    I found this blog via Spike’s blog about walking Woy Woy. One of the first things I thought of, reading this post, was when my kids came out to walk with me along a stretch of rural highway to pick up cans (raising money for video games and keeping me company as well.) We discovered mice living in some of the cans, and realized that one man’s ugly trash may be another mouse’s shelter, nursery or watering hole, and it changed how we look at things a little. I’m definitely looking for that book – thanks for posting about it.

  4. Spike said

    You are not alone in your loathing of strip malls and the like.

  5. Ron — thanks, I wish I could say the design and layout is all my doing, but really it looks the way it does because of WordPress. I highly recommend WordPress — they have nice layout choices, the user interface is great, and the tagging and spam protection features are great. No, I am not getting paid by WordPress to say this 🙂

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