Reviews — From the July 2013 issue

Talking the Walk

A stroll through our cities

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Discussed in this essay:

Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, by Michael Sorkin. North Point Press. 272 pages. $16 (paper).

All Over the Map: Writing on Buildings and Cities, by Michael Sorkin. Verso. 320 pages. $26.95 (paper).

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, by Jeff Speck. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 320 pages. $27.

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, by Alexandra Horowitz. Scribner. 320 pages. $27.

A History of Future Cities, by Daniel Brook. W. W. Norton. 480 pages. $27.95.

Solvitur ambulando, scholars and scientists have long been advised when faced with a tricky passage from the Summa contra gentiles or one of Zeno’s mind-bending paradoxes: It is solved by walking. A stroll is handy therapy for any number of afflictions, great and small — good for the digestion, distracting of worries, refreshing of spirit, and maybe even the preferred way to do philosophy. Aristotle thought so, popular legend says, which is why we call the school he founded Peripatetic. In truth the name may be derived instead from the colonnades of the ancient Athenian Lyceum, where his followers met to argue — peripatoi rather than peripatetikos, if you’re keeping score — but let’s not ruin the image of donnish conversation carried on by a couple of ambling brainiacs. Centuries later, Heinrich Heine would gently mock Kant for the regularity of his afternoon constitutional, always taken “with his gray coat and the Spanish stick in his hand,” as a sign of intellectual rigidity — one by which the rationalist philosopher’s neighbors allegedly set their clocks. Nietzsche and the Lake School poets were driven to wilder, more romantic wanderings.

But there has also been a long-standing disdain of those who must trudge, rather than ride, from place to place. In North American life, lacking a vehicle is among the clearest markers of social deficiency, especially if it means resorting to public transit. (Loelia Lindsay, a former duchess of Westminster, memorably quipped that “Anybody seen in a bus over the age of thirty has been a failure in life.”) “Pedestrian” in its adjectival mode comes to mark the feckless, the trite, the dull of mind — thinking that shuffles when it should fly. Even jaywalkers, those dashing minor-league anarchists, came by their name via insult: jay originally meant “simpleton,” “softhead,” “rube.” (In some places, the value is reversed: New Yorkers think anybody who doesn’t jaywalk is a rube.) Jaywalking remains illegal in most places, punishable by fines and even detention. I once gave a lecture celebrating the liberatory potential of jaywalking; the town’s police commissioner, a member of the audience, gave me his card afterward. “You’ll need that to get out of jail,” he told me.

Urban walking is a special kind of activity, a modern democratic art form. On sidewalks and in public squares, across terminal concourses and through lobbies, walking is how we most commonly, and closely, encounter our fellow citizens. If you live in a large city, learning how to walk the streets is something you must master as a physical expression of belonging. “I grew up in the South,” the humorist Roy Blount Jr. notes in an essay on how to walk in New York.

I can do the traipse, I can do the gallivant, I can do the lollygag, and I can do the slow lope. I can hotfoot it, I can waltz right in and waltz right out, or I can just be poking or dragging or plowing along. As a youngster I skedaddled. I believe that if called upon, for the sake of some all-in-good-fun theatrical, I could sashay. But I know that these gaits have their places, and on the other hand there is New York walking. You think you know how to walk in New York? No you don’t, unless you know you know how to walk in New York. Otherwise you just impede the flow.

Tom Wolfe was the first to note the characteristic hip hitch of the pimp roll, that defiant sidewalk strut, but the walking signals of class and race have been with us always, from the flâneur’s saunter, an expression of aesthetic leisure, to the motions of P. G. Wodehouse’s antic London idiots, who ooze, oil, filter, trickle, shimmer, breeze, stream, and sidle. It’s a close thing, but in the Wooster lexicon there are hardly more words for drunkenness.

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is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His most recent book is the essay collection Unruly Voices (Biblioasis).

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  • Robert

    I really enjoyed the way the author pointed out the socializing affect of city walking interaction, vs the anti-socializing affect of car and highway non-interaction. It made me think of how our bodies are machines ,like cars, that we control; but we have so much more of a sense of ownership and control of them than we do a car it must be better to walk in a city than drive on a highway. More empowerment, more connection to each other

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