Walking the City

Postboxes in Wedding

“I love to read about the city, to live the city, to walk the city.”

This quote comes from a fascinating New Yorker article about William Helmreich, a sixty-seven year old sociology professor who has just spent four years walking every block of New York, some six thousand miles, and whose new book about his walks looks like it is going to be an absolutely fascinating addition to the literature of exploring our urban environment on two feet. As readers of Under a Grey Sky will know, this is something close to my own heart, as walking the city has become something of a passion of mine, not only through corners of Berlin or elsewhere that are new to me, but also by stepping out the front door and taking the time to explore my immediate surroundings.

During the summer I was walking to Pankstraße U-Bahn station. I do this probably five or more times a week, usually along a short stretch of the Panke river, peaceful and secluded, before emerging through a covered walkway onto the Badstraße – a bustling city street filled with kebab takeaways, call shops and travel agents… the tell-tale signs of a neighbourhood with a large immigrant population. These signals – the type of shops, the people on the pavement, the adverts in the kiosks – help us read neighbourhoods and districts, in the same way the buildings can give clues to the history of a particular quarter, and even the proliferation of election posters and how they are targeted in one part of the city compared to the next can help us make an educated guess as to which way one constituency might swing compared to another across the invisible administrative boundary.

Usually when I make this routine walk I am lost in thought or having a conversation with Katrin and Lotte as we make our way along this oh-so-familiar stretch of pavement to the station. But on that day I happened to be walking along the other side of the four-lane street, and it occurred to me not only had I never done so before – in three years of living in the neighbourhood – and therefore only had a vague idea of what shops were even on that side of the road, but I could suddenly see the facades of the buildings on the other side, and was amazed and some of the beautiful, pre-World War II architecture that had survived all the intervening upheavals. I had walked beneath these buildings countless times, bought beers from the late shop that occupies the ground floor of the building, and yet had not been aware of how spectacular it was until I viewed the Badstraße from a different perspective.

So walking in the city, on familiar and unfamiliar territory, can give us a greater understanding of the past, the present, and perhaps even the future of our surroundings. But there is something else happening when we choose to walk, to let our feet take us through spaces that are increasingly designed for all other modes of transport and yet, through awkward overpasses, endless waits at traffic lights, and threatening, urine-stained passageways, seem to almost punish the pedestrian for our choice.

In his fascinating article on the history of flaneuring, my good friend Paul Sullivan reflects on the fact that if walking the city was traditionally regarded  in relation to “traditional artistic pursuits like poetry or high literature”, there is increasingly something else going on when we choose to lace up our shoes and hit the pavement:

“In an era in which we are increasingly dependent on public transport, distracted by technology and held captive in offices, the resultant loss of intimacy with our built environments and diminished lack of orientating skills seem critical, making walking as an act inherently political.”

Working together with other like-minded souls, Paul and I put together a series of “cultural-historical” strolls through our home districts of Berlin. We wanted to take people away from the traditional routes of discovery, walking through our neighbourhoods to show not only the different sides of our city to others, but also as means of increasing our own understanding of where we live. I cannot speak for Paul, but each time I lead my walk through Wedding I discover something new – a small detail, a half-heard conversation, something opening, something closing – and by extension each group that walks with me will have a different experience from those who came before. What is striking is how few “tourists” have come on these tours, and how many Berliners for whom Wedding (or Prenzlauer Berg, or Kreuzberg…) might as well be a different city. By learning about our own and other neighbourhoods, reflecting on where and how people live, we increase our understanding of our environment, our awareness and our sensitivity… not all political acts need take place beneath a banner or behind a slogan.

We walk our neighbourhoods and we walk the one next door. We take the time to look up from the pavement and look back at what went before. We love to read about the city. We love to live the city. We love to walk the city. There are always adventures to be had and new discoveries to be made. All we have to do is open our eyes and walk.

The next Wedding Tour for Slow Travel Berlin is this coming Sunday (22nd September 2013) – It costs €15 per person and you can register here.

Please also take a look at my new project – Traces of a Border – during which I will be walking along and exploring around the Berlin Wall Trail, reflecting on the history and the legacy of division in Berlin, whilst building a contemporary portrait of the city.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Postboxes in Berlin-Wedding, by Katrin Schönig

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