What’s the best use of nine pairs of shoes? To avoid the expected and uninspired answers about donations to needy children, you may want to ask William Helmreich, professor of sociology at City College and the City University of New York, and, most recently, author of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City. While donating footwear is a worthy move, so is Helmreich’s eighteen-shoe effort, what the New York Times called an “unstuffy love letter to the delights of street-smart walking” in a charming interview with the much-pursued perambulist.
Helmreich is very adept at the thing-finding and game-playing that make walking the celebrated pastime and mode of transit that it is, having continued well into adulthood (he’s 68) the practice many abandon as small children. “My philosophy is, everything’s interesting,” he says, in the city he calls “the greatest museum in the world.” As he tells the Atlantic Cities, “Every block can be interesting. It’s not just about covering ground, it’s about how you cover ground.”
Between 2008 and 2012, Helmreich covered a lot of ground — 6,048 miles of New York’s streets, which is 1,512 miles per year, or a little over 4 miles each day. That doesn’t sound like much until you think about torrential rain, illness, vacations, other obligations. Missing a four-mile day means 8 miles the next day, 12.4 by the third, and so on. At a pace one can only imagine was leisurely, ducking into shops and courtyards and conversations, this could take the better part of a morning, an afternoon, or both.
Of course this venture was rewarded with lots of curiosity and good press. Since there’s still no copy available at the library that I can amble over and pick up, my perhaps outdated default for acquiring new reading material, I haven’t yet gotten my hands on the book. It was delightful to find Helmreich condensing some of his experiences into an essay for the always-lovely Aeon Magazine just past the new year. He wrote,
“The question, for a professional sociologist such as me, is: was this the best way to study a city?
Approached correctly, walking forces you to slow down and really look at what you’re seeing. Like the flâneurs of times past, one needs to stroll leisurely and engage people in conversations about how they feel about where they live, what they do, and how they perceive the place is changing. Had I driven through the city, along its highways and thoroughfares, I would have missed 90 per cent of what I found: the teeming life of the city’s backstreets, its parks and playgrounds, its outdoor and indoor eateries — all this would have remained invisible to me. Besides, driving (and for that matter, cycling) tend to mark you as an outsider, even if you live there. When you cover ground quickly, people assume you’re just passing through. But when you walk through a neighbourhood, people assume you’ve got reason to be there.”
What would this feel like in Detroit? According to Helmreich, New York has 120,000 more or less easily enumerable blocks. The chaos of Detroit’s wheel system intersecting with mile roads and all the smaller side streets in various repaved or crumbling repair pave an extra layer of challenge. It’s certainly possible, one step at a time, as individuals like Chris Kort have found, who walked the streets in 2012, inspecting every tree for the U.S. Forest Service’s records.
The city maintains 660 miles of main roads, plus 1880 miles of residential side streets, with an additional 210 looked after by MDOT or the Wayne County Road Commission; together, at least 2750 miles of roads over the city’s 139 square mile area. (Just under half of New York’s size, at 303 square miles, both cities have roughly equivalent street coverage per square mile).
One would probably see a lot of what the workers and volunteers on the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force saw over the past couple of months as they inched through the snowy city, cataloging each parcel of land and possibly setting to rest the last-house-on-the-block question. Projected to take place over just nine weeks, teams surveying the 385,000 – 400,000 of Detroit’s properties set out with tablets or phones, documenting each. (The number varies depending on whether you’re reading Crain’s or Model D — either way, it’s a lot. The phone number provided by the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force for resident questions about the survey instantly forwards to a generic voicemail). Recommendations for demolition of blighted structures will be furnished to the mayor’s office later this month, and the resulting Motor City Mapping project will eventually go public with its informational trove.
Aside from the obvious increase in people needed to complete it within a similar time frame, how might the survey have differed if done on foot? By all accounts, surveyors stayed snug in their cars, snapping pictures out the window before motoring along to the next site, “blexting” — LOVELAND‘s gimmicky portmanteau of ‘blight’ and ‘texting’ — their cursory data back to the headquarters. There was a lot of snow and no engagement with the community or the environment. This knowledge of the city hardly seems intimate. One wonders how surveyors could even adequately assess a snow-covered building’s status from that remove.
Although for many reasons I decided against walking a different section of Detroit every day in 2014, eventually covering it all, Helmreich’s project nonetheless inspired some movement. Deliberately undershooting numbers or patterns that seemed in any way grandiose, I set a goal of 1,000 miles this year. This is a modest three miles a day, mostly in Detroit, and an aim with which I’ve been shocked to find only mixed success. Three miles is barely anything, I thought — well below the 10,000 steps recommended by medical professionals, a mere hour of strolling at Google Maps speed. It’s not even quite a 5k.
I would love to undertake a Helmreich-style survey of the city, but a large share of my reluctance comes from a factor that often goes unaddressed in the context of this blogging — safety, a point Helmreich eloquently, if only briefly, addresses in his essay for Aeon. (He tells the New York Times that he avoids wearing blue or red shirts for their association with gangs). It would be great if Detroit really were a safe place to ramble, but numbers and instinct say otherwise. To counter the fear-mongering of many news outlets, the subject is rather deliberately avoided here, perhaps irresponsibly. The aim of the rambling network is to encourage people to walk, to feel safe walking — the more people who walk and feel safe walking, the more conducive to safe walking the city becomes. It’s just not quite there yet. At all. So, like everything else in Detroit, we rely on community. We band together and walk.
Maybe between all these walks, alone and collectively, we’re channelling a bit of Helmreich in the Midwest. Have you undertaken this kind of committed programmatic exploration? Would you? As Helmreich says, everything’s interesting. Especially here, in a city where time so palpably passes, the landscape is almost too literally a great (if haphazardly archived) museum. Let me know if you want to go for a walk in it.