Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label New York. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New York. Show all posts

Thursday, October 24, 2013


I’ve been in New York, the city and the state, doing some walking among other things.  On the first day there I went to my publisher’s office, a place I’d been before and it’s right there in the middle of town, on 18th Street, and so I had no worries about finding it and getting there on time.  And so, I set off for a meeting, and in due course I got completely and utterly (and inevitably) lost.  I suddenly couldn’t tell whether I should be on east 18th or west 18th, and in any case I had some kind of brain fade and couldn’t tell east from west anyway, and so I got there late and sweaty and panicky, and feeling like a complete rube, who couldn’t find his way around the big city.  This was not precisely the impression I was trying to convey to my publisher.

Of course, when I’m in my walker/urban explorer mode, I think that being lost in the city is a very good thing, but it’s not nearly so cool when you have to be at a certain place at a certain time.  The ­real problem, I told myself later, is that you never get quite as lost as when you’re certain you know exactly where you’re going.  If I’d had any doubts about where I was going, where the publisher’s office was, I’d have double checked the address, consulted a map, taken the map with me, but I had no such doubts, and in the event my unmerited confidence undid me.

I was staying in the apartment where photographer Dudley Reed and his wife Betty live, and the place was full of photographic books, including Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a book I’d read a very long time ago, and I thought I remembered it pretty well, but it seems not.  Or perhaps it’s that I now have a different set of priorities and obsessions, than I did back then when I first read it, and there seemed something very fresh about a couple of paragraphs from the book.

Sontag writes, “…the earliest surrealist photographs come from the 1850s when photographers went out prowling the streets of London, Paris, New York, looking for their unposed slice of life.”
         Then later, “In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle class flaneur, whose sensibility was so accurately charted by
 Baudelaire.  The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising, the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.”
Interesting and significant, I think, that she doesn’t categorize either the flaneur or the photographer as male, though historically (and with notable exceptions) the majority of both flaneurs and street photographers have been men.

As you wander the streets of New York these days it seems that everybody is taking pictures, women just as much as men.  One or two seem to be “real” photographers, brandishing bulky SLRs, but the majority are using their cell phones.  I don’t know how many of them are looking for the Surrealists’ “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella,” but I’m sure they’d take a picture of it if they saw one.

And of course a lot of people are looking at their cell phones, texting rather than taking pictures with them, and of course they walk into others, and others no doubt walk into them, which seems a kind of rough justice. They can’t say they haven’t been warned.  The streets of Manhattan now display posters like the one below, which is actually on the side of a public phone booth.  Does anybody use public phone booths anymore?

As it happened, there were was a Banksy street art exhibition going on all over New York while I was there.  One of the pranks involved some guy on the street selling “real” Banksies for the price of fakes - $60 as opposed to the $15,000 or so they’d cost in a gallery.  Of course $60 does seem a bit steep for fake Banksy. 

But knowing that the man himself was in town and in action meant that as I walked the streets of New York I kept seeing Banksy-esque stenciled graffiti, and asking myself is that a real or a fake.  Only a fool would have claimed to know with any certainty.  But I did spot this on 24th Street at 6th Avenue.

Of course I couldn’t have sworn it was the real thing, but I thought it might be, and I definitely thought it was worth a picture; and having got home and done some research it seems that yes, as far as I can tell, I was looking at a REAL Banksy. I walked past it again a couple of days later, and it seemed it was being surrounded by other, much less artful-looking tags and graffiti, which you might think spoiled the effect, though for all I know Banksy might have been doing those too.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


While I was in New York I went to the High Line, a section of elevated railway that’s now been converted or I dare say “repurposed,” into a pedestrian precinct so that New Yorkers can stroll high above ground level and look down on the poor suckers beneath them.  New Yorkers seem justifiably proud of it, and a lot of people do in fact walk there, but it’s a very specific kind of walking, actually I think a form of promenading.  People walking up and down, savoring the pleasure of walking, looking around them, checking each other out.  Very old school.

Of course, very few of the people walking the High Line are actually going anywhere, using it as a way of getting from A to B.  That’s not surprising.   Citizens who actually need to get from the far western end of, say, 30th Street down to Gansevoort Street and the meat packing district are few and far between.  So the place functions a kind of pedestrian theme park, a piece of reclaimed industrial territory, now decked out with walkways and exuberant landscaping, while keeping some of the old rails still visible.

One great thing, obviously, is that you’re above the traffic, and therefore not confronted by manic drivers or deranged cyclists.  There’s even a section where people sit in a kind of amphitheater and gaze down at the traffic below; a surprisingly pleasurable activity. 

But even so, walking on the High Line isn’t entirely different from walking the sidewalks of New York.  The paths are extremely narrow in places and you can find yourself stuck behind a group of inconsiderate, slow-moving walkers just as you can on the street.

There are also some wooden loungers where people who are less committed to walking can sprawl back and display themselves to passing pedestrians.  Did somebody suggest there might be one or two exhibitionists in New York?  Well why not?  People watching is always fun, and watching people who have actually set themselves up to be watched is a particular form of that fun.

The High Line itself is suitably sylvan and park-like, but inevitably you look past the greenery and the pedestrian oasis, away towards the cityscape of the surrounding area.  There are apartment blocks, new slithers of zesty modern architecture, old industrial buildings and the Hudson River is visible from certain places.

There are inhabitants who were formerly living thoroughly quiet private lives who now find gaggles of people walking past their window and staring in.  No doubt some are royally pissed off about it.  On the other hand, some of the newer developments seem to be designed specifically with passing pedestrians in mind.  In certain places you can look right into some very expensive apartments and see just how much space the inhabitants have got, indeed how much space they’ve wasted – the true sign of Manhattan opulence.

On the two days I went to the High Line, a building was being demolished very close to the southern end of the walkway.  A guy in a demolition machine, one with caterpillar tracks and a single arm with what looked like a giant hole punch on the end, though I believe it’s actually known as a hydraulic hammer, was doing the job all by himself. 

Smashing walls and roof was easy enough but then he encountered metal girders which were much harder to break down, though he always got there in the end.  The whole process delivered quite an ear-bashing to the walkers on the High Line, and clouds of demolition dust rose up and billowed in our direction.  The noise and the dirt were the kind of thing that you might think would threatened to spoil a walk.  But it didn’t.  The walkers I saw absolutely LOVED it.  We all paused in our walking, moved to the side of the High Line, pressed against the railing and stared down in absolute fascination, to see how one man could destroy a whole building. 

It didn’t spoil the walk, it absolutely MADE the walk.  If I were designing a pedestrian theme park I’d make sure there was some industrial-scale destruction going on there; so much more fun than looking at the birds and the plants and the show offs on the wooden sun loungers.

Friday, September 16, 2011


If you Google “walking,” “New York” and “quotation,” one that regularly pops up is Janice Dickinson’s remark, "I was lusted after walking down the streets of New York."  I can’t tell whether she now thinks this was a good thing or a bad thing, but she seems to have enjoyed it at the time.

Life being like that, on Saturday I’ll be flying two and a half thousand miles to New York to do a bit of walking (and indeed talking).  To be precise I’m going there to be on a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival.  And to be strictly accurate I’m not going all that way solely to be on the panel.  I was planning a trip to New York anyway and it made sense that it would coincide with the gig.  A report will follow.  The details as follow:

1:00 P.M. Walker in the City.  Nigerian author Teju Cole (Open City) British writer Geoff Nicholson (The Lost Art of Walking) and Argentine Sergio Chejfec (My Two Worlds) read from their books and discuss the distance characters cover—geographic and metaphysical—as they walk through and around cities. 
Moderated by Edmund White.