Drifting and striding 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.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


I was recently in San Francisco, a walker’s town, though only for those who like a bit of intense aerobic exercise as they plough up the killingly steep inclines. I’m not sure I enjoy it exactly but I tell myself it must be doing me good. And of course once you get the lay of the land you do become able to find routes that leave out the worst of the ascents. I'm better than I used to be, but I still find I'm the only person pounding up streets that everybody else is walking down.

One way you can tell San Francisco is a real walking town is because the pedestrians don’t obey the traffic signals. People cross the street any time they can, regardless of whether or not there’s a signal telling them they’re allowed to. I don’t think it’s that San Franciscans take delight in being scofflaws: they’re just using commonsense: walkers are supposed to have plenty of that.

In LA we’re a far more obedient bunch. If the don’t walk sign appears we stand and wait right there on the sidewalk even if there’s no car anywhere in sight. Of course this is partly because we know that LA cops like to hand out tickets for jaywalking but it seems to be more than that. I think Angelinos obey the lights because the lights are part of the traffic system and they know traffic is all powerful, and must come first in LA. This isn’t because we love the system, it’s because we fear it intensely. If we step out of line we’ll be crushed.

Anyway, in San Francisco I walked in the footsteps of Buster Keaton. Thanks to a wonderful book by John Bengtson, called Silent Echoes, this is surprisingly easy to do. It’s even easier in LA, but probably more of that later. Bengtson has done some amazing detective work to track down exactly where Keaton shot his movies, not least that scene in The Navigator (op cit) where Keaton thinks a walk will do him good. The street he walks across, it turns out, is Divisadero, between Pacific and Broadway, in Pacific Heights a very ritzy area, then and now, still full of mansions, though much more tightly packed than in Keaton’s day, and there are some wonderful apartment blocks too.

I walked most of the length of Pacific, which is like the spine of San Francisco, a long thin, rising line, with the land running away steeply on both sides, so that if you look down the side streets you have gorgeous panoramic views of the city in both directions.

But Keaton didn’t show any of this. Because the crossing of Divisadero at that point is a sort of flattened peak, and because of low camera angles, the mansions in the movie appear completely isolated with nothing around them beside. Below is a still - you'll need to click on it to see it properly. This gives the scene a storybook, stage set feel which is appropriate to the story. But what an act of self-denial on Keaton’s part, not to show those fabulous views. It only made me love the man even more.

The mansion that Keaton’s character lived in is gone now, but the house he crossed to and walked back from, his fiancĂ©e’s mansion, is very much still there and major renovations were being done, as they were to quite a few of the houses in the area. I happened to be walking there at the very time Mexico were playing France in the World Cup, and Spanish commentary blared from every construction site. Not a bit of work was being done anywhere. Who could blame them? Mexico won 2-0.

Monday, July 19, 2010


I swear this really happened. I was walking in Hollywood, heading north on Wilton Place, where it crosses the 101, right before Sunset Boulevard. in sight of The Home Depot. The day was hot, and I wasn’t moving very fast, and I’d slowed even more to look down at the traffic on the freeway below, when a car pulled up beside me and the driver got out and ran round the car to face me.

Now I’ve been in situations similar to this before and generally it hasn’t been the prelude to anything good, but this guy looked benign enough. He said he needed directions. He pointed at his wife who was sitting in the car and said she had some crazy idea that there was a place in Los Angeles where you could walk along and see the names of Hollywood stars set in concrete in the sidewalk. Was there really such a place? He himself seriously doubted it.

I still felt this might turn out to be a set up for something more dubious, but I took him at his word and explained how to get to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Was it easy to find? Yes. Was it easy to park? Not especially. We talked a little more and I decided he was on the level. He had an accent I didn’t recognize so I asked where he was from, and he said Spain. By then he’d worked out that I had a non-American accent too, and I explained I was originally from England. “Ah,” he said, “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

It’s not every day that you’re walking in LA and somebody quotes Noel Coward at you but then again, if you believe the legend, it’s not every day that anybody walks in LA, period. As is the way with many legends, this one has an army of debunkers, and when I arrived in LA about seven years ago I decided to join them, determined to maintain the serious walking habit I’d developed in London and New York.

Since I ended up living on the lower slopes of the Hollywood Hills, my first, not very well thought out, plan was to walk every Hollywood street in a systematic, regimented way. The gridded layout appealed to the minimalist-slash-conceptualist in me. But problems presented themselves immediately. For one thing, the exact boundaries of Hollywood are a matter of some debate: the tour guides, the cops, the onetime secessionists, all have competing beliefs about where Hollywood begins and ends. One popular notion is that Mulholland Drive is the northern boundary, and although I’ve walked sections of Mulholland, the idea of walking its entire length, with its blind bends and non-existent sidewalks, strikes me as simple insanity.

Another, problem was the 101, the Hollywood Freeway. Since it snakes diagonally across the grid, northwest to southeast, the Hollywood walker encounters it all over the place. You have to go under it or over it, and in the beginning both struck me as equally daunting. I’m no agoraphobe but there are certain bridges that make me feel quite wobbly. That spot on Wilton where I gave directions to the Spanish tourist used to have an incredibly low railing, not more than waist high, and you could easily have vaulted over it, to certain and unheroic death. They’ve now built the Helen Bernstein High School on that street, and a tall section of chain link has been added, so that the kids can’t throw themselves, or more likely each other, over it. The bridge over the 101 at Western still offers agoraphobic thrills however.

Walking under the freeway is no picnic either. The underpasses are usually what Rem Koolhaas has called junk spaces. You know that somebody must have designed, or at least engineered, them, but essentially they seem to be off-cuts of architecture, the bits and pieces that happen to be left over when more urgent structural concerns have been met. And even though there are sidewalks in the underpasses, they’re chiefly made for automobile traffic and it doesn’t seem that anybody ever considered what it might feel like to walk along them: generally unpleasant and sometimes downright scary. I’m aware of just one pedestrian-only underpass, connecting two sections of North Kingsley Drive, in the area between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue. It’s about as pedestrian-friendly as a snake pit: narrow, low-ceilinged, walls thick with textured paint and floor-to-ceiling graffiti. There’s light at the end of the tunnel but you wouldn’t get halfway there before the pursuing zombies had ripped your legs off.

Initially, when I encountered the 101 I was determined not to engage with it, or even see it. The areas around the freeway became blank spaces on my mental map of the city, and blank parts of my walking experience. But after a while I realized that simply wouldn’t do. I was enough of an urban explorer and a contrarian, to think that engaging the very thing you don’t want to engage with, was what the LA walking experience might ultimately be all about. I decided to embrace the freeway.

The first thing to notice is that intense life of one kind or another thrives around the freeway: all those houses and apartment blocks, even motels, that snuggle up to the freeway and have balconies with panoramic views of the traffic. Meanwhile, down at ground level, the off ramp seems a place to do business, not just the guys selling bags of oranges, but others, chilling out, playing guitar, holding up cardboard signs saying they just want to get a little money for a motel room. There’s also vigorous plant life; vines that creep up the concrete pillars and parapets and threaten to make the freeway look like a jungle ruin, even while it’s still in use.

In fact the intersection of straight streets and diagonal freeway creates strange little pockets of unused land, many of them roughly triangular, and greenery thrives there too. Some of them would allow you access to the freeway, but access is usually denied by high fences and locked gates, and although not strictly impenetrable, these things deter the casual trespasser, which is probably no bad thing. It’s probably best not to let pedestrians wander onto the freeways.

On the other hand certain areas are completely accessible. On Van Ness someone has adopted a patch of ground between the off ramp and the parking lot of Tommy’s and turned it into a flowerbed complete with euphorbia and variegated agaves.

Other, larger areas are put to less decorative uses. There’s a large thin slice of downward sloping land on the south side of Sunset next to a Saab garage, that anybody can walk into and obviously many have, me included. In the daytime you’ll usually find nobody home, but there’s always plenty of evidence of habitation, blankets, old clothes, the occasional mattress, even pages torn from a bible, tarot cards, the odd battered teddy bear. The prop department has been busy if not especially inventive.

I sometimes talk to homeless people, much the way that I talk to anybody else out walking. I try not to condescend, try not to turn them into writerly “material” but occasionally I meet someone so compelling and dramatic that I can’t help wondering about, maybe even constructing, a back story. A couple of weeks back I saw two homeless guys lurking in the fenced off area under the freeway bridge at Franklin and Argyle, one of them stripped to the waist with a tattoo of a leafless tree covering the whole of his back. I sopped for a moment, hung about,, wondered if I could naturally fall into conversation with them, but it was hard to know where to start. They were some distance away, the tattooed guy seemed to be washing his armpits. Yelling out, “Hey man, nice tattoo. How do you feel about living under a bridge?” I had a feeling no good could come of that approach. Simultaneously I realized William T. Vollman would have no such inhibitions.

There used to be a nice painting of a robot or space alien up on the stanchion where the two guys were hanging out, but that didn’t stay long either. It soon got painted over, which I suppose is a good thing, though I’d have thought there were more pressing acts of public beautification you might want to perform around LA. Of course the real eyesores, the tags way high up on the parapets, stay where they are, presumably because it’s too difficult to get up and obliterate them.

I’ll leave it to somebody else to define at what point graffiti become a mural, but right there at that crossing of Franklin and Argyle you have some of my very favorite LA murals, adorning the walls of the wonderfully named Hollywood Bowl Self-Storage. There in the gloom under the freeway are giant depictions of, among others, James Dean, Liz Taylor, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind, and there’s also John Wayne and Crazy Horse. The artwork’s a little clumsy, the likenesses are recognizable but the eyes and the facial proportions are significantly off, though I’m not complaining. The paint has recently been refurbished, the colors made brighter and more intense and there have been one or two changes. There used to be a speech bubble coming out of John Wayne’s mouth that said, “The chief up there wants to be president.” That’s gone now, and I can’t decide if it’s been done in the name of political correctness or because the painter is convinced we’re living in Obama’s post-racial America.

I’m not really in the business of recommending walking routes, but I have been known to take people on walks to show them the “other” Hollywood. And if that’s what you want we could start right there by those murals and head up Vine Street on the north side of Franklin. Most people don’t even realize it is Vine at that point, because it’s a steep, narrow, curving street that for a short while runs more or less parallel with the freeway. If you walk up and look back across the lanes of traffic you’ll see the towers of downtown, and if the light is right it looks a lot like a golden city to me.

As Vine flattens out we might take a left into Vedanta Street, home of the onion-domed Vedanta temple which according to the books is sometimes called the “little Taj,” though I’m not sure by whom. The temple looks a fine and spiritual place, but even so it’s jammed up against the freeway, with only a concrete wall (though one free of graffiti) to protect it.

From Vedanta we could make another left down Ivar, Nathaniel West’s old street, which he called Lysol Alley, though he was talking about the section below Franklin, and he certainly had no freeway to contend with. Walking down Ivar takes us through one of those junk spaces I talked about, a curious, lightless, claustrophobic underpass, only slightly brightened by its lining of white tiles that come up to about head height. At least it’s short.

Make a right on Dix Street, and if you’re in the mood we could take another right on Holly Drive which would bring us back under the freeway again, through a much longer, far more gloomy underpass, though one that’s shaggy with overhanging greenery that almost covers up the sprayed words “bullets and octane” which for a while (call me a fool) I thought was someone’s urgent street poetry but of course turns out to be the name of an angry punk-metal band.

If you didn’t want to head up Holly I’d understand, and I’d understand even more if you did want to head up North Cahuenga Boulevard but I’d say wait, we’re saving that for later. I’d recommend we go all the way to Highland, turn right and walk as if we were going to the Hollywood Bowl, but before we get there we’d hang a right on Odin Street. Odin, top deity of Norse paganism, father of Thor, god of war and death, poetry and wisdom: it’s worth walking there just for the name, but in fact it’s one of those underpasses where the necessities of road construction have created a surprisingly attractive, curving space. There’s something cinematic and widescreen about it, its mouth surrounded by palm trees that tower over the freeway, in some cases seeming to grow out of it. Its walls also bear a mural, hard to see because it’s so dark in there, called the Blue Moon Trilogy by Russell John Carlton for the Aids Project Los Angeles. According to a serious-looking metal plaque on the wall, the work’s a triptych, “Eve of Conception,” “Dawning Of A New Age” and “A Glorious Revelation.” This frankly seems a bit grandiose for what are three very modest murals, blue, green and red stripes, triangular shaped pine trees and blue moons that look like stuffed cocktail olives.

When we emerge from the underpass we’ll be on Cahuenga Boulevard which veers ahead of us toward the 101 and the Cahuenga Pass, but we don’t want to go walking up there alongside 12 or 16 lanes of traffic: even I’m not that nuts. Instead we should follow the road around to the right and eventually we’ll be heading downhill to the North Cahuenga Boulevard underpass, which is journey’s end (of a kind).

If you drive through that underpass the experience is nothing at all, but on foot it’s definitely something. The bridge supporting the freeway is broad and gently arched and when you stand under it you see that overhead, the freeway is divided into separate northbound and southbound lanes, with a gap between them, and filling that gap is a long, narrow skylight. This isn’t in the usual sense “stained glass” though there’s certainly plenty of staining; inky blues and earth browns caused by who knows what -- oil, carbon, decomposing vegetation, road gunk, maybe road kill. Even so, the light that filters down is eerily appealing. It’s not exactly like being in a cathedral but you’re definitely standing in a strange, compelling architectural space. People on foot just don’t belong there, which is a large part of the attraction. I can stand there for long periods of time, looking up at the light, hearing the noise of the traffic, basking in the weird, brutal, accidental elegance of it.

I’m not one of those people who revels in Los Angeles’ capacity for apocalypse and my understanding (I mean, I found it online) is that there’s been some “seismic upgrading” of the concrete in the bridge to increase its “flexural capacity,” but even so this is the kind of place you really wouldn’t want to be when the earthquake hits. It’s all too easy to imagine the fragmented glass, the pulverized concrete, the falling cars coming down, and there we are below, defenseless, out of place, a couple of pedestrians who wouldn’t stand a chance.

I’m sure one or two people must have seen me standing there, gazing up, taking photographs, and they’ve probably thought I was a weirdo, but as yet nobody’s ever stopped their car to talk to me. Nobody there has ever accused me of being a mad dog or an Englishman.