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A Very Modern History of Just Walking Around

From 19th-century Parisian flâneurs to strolls during a 2020 pandemic, wandering on foot is anything but pedestrian

In an article for Streetsblog, written during the earlier days of the pandemic, Kea Wilson took issue with the reporting being done on walking during the lockdown. Citing a study by Apple Maps that claimed that walking was down 65 percent nationwide and 81 percent in New York, she noted that several media outlets had taken this report as gospel, publishing trend pieces confirming this lack of mobility. But, as Wilson observed, Apple’s data only accounted for people looking up walking directions, which led to some rather substantial gaps in its coverage. Among the many uncounted by the study were the people who continued to walk to their local grocery stores or other neighborhood staples for which they didn’t need directions; essential workers walking to and from their jobs; and perhaps most notably, people using the newfound time to go on recreational walks that they weren’t able to take before.

“A drop in foot-powered travel for which we need turn-by-turn guidance,” Wilson writes, “is not the same thing as a drop in walking travel altogether,” and it’s this distinction that is central to any cultural understanding of walking as a practice. 

Walking is, of course, an activity essential to humankind, one that the majority of people on the planet practice daily, but it’s also meant so much more throughout history, as an artistic pursuit, a means of meditation, a political gesture or simply a way of going to and from a job. “Walking is,” as Rebecca Solnit notes in her exhaustive 2000 history of the practice, Wanderlust, “about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings.”

The answer to this investment is inherently political for Solnit, as it is for Matthew Beaumont in his new book, The Walker: On Losing and Finding Yourself in the Modern City, and other contemporary historians of walking like Merlin Coverley. For these writers, the key event in the modern conception of walking, the one that inaugurated the contemporary understanding of the practice, is the Industrial Revolution. Before the advent of modern industrial capitalism, walking was a natural act, attuned to the essential rhythms of people’s lives. There was no need to celebrate it as a special practice because it was an unalienated and inherently purposeful act. 

But that all changed with the establishment of the factory system where workers not only had to hustle to get to their jobs on time, but whose logic of extreme efficiency seeped into their daily lives. “For expanding numbers of people,” writes Beaumont, “the simple activity of traveling from A to B, from home to work, was subjected to the mechanical rhythms of factory production. The logic of capitalism, its profit motive, valorized ‘briskness of foot.’” 

In the late 18th and the 19th century, then, walking became its own self-conscious practice, with its own theorists and practitioners, from Romantic poets like the champion rambler William Wordsworth, to American naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, to everyday workers who wanted an escape from their brutalizing routine. Many of these walkers looked outside the crowded, filthy cities for healthy recreation, while others found new ways of negotiating urban pathways. But whatever form the ambling took, it was during the 19th century that the two distinct kinds of walking — the industrialized hurry and the leisurely, unstructured saunter — definitively emerged. As Beaumont puts it, “Hurried or brisk walking … marked one’s subordination to the industrial system; sauntering or wandering represented an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to escape its labor habits and its time-discipline.” 

The political implications of these two forms of walking may seem obvious, but it’s complicated by the fact that it was often only the privileged that could afford in indulge in the leisurely, reflective ramble. While private gardens began cropping up on English estates, allowing the landed gentry to stroll at their own pace away from the common people, a different privileged figure emerged in 19th century France. This is the troubled and troubling figure of the flâneur, the solitary, male, urban walker that has defined walking as an art form since Charles Baudelaire first stalked the streets of Paris in the mid-19th century. 

The flâneur, as he emerged in Baudelaire’s time, was a man of leisure who strolled the urban streets, generally at night, an alienated soul who functioned as a detached observer of the mysterious city. As Walter Benjamin, first theorist of the flâneur, explains, the figure initially appeared at the point in urban history where the industrial city had become so large that it couldn’t be fully known, and thus, teemed with the possibility of fresh discoveries. But this unknowable city also had the effect of setting its residents ill at ease, detached as they were from their traditional communities. As such, born of industrialization and its attendant alienations, the flâneur is one of the exemplary modernist figures.

He’s also a bit of a creep. Indeed, one of the mysteries the flâneur often pursues throughout the street on his nocturnal strolls is women, and some of the most notable literary walkers are often seen in troubling pursuit of their prey. Whether it’s Restif de la Bretonne, author of Les Nuits de Paris, who, as Solnit puts it, “was a foot fetishist and sometimes followed women with small feet and high heels,” or the later surrealist Philippe Soupault, who penned a celebreated novel about a man stalking a prostitute, the literary history of the flâneur is one that often depicts a man in unwholesome chase of a woman. While women who walk the streets at night are inevitably seen as disreputable, these sensitive men are given free rein to pursue them — the more disreputable, the better — with no diminishment of their own insider-outsider status.

But the flâneur, for all his privilege, isn’t a figure that can, or needs, to be fully dismissed. With his commitment to bringing a fresh attentiveness to his environment, the flâneur can still teach us strategies for interacting with the world around us in ways that refuse the imperative to be productive. In his monograph, Psychogeography, Coverley outlines the methods of urban interaction that walkers and walking theorists have fashioned over the centuries and traces the robust literary tradition that resulted. As he notes, the term “psychogeography” itself, coined by Situationist International founder Guy Debord, is a nebulous one, but under its wide umbrella, a number of practices are contained, all designed to approach the urban in new, regenerative ways. 

Chief among these is the dérive, a sort of semi-structured walk through the urban landscape with which Debord invested the idea of flânerie with a new theoretical and political dimension, an essential tool for resisting the increasingly walker-unfriendly modern metropolis. “In cities that are increasingly hostile to the pedestrian,” Coverley writes, reflecting on the contemporary uses of psychogeography, “[walking] inevitably becomes an act of subversion. Walking is seen as contrary to the spirit of the modern city with its promotion of swift circulation.” 

“The act of walking is an urban affair,” Coverley also notes, and he, Beaumont, and, to a lesser degree, Solnit, are concerned largely with urban walking, and specifically urban walking in London, Paris and New York in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is the period that Solnit identifies as the golden age of walking, and these are the cities where it especially flourished. Interested in tracing the history of ambulation as one productively out of step with its time, Solnit finds this tendency chiefly in the “First World, after the industrial revolution … when walking ceased to be part of the continuum of experience and instead became something consciously chosen,” and herself chooses this as the necessary focus for exploring the politically-charged aspect of walking.

Similarly, Beaumont admits early on that his book will “[center] on the solitary male walker … the dominant metropolitan archetype in the literature on the ‘experience of modernity.’” Beaumont’s book is essentially a work of literary criticism in which he reads a handful of mostly British novels and stories from the 19th and early 20th century in terms of what they tell us about the practice of walking as an aspect of modernism. His aim is to take what is useful in these texts and reclaim it as part of an anti-capitalist tradition that can be applied to our current, increasingly distracted era. 

The relevance of a story like Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian,” which takes place in a future world where the masses sit anesthetized in front of their TVs every night and no one walks the streets at all except for the intrepid hero, may be obvious. Less so, perhaps, is Beaumont’s reading of Mrs Dalloway in which, in the figure of Peter Walsh, stalking the streets of London and literally stalking a young woman in the process, Virginia Woolf “implicitly presents a brutally unsentimental feminist critique of the Baudelairean hero of modernity.”

In the introduction to The Walkers, Beaumont asks what stands as the book’s central question: “How can we preserve the flâneur’s alertness and attentiveness to his environment without reproducing the flâneur’s privilege?” How can we be like Bradbury’s pedestrian, in other words, and not like Peter Walsh? Or be one of those walkers undetected by Apple Maps, sliding beneath the radar as we explore new aspects of the city. 

While the world has opened up some since Wilson wondered about walking numbers during COVID, the pandemic has, along with great misery, offered new possibilities for how we use the streets. Whether that’s refusing the dictates of structured walking to explore the city at our leisure or using the public forum of the avenues to protest for Black lives, it’s clear that the positive uses of walking haven’t expired with the golden age of the practice. The cultural legacy of walking and its attendant privilege is both a troubling and inspiring one, but it’s one that remains worthy of our careful study, as we absorb what is beneficial and discard the rest. 

“It is doubtless the case in the era of ‘distracted walking,’” Beaumont concludes, “that we need to be both for and against the flâneur.”