Signs in Paris

In today’s world, in many places, the automobile is often held up as a sacred object—as a necessity. Because of this notion, walking is considered by many to be a subversive transit system. It can be said that in most North American urban landscapes, the experience of city-walking has been reasoned to be foreign and mandated to disappear.

Within a French philosophical perspective, city-walking has been explored by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life. The chapter “Walking in the City” describes “the city” as a linear construct created by the walker as they enter a state of emotive response. Here, there is an interesting space of between, in and out of the institutional identities that produce hardscape items such as maps, texts and signs that describe the city from a governmental or civic agency point of view. The walker can choose to ignore these and forge his or her own pathway or spontaneously create a new writing or translatory framework based on a personal narration of the path en route at that moment. The intuitive ability of each citizen to rewrite his or her own city based upon perceptions of individuality can become part of the collective whole of a nomadic and meditative urban experience—a personal bricolage.

Walking, we create a new meaning of, with and for the city. The philosopher Guy Debord defined this sort of path-making as psychogeography or "derivé." The derivé is an activity of quiet, subtle acts, gestures, strolls and encounters. Often, the individual committing the act is the only one who is aware of it, thus creating a play between physical experience and the space of contemplation that walking can produce. In this framework, the walker creates paths based on an intuitive navigation formed by an emotional experience of personal choices not determined by the plans or structures of any organizing city or government overlay (public signs, information systems and maps).

In a contemporary sense, to derivé could mean taking shortcuts or meandering aimlessly in spite of gridded streets, creating lingering paths en route to a destination, or merely walking to experience the environment. With each step and gaze in the city landscape, de Certeau asserts that we are all writing our own “urban text” of the city experience as a simultaneous occurrence. Any morning or evening on Seattle’s Pike-Pine Corridor, a pedestrian trickle from Capitol Hill to downtown is on view alongside the ebb and flow of rush hour traffic. Here, the act of derivé is on full view—this essential urban stage is elevated above the blasphemy of I-5 and performed for the mostly immobile motorists. The act of walking has become a public event, a rigorous art for all to see. Pedestrians are performers who are watched.

Walking animates and permits us to explore our own private thoughts. It is a public meditation while in motion, a nomadic art within a public place that creates context through exploration. Whether the location is rural, urban, interior or imaginative, walking stimulates and implies a perusal of both mind and city in a shared simultaneous performative act. This illustrates de Certeau’s idea that everyday life works by a process of borrowing from the territory of others, recombining prescribed rules and commodities already existent in culture in a way that is influenced, but never fully determined, by the same rules and products.

For example, recently in Paris, France I chose to walk everywhere, avoiding cars, trains and the public Metro transit. Within a city that I know quite well, by refusing the prescription of the paths that are created by signage and maps, I learned I could navigate better on my own with an intuitive sense of direction. By doing this, time moved effortlessly. When the ability to know where I was at all times was removed, the act of walking determined my experience. Legends, stories and self-contextualized urban myths were invented while I was in motion, and I can now claim a new and very personal connection to the city space. It is argued that signs do not create a “place”; however, they can command a conceptual refocus of personal direction which can disrupt the meditative act of strolling.

While in Paris, I calculated that I walked 21 miles one day, navigating the albatross of the almighty Le Periphery (Ring Road). In this lapse of mind, I solved many world issues, spoke with 13 people along the way, nodded a greeting of bonjour to nine people, helped a woman up a flight of stairs, jumped rope with three children and had a good lunch of Algerian food. Periodically, I observed a few other solitary walkers en route. I realize now that the space of time had shifted –zut alor! – and so had my understanding of this magical place. All I needed was time, an imagination, comfortable shoes and my inner sense of derivé.

And when the Seattleite returns after visiting cities where walking is celebrated – Paris, Rome, Florence, Hong Kong, Teheran, San Francisco, Toronto, etc. – how does he or she then see the seven hills of Seattle? Up hills, down hills, up stairs, down stairs—the Seattle topography speaks intuitively to the pedestrian beyond MapQuest directives and GPS monotones, carving the landscape with thought, view, vista and memory.

In the 1984 film Paris, Texas, director Wim Wenders depicts a world-weary, fatigued stranger walking out of a monochromatic desert landscape into the abyss of modernity—a place of cars and an immediate social reasoning for existence. We reach a point where we too cross from a monochromatic landscape—we see the city and claim it in a new manner after a day or an hour or even 15 minutes of walking. Our cities are always evolving and changing landscapes, and their dynamic nature is based upon our ability to reclaim the space we experience through our own lens of mental and physical engagement. Walking is a conceptual space, where the mind can wander while in progress—walking is a functional act of public meditation with pixilated footsteps of contemporary actions of derivé.