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From the Field

Walking and Knowing New York City

“What can we learn and what can we know about a city like New York by walking through it?” Reflecting on his experience of co‑leading an experiential learning course in New York City, Michael B. Kahan explores this question and suggests the answer lies beyond the act of walking itself.

In The New York Nobody Knows, the late sociologist William B. Helmreich described the neighborhoods and people of New York City he came to know by walking every block of the city’s thousands of miles of streets. Helmreich’s book and its spin-offs (The Manhattan Nobody Knows, The Brooklyn…, etc.; Staten Island is the only borough not covered in its own volume) make the case that walking is perhaps the best or even the only way to truly know a city. “Walking is critical,” writes Helmreich, “because it gets you out there and lets you get to know the city up close….[I]t is indispensable for anyone who is seriously interested in comprehending the city” (Helmreich 2013, pp. 3, 10). An attentive walker, this approach suggests, can grasp a city’s “essence” (Helmreich 2013, p. 10), knowledge that “nobody” else can access.

If we take Helmreich at his word, however, his titles can be read differently. They seem to suggest that even an attentive walker cannot fully know the city. This tension between the promise of walking and its inevitable limits emerged as a central theme in a course I co‑taught on New York City for newly arrived students at the Stanford in New York program. My students and I learned much from our study and practice of walking about how we experience and understand a place, whether as long-term residents or first-time visitors.

Walking offered my co‑instructor and me an effective bridge across the diverse genres and methodological approaches of our respective academic backgrounds: I am a historian teaching in an interdisciplinary urban studies program, while my co‑instructor, Gabriella Safran, is a literary humanist. It seemed intellectually exciting, and fun, for us to put planners into conversation with poets, sociologists with songwriters, and novelists with anthropologists, on a topic that had engaged them all: walking in New York. Beyond the playfulness of reading Walt Whitman alongside William H. Whyte, the course offered us the chance to test Helmreich’s thesis about urban knowledge. Like Helmreich, we hoped that walking would help our students learn about urban life through an everyday activity. [1] But we also shared Helmreich’s implied skepticism. If “nobody” can really know the city, what can we learn, what can we know, about a city like New York by walking through it?

The idea of the walker-as-scholar evokes the 19th‑century Parisian flâneur who, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, goes “botanizing on the asphalt” (Benjamin 2006, p. 68). We introduced our students to the flâneur with Charles Baudelaire’s “À une passante” (“To a Passer‑By”) (1986–89 / 1857), one of the few class texts that was not set in New York. Addressed to a woman he passes in the “deafening” street, Baudelaire’s poem laments their unrealized love; though the speaker “drank…from her eye…the pleasure that kills,” he knows that their paths will “perhaps never” cross again. The students immediately understood that the poem’s world-weary lyric voice expressed limited knowledge—a 19th‑century male gaze rather than an omniscient eye, constrained as much by the speaker’s gender and time as by the confusion of the urban crowd. The poem laid the groundwork for a central course theme: walking is not a single experience, unchanging across time and space. Rather, it is a historically specific and culturally determined mode of urban practice.

Powers of observation

We structured our course in three parts. In the first, we introduced students to tools and concepts that they could use in analyzing the experience of walking. We read short classic texts such as Whyte (1978) and Jane Jacobs (1961) on techniques for observing people in public spaces. We also read poetry and memoirs to help students grasp the importance of our own identities: when we observe while walking, we do not do so from a neutral or universal standpoint, but, like Baudelaire’s flâneur, bear with us the particulars of our history and social position.

A core text for this unit was Alexandra Horowitz’s engaging and informative On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (2013). Horowitz, an authority on dog cognition who teaches at Barnard, recounts her walks, often around her home block in upper Manhattan, with companions ranging from her dog and her toddler to a geologist, a zoologist, a typographer, a blind woman, and an urban planner. The book gives students an accessible introduction to the importance of attention. The sensory stimulus of walking, Horowitz argues, is so great that we inevitably ignore most of information that we receive. By learning how other “experts,” each in their own way, pay attention while walking, Horowitz urges readers to become more attentive walkers themselves.

We then asked our students to practice what they had learned. Working in pairs or threes, they chose any public location in the city and either observed it by walking through it (as Horowitz and her companions did) or observed how others walked there (in the manner of Whyte and Jacobs). The students studied public spaces ranging from major tourist destinations such as Times Square and the Brooklyn Bridge to a street corner on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and a farmers’ market in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. These experiences led them to see walking in new ways: as transportation, consumerism, voyeurism, tourism, and more. And they used new tools, including photography, pedestrian counts, pace timing, path tracing, and sound mapping, to support their observations. Students discovered how the rhythms of walking in a city can be as predictable as a heartbeat, as the pulse of crowds emerges from a subway station after the train arrives, and how walking can reveal the unexpected, such as a burned-out automobile on a street corner, surrounded by curious onlookers. The students demonstrated remarkable originality in documenting their observations, discovering walking’s unique powers as a method of inquiry and an object of knowledge.

Figure 1. Student map of pedestrian paths at a market on DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn

© Maya Levine and Anthony Bui; used with permission.

Figure 2. Student sketch of a man seated on a bollard in the Alphabet City neighborhood of Lower Manhattan

© Triana Hernandez; used with permission.

Modes of walking

The second part of the class explored “modes of walking” such as crossing, “slumming,” and promenading. These readings helped students deepen their understanding of the cultural and historical specificities of walking, while beginning to make connections across time and space. For example, the upper-class promenades on mid‑19th‑century Broadway documented by historian David Scobey (1992) and the Harlem drag balls of the 1980s depicted in Jennie Livingston’s film Paris is Burning (1990) exhibit drastically different conceptions of gender, race, and class, yet both exemplify New York walking as a highly ritualized and choreographed performance, not merely a form of transportation.

This tension between change and continuity was also revealed as we explored how the unique spaces of New York—its bridges and rivers, its broad avenues and narrow alleys—shape the experience of walking. The New York grid creates a seemingly infinite number of crossings. These crossings take on symbolic importance as sites of cross-class and cross-cultural encounter, and as pedestrian bodies and faster-moving vehicles increase the chance of potentially life-and-death collisions. Ratso Rizzo’s notorious “I’m walkin’ here!” encounter with a taxicab in Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969) echoes O. Henry’s earlier account in “Making of a New Yorker” (2021 / 1907), in which New Yorkers of all backgrounds embrace a homeless wanderer after he is struck while crossing the street. In our class, these cultural texts took on deeper meaning when read alongside the work of historian Peter Norton (2008), who shows how very real encounters between bodies and machines have shaped urban history.

If crossing the street is significant, crossing a river in New York may be even more fraught. The moment of crossing the East River from Brooklyn into Manhattan held quite different meanings for Walt Whitman (who crossed by boat, as he recounts in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (2005 / 1856)) and Vladimir Mayakovsky (who walked across, as described in “Brooklyn Bridge” (2008 / 1925)). For Whitman, it was a moment of mystical union with the democratic crowd; for Mayakovsky, it was an encounter with the engineering wonders of the industrial age and the heartlessness of American capitalism. For both poets, this act of crossing gave them access to an experience outside of time, a vision of an eternal city.

Identity and avoidance

Crossing from Brooklyn into Manhattan signified something else entirely for Alfred Kazin: as he recounts in his memoir, A Walker in the City, it meant leaving his poor, predominantly Jewish Brownsville neighborhood for “brilliant and unreal” New York, that “foreign city” (Kazin 1951, p. 11). The third and final part of our class examined how walking has helped generations of New Yorkers to constitute their identity. For Kazin, as more recently for Edwidge Danticat (1991) and Min Jin Lee (2022), walking in the city was central to their forging an immigrant identity, a psychologically fraught and sometimes physically dangerous act. Danticat’s narrator in “New York Day Women,” a middle-class professional on her lunch hour, sees new sides of her Haitian immigrant mother after inadvertently spying and then surreptitiously following her through the streets and parks of Manhattan. Lee recounts the fear she has experienced as an Asian American, starting as a girl traveling from her home in Elmhurst, Queens, to her parents’ shop in an area of Manhattan where holdups and muggings were a constant threat. Like pioneering Puerto Rican memoirist Piri Thomas, walking for these authors meant leaving the safety of home to venture into often hostile “alien turf” (Thomas 1967, p. 24).

That walking is suffused with risk as well as liberation was a persistent theme in this final segment of the course, when we explored how walking in the city shaped and was shaped by sexuality, gender, and race. For queer New Yorkers in the pre-Stonewall era, walking could become cruising, an opportunity to find romantic or sexual partners; but the search for such encounters could just as easily result in an arrest or a beating if not carried out with subtlety and skill (Chauncey 1994). For women, the pleasures of the streets have been accompanied by risks of harassment and assault (Kern 2021); for African Americans, the act of “walking while Black” (Cadogan 2016) can be an escape from the surveillance of white bosses and teachers, but can also result in repression and violence from police and white mobs (Hartman 2019).

To help students understand how their identities both shape and are shaped by their experiences of walking in New York, we invited Aaron Landsman’s “Perfect City,” an art and advocacy project based on the Lower East Side, to conduct a workshop in “avoidance mapping.” In this exercise, participants consider places they avoid in their daily lives—whether a corner, a block, or an entire neighborhood—and then draw maps to illustrate their itineraries. The exercise vividly demonstrates the lacunae in our experience of the city; we see the “turf” that we experience as “alien,” the silences in what de Certeau (1984 / 1980) referred to as the “text” that our bodies write as we walk. It also brings home the politics of walking: these silences and gaps are not random, but are rooted in our identities and the power that we have, or lack, to claim space in the city.

Can a walker know the city?

We drew two important lessons about how walking can teach us to “know” a city like New York. First, our knowledge, like our walking, will always be incomplete. Even massive efforts, such as Helmreich’s, cannot overcome the inevitable partiality in our knowledge of the city: we can only ever know its fragments and fractions. Teju Cole’s beautiful novel Open City (2011) provided a central text in the final segment of our course. His protagonist, a Nigerian immigrant and resident in psychiatry living near Columbia University, repeatedly wanders the city in a kind of fugue state. His inability to fully comprehend his surroundings or remember his past surprisingly echoes Horowitz’s observations as another (though real) academic residing in northern Manhattan, regarding the limits of human cognition to take in the city through walking.

Second, and inextricably bound to this partiality, our social position inevitably shapes what we learn from walking, making it inescapably political. New York remains contested terrain for pedestrians, in which race, class, gender, and other dimensions of identity both foster and limit access, and thus knowledge. In their final assignment, students examined the contemporary quandaries facing walkers in the city, such as the impact of gentrification, the trauma of 9/11, or the anti-loitering law repealed in 2021 known informally as the “walking while trans” ban. For walkers in the city, New York remains, in Cole’s term, an “open city,” not in the sense of an easily legible “open book,” nor in the sense of a universally accessible “open terrain,” but rather in the sense of an “open question” that remains unresolved, ambiguous, and subject to debate—a city that “nobody” truly knows, nor can know.

For all its partiality, however, urban walking retains the elusive promise of enabling us to unite with other city residents across the limits of our subjective experiences, even across time. The dream of knowing the city from another’s viewpoint, of truly walking in their footsteps, unites Whitman’s mystical vision of the city “ever so many generations hence” with Cole’s understanding of the city as a “palimpsest,” a text continually erased and rewritten. Walking holds out the tantalizing possibility of reading the traces left by others, even as we write our own.


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Michael B. Kahan, “Walking and Knowing New York City”, Metropolitics, 2 February 2024. URL :

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