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The Transformative Properties of Walking

Dan Rubinstein quit his job to devote himself to walking—in Canada, the US and the UK. The experience changed his life forever.

Born to Walk by Dan Rubinstein

It is just before 5 p.m. on a bright, warm Wednesday in East Harlem. Matt Green and I have been criss-crossing the neighbourhood's brownstone-lined side streets and bustling commercial boulevards on foot since noon. He is wearing cargo shorts, a faded green short-sleeve button-up shirt and brown leather hiking boots – an outfit that has caused passersby to mistake him for a city inspector, an undercover cop and, once, on Staten Island, Crocodile Dundee. On his head is a brown baseball hat embossed with the word Heddatron, the name of a surreal play featuring renegade robots and a tormented Henrik Ibsen that was directed by his younger brother, who works in the theatre business in Chicago and is now considered by their parents, retired state-government employees in Virginia, to be the son with the normal life.

When he walks around New York all day, which he does three or four days a week, year-round, Green keeps two running tallies: the number of September 11 memorials he sees, both official monuments and homemade tributes, and the number of barbershops that use a Z in place of an S, or a K instead of a C, on their signs. He also watches out for banana vendors, unusual public art, historic churches, cemeteries, beguiling doorways, imaginative mailboxes and typographic errors on signage. Sometimes, stoop-sitters are curious, and Green explains his quest as best he can: a multi-year mission to walk every street of every borough in New York City. Yes, he wants to see and document what's there. But more so, to visit places he has no reason to visit. To tear down all the generalizations of the city and its people that he has absorbed. To submit to a "constant, wide-ranging, uncurated flow of stimulation and information that overwhelms our innate tendency to try to fit everything into a neat and tidy set of preconceptions." Walking through a city allows you to appreciate the fine-grained details, the subtle textures, the spontaneous encounters. To leave behind rote apprehension about people you do not know.

Green used to have a girlfriend and a respectable career as a transportation engineer. Then the relationship ended and he found it difficult to justify doing a job he didn't enjoy for money he didn't need. Feeling anxious and craving adventure, he turned his back on five years of highway and roadway design and walked across the United States. Green departed from Rockaway Beach, Queens, in March 2010, wearing a reflective vest and pushing his camping gear in a running stroller, and arrived, five months later, in Rockaway Beach, Oregon. While preparing for the trip, he was bombarded by suggestions that sounded like commands: You have to go there, you need to see that. Instead, he plotted a direct line to Chicago, to visit his brother, and then west to the Pacific.

Born to Walk by Dan Rubinstein

Without specific destinations to anticipate, Green could appreciate anything he saw, anywhere he was, instead of counting the miles until he reached, say, South Dakota's Mount Rushmore. "You don't need to know what you're going to see to see interesting things," he says. "That's letting other people's preferences prejudice your reaction. You can just walk across North Dakota. I've driven across places like that, and it's incredibly boring. But that generic field at 70 miles per hour is all individual plants at three miles per hour." On his cross-country walk, Green discovered that a blazing-yellow sea of canola, lit up by the prairie sun, is a sight to behold. What's more, the closed-minded, dangerous strangers he was warned about turned out to be welcoming and generous. On dozens of occasions, in small towns and on rural roads, Green was offered a beer, a meal, a bed for the night. His biggest snag was getting away from kind hosts when he had mileage to make. Several times, he was offered lunch just after finishing lunch. "The experiences I had on that walk," he says, "couldn't have been any further from what the media portray America to be."

When he returned to New York, Green's plan to find a job and settle down was no longer palatable. He did some contract work as a health department data collector and spent a few months in the fields of an organic farm in the Hudson Valley. Slowly, his next journey took shape. "I didn't know at the time," he says, "that I would be removing myself so far from mainstream society." And yet, as a sociologist of the streets, he is immersing himself deeply in it. Ultimately, he will cover about 4,000 kilometres more than William B. Helmreich, a sociology professor who recently walked most blocks in all five boroughs and wrote an ethnographic study called The New York Nobody Knows. Waves of immigration and gentrification, argues Helmreich, have fostered a spirit of transformation and optimism. Green makes no such pronouncements. He is simply bearing witness and sharing stories.

Born to Walk by Dan Rubinstein

When we think about cities, Green says in a TED Talk recorded in Brooklyn, we typically want them to work better for us. To be more productive, livable or engaging. All are important qualities. But if you are trying to make a relationship more enriching and rewarding, you can't focus only on fixing the other person, he says. You need to become a better listener, more curious, and seek out moments of intimacy. New York, like all cities, is complex and bewildering. It's natural to devise labels and rankings to get to know it. To deepen the relationship, though, you could skip the cross-town trip to that trending new restaurant and see what's going on down the block. Or down any block. "Don't try to seek out anything particular, don't even bother trying to draw any conclusions," he says. "Just listen to what the city has to tell you… and let your own unique instincts guide you."

Green is mostly looking for those human moments that connect us to the urban web. And there is a scientist's formality to his method. He meticulously maps each day's route in a pocket-size black notebook, sketching paths through confusing intersections and using cryptic shorthand ("L ACP, R 110") to remind himself where to turn.

Green's fastidiousness and resolve attract press coverage, which generates a small stream of donations, though he doesn't intend to profit. He simply wants to continue his "exhaustive journey through an inexhaustible city" – and, after each outing, to research the day's most compelling images so he can write the descriptions that accompany the photos on his website, imjustwalking.com. The documentation, a full-time job itself, is an attempt to assemble a detailed archive of his observations. But the walking, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, is "the enterprise and adventure of the day."

Born to Walk by Dan Rubinstein

By the end of his New York odyssey, Matt Green will have covered roughly 14,000 kilometres.

"Do you ever get bored while walking?" I ask.

Some parts of the city, such as Harlem, are more lively than quieter, suburban places, like Long Island, he concedes. "But this walk has made me think about what boredom means. Nobody asked me that question when I was an engineer and I sat in a cubicle, under fluorescent lights, doing pretty much the same thing all day every day. Out here, it's always something new."

Below 125th Street, the main east-west strip in Harlem, on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, named after the first New Yorker with African-American roots elected to Congress, Green snaps a photo of a squiggly pedestrian-crossing icon with a scannable QR code. The code takes you to the website of an art project called Curbside Haiku, sponsored by the city's Department of Transportation. In this case, it's a poem by John Morse:

Imagine a world

Where your every move matters
Welcome to that world

Born to Walk by Dan Rubinstein

We pause in the busy plaza below the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building. It's the tallest structure in Harlem, and at its base is the kind of public space that urbanists love. The sunny square is packed. There is a health fair going on, with massages, dental work and medical consultations being offered for free under white tents.

As the afternoon drifts on, Green points out a rocky outcrop near Morningside Park and gives me a lesson in the geology of Manhattan. We eat juicy black mulberries off a lush tree across the street from a boarded-up department store, and he rhymes off a list of wild fruits and weeds that he snacks on while walking. Figs, persimmons, lamb's quarters. There's an amazing raspberry patch in Queens, and a vine of Concord grapes on a pedestrian bridge over the Bronx Expressway. "During the summer," he says, "I could survive on what I find growing beside the road."

We are approaching a dead end on East 117th Street when Green freezes in the middle of the road. "Look!" he gasps, slapping me on the shoulder and pointing toward a barbershop at the base of a refurbished red-brick walk-up. He snaps a photograph of the sleek red-and-black sign with an oversize Z and those glorious K's. "Krispy Kutz!"


Excerpted from Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act, available in bookstores this month.  Copyright © 2015 by Dan Rubinstein. Published by ECW Press, ecwpress.com. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher.

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