For most of us, the “streets” connote inner-city squalor and moral decay. The toughest streets of San Francisco represent humanity at its bleakest: homeless people mumbling to themselves in the piss-scented Tenderloin district; dilapidated slums littered with broken glass, used needles, and garbage; gun shots and switchblades. But for poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, the streets are less a cesspit of danger and destitution than an amphitheater where the drama of democracy is staged. Parades, protests, rebellions, revolutions, riots: the seed of every history-making social movement begins, Margaret Mead reassured us, with “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.” For Ms. Solnit, the streets are the birthing place for these movements. In her lexicon, the “street” carries a more hopeful connotation: democratic in the purest sense, streets are where organizations of common citizens can directly participate in their own governance and make their voices heard simply through their physical presence. Walking, then, can be a political act, a profound way of making a real, lasting difference:
“This is the highest ideal of democracy— that everyone can participate in making their own life and the life of the community— and the street is democracy’s greatest arena, the place where ordinary people can speak, unsegregated by walls, unmediated by those with more power. It’s not a coincidence that media and mediate have the same root; direct political action in real public space may be the only way to engage in unmediated communication with strangers, as well as a way to reach media audiences by literally making news…Parades, demonstrations, protests, uprisings, and urban revolutions are all about the members of the public moving through public space for expressive and political rather than purely practical reasons. In this, they are a part of the cultural history of walking.”
Though we usually understand walking in the most literal terms and commonplace definitions, walking in many ways is a figure of speech. When we walk as a form of protest, we’re giving expression to our beliefs. The civil rights activists who marched on Washington on August 28, 1963, the hundreds of thousands who banded together against the Trump administration on January 21, 2017: they weren’t just mechanically putting one foot in front of the other— they were using one of the most powerful words in the political dictionary, their bodies, to write history. In both cases, they composed the poetry of history with the stanzas of their feet:
“On ordinary days we each walk alone or with a companion or two on the sidewalks, and the streets are used for transit and for commerce. On extraordinary days—on the holidays that are anniversaries of historic and religious events and on the days we make history ourselves— we walk together, and the whole street is stamping out the meaning of the day. Walking, which can be prayer, sex, communion with the land, or musing, becomes speech in the these demonstrations and uprisings, and a lot of history has been written with the feet of citizens walking through their cities. Such walking is a bodily demonstration of political or cultural conditions and one of the most universally available forms of public expression. It could be called marching, in that it is common movement toward a common goal, but the participants have not surrendered their individuality as have those soldiers whose lockstep signifies that they have become interchangeable units under an absolute authority. Instead they signify the possibility of common ground between people who have not ceased to be different from each other, people who have at last become the public. When bodily movement becomes a form of speech then the distinctions between words and deeds, between representations and actions, begin to blur, and so marches can themselves be liminal, another form of walking into the realm of the representational and symbolic— and sometimes, into history.”
But in order for the public to peacefully assemble and effectively protest, it must have public space. As chain restaurants and strip malls steamroll our cities into suburban wastelands of cookie-cutter conformity, our cities lose more than just their distinctive character— they lose crucial civic space. Without streets to march on, without squares where we can gather, we can’t directly participate in our democracy. For the ever-eloqent Solnit, a city’s design can either promote civic engagement or make it impossible for citizens to meaningfully demonstrate:
“Only citizens familiar with their city as both symbolic and practical territory, able to come together on foot and accustomed to walking about their city, can revolt. Few remember that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” is listed in the First Amendement of the U.S. Constitution, along with the freedom of the press, of speech and of religion, as critical to democracy. While the other rights are easily recognized, the elimination of the possibility of such assemblies through urban design, automotive dependence, and other factors is hard to trace and seldom framed as a civil rights issue. But when public spaces are eliminated, so ultimately is the public; the individual has ceased to be a citizen capable of experiencing and acting in common with fellow citizens. Citizenship is predicated on the sense of having something in common with strangers, just as democracy is built upon trust in strangers. And public space is the space we share with strangers, the unsegregated zone. In these communal events, that abstraction the public becomes real and tangible. Los Angeles has had tremendous riots— Watts in 1965 and the Rodney King uprising in 1992— but little effective history of protest. It is so diffuse, so centerless, that it possesses neither symbolic space in which to act, nor a pedestrian scale in which to participate as the public…San Francisco, on the other hand, has functioned like the “Paris of the West” it was once called, breeding a regular menu of parades, processions, protests, demonstrations, marches and other public activities in its central spaces.”
Solnit’s Wanderlust will transform the way you look at walking. For more poetic and soul-expanding meditations on sauntering, read Solnit on the power of walking to replenish the soul and reinvigorate the mind.