What is the great attraction in cities?” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1845, “It is universally admitted that human beings invariably degenerate there and do not propagate their kind.” As the Industrial Revolution alienated laborers from their labor and gobbled up countrysides, transcendentalists lamented we lost a deep connection both with ourselves and with nature. For Thoreau, it was only amid the autumn quietude of the New England woods, the soothing sounds of a tranquil brook, the idyllic charm of a French countryside that man could finally be free of the corrupting influence of civilization. To him, the modern metropolis was a Dante’s inferno of debauchery and decadence, a netherworld where— as James Shergold Boone so poetically said— “the appetites, the passions, the carnal corruptions of man are forced, as in a hotbed, into a rank and foul luxuriance.”
This strict dichotomy between city and country has almost always existed. Since Shakespeare, artists have romanticized the rural as a paradise of purity and goodness and condemned the urban as an inescapable cesspit. In transcendentalist thought, the city stomped out individuality, transforming human beings into an automated assembly line of soulless factory workers. Displaced and alienated, the solitary city stroller was just another cog in the capitalist machine, another stranger in a sea of anonymity.
But for our era’s poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, whose prose is both lyrical and luminous, the city is neither a gutter of vice nor the slaughterer of the human spirit— it’s an inspirer of wonderment. In her endlessly edifying Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Solnit contemplates cities as much as she contemplates transporting herself by two feet. In the chapter “The Solitary Stroller and the City,” she recalls returning home to San Francisco and rediscovering her love for the city. With exquisite elegance and understated poetry, she portrays urban life as a multitude of experience. A leisurely stroll through Golden Gate Park, an hour of window-shopping along Haight Street: each person she passes is a potential friend, each doorway, a portal of possibility:
“Every building, every storefront, seemed to open onto a different world, compressing all variety of human life into a jumble of possibilities made all the richer by the conjunctions. Just as a bookshelf can jam together Japanese poetry, Mexican history, and Russian novels, so the buildings of my city contained Zen centers, Pentecostal churches, tattoo parlors, produce stores, burrito places, movie palaces, dim sum shops. Even the most ordinary things struck me with wonder, and the people on the street offered a thousand glimpses of lives like and utterly unlike mine.”
I’ve always been entranced by the excitement of the city: the art galleries, the plays, the museums, the concerts, the cafes, the exhilarating sense that there was always something going on no matter the time of day. When I lived in Berkeley, the ordinary act of walking down the street to the corner store took on the grand dimensions of a Homeric odyssey. Wandering down Telegraph Ave, past Amoeba Music and Moe’s Books, the exotic smells of Burmese food and incense mingling with the scent of salt water from the bay, I was a hero on a quest who had to navigate the many obstacles in my way (mostly one too many runaway hippie kids pestering me for a cigarette or spare change). Strolling through the city was always eventful. If I didn’t discover a delightful gem of a coffee shop hidden along a side street or a charming second-hand bookstore, I almost always witnessed something entertaining: a rapper free-styling on the corner of Telegraph and Channing, a dapper young man in horn-rimmed glasses and loafers charging 25 cents for a poem, an anarchist shouting his manifesto into a megaphone while standing on a milk crate.
For Solnit, the charm of urban life is this novelty and variety, the thrill of not knowing what’s going happen when you leave your apartment and step onto the street. In a city, there’s still room for surprise and spontaneity— unlike in a suburb, where the rhythm of life is as predictable as a song playing on repeat. To stroll through a city is to be enchanted by a sense of endless possibility: you never know what you’re going to see or who you’re going to meet. For my fellow Bay Area native Ms. Solnit, San Francisco remains the quintessential city. Unlike in many modern metropolises, which have become larger-scale suburbs where residents are cordoned off in their own private vehicles and rarely interact in public space, in San Francisco, it’s still possible to socialize with strangers on the street:
“Cities have always offered anonymity, variety, and conjunction, qualities best basked in while walking: one does not have to go into the bakery or fortune-teller’s, only to know that one might. A city always contains more than any inhabitant can know, and a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination. San Francisco has long been called the most European of American cities, a comment more often made than explained. What I think its speakers mean is that San Francisco, in its scale and street life, keeps alive the idea of the city as a place of unmediated encounters, while most American cities are becoming more and more like enlarged suburbs, scrupulously controlled and segregated, designed for non-interactions of motorists shuttling between private places rather than the interactions of pedestrians in public ones.”
For more from Wanderlust: A History of Walking, delight in Solnit on the power of walking to replenish the soul and reinvigorate the mind. Or if you want to see Solnit bring her perceptive intellect to sauntering, cities and politics, visit walking as a political act and the streets as the realm of radical change, revolution & democracy.