Reasons to walk the Heights

How do we come to know a city—find our sense of place within these massive urban constructs? How do we “take back the streets” (à la Mayor Ed Kelley), or find commonality among individuals with different generational values?  Simply put, we walk: we wander, we see, and we are seen.

Most people nowadays live in boxes and view life from a two-dimensional viewpoint. That’s not a metaphor. The boxes in which so many of us spend our time are interiors—home, office, car, gym; the two dimensional view is usually a window, whether in the traditional sense or a computer or iPhone screen. We don’t really have to experience anything outside of the box life, as we have the attached garage even when we do go from place to place.

Because of this interior-oriented life that we have designed for ourselves, the walking cities of the past are largely gone, save for a few jewels, such as like Cleveland Heights or Lakewood. Not surprisingly, these cities were built before the rise and dominance of the automobile, and top Ohio’s Most Walkable Cities list, unlike the cities of Solon, Green, or Broadview Heights.

The reasons we walk today, though, are different from the reasons of yesterday. The sheer convenience of hopping on some type of conveyance has eliminated the need to walk for transportation. Today, walking has mainly become something we do for fitness, or in some cases, something we are forced to do (i.e. there are no more parking spaces on the street near the restaurant, so I have to walk all the way back to the parking lot three blocks away after dinner). But walking can be worth substantially more, if you embrace it.

Walking for the Experience: The Dérive

A dérive is an unplanned journey through an urban environment, literally translating to “drift.” During a drift, subtle contours and cues of architecture and geography guide the walker. The ultimate goal of the dérive is to encounter an entirely new and authentic experience.

Drifting for new experiences may lead to the discovery of local assets that previously may have been lost to the ebb and flow of Heights traffic. In a way that produces results similar to Bob Rosenbaum’s “Fly-Over” with Google maps, walking the community with new eyes can lead to delightful discoveries about the area. You may even find a business sandwiched between buildings that you’ve known about, but unconsciously ignored, for years.  

The boxes that many of us live and travel in have a rigid structure, and this structure encourages routine, and routine breeds boredom. Are you bored with day-to-day living? Chance encounters provide an easy solution to this. A chance encounter is like an adventure, or Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates analogy: you never know what you’re going to get. That variable is part of the excitement. Drifting for chance encounters is best done in areas where there are other people. Who will you meet? What will you do? The excitement comes from the new experiences, networks, and discoveries that you will make.

While the results can be exciting, the drift should be made without expectations. Whatever happens, happens; and as the Beatles say, “let it be.” At any rate, the drift helps us to regain our city by making sense of self within the city, discovering new places, people and activities, and bringing adventure back into our daily lives.

Walking with Context

As a know-it-all college student, I began harping on my parents about the health benefits of walking after dinner a few weeks ago. Wanting to avoid more prodding, they started walking around the neighborhood, but quickly discovered that walking purely for fitness didn’t motivate them. My parents needed a better reason to go outside and enjoy the walk. They started looking carefully at the sea of houses, each structurally similar; but, they noticed, each had a sort of expression to them. “This one is an angry-looking house. The one across the street has one ‘eye’ that is bigger than the other,” my mother said. That’s called anthropomorphism—giving human characteristics to non-living things—and it is one way to walk with context. It’s also her way of making sense of the neighborhood, especially in an area where the houses were built in the same style.

Walking with context provides a conceptual frame for the experience of walking itself. With that frame, walking becomes something more meaningful and enjoyable than mere transportation or exercise. Another effective way to walk with context is to use the Cleveland Historical app while traversing the region. Learn about local icons, such as Alcazar and the Cedar Lee Theatre, or how Coventry went from a planned Protestant community to a Jewish enclave, and most recently to a counterculture epicenter.

On May 19, FutureHeights, the digital humanities department of Cleveland State University, and the Cleveland Heights Historical Society are partnering to bring Heights walkers An “App-Enhanced” Walking Tour of the Coventry Neighborhood. To join resident walkers and history buffs, register early by calling FutureHeights at 216-320-1423.

Walking as a Tool

Walking can also be a tool—another reason to do it. In an article titled “Walking the City: Manhattan Projects,” author Ben Jacks highlights Shorewalkers, an outfit in Manhattan that organizes a yearly saunter along a 32-mile stretch of shoreline in the Atlantic urban jungle. The group’s use of walking as a form of activism is credited with the development of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, a path linking Manhattan’s parks to waterfront access and recreation.

With summer fast approaching and school letting out, much attention should be given to the Heights’s attractively walkable neighborhoods, such as Cedar Lee and Coventry Village. Yes, minors are essentially banned from these areas, but is the curfew a lasting solution? What means do Heights residents then have to “take back the streets?” More importantly, how can we turn this challenge into a teachable moment for both children and adults?

Walking as a tool may be an appropriate solution. Organized walks throughout the Heights, involving both youth and adults, can help to bridge generational differences and increase the amount of local lore passed on to younger residents (an issue that recently emerged during FutureHeights’s Neighborhood Leadership Training). Organized walks can also fulfill the mission of several Heights-area organizations—the sustainability of the region. Organized walks build social capital, walking is environmentally friendly, and this type of walking may become an economic boon to the very commercial areas about which we worry.

Walking is not the silver bullet to all of life’s problems, but one would be hard pressed to deny the many benefits associated with it. We can walk for health, happiness, experience, encounter, fun, education, and for activism. Regardless of the purpose, walking the area neighborhoods will help return the Heights to the vibrant, sustainable, and walkable community that we have come to know and love. Why will you walk?

Chris Hanson

Chris Hanson is a senior in the urban studies program at Cleveland State University and an intern at FutureHeights. He joined the Army National Guard in April 2012.

Read More on Features
Volume 5, Issue 7, Posted 6:25 PM, 06.08.2012