The Art of Wandering: A TEDx Utica Transcript

by Suzanne Richardson/Contributor

[This is a transcript of a presentation by Suzanne at TEDx Utica in November 2014. It has been edited for context. Any additional emphasis is on part of the author.]

As a professor at Utica College one of the things I always worry about is students not being aware of the resources the city of Utica has to offer them.

It quickly became clear to me that not only were students unaware of Utica as a city, a place, something to be discovered, but they also didn’t understand how being more aware could benefit them.

I worked with senior students that didn’t even know the Tramontane Café was a mile away from campus—a place where they could potentially see live music or meet people in a low-key fun environment. I worried we weren’t doing our job of asking students, asking our bright young people to connect to our community in a way that made sense to them, that might entice them to stay, or invest back in Utica.

So, I designed an English composition class around this idea of “wandering” as a means of being connected to, and thinking about community. On the first day of class students told me what they knew about Utica, or what they’d heard about it. Words and phrases that kept coming up: economically depressed, the projects, run-down, abandoned, grey, crime, used to be important, diverse, chicken riggies, Utica greens, tomato pie, Italian American.

Suzanne presenting at TEDx Utica, November 2014.

Suzanne presenting at TEDx Utica, November 2014.

I slumped out of the classroom: So much food pride, and not a lot of place pride. Much to learn, much to be taught. Students from outside of Utica hadn’t heard good things and students from Utica had a hard time pin pointing what was “good” about it.

Sitting on my couch later that night, I felt the weight of all the things my students didn’t know: a weight I had signed up for. A weight I had the responsibility of slowly lifting, redistributing. Part of the redistribution is that I’ve asked multiple English 102 classes to sit down and investigate the importance of Utica, New York as geography, as history, as a social space—and asked them to walk through it. Why?

Let me back up.

We’ve decided to stop valuing processes in our culture. We have decided that eliminating process will make us more efficient, and I’m not in disagreement about some of this—but there’s a catch—we humans learn through process, we are creative and inventive through process, and some of these processes that help us understand ourselves and the world and aid in our creative thinking are going away, becoming unfashionable, or simply being eliminated by technological advances. Wandering or “purposeless walking”, or “aimless traveling”, is one such process that is becoming extinct that creates a what writer Rebecca Solnit calls a constellation, “(a story) between the stars of our minds, our bodies, and our environments, in a unique way that facilitates community, awareness, creativity, and health.”

I wanted my students to be curious for an extended period of time about something that could directly effect their time at Utica College. I knew what I was asking of them couldn’t be Googled, it had to be experienced, and often students came back from going out into the community with more questions, which made them want to go back out.

The value of walking in your average American city is diminishing in our country. Think about the word pedestrian, the word has now become synonym for “boring or uninteresting.” We think walking is boring. Most American cities are too spread out and we have cars, so the physical process of walking has been replaced by the completely unconscious movement of the wheel, there’s seamless forward motion, no longer the clunky process of walking.

Walking has been a metaphor for thinking and writing for a long time. Take one step and that’s equal to one word or one thought, take more steps and you’re on a journey, and you have a sentence, multiple thoughts that lead to an idea.

Only recently have we taken this metaphor and asked if there was any literal relationship between wandering and thinking. On a very basic level the movement of your body pushes more blood and oxygen to your brain, which allows for better brain function. Recently, Stanford researchers have taken the anecdotal idea that people have often said “walking improved their thinking, or helped them think” a step further by actually studying the link between walking and thinking. They found that any kind of walking improved the walker’s ability to come up with ideas:

An experiment evaluated creative output by measuring people’s abilities to generate complex analogies to prompt phrases…The result: 100 percent of those who walked outside were able to generate at least one high-quality, novel analogy compared to 50 percent of those seated inside. 

In literature we’ve long had the figure of the wanderer. One of the oldest wanderer stories is of Cain and Abel. Rebecca Solnit points out that Cain is punished by being doomed to wander the earth with no home and it is Cain’s children that then build the first cities in the bible, therefore the city is then the child of a rootless, wandering, criminal, soul. The figure of the literary wanderer becomes popular in the 1830’s when cities all over the world were suddenly becoming large urban landscapes that were a bit scary. Suddenly the city was bigger than what one imagined it could become, you couldn’t stand in one place to take in the city, it was everywhere, pervasive, and full of people that were no longer neighbors that you knew, but rather strangers who you’ll never know.

Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Man in The Crowd from 1840 made famous by poet Charles Baudelaire’s translation is about a man who sees another man in a crowded city street and follows him all night convinced he’s a criminal. Poe tries to capture the overwhelming cityscape full of crowds. He at the beginning of the story talks about “certain books that to do not permit themselves to be read.” – we realize he means certain people who do not reveal their secrets—and yet, our man of the crowd does read the impossible books of strangers as he moves through this crowd and finds another reader of people, someone he thinks is a murderer.

Despite the fear of the city, these stories, which featured Flanuers were thrilling for early city dwellers, a figure they could understand, a figure who wasn’t allowing himself to be swallowed or intimidated by the new and overwhelming urban landscape.

By the early 20th century the Dada art movement decided to put pressure back on the growing cityscapes in a different way. They decided walking was art, they wanted to move away from art as an object, and instead look at environments and landscapes as conduits for art pieces. This practice still remains strong in performance art now. Manifestos for walking culture ask people in suburbia to walk to reclaim the spaces they live in:

  • Walker as Artist – The city is your canvas, walk to create your art.
  • Walker as Writer of the City – Re-write your city by walking where you see the stories.
  • Walker as Performer – Walk in such a way that makes strange of the everyday. 

Now, I know, this all sounds great, and very nice on paper, but what about in practice? How do we take these ideas and connections and philosophical manifestos about the power of walking and make it real? One thing I noticed when I moved to Utica was that there are quite a few spaces designated for walking and not many people using them at all. I thought Utica might benefit from this idea that walking can create community, can personally help your thinking and creativity, and is completely cost free.

Fast forward five weeks into student projects. Students were out in the community, learning, interacting, making real connections to the city they’re attending college in. I spent a good portion of a Wednesday afternoon talking on the phone with the Utica police, who were baffled by the number of young people wandering around the city taking pictures and politely asking questions of anyone how they felt about their city, their space.

We just weren’t sure what was going on,” a security guard from the abandoned Lunatic Asylum said, “They were asking questions and we haven’t seen too much of that before.” My heart grew three sizes for my students, creating such a ruckus just by walking around and asking questions of their community. The Oneida historical society was thrilled to see so many young people walking through the door asking for resources. Students put pressure on the community by walking in it, asking questions, looking for what mattered or what they connected to within the city they lived and the city responded—positively.

Students recalled their experiences walking through downtown Utica in my classroom: “We saw empty buildings, no one was walking. We were the only ones.”

Students recalled their conversations with community members: “We met in a pub, and he bought us lunch, he asked about our research, what we thought about Utica, he wanted copies of our finished paper.”

Students recalled their curiosity being piqued: “We couldn’t go in the building, but we walked all the way around it and took detailed notes on what we saw, then we read descriptions of the inside from the sources we got from the library.”

Students ended up in Utica’s train station and were told stories about the importance of place from a barber there. “They used horses to bring this marble here,” he told them. “Brothers who were shipping off to war sat in these barber chairs and said goodbye to one another—in some cases it was the last time they ever saw each other, right here. They wanted to tear down this train station, all the work, all the memories, and once a place is gone, it’s gone.”

Three of my students rode around in a truck for a personal tour of Forest Hill Cemetery unsure of its beauty until Superintendent Gerard Waterman went out of his way to explain to them the importance of the Victorian style layout the way the wandering pathways mimic the wandering journey of life. She didn’t think a cemetery could be interesting or beautiful until she met with Mr. Waterman. One of my students confessed.

I got an email from a student in August telling me she was so excited that the city had decided to open up Utica’s Old Main for visitors. She had done her project on the building. “Will you come with me? Can we get a whole group from English 102 to go?” She asked in the email. She had finished her paper on Old Main almost 6 months ago, but was still thinking about it, still excited by it.

Through this project students were connecting to their community in a way that made sense to them, they were learning, and they were having experiences. I recently read an article that says objects cannot and do not make you happy but that experiences can and do. What’s the easiest way to experience? Walk out your front door.

If you want to practice wandering here in Utica or other places make sure you’re doing the following:

  • That you don’t have music playing 
  • That you walk at your natural pace
  • That you take unexpected turns or surprise yourself in where you end up
  • That you allow your mind to wander, not focus
  • Actively notice things (the good and the bad)
  • Places to explore: Utica Train Station/ Old Rutger Park/ Old Main/ Forest Hill Cemetery

“Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down.” – Ferris Jabr

In September, here in Utica, a bunch of teenagers were arrested for parkouring on top of a Wal-Mart. Parkour which is closely related to free-running is a creative way of moving through space, usually urban space. The practice is about seeing your environment in new and creative way in order to move within the space in both a beautiful and efficient way. Parkour challenges the pressure space puts on us, and asks us to exert it back on the space—while I’m sorry these young men were arrested, I must say they are already doing what I suggest. Finding beauty in Utica. Seeing Wal-Mart as a possible site for art. Using body movement to discover and see Utica in a new way.

Walking is the “constellation” that wears a path between mind, body, and world. In order to keep this path we must continue to practice it.

So, in conclusion:

WANDER UTICA!

Walk Around. Notice. Deviate. Explore. Reclaim Utica!

 

Suzanne Richardson is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Nonfiction at Utica College. Her works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in Front Porch, New Ohio Review, New Haven Review, PANK, Booth and others. Her poetry chapbook “The Softest Part of a Woman is a Wound” is due out in September on Finishing Line Press. Originally from Durham, North Carolina, she currently lives in South Utica with her boyfriend, a local DJ, and new dog, Rosie.

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