Street Stories – Published 11/06/2014 on Design Council
Roaming in your city is an educational and political act. A growing mistrust of the media and how it represents the places we live can be counteracted with the simple act of walking.
The landscape architect Kim Wilkie recently wrote an article2 for RIBA’s magazine on the sanity-saving qualities of walking, especially in London. As a social and intellectual stimulant, it is London’s version of New York’s bars or Paris’ cafés. But it doesn’t stop there. Walking in the city, when not just a way of getting from one pop-up Farrow and Ball painted coffee shop to another, is a way of personally understanding and reporting on your city.
At the climax of the election just gone3, politicians were only too eager to manipulate stories of our communities and immigration to support their own agendas. In this whirlwind of accusations, it is easy to forget that the places they are describing are the places we live. And there is a much more reliable source of information just a wander away.
Take a walk through your city, for walking’s sake. Perhaps off your usual trodden path, to somewhere that, for good or bad, has recently been a topic of conversation, and see how your observations differ from those often presented by the media.
A walk through London’s Elephant and Castle, for example, will very quickly tell you the story of the housing crisis with far more rigour than the news coverage (or lack of it) has done. Large black text is scrawled like headlines hung from tower blocks, next to a crisp advertising board of the latest high-rise development. Meanwhile, East Street market still buzzes along in the background, visited by local people embracing the existing culture that these new high-rise buildings set out to sterilise. But don’t take it from me, go and have a look. See how it comes across to you.
In Jem Cohen’s A lost book found4, a short film that documents a period of his life in New York as a street vendor, he talks of the things that he began to notice when he was obliged to stand in one place observing the city around him: the people, routines and nuances that usually go unnoticed by the rush of people that often only use the city to get from one place to another.
One small observation he made was that many men devised a plethora of ingenious ways to retrieve objects fallen into grates in the streets. These individuals possessed an acute understanding of their environment, and Jem’s expression of this previously unseen discovery begs the question: what do I know about my local area or the people that occupy its streets? What faces do I recognise or stories could I tell that would add anything beyond general hearsay?
If you feel as disillusioned with the media and how it represents the place you live as I do, stop listening and start walking. Speak to people, engage with the local area. You don’t have to attend local council meetings or join the Neighbourhood Watch. Just your presence is enough. Be the eyes and ears of your city. Tell its stories to friends, family and colleagues.
We seem to lose sight of the fact that the streets are a place for experience and exploration beyond supermarket and shop chains – or I certainly did. The streets have their own tales, and tell them with a lot more truth and excitement than print or screen could ever try to replicate. There are some stories that we don’t have the means of telling, but those about the streets we live in should be told.
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