Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Walking the city's streets

Letter From New York

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NEW YORK — I take fewer long city walks these days, because I am 79 and grappling with stenosis. For the moment, I need a walker to go more than two blocks without feeling unsteady or getting tired. But for years I walked a great deal — at times without a clear destination — just keeping my eyes open, observing life on the streets and the buildings and shops that bound them. For the last 20 years I have sporadically written about my wanderings for this newspaper and other venues.

Unknown to me when I began my wandering, I was following the lead of Charles Baudelaire, the great 19th century French poet and prose writer ("Flowers of Evil"), who described walking down city streets as one of the most exciting adventures a person could have. For example, he wrote, "What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters."

I certainly am not comparing myself to Baudelaire, but I have tried in my modest way to describe what New York City's daily urban landscapes look and feel like to me. But these attempts can't be compared with Matt Green's achievement: walking 8,000 miles of streets and avenues by covering every block, hiking trail, beach and deserted area within the five boroughs while keeping a blog and further documenting his wanderings with maps and photographs. For the last three years of this six year journey, he has invited a documentarian, Jeremy Workman, along for the walk. The result is this unusual film, "The World Before Your Feet."

Green, a small town Virginian, had been a civil engineer. But after feeling restless some years ago he quit his job, and in 2010 completed a five-month walk from Rockaway Beach, N.Y. to Rockaway Beach, Oregon. But his New York City venture is less circumscribed, since in the seemingly cheerful and serene Green's words, "It's the journey, not the destination." For Green, process seems all and he is wary of having goals. The film provides innumerable images and scenes from his trip, as he untiringly walks, in all kinds of weather (including snowstorms) through sections of the city from Staten Island to the South Bronx. Matt has chosen to live without a job or an apartment of his own, but to survive on little money, just $15 a day. He eats sparely (rice and beans), and sleeps in friends' apartments or does cat sitting for strangers.

EYE FOR DETAILS

Green is an omnivorous absorber of information and sensation. He can be reflective, but he is neither particularly introspective nor self-revealing. However, he is sharply observant, and picks up details few others would.

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He finds broccoli rabe growing where a street tree is planted, a cornfield of sorts in a dirt yard, and 9/11 murals — many of firemen — on building walls reminding us to "Never Forget." He visits cemeteries, crosses the Brooklyn Bridge at night, and walks through Queens parks (Alley Pond) and slices of the city's shoreline that I have never seen before. He also discovers remnants of NYC history, like the building where Margaret Sanger handed out birth control information in 1916.

He is a fount of information about the 400-year-old tree in Queens, the region's oldest; and about the long unfinished buildings that remain standing in Brighton Beach; and the "churchagogues" synagogues that were taken over by Christian denominations sometimes still carrying Jewish religious symbols, reminding me of my grandfather's Bronx synagogue being converted into a church with its Star of David still intact over the door.

What motivates Green to take this long journey is never as clear as his depiction of what he sees. He remains a pleasant and opaque figure. I see him being affable on screen with the strangers he meets, but the director's interviews with two former girl friends provide another story. They complain about his difficulties with intimacy, and his total absorption in his project and unwillingness to plan for the future. The result: relationships ending, engagements broken.

His goal on the trip is not looking for anything specific, just absorbing random things that fit into a puzzle. But the film does make the viewer conscious that every piece of the city is worth looking at, every ordinary street is rich with history, not just the aesthetically striking and iconic parts of the city. He also talks to other walkers, such as a man who walks "to get in touch with my humanity and others," who also says he must think, as a black man, that people may be fearful about how he presents himself to the world. And a woman would think long before trying such a feat. But the easy-going, informally dressed Green does not have those worries, sauntering about the city, night and day, without an iota of anxiety.

"The World Before Your Feet" makes no pretense of raising political questions about the city's future or analyzing its social problems. The film is content to keep on observing an inexhaustible Matt Green as he goes about noticing every detail of the complex city that we inhabit.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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