When you walk down Hillhouse Avenue on a quiet Tuesday afternoon, you can almost imagine yourself as the protagonist of one of those 1980s movies that romanticized elite private schools with their herds of Kant worshippers and casual black coffee drinkers. If you don a coat, rest a pair of glasses on your nose, grab a cup of Koffee and deliberately pace your steps — adding restraint to your movements — the walk becomes purposive.
There is usually a light breeze that rustles the leaves of the trees that line either side of this street, and with Prospect swallowing most of the foot traffic you need only expect the occasional chance companion. The tall stone Church of Saint Mary mightily stands facing the windowed Dunham Laboratories; Romanticism and Enlightenment face off as you saunter down the path. A flyer on the church’s door welcomes you to “consider Catholicism,” but the entryway is fringed with traffic cones. You wonder if their staff knows how the message might be lost in the neon warning that usually serves to avert traffic. Hillhouse has a forest-like ambiance, enough to help you forget the folks trooping over to Science Hill one street above and those consummating their boba affair a block away at Whale Tea.
If you still have not been able to guess, this article is an endorsement of walking. Not the calorie-burning, sweat-inducing march you might undertake to get to Biology 101 on time, nor the 3 a.m. shuffle to a suite party and definitely not the walk consumed by friendly chatter as you tread to a New Haven restaurant. It is a passionate appeal to you to walk like the aimless stroller who has nowhere to be: the Benjaminian flaneur, the protagonist of Thoreau’s 1862 essay “Walking” or — better yet — Edmund White’s lounger who strolls through the paradoxes of Paris (read: New Haven).
The act of walking for the sake of walking itself is multifaceted. Walking, without the sword of time on your neck and the chain of productivity tugging at your leg, can reveal profound things both about yourself and the place you are walking through. As Thoreau writes, “There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.”
Everytime I walk down a path in New Haven I discover something entirely new, like fresh, pink, chalk text on the brick walls of my favorite coffee shop that reads “Black lives matter,” or a glossy poster promising me $25 for participating in a research study for smokers — as though years of inhaling tar have all surmounted to this irrefutable offer for cash back.
Undirected walking can also be a political act. For Benjamin, only the flaneur via his leisurely gait is able to escape the hamster wheel of capitalism. As progressive time moves forward pulling us along in its unforgiving tide, “the true picture of the past flits by and only the flaneur who idly strolls along receives the message.”
Who knew one could stop being the cog in the machine through the simple act of an aimless walk? Strolling is even more politicized depending on the identity of the walker. As a Pakistani woman, the opportunity to walk in a black suede skirt and a striped T-shirt down a deserted road in a foreign city thousands of miles away from home is a momentous occasion. Walking with your headphones playing an archaic Urdu tune and a skip in your step can almost convince you that the rights of man are indeed the rights of all humans and not just those of the white, cishet, Christian males.
The political gravity of walking is evident in multiple ways, including the fight for the 2000 English “Countryside and Rights of Way Act” that opened up 3.4 million acres of privately owned English and Welsh land to walkers. A community organizing group called the Ramblers fought for the latter half of the 20th century in a working-class revolution to regain land reserved by the wealthy for grouse shooting. The “Right to Roam,” as it was called, was a century-long fight for the simple right to walk.
Walking brings with it the chance to discover something new, to observe how trees sometimes look as though they are standing upside down, their fingers burrowing into soil, or how a massage shop stands right next to a bank inviting its officers after a long day of work, or how there is an entire running path that runs underneath the road you are walking on. It also promises to break the monotony of all-consuming capitalist life by allowing you to slow down and breathe in (potentially hazardous) air.
Walking is freeing, it’s political, it’s imaginative and it can be whatever you want it to be. So slow down, add an extra step to your gait, look around yourself and put some music on. It’s time to go for a walk.
IMAN IFTIKHAR is a sophomore in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate weeks. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .