Pedestrian 31: Lotusland – Seven Days. Seven Walks.
Announcing a series of walks around the City of Los Angeles.
Another newsletter. Another [big] walk announcement!
On March 8th, I’m starting a series of seven walks in Los Angeles over seven days. As always, I’m sending a daily newsletter throughout the whole journey. You can sign up here.
I’ve entertained this series of Los Angeles walks for a couple years now. Each time I begin tossing the idea around, something else takes precedent and I’m forced to earmark the project for a later time. Los Angeles has always drawn me. Why? You may ask. The answer is simple – curiosity. I’ve visited numerous times over the years, but the city remains a mystery – one of those places that evades definition, supposedly cannot be walked, lacks a true center, and to be frank, holds many qualities that would seemingly make it the antithesis of why I enjoy big city living. As architectural critic Reyner Banham said, “the unique value of Los Angeles – what excites, intrigues and sometimes repels me – is that it offers radical alternatives to almost every urban concept in unquestioned currency.”
Well, the stars finally aligned and I’m pleased to announce it’s time to walk Los Angeles. I’m more than ready and long overdue. Partially because I chose to stick around Brooklyn last fall (I usually do these long, multi-day walks in the fall and spring) to pour my attention into a book (set to come out this year) of photos and text chronicling the last three or four years of my walks (more about that in another newsletter).
I’m Alex Wolfe and this is Pedestrian, a newsletter on the observations, feelings, people and experience of walking through the built environment
Each morning, for seven days, I’ll hit the pavement and walk ten to twelve miles throughout the city. I’m aiming to walk at least seventy-five miles. This is the first time I’ve done a series of walks in the same place, but those who have followed my work for a long time will know the familiar drill.
I’m sharing this walk through a daily newsletter titled Lotusland, which contains dispatches (or better yet, vignettes) and photos from the day’s travels. Each morning you will receive at least 800 words (likely more) and a few photos in your inbox detailing the city landscape, people encountered, history of place, emotions, pain in my knees, etc. The walk begins on March 8th, but you’ll receive the first issue on the morning of the 9th. Once the walk finishes, I’ll delete the mailing list and you’ll automatically be unsubscribed.
“To understand Los Angeles – the city’s design, architecture, and urbanism – is to speak the language of movement,” writes Reyner Banham in his seminal book Los Angeles: The Four Ecologies. To Banham, the city cannot possibly be understood by those who “can’t move fluently through its diffuse urban texture or go with the flow of its unprecedented life.” This language, in his eyes, was best spoken behind the wheel of a car. So, Banham learned how to drive – much like the English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original – to “read Los Angeles in the original.”
So, what happens to those who aren’t fluent in that language of movement, and instead speak an alternative, slower language?
Los Angeles is notorious for being a city developed in service of cars, the freeway, and horizontal expansion. A boomtown that couldn’t be farther from the walkable streets of New York City. Joan Didion states, “A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease.”
Many claim you can’t walk the city (especially those not living there), but navigating by two feet is possible. Numbers vary, but general consensus agrees there are 9,000–11,000 miles of sidewalk lining the streets of Los Angeles. I am not the first to undertake a project of such nature. Chris Arnade recently spent ten days walking South Los Angeles. In 2011, Nigel Raab walked 72.5 miles from the western edge of Los Angeles to the city of San Bernardino. Three years later Kelley Wiley Lane was the first to finish the final, published version of the Inmann 300, an urban thru-hike covering 218 miles (and 344 public stairways) through Los Angeles. Or how about the photography of Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin? He’s documented the city of Los Angeles on foot for over a decade (thanks for sharing Bryan).
So what is it about walking in Los Angeles? Famous Angeleno Ray Bradbury (who never learned to drive a car) once said, “it’s lack that gives inspiration.” The very lack of pedestrian infrastructure (and the common belief that the city is unwalkable) produces a certain alluring tension. This tension is not unique to Los Angeles, and can be found throughout the United States, (although I’d argue Los Angeles has its own distinct brand). I felt it while walking the length of Long Island and during a two and a half day walk around Orlando, Florida.
Like most places worth walking, Los Angeles draws various contradictory opinions and few seem to agree. In 1933, Mayo Marrow wrote, “Los Angeles…is not a mere city [but] a commodity; something to be advertised and sold to the people of the United States like automobiles, cigarettes and mouthwash.” Decades later, Journalist Adam Raphael wrote, “LA [is] the noisiest, the smelliest, the most uncomfortable and most uncivilised major city in the United States. In short, a stinking sewer ...” Author Dorothy Parker famously said Los Angeles was “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.”
The purpose of this walk is not to reinforce tired stereotypes, glamorize, or produce some grand narrative of the city and its inner workings. I’ve no intention of sharing a comprehensive overview of Los Angeles (or determining whether Los Angeles really does have better bagels than New York City…I could care less). To do so would be impossible in the span of seven days, and would require multiple visits (and perhaps relocating to Los Angeles altogether). The city is too large, too spread out. That’s likely what Reyner Banham meant when he said the city is a “scrambled egg”, its business yolk mixed with its domestic white, and everything spread across the landscape, its evenness disturbed only by occasional "specialized sub-centres".
Anyways, I’m not interested in covering as much ground as possible. As I continue to do this work, the more I continue to slow down. For a walk of this nature, it’s not important to walk great distances (although those long hauls have their benefits), but to exist in space, linger a bit, and pay attention.
Unlike Sun Song (the last long walk series I completed), I’ve loosely determined every walking route in advance. All starting from basically the same location, but I’d bet money the routes will change throughout the week. Instead of walking loops – starting and finishing in the same place – I’m walking in seven different directions. Plan all you like, but the walk always gets the last say. Especially with new information. Things usually change once you’re on the ground. Yet, a loose guide allows me to fall into the rhythm of the walk with more ease, relieves cognitive load, and always allows for more improvisation. Once I finish for the day, I’ll take the train or bus back to my stay.
Los Angeles, despite common belief, has a robust system of buses, light rail, and subways. While a shell of its former self (in the 1920’s Southern California was home to the largest electric railway system in the world and dismantled by the interests of the auto industry) the transit system continues to grow despite declining ridership. Taking an Uber or Lyft would be easier, but I refuse. Rideshares are a private, singular experience. Being shuttled from one place to another removes us from the world and most things people of the city have to deal with. In other words, riding public transit is another way to get a sense of place.
A good walk always changes you. Big or small. I’m buzzing in anticipation, like waiting for the starting pistol before a race. I couldn’t tell you how these walks will unfold, but I know I’m going to learn something. Los Angeles was only a matter of time. I look forward to sharing with you.
So please, come join me, as I walk around Los Angeles for seven days.
See you out there,
As always, I’m Alex Wolfe and this is Pedestrian. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider sharing with a friend.
Very excited to join on this walk! Last year I walked 20+ miles from my home in South Central LA to Dockweiler Beach (took the long way, lol). Even as a local I saw things anew; it’s completely reframed how I look and think of this gargantuan place. Looking forward to your journeys as you walk LA.
PS: in mid march a core group of 3 landscape architecture grad students will undertake a 51mi, 6-day walk along the entirety of the LA River. If you’re interested in learning more they have an instagram under @fiftyonemiles
Looking forward to the pics!