My Self Isolation Flashback (TBC)

At some point in the past a friend of mine had a foot injury. He was laid up, unable to walk, for about a week whilst the injury healed, sufficient to bear his weight. He was bereft. He could not work, he could not leave the house. He took it badly.

At the time we were fond of looking for stories in myth which may inform events in our current or past life event. We naturally looked to the story of Achilles. In myth he was dipped into the River Styx by his mother to make him invulnerable. She held his foot to facilitate this. His invulnerable heel was his weakness and this is where the spear that killed him hit him in battle. Today, a weakness can be referred to as a persons ‘Achilles Heel’. After suffering an injury to my own eponymous Achilles Tendon, I can attest to it’s disabling capacity. Achilles was a warrior and for a warrior and foot injury could be a potential fatal weakness.

We reflected on how neither he nor I were warriors. It was some comfort and a useful antidote to equating masculinity with combat. Myths are useful in the way they contain archetypal forms, patterns of phenomena or behaviour that transcend the time of the original story. They are like signposts from the past that point to the present. My recollection of the exchange with my friend seems to include some reference to another myth which pointed to the idea that a foot injury is a sign to rest and reflect. But numerous searches have not revealed any such myth.

In reality Achilles would have seen out his days resting his heel in carpet slippers if he had rested and reflected instead of going into battle. Indeed, maybe the myth points to a warrior resting and avoiding battle should they get a tendon injury in their heel.

On Tuesday the 19th October I tested positive for Covid 19. The government in their infinite wisdom decreed that give such an injury I should rest for 10 days. They wrote to me and said “You have tested positive for COVID-19. You must stay at home and self-isolate until 29th of October (including this date at midnight).”

I could still smell stuff. I had no temperature. But 2 flow tests showed positive. After a while I felt like a large dog was sitting on my chest. I got no worse but was exhausted and slept a lot. I was laid low for about a week. The chest restriction was scary and I could see that if it got worse it would this that killed me. CV19 is an upper respiratory illness. Untreated it would be a terrifying way to go. You would slowly suffocate.

I couldn’t do much bit sit, rest and reflect. So I reflected on Achilles. I figured that for 10 days at least my fighting days were over. The myth told me it was ok to be out of action.

My art making had reached a bit of a hiatus. I have been having a battle with my ‘Imposter Syndrome’. My art making included photography, performance, walking art, painting, poetry and prose, collage, music making, digital art and all manner combinations of the above. But fine art it was not. It had become, in the eyes of my imposter self, a meaningless mishmash of mixed-media. Given an opportunity to rest and reflect I decided to reflect on all the weird things I had done in the name of art, and pick a few to concentrate on. Be a proper ‘Artist’.

How to do it though. I decided to make a book. I would call it ‘Here’s One I Made Earlier – Retrospective of a Non-Artist’. It could be a work of fiction. I would be the unreliable narrator. I remembered a story about artist Joseph Beuys, about how he claimed his plane was shot down in flames and he was badly injured, and a band of nomadic Tartars had saved his life by wrapping him up in felt and fat. It was only partly true. But Beuys built his reputation as an artist on this story. He did lots of stuff that could be considered ‘not-art’, like living in a cage with a coyote. Beuys created his own myths. His story is told in ‘Fat, felt and a fall to Earth: the making and myths of Joseph Beuys’ here.

In the article, Olivia Laing the author says “All the same, by turning his injury into a fable, Beuys did make a clear statement of intent. War, fascism, nationhood, trauma and repair: these would be his subjects, but his approach would not be that of a historian or social scientist. What he was interested in was discovering and communicating in mythic terms how damage might be transfigured or transformed.”

The power of transformation is the power of art. Art preceded science but both act as forms of research. Science of the material world, art of the immaterial. Science is a form of art. John Berger is quoted in the article and says “In matters of seeing, Joseph Beuys was the great prophet of the second half of our century. Believing that everybody is potentially an artist, he took objects and arranged them in such a way that they beg the spectator to collaborate with them … by listening to what their eyes tell them and remembering.”

My book making is going OK. My imposter has coughed, interrupted me, and opined that my retrospective ideas about my past as a non-artist are inaccurate. “I think you might just find that your ideas of yourself are just a myth.” he says. I am getting uncomfortable with the process I embarked on. But this just means the process is working. I am (as Berger says) taking “…objects and arranged them in such a way that they beg the spectator to collaborate with them … by listening to what their eyes tell them and remembering.” and I am the spectator.

In retrospect my past is being transfigured and transformed by my act of making. Not sure what it will be transfigured and transformed into. But that is what art and research is all about. I am in the right attitude. I am available for outcomes but not connected to them. I am in adventure.

Rewilding on the Urban Fringe – A Proposal

Image – Edge of old peat cutting Walton Moss, Cumbria, UK.

A Proposal for working with art-making outdoors as a mode of discovery and discourse to support the process and practice of rewilding.


(I attended this excellent event A Natural Capital Lab on an urban fringe: challenges and possibilities on Jan 21st and made this proposal to work with art. To date no response to the proposal, but on reflection, I should have asked if there were any rewilding in the urban fringe projects currently running, or asked if anybody wanted to start one.)


My interest in rewilding on the urban fringe is prompted partly by my childhood living on the urban fringe in Derby, by my work in outdoor education which included two urban outdoor programmes and by my personal arts practice. I trained as a Drama and Movement Therapist, and guided by the principles of the arts therapies, most of my art making involves exploring and expressing my personal experience of the outdoors. I work with the outdoors as art and art as research.

This posting on my blog is presented as an invitation to conversation and collaboration. Art making as a mode of inquiry has many and deep connections to rewilding, particularly on the urban fringe.

I think there is scope for art making outdoors to be of use to the principles and practice of rewilding in the following ways.

  1. Art making has an affinity with the rewilding process and has the scope to facilitate personal insight into rewilding, in practice, in situ practically and intellectually.
  2. Art making can be used as a kind of performative research to explore and express personal experience as an adjunct and complement to quantitative and qualitative research.
  3. Art making, when undertaken guided by the principles of the art therapies, can promote a sense of attachment to place which can be mutually beneficial to the health of both the persons and places involved.
  4. Given mutual agreement, art made through outdoors as art activities, can serve as a catalyst for discussion, illustration and promotion of said activities and the persons and places involved.

Like the idea and practice of ‘Art’ the idea and practice of ‘Rewilding’ can be contentious. Both have some aspects which are not contentious. A fine art oil painting of a landscape is undeniably art, as the scientific data which is used in ecological sciences is undeniably an accurate account of the plants and animals in a community. But strong disagreements exist as to whether certain things can be classed as art, in the same way that strong disagreements exist about both the scope and value of rewilding.

In Practice as Research – Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. Edited by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, Professor Estelle Barrett, talking about art making as research in postgrad research says that art as research is subjective, situational, emergent and multidisciplinary. In the same book Professor Brad Haseman describes art based research as performative research.

My proposal is that guided by ideas and practices from arts education and the arts therapies, particularly when art is used as a form of enquiry or research, art as research acts as a useful mode of enquiry in situations that are subjective, situational, emergent and multidisciplinary. Core scientific data may still prevail in certain areas in which objectivity of material phenomena is required, but art making as enquiry is useful when we want to explore personal experience and subjective phenomena.

For example photography could be useful in work in which we are inviting people to explore and express where they think ‘wilderness’ begins and ends. This is even more so in the urban fringe. In a photo series called Northern Territories I explored the point where human managed space ended and wilder, less managed space started. In Local Internet, prompted by the work of James Bridle I explored the way that the idea of ‘The Cloud’ was still around us as a very concrete phenomena and totally crossed the boundary between online and offline spaces.

Art as research is very situational and personal but these ideas could be useful if used in other settings to help persons involved in rewilding produce images to prompt discussion about where they would draw a line between human and wild spaces.

In the arts therapies, in art making, and in art as inquiry the process is very important. One may have an intention for art making, but the final outcome, the art made is uncertain. This is similar to rewilding. In Urban Wilderness in Central Europe – Rewilding at the Urban Fringe, the authors Matthias Diemer, Martin Held, and Sabine Hofmeister say of rewilding ‘..for some ecosystems there are no clear conceptions of the composition or appearance of the future wilderness state.’1 Rewilding, like art, is a creative act. Working with art outdoors could be a way to help people understand that with rewilding, like adtr making, the outcome may not always be certain.

Just saying what art is, like saying what rewilding is is difficult because creative acts are, by their nature, difficult if not impossible to accurately predict. In pure scientific research, the capacity to predict an outcome and test it, is central. This is a source of vital information about some things that can be measured and predicted. Arts as research does not challenge this or contradict this. But with rewilding, predicting the path of secondary succession towards a state of preservation of a fixed final climax state is not always possible.

The artist John Cage talks about the creative act thus “When you start working, everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”2 In rewilding, in the end, even we leave in faith that the place can take care of making wilderness for itself. Rewilding may have a human hand at inception, the first brush strokes, but human hand leaves in the end. Nature is creative.

Frans Schepers and Paul Jepson say of working with rewilding as opposed to fixed conservation approaches ‘This conservation approach, which has been compared to restoring a painting that then needs curating, is at odds with the process-oriented ethos of rewilding and the uncertain ecological and conservation dynamics this entails… Rewilding is seen as a process rather than a state…3 ‘ The rewilding act is not that of restoring an old painting, it is the creation of a new painting.

We could see that as a mode of enquiry art making outdoors can help people look at what is wilderness and where it starts and ends, particularly in the urban fringe, it can help people experience rewilding as process and as an unpredictable creative act and provide access to understanding wildness through performative experiences, alongside quantitative and qualitative data.

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My experience of working with the outdoors as art and art as research has included both formal research and exploration of more personal experience. The use of art making as a form of enquiry is, I think, of most use as an adjunct to more formal quantitative and qualitative approaches. I think it invites a mode of working which, when guided by principles form the arts therapies and arts education can offer a degree of rigour of process. The arts generally have a long history of providing an outlet for expression and discourse.

All work is localised to the setting, the place in which the art making is taking place, and the artform and content subject to enquiry. Any work is, like the actual form the rewilding takes, open to a creative and thus unpredictable outcome. Nature, like art, can speak for itself. But two examples of how to work with the arts are presented which may illustrate the process in two specific settings. One is presented below, the other will follow and is part of a project I am doing in the Solway Firth.

On arrival at my current home, a neighbour told us about a flood which came down a ridge behind our houses and entered a friends kitchen. It seemed inconceivable at the time. There was no watercourse within a quarter of a mile of our houses. But during lockdown I went looking for evidence of the story. To my surprise I found a cloistered and culverted stream ran right where she said. It was invisible except for the occasional sound of water form under two large concrete slabs behind a garage and a vague path of dampness on a football pitch after heavy rain. On some maps a series of disconnected water features were shown, but on others they were entirely absent.

After a few days of rain, I went out with a camera to film the path of the water on the football pitch, when a dog walker called me over and we got talking. He confirmed the story. The flood happens 17 years ago and ruined his dads car when it entered the families garage. The then open stream was filled in by the council as a result of the flood. I found the path of the stream, mostly hidden but above the surface in three places in over it’s 2 kilometer course. I walked this with a GPS tracker to make a performance of it’s whole journey down to the River Irthing from a spring behind our houses. I discovered that this spring was on a feature that was was part of ‘Brampton Kame Belt’ ‘..one the largest glaciofluvial complexes within the UK.’ I liked the idea of a mythical stream existing only when it rained and wrote a story about this like it was a Norse Myth. I become very attached to to this elusive, nameless stream, like it is the local secret only locals know about.

I know that the ridge the flood water came from was left by the bed of a river that flowed over the melting glaciers that disappeared 10k years ago. I know that on rainy days I can follow the wet path in the football pitch that marks the now filled in path of a stream, or find a spot under willow tree behind my house that produces the unseen but clearly audible sound of rushing water. I used story writing and performance to connect with the stream in a more personal imaginal way. I developed an empirical and personal connection.

This empirical and personal connection together acted to bring a feeling of attachment. In childcare, attachment is defined as ‘the maintenance of proximity’, and is an important source of security for care-giver and child. Because art making outdoors connects me to place with both empirical data and personal experience I feel now feel more attached to this stream and thus to the place I reside. So whilst with regards to rewilding, empirical, ecological data is vital, a personal attachment to place may be something that could be mutually beneficial to place and person. Understanding place through both empirical data and personal experience could be an interesting way to help people involved with rewilding form attachments to place.

Many rewilding schemes exist in the UK. Many will be supported by volunteers. Volunteering is a great way to connect with and form attachment to place. Participants involved in rewilding schemes will be familiar with many ecological, data driven modes of understanding. Having done a BSc in Human Ecology I can see this is vital. But as an arts therapist and art maker I can see that art making, or at least an approach to enquiry rooted in art making has had many benefits for me.

Any form of engagement with place and particularly physical or embodied engagement forms attachment. My experience is that this attachment has helped me through lockdown. My art based enquiry has maintained my mental health. But what the arts involvement has done has taught me to be is open in my approach to the place I live. Open in the way I understand what is going on.

  • things from a different perspective

For rewilding, and particularly rewilding in the urban fringe, a mode of engagement with process, a mode of understanding rewilding in it’s contentious and unpredictable nature that is open could be advantageous.

A Proposal

Therefore I make a proposal for conversation and possible collaboration in exploring art making as a mode of enquiry, understanding and attachment to place, in support of rewilding in the urban fringe.

I live in North Cumbria and would love to work with people nearby in England or Scotland on an actual site, ideally in the urban fringe.

Beyond lockdown, I would also be interested in connecting with individuals who may be interested in working with the outdoors as art, to simply experiment and explore ideas and possibly form a means by which we could support each other in personal arts, health, educational, ecological or environmental practice.

Art making makes art. Be it visual art, music making, poetry, performance art, pottery, sculpture, whatever. Sharing and showing art made is valuable as a way of inviting discussion, illustration and promotion of place, process, project and person. Showing and sharing art made is the art as research equivalent of the scientific peer review. I evokes discourse. But personal witnessing of art making is central to the arts therapies. We cannot all be artists but we can all make art. For some people showing what they made is a terrifying proposal. But in some way personal witnessing is like wilderness. To be true wilderness, it may be that it is unseen by any eyes but the eyes of the people, plants and animals that live there. In the arts therapies, art made is seen by nobody but the therapist and the person or persons in therapy. What is shared is shared with consent.

If anyone is interested in a sharing a journey of exploration and discovery, a journey of uncertain outcome, like adventure, like rewilding, like art, please visit my blog at movingspace.blog and get in touch.


  1. Urban Wilderness in Central EuropeRewilding at the Urban Fringeby Matthias Diemer, Martin Held, and Sabine Hofmeister.  ↩︎
  2. john cage / score without parts  ↩︎
  3. Rewilding in the European Context  ↩︎

Feral Attraction – outdoors as / art / as research

I visited the Cumbria University staff show and was drawn to this work by the artistic partnership Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson. It captured a combination of the outdoors as art and art as research, showing a long-established mode of working combining the outdoors, art and research.

Feral Attraction was the work I saw and below that there is an introduction to Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson itself.


Feral Attraction

Tálkni peninsula (from north)


A project exploring what happens when domestic animals transgress the invisible and unspoken boundaries that separate landscapes of domestication and wildness? In October 2009, a small flock of feral sheep that had persisted for some decades in an inaccessible part of the Westfjords of Iceland was rounded up by a team of men and dogs from the neighbouring communities. Some nineteen sheep were caught, but five more perished as they ran off steep cliffs attempting to evade their captors. Despite (or perhaps because) the incident had caused so much public interest, all those caught were sent to the abattoir the following day. Prior to the round-up, observations were reported suggesting that some physiological adaptations in the sheep were evident. The opportunity to investigate a supposed increase in leg length was lost with the summary disposal of the carcasses. The incident serves to highlight several issues of contention regarding the ‘nature’ of landscapes; animal presences in these landscapes; and the preoccupations of humans with maintaining the boundaries between the wild and the domestic.

There is a tension between what we hold culturally as being right and proper and what we observe as a bid by another agent to disrupt that order. At the heart of this case is something that may be dismissed by many to be of no great consequence. For us, in ways resonant with  ideas proposed by Jane Bennett (2010) in her seminal book Vibrant Matter, it serves as a vital pointer to expose how human systems suppress the inclinations and capabilities of ‘things’, acknowledging instead only those qualities and capacities we have assigned them.

Tálkni peninsula (shearing)

Human will become blind  to the wills of those outside human systems whose actions do not correspond with, or seem at odds with, their own – who are simply not compliant in the human enterprise at hand. When the animal agent is one with which we technically coexist, (a domestic animal) the oversight seems particularly acute. A lack of porosity is evident – a resistance to ideas or indicators of change – a reactionary dismissal of knowledge concerning environment and the adaptability of denizens – the shaping of existence by environment – the capacity of discrete environments to model not only new biological permutations but to spawn new behavioural possibilities as a consequence of introductions or migration – a failure on the part of humans, still to acknowledge that a condition of ‘becoming’ is actually the norm – in nature, stability and material independence are illusory.

Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson

For the last twenty years, the collaborative artist team, Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson, has been practicing and producing in the field of contemporary art on an international stage with projects and exhibitions in the UK, Europe, Australia, and the USA. They have built a reputation, resonant in many fields – in contemporary art, animal studies, human geography, museology, the environmental sciences and more. In this respect, it has been their strategic intent to drive the idea that contemporary art is a significant voice, made possible by the application of unique blends of original methods and cross-disciplinary appropriation.

Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson’s artwork is multidisciplinary in nature, most usually taking the form of installation, involving anything from sculptural interventions, found objects and materials, video, audio, drawing, photography and texts. Notwithstanding their participation in International Biennales and major gallery shows, their adherence to the significance and advantage of site-specificity have often led them strategically to exhibit in some tiny and otherwise most obscure venues.

The production of their work is unashamedly driven and facilitated by intensive research and interdisciplinary associations, because as artists they consider art to be both the most promising platform and the most likely instrument by which the fusion and mutual complication or disturbance of traditionally discrete knowledge-fields will succeed in effecting significant and increasingly urgent cultural and behavioural change.

And change is the only show in town…

They ask what it means in the context of crisis, (e.g. mass extinction and the Anthropocene), to consider and practice art as a tool of disruption and mediation, how passivity might subversively be channelled as a weapon and how complex, cross-disciplinary relationships can effectively and otherwise, be productively managed. As a consequence of their approach, through many projects, the artists have invested and directed their energies towards alliances and conversations across multiple fields in exhibitions, associated seminars and international conferences. For them, every exhibition made, is a provocation of sorts and is used to create opportunities for extending discourse, often between people who would otherwise rarely, if ever, engage. Over this time and as a consequence, they have exhibited and otherwise continue to be involved with many other internationally significant artists and theorists across the world.

Now, in 2019, they continue to develop ongoing projects in Rhode Island (at the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown) and in Alaska (at Anchorage Museum). 

Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir (PhD) isProfessor and MA programme director at the Iceland Academy of the Arts

Mark Wilson (PhD) is Professor in Fine Art and Course leader in MA Contemporary Fine Art at the University of Cumbria, Institute of the Arts, UK

Snæbjörnsdóttir Wilsonare 2015-20 Polar Lab Artists-in-Residence with the Anchorage Museum, Alaska, USA, leading to the forthcoming solo exhibition

Snæbjörnsdóttir Wilsonare 2016-19 Artists-in-Residence at  the David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University, Providence, USA, leading to the forthcoming solo exhibition

The modern day flâneur

Theories and demographics are all very well, but to know New York City’s inner life you need to walk and talk

By William Helmreich

aeon.co

June 21, 2013 

When I was nine, my father found a new form of entertainment for me. Whenever our schedules were free, we took the subway from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to the end of the line and walked around, exploring the neighbourhood. We saw swampy marshes in Canarsie, Brooklyn, public housing projects in Astoria, Queens, and beautiful, forested Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. One time, my father poked his head into a pub and everyone scattered. We never found out why.

In this way, I learned to love New York City. I still do. And over the past four years, partly in homage to New York, but largely to furnish material for a book-length study, I’ve walked some 6,000 miles across the city’s built-up terrain — that’s 120,000 blocks. The question, for a professional sociologist such as me, is: was this the best way to study a city?

Approached correctly, walking forces you to slow down and really look at what you’re seeing. Like the flâneurs of times past, one needs to stroll leisurely and engage people in conversations about how they feel about where they live, what they do, and how they perceive the place is changing. Had I driven through the city, along its highways and thoroughfares, I would have missed 90 per cent of what I found: the teeming life of the city’s backstreets, its parks and playgrounds, its outdoor and indoor eateries — all this would have remained invisible to me. Besides, driving (and for that matter, cycling) tend to mark you as an outsider, even if you live there. When you cover ground quickly, people assume you’re just passing through. But when you walk through a neighbourhood, people assume you’ve got reason to be there.

With walking, it’s the journey that’s the destination. The minute you begin observing, you’re there.

Six thousands miles might seem a ludicrous challenge but, like the proverbial mountain, you walk it one step at a time. A marathon runner could cover the ground I walked in 12 or 14 months, but my leisurely pace was both less strenuous, and much more systematic. I used street maps and marked off each street, correcting for haphazardness and habit, since people tend to stick to their routes and repeat patterns. I myself had lived in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, for eight years, and thought I knew its every part. I didn’t. I’d often walked 164th Street, but rarely 163rd. Ditto for 159th, as opposed to 158th Street. Returning to the area as a participant-observer, of the kind valued by urban ethnographers from the Chicago School of the 1920s, onwards, I discovered places I’d never seen before.

I often entered interior courtyards of buildings where I watched children playing games bounded by arcane rules that only they knew because they’d created them. I saw unique architectural details, not visible from the sidewalk. I entered apartment buildings and experienced the smells and sounds of urban life as it is experienced indoors. One time, a man allowed me to see his apartment on the 21st floor of a housing project. Inside, I discovered that the entire living space was done in bright red — the walls, tables, chairs, even the microwave oven and the clothes-hangers in his closet, not to mention the silverware, or, should I say, redware. Why? ‘I’ve always loved red,’ he said simply. The takeaway for me was that we can’t always fully explain human behaviour. My studied trespass brought home the fact that our tools are bounded by the limits of human understanding — ours and that of others.

Walking slowly through NYC, I saw things that a cyclist, threading through crowds, or trying to negotiate spaces filled with automobiles, couldn’t see. Could a cyclist look for more than a second at the fifth floor of a building on a narrow one-way street and notice the large letter ‘M’ carved into its façade, and then explore its meanings for the residents? Or look down at the sidewalk and discover the intricate designs of trellises, flowers, and leaves etched into its surface, without risking life or limb?

One of my aims with this project was to try to comprehend the actual physical process by which a neighbourhood gentrifies. I asked an Asian student emerging from an apartment building in what was once a sketchy part of Manhattan’s Washington Heights area if the neighbourhood’s ethnic population, once poor and mainly Hispanic, was changing. He told me it was becoming much more mixed. ‘But,’ I demurred, ‘the names next to the buzzers in your own building are almost all Hispanic.’ ‘That’s only because we haven’t had a chance to remove them and put our own names in yet,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eyes. And so I learned that reality isn’t always what you see. More important, I realised, you must ask questions, not simply observe.

The Hasidic neighbourhood of Williamsburg abuts the black community of Bedford-Stuyvesant at Flushing Avenue. On one side of the avenue are privately developed apartment buildings occupied solely by Hasidic families. On the other side, the Marcy Houses, a red-brick public housing project built in 1949, loom over the street. I saw three Hasidic children with velvet skullcaps and curly side-locks standing on a balcony, staring intently at a basketball game going on in the playground outside the Marcy Houses. Perhaps they were keeping score. Or perhaps they wanted to join in. This was the childhood home of rapper Jay-Z — so named, according to internet legend, because the J and Z subway lines run nearby. It looks and feels like a ‘don’t cross’ border.

Sociologist William Helmreich takes time out from walking to admire the Centro La Paz Mural on 125th st, East Harlem. Photo by Neville Elder

New York City policy is to not tear down housing projects, but to rehabilitate them. Where will the Hasidim, with their explosive birth rate, go once their area has filled up? Walking through the project, I find out soon enough. They’ve built more apartment buildings deep in the black area beyond the project. It’s sort of like a river that, when blocked, simply flows around the barrier and continues.

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‘We’re proud of what we’ve built here, and no one messes with this stuff. They wouldn’t dare.’

Walking through the project buildings, I learned something else. In stark contrast to the grim outward appearance from the main thoroughfare, there are beautiful gardens, created and maintained by the residents. Brilliantly coloured flowers grow here, as well as manicured shrubbery, which surrounds statues and drawings done by local residents. No one has vandalised them. ‘We’re proud of what we’ve built here, and no one messes with this stuff,’ an elderly woman sitting on a bench told me. ‘They wouldn’t dare.’

Walking along the newer structures beyond Flushing Avenue, where the Hasidim are still a minority, black, Hispanic and Hasidic children play ball together in the street. It’s the kind of contact that will probably soften their views about otherness as they grow into adults, working in this multi-racial city. The Hasidim are seen as insular, but are they as insular as children raised in the all-white Bronx community in Edgewater Park? In gentrifying areas, you see who talks to whom, and how comfortable they are by their body language. In taverns or restaurants, you see races intermingle, belying the stark categorisations of town planners, statisticians and theorists.

The delight is in the details. Had I not walked, I would never have met the man standing on his porch in Jamaica, Queens, watering a small, neatly kept garden filled with lovely, unusual flowers. ‘These flowers are beautiful,’ I remarked. ‘Where did you get them?’ ‘I’m so glad you asked,’ he replied softly. ‘They are flowers from my country, Guyana, which I love. I planted them to remind me of home.’

Here was an expression of the pain, even heartbreak, of leaving one’s native land, that no amount of probing dry statistics about remittances to the homeland, residential patterns, or ethnic credit associations could yield. And it opened a window for me on to the deeper struggles and hopes of immigrants.

To really understand the immigrant experience in New York City, you need to encounter immigrants on their own turf. The American approach of respecting, even celebrating, ethnicity can lead to the formation of communities isolated from larger society in ways that make their socioeconomic progress so much harder.

For example, there are neighbourhoods, parts of Bushwick and Washington Heights, where hardly anyone speaks English. You can’t get directions or buy something in a store unless you speak fairly good Spanish. I interviewed a Dominican building superintendent who has been living in the city for 27 years. He spoke no English. Why is that, I asked through his nine-year-old daughter, who was our translator. ‘Because I don’t have to in this neighbourhood.’ His daughter will have an easier time.

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The hot-dog vendor from India explained that his life isn’t important. He’s doing it for his children

It’s not just about the language, but the importance of success and how it is measured by immigrants. I speak with a hot-dog vendor from India and ask him if this is what he dreamed of when he came here. It isn’t, he admitted, but then he explained that his life isn’t important. He’s doing it for his children. I found that immigrants are acutely conscious that they’re changing the trajectories of generations to come when they decide to emigrate from their often-impoverished homelands.

In Brooklyn, I came across a gentrifying block lined with brownstone dwellings. One of them featured a simple sign that read ‘P De Rosa — 180 — Grocery’. Underneath were neon signs for two old-time beers — Schaefer and Rheingold Extra Dry. It was clearly not a functioning establishment; so why was the sign there? After chatting with a woman sitting in front of a nearby house, I learned that it had been a grocery store many years ago. I tracked down Mr De Rosa’s grandson who explained that his family had kept the sign out of respect for his grandfather’s saga of immigration and hard work, eking out a living, his native village in southern Italy far behind him.

‘It’s a matter of respect,’ Mr De Rosa’s grandson said quietly. ‘For me it was an important lesson about filial love. Every Christmas and Easter, the neon lights are turned on for the beers that were advertised in the old days.’

And then there’s the ‘Halem Bike Doctor’ (the misspelling is deliberate), a man who fixes bicycles, sells them at unbelievably cheap prices, and then sponsors an annual Father’s Day bike race around adjacent Marcus Garvey Park, open only to ‘children with good grades’. Or the man whose small yard, and much larger garage, featured thousands of memorabilia items from the Brooklyn of the 1950s and ’60s. Memory and lived experience are everywhere layered together, then brought into relief by community characters such as these.

Without walking New York City block by block, I would never have known about these jewels, or had the opportunity to converse with the hundreds of people I encountered on my jaunts. Without walking the entire city, I would never have learned which of the things I found were representative of the city as a whole and which, on the other hand, were uniquely interesting and so worthy of inclusion in my book. Seeing and understanding these patterns and repetitions enables the researcher to see connections from one area to another, and to realise how it’s all part of an interconnected whole.

So often it was the chance encounter, followed by a spontaneous exchange, that led me to important insights. Walking one day through a somewhat hazardous part of Bushwick, Brooklyn, I came across a tall, burly black man walking four pit-bull terriers. What made the sight really unusual were the two boa constrictors curled around his neck. When a woman with a girl of about seven approached, he proclaimed: ‘Here, your child can pet these dogs!’ And when she drew back, he complained in a mocking tone: ‘Now you’re not being a nice New Yorker.’

I fell into step with him, and was surprised to find a man on the next block, also with a young child in tow, take him up on his offer. The man allowed his daughter to pet the dogs and then stood by admiringly as one of the boas encircled the fearless child. No one paid much attention to the black man, the snakes, or what he was saying. In a posher area, a crowd would have gathered, gaped at this menagerie, and most likely have called the police. After all, owning wild creatures in the city is illegal without a special permit. What the incident brought home to me was that the norms of behaviour in New York vary greatly, depending on where you are. ‘Big deal. This is Brooklyn,’ said one man when I asked what he thought of the scene.

I learned a similar lesson outside the Jackson Houses project in the South Bronx, when I asked a black woman if the area was dangerous. She told me that it most definitely was. When I informed her that the murder rate in the area had declined dramatically from about 2,000 deaths a year in the 1980s and ’90s to about 500 today, she retorted: ‘Oh yeah? Well, if the murder rate went down to 500 a year, then 400 of them is happening right outside my building.’ Perceptions of crime are relative. It might be down in overall numbers, but the distribution is what counts to those living in high-crime areas.

In a crowded metropolis, where people are busy, you find that the niceties of communication are frequently ignored. People don’t listen to you because they’re on the clock. That’s what happens in a large city, where, as the German sociologist Georg Simmel said a century ago, time rules the day. Yet when I asked if I could use a photocopier machine, because my daughter was getting married, the answer was ‘Sure.’ Or when I requested permission to use a bathroom, saying: ‘I’m going on vacation next week,’ I’d be told ‘Go ahead.’ As long as you at least say something, it’s fine. Perhaps Simmel overstated his case — since there are times when time doesn’t matter.

Some of my most intense and revealing conversations with strangers took place on the busiest of streets. Waiting for a bus on Brooklyn’s bustling Atlantic Avenue, a woman poured out her heart to me about her ‘mean and crazy sister’ who was stealing money from their joint bank account. Another person railed about how he’d been driven out of the community in which he grew up; while a third explained why his dream was to be a filmmaker.

There’s no question that walking a city, be it London, Paris, or New York is challenging, arduous and, at times, dangerous. Most cities do not have ideal climates. You can’t walk only when the weather is clement, or doing a project of this sort will take 20 years to complete. I walked in all four seasons, in light rain and in snow flurries. Sometimes I’d travel two hours to my starting point, just to walk for a single hour. You grab time when you can. I’d walk early in the morning, late at night, weekdays and weekends. I often had to walk four hours in a day to find, in the last minutes, the ‘gem of the day’. It’s highly intensive labour.

But the rewards make it immensely worthwhile, sociologically, and in human terms. Stride for stride, I believe there’s no better way to really know a city.

The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (2013) by William Helmreich is published via Princeton University Press.

Reflective Locations

France-based contemporary artist Salomé-Charlotte Camors questions our individual responsibility for environmental and social issues. Undertaking extensive research, she then utilises conceptual photography to go beyond an image – to crystallise the interactions constitutive of our identity and conception of reality.

An article in Aesthetica magazine

Nature connectedness and noticing nature: Key components of a good life.

For the past six months or so we’ve been working with the National Trust exploring how being connected with nature relates to pro-nature behaviours …

Nature connectedness and noticing nature: Key components of a good life.