Note: When I wrote this proposal my plan, or the idea I thought would become the plan was that I would try to amass as many walking tour itineraries, accounts and maps as possible to see what parts of New York City tours often and rarely visit. Since then, largely thanks to in-class comments, I’ve reoriented myself partly to focus instead on gathering more information on a smaller number of tours from different periods, with specific agendas and eclectic themes (eg. public sculpture, the Beat movement, radical New York, etc.).

More so than any other major urban center in the United States, New York is a walking city. Its public and private spaces, laid out on a predominantly rectilinear grid, afford residents, guests and students of the city relatively clear legibility of the urban text. Through these regular readings fluency develops, and well-read pedestrians are able to walk new narratives through the city. “They are walkers,” as Michel de Certeau wrote in The Practice of Everyday Life, “Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it” (93). Out of this type of street-level expertise come more deliberately walked and written texts like walking tours, which quilt the urban fabric together to create experiences of the city tailored to reflect specific historical, financial, cultural or social phenomena. Whether prescribed in guidebooks, led by employees of cultural institutions, offered by unaffiliated (sometimes unauthorized) experts or administered by locative media like handheld devices, walking tours offer an interpretation of the city in space and time that demands to be read, and which may diverge from or overlap with New York’s dominant readings to infinitely varied degrees.

Studying and mapping the historical and geographical trajectories of walking tours in New York City reveals innumerable new (and old) ways of reading the city. Even the most common walking tours, leading from one Midtown skyscraper to the next–or from one Sex and the City filming location to the next–articulate an ideologically charged interpretation of the city, of what it has of value to offer, who lives there, what products and services are offered or consumed there, what cultural artifacts are created or performed there, and so on. Alongside those types of tours, which one might find in Ada Louise Huxtable’s Four walking tours of modern architecture in New York City (1961) or Chuck Katz’s Manhattan on film: walking tours of Hollywood’s fabled front lot (1999), New York City is constantly being read and rewritten to highlight hidden and forgotten narratives embedded deep in its fabric. Historians trace such routes that are otherwise only legible to urban subcultures or local historians in texts like Ronald J. Brown’s Brown Into the soul of African-American Harlem: a spiritual walking tour (2008), Bruce Kayton’s Radical walking tours of New York City (1999), Bill Morgan’s The beat generation in New York: a walking tour of Jack Kerouac’s city (1997) and countless others. Each of these examples communicates not simply a different text with which to explore the city, but indeed an entirely different interpretation of the city itself.

Mapping such temporally, topographically and topically varied walks over New York City’s urban spaces and historical periods will offer insight into the myriad different ways the city has been read and rewritten over time by different walkers, but also the recurring nodes, focal points and routes that alternative and dominant groups have shared at various times. The integration of themed urban narratives devoted to subjects such as visual art, dance, theater and musical performance, nature, food, film, telecommunications infrastructure and other topics will provide connections to other project maps devoted to related fields. Materials pertaining to walking tours that can be embedded to the Urban Research Tool will include images of maps, photographs, videos and audio clips, in addition to the trajectories of routes from various periods and sources. Ideally, contemporary readers will be able to follow various walks on the URT, viewing pertinent materials in sequence, as well as exploring the data in more lateral manners.

Part of the appeal of a walking tour, after all, is its mutability. It suggests one particular narrative approach to the city without strictly enforcing it. Even walkers following a guide or historian may have their interest diverted, or abandon the tour entirely, so that the existence of written itineraries certainly doesn’t mean their directives have been followed regularly or even most of the time. As de Certeau writes, “The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility” (93). Walking tours plotted on the URT, therefore, should be taken as the intended city-texts that local experts, historians, institutions and others have made available to people living in or visiting New York City. They offer more or less thoroughly rewritten accounts of the urban text, with some passages excised and others elaborated upon, expanded, highlighted and annotated. By following these walking tours as closely as archival documents and the URT will allow, we can discover other, long-forgotten urban texts within and beneath the ones we’ve become so used to reading, editing and rewriting on our own quotidian waking tours.