Stop 1: Idea
Ever since reading Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City” (1980) several years ago I’ve been very attracted to the essay’s central metaphor: the city as text. His proposal, or at least what I took from it and found most appealing, was something akin to applying Roland Barthes’ ideas about literature laid out in S/Z (1970) to the metropolis. In effect, de Certeau writes that the power to shape the urban text lies not with the planners, architects, contractors, mayors and municipal bureaucrats, but rather with the citizens whose daily journeys through its streets, plazas, buildings, blind alleys, transportation systems, parks and empty lots, may amount to acts of interpretive reading, of writing new cities. These acts of productive, interpretive walking seemed a perfect starting point for this assignment, but which walkers should such a project follow? Whose interpretations and rewritings are worth careful consideration? Which walkers, in the most walkable city in North America, are the best, and whose walking could overlap with an exercise in media archaeology?

Stop 2: Walking Tours, of Course!
The most deliberate, careful, and potentially unconventional walking patterns in the city must be those followed by walking tours. Not only do their trajectories acknowledge the richness of the city itself, connecting dots of interest on a  grid that permits multiple routes between any two locations, but they edit a plentiful urban text into an embodied argument, a version of the city that is performed, articulated and highlighted for a new set of (hopefully attentive) reader-walkers. Admittedly, this epiphanic decision to follow walking tours goes somewhat against de Certeau’s ideas about walking in the city, which seem at least partly inspired by the figure of the flâneur, and Situationists’ theory of dérive. Here walking becomes purposeful, planned and, to a certain extent, directed and restricted. Rather than creating spaces for chance encounters and becoming lost in the subjective exploration of the city, walking tours narrow metropolitan space down to a specific, linear narrative. While it is an act of urban re-writing on behalf of its creator, the walking tour also imposes a new trajectory on its followers, albeit one with a very different purpose from the ones envisioned by city administrators. So, while the walking tour highlights new possibilities, it also suspends the possibility of alternative writings–not accounting for walkers who get turned around or lose interest, of course.

Stop 3: Following Worthy Walking Tours
If the walking tour is such a potentially unimaginative, constricting and banal activity–there are innumerable businesses offering generic tours of over-photographed historical landmarks in Midtown, Lower Manhattan, and the like–what makes a walking tour interesting or worthwhile? What would a walking tour that partakes of media archaeology look like? Well, happily, New York being such a well-researched, -trafficked and -archived urban center, there are many tours that deal with various media in the city, from the familiar architectural tours to more unusual food tours, music tours, soundwalks, filming location tours and thematic historical tours devoted to crime, literature, and so on. My research eventually led me to a shortlist that included a historical music tour, a commercial punk rock tour, a city-produced filming location tour, a public art tour, a historical food tour and a literary tour. The idea was to focus some of my variables while expanding upon others. For instance, by concentrating on a few, overlapping areas rather than trying to cover several different neighborhoods or boroughs. But I also wanted to look at multiple media rather than exclusively focusing on public art or music. Finally, I wanted variety in the sources, styles, formats and producers of the various tours. Only following academic tours wouldn’t be much use; nor would only addressing commercial, tourist-oriented walks, nor exclusively those produced by city agencies. Finally, with research time shrinking, I settled on four, and then, as research began, three (sorry, East Village Rock Punk Glam Tour).

Stop 4: Beginning Research
Because the three tours that I’ve selected–the city-produced podcast “Made in NY”: Walking Tours of Film and Television in New York City (2009); Carol J. Binkowski’s published history Musical New York (1999); and late NYU professor Bayrd Still’s unpublished Literary Greenwich Village tour notes from 1977–are so disparate in source and subject matter, each required very different research methods. For Still’s handwritten tour, the greatest research was simply deciphering his words and fact-checking his research. With the more exhaustive Musical New York it became a question of filling in research gaps and finding documents that could bring a fuller understanding to the text’s re-writing of the city. With “Made in NY”–aside from puzzling over the odd editorial choices–I set out to collect what was most obviously missing from the tours: as many video clips as possible of the sites, buildings and landmarks visited from the films cited.

Stop 5: More Research, But Maybe Not the Right Kind
As I arrived at the end of my first wave of research it became apparent that more was needed, that certain locations and areas were left unexplored by relying solely on certain libraries, archives and other resources. Taking my own images of sites visited, an idea I had set aside earlier in the semester, suddenly looked like a much more appealing solution. Now, with only a few days to go, I have taken my own photos of some twenty-five tour locations, and expanded the number of archives I’ve consulted so as to include historical photographs and images for a greater proportion of the sites and buildings covered in these tours.

I have to say, though, that if I’d stopped to consider my options more calmly earlier on, rather than rushing into research, I may have use my time differently. Rather than try to document the existing tours, which I feel I’ve done fairly well and still consider a very worthwhile use of my time, I might have created alternate tours, to map the many pertinent and important sites and stories that are unfortunately absent from these three. It might be far more interesting, in the case of the filming locations tour, to have collected clips from the movies that didn’t make the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting’s somewhat arbitrary list. Similarly, Musical New York‘s inconsistent but predominant focus on classical music, and haphazard, incomplete references to more recent musical landmarks, could have provided greater direction for my research, leading to an alternative tour that visited more recent sites of interest. In the case of Bayrd Still’s literary tour, perhaps the most interesting research (aside from combing the relative authors’ memoirs, published works and correspondences for allusions to their homes) would have been a contemporary equivalent, a guide to the homes of famous persons of letters currently living in Greenwich Village. This new tour would have had the added benefit of reinforcing what I write in my Literary Greenwich Village argument; that Still’s tour, much more effectively than the other two I’ve mapped, conveys a sense that New York City is home to a community of artists, rather than simply a network of production centers and performance spaces where art is created and presented. Additionally, I would have liked to obtain recordings of performances in as many of the spaces visited by the Musical New York tour as possible, but for reasons of time, and simply not being able to find many such recordings in the archives I searched, I wasn’t able to include any.

Finally, given another few days, I would have refined the way my project addresses time. This is one of the things I found most exciting about my project, but I’m sorry to say that at the moment it really does not engage a timeline or historically organized structure in any significant way. This is partly because the tours in question skip between periods without any kind of logic or regard for chronology (that is, geographic proximity takes precedence over temporal sequencing), but also because the nature of this project is so multi-temporal. It would involve taking into account not only the times at which the tours were created, but also the dates at which the points visited were significant, and–especially in the case of the “Made in NY” and Literary Greenwich Village tours–the additional dimension of the periods depicted within the fictional works cited, such as Godfather II‘s portrayal of early-19th century New York City, or Henry James and Edith Wharton‘s many fictional but very historically situated writings about the city in their time. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to grapple with a way to develop a more sophisticated system of incorporating time into my project.

My hope is that users who may one day find their way to URT will be moved to add accounts of their own walking tours in this city and others, be it their own original urban composition, or someone else’s of which they have partaken. Just because our pedestrian writings are ephemeral and infinite doesn’t meant hat they must remain undocumented.

Stop 6: Getting Back to the Stop 1
The greatest challenge for me has been to keep a critical perspective throughout this very broad, intensive and varied research process; to understand how the data I have collected will hang together as more than simply an interesting set of geo-located artifacts. I think I’ve managed to do this fairly well by offering not only a critical perspective on these three walking tours in my arguments, but in doing so also articulating why walking tours are such potentially rich urban media. Particularly in the case of New York City, a densely packed network of communities and communications that has been among the earliest and most thorough adopters of every new medium since the 19th century, it’s telling that the most enduringly relevant and deeply meaningful medium through which to understand the city is still that of the street read by foot. What this project offers is not only the beginnings of a media archaeology of New York City walking tours–walking tours that are, to a certain extent, media archaeology projects unto themselves–but also concrete examples (particularly in the case of Literary Greenwich Village) of the richness of walkable cities, of the street life and communities that it fosters, the creativity and collaboration it facilitates. Because at best, as is plainly clear in Bayrd Still’s walking tour, to walk the city is not only to rewrite the urban text, as de Certeau empoweringly asserted, but also to retrace the steps of previous walkers, to quote the pedestrian writers who’ve come before, and to understand the city as a quilt woven and re-woven every day anew from fragments of the past and threads of the present.