Last year, I joined a group of strangers walking up Ridge Avenue from Francisville into Sharswood. We traveled along blocks churned through Philly’s recent building boom, into the heart of an ongoing urban renewal project. We walked through the city’s past, looking at shuttered storefronts and vacant lots that were once record shops and clubs. We talked about Philadelphia’s black history, and its physical erosion through demolition and systemic disinvestment. We stood on a traffic island singing “Hey There Lonely Girl.”
We were 50 strangers of every stripe, joining hands, wrapped around the remains of the Checker Club, Ridge Avenue’s last standing jazz club, declaring: This place matters.
Walking Philadelphia like this is an act of civic empathy and public power.
We were on a Jane’s Walk, a series of walks that take place the first weekend of May annually in more than 200 cities across the world. These walks are inspired by the legacy of urban activist Jane Jacobs, a passionate advocate for community-driven city building, instead of top-down master planning and development.
In her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs wrote: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Jane’s Walk happens in that spirit of civic co-authorship. Anyone can volunteer to lead a walk and all are welcome to participate.
So what does it mean to co-author our city? Some days it could be direct action, like speaking up at a public meeting or volunteering in your park. But it’s just as much about being together, sharing space – which is harder than it might seem.
Research shows that since the 1970s Americans live increasingly atomized lives. Some people are able to shop online or go to a private gym instead of using the public library or rec center. If you’re not driving to work in a car, you might be riding transit with headphones on. We are spending less time interacting and mixing in the spaces we share, which weakens our social fabric – and that’s to say nothing of our divisive politics. I believe we need more chances to explore what it means to inhabit this city together – in person in real time, on the street. That opportunity is what makes Jane’s Walk so special.
Jane’s Walk leaders are passionate citizen experts and professionals who want our city to be vibrant, inclusive, and appreciated. They host roving conversations that typically explore themes of neighborhood change, public history, or urban ecology.
In some small way I think Jane’s Walks are democratizing acts that help chip away at the divisions and indifference that can separate us, that prevent us from hearing one another, or even really seeing the city we share.
Each one is a chance to walk in one another’s shoes, sharing pieces of this big city. Listening in this context becomes an active act of caring, and sharing your experiences is a way to open your heart. When we walk together, even briefly, we’re aligned. We may not see eye-to-eye, but we’re in this experiment together.
Walking enables a kind of mindfulness that runs counter to the high speed of our daily lives. It is, after all, the speed at which humans evolved to take in the world. By taking a long, slow stroll, listening and talking, we may be able to absorb more and form deeper connections. I think that better equips us to care for one another and our city more thoughtfully. And the more people we let author our collective understanding of Philadelphia, the more inclusive and true that story becomes.
So, what does Philadelphia look like when we walk it together? What will we see when we slow down and pay close attention? Whose voices will we listen to? What power do we exercise when we hold the corner in dialogue? That’s entirely up to us.
Ashley Hahn is an urbanist and writer. For the last five years she has organized Jane’s Walk Philadelphia, which takes place this year May 4-6. Find walks at https://www.facebook.com/pg/janeswalkphilly/events/