A Morning Walk
Telling the story

On the magic of cities

The Crystler Building

In response to a post last week, Raquel Somatra wrote:

"I lived on a mountain in North Carolina for six months with no car. The nearest grocery store was 1.5 miles away. Down the mountain, over several hills, through a dark tunnel, passed the old hotel that still has a sign that says 'now with color TV!'... People always think it must have been such a horrific time, to walk to the store once or twice a week and carry home groceries. But I loved it.....There is something about motion and pilgrimage that magically and deeply connects us to ourselves, to our insides, and to the earth. I think I got to know that landscape more in six months than locals who had lived their whole lives there. I knew where you could find pairs of bunnies in the spring, where the robins liked to feast along the ends of the roads, where wild roses grew, that tiny, wild pansies grew everywhere, fairy flowers hidden in the grasses. What else is there than connection to the land, ourselves, and each other? We must do this slowly -- I agree with Rebecca [Solnit]. Our minds move as slow as our feet, there can be no other way.

"P.S. I was thrilled to find that here in Brooklyn, I make a similar journey with groceries. There aren't mountains and pansies, but there are wondrous sights and people, a train, and much, much walking."

The post below comes out of thoughts prompted by Raquel's words, and I want to begin by acknowledging that debt.

Trees of New York

Despite the bucolic nature of this blog, written as it is from the English countryside, I think the words of the various writers quoted in these pages -- attesting to the importance of "land" and "place" -- are useful reminders to all of us, no matter where we live, that our aim should be to fully live wherever it is we find ourselves. As Mary Oliver tell us in beautiful poems that repeatedly enjoin us to pay attention, living a creative life is not just about the novels or paintings we produce (let alone manage to publish or sell), it's about living in a state of openness and attention -- beginning  with the ground on which we stand: its flora, folklore, mythology, history, its weather patterns and daily rhythms, and the lives of those with whom we share it, human and nonhuman alike.  This is as true, I believe, for city, town, and suburb dwellers as it is for me here in rural Devon.

"Urban Fantasy," which emerged as a sub-genre of fantasy fiction in the 1980s and '90s -- when the term referred to works by writers like Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Megan Lindholm (a.k.a. Robin Hobb), Francesca Lia Block, and Neil Gaiman, not paranormal romance and detective stories --  had at its heart a metaphorical search for wonder and natural (rather than supernatural) magic in city settings. These writers were asserting that one needn't travel to imaginary lands, the medieval past, or even to the countryside to find a magical (dare I say "spiritual"?) connection to place: it was available to all...yes, even at the heart of the beast: the big, noisy, crowded, diverse, dangerous, exciting modern city. (And remember that these writers began working in the '80s, when urban decline rendered many cities far less appealing than they are today.)

The High Line, NYC, 2012

Charles de Lint's Ottowa (Moonheart) and Newford (Dreams Underfoot), Emma Bull's Minneapolis (War for the Oaks), Megan Lindholm's Seattle (Wizard of the Pigeons), Francesca Lia Block's Los Angeles (Weetzie Bat), Neil Gaiman's London (Neverwhere) -- along with more recent creations such as Delia Sherman's Manhattan (Changeling) and Holly Black's Jersey Shore (Tithe) -- are urban spaces in which the mythopoeic history of the land has re-asserted itself. The human protagonists of their books are those who hunger, in one way or another, to find that connection...and then to use it in concert with the unique gifts that cities alone can offer.

The High Line in winter

As Raquel says in her post script above, a city traversed on foot can be just as creatively inspiring as a woodland path or wilderness trail, at least for those open to its rhythms; for those who are paying attention. The following passage on urban walking comes from Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which devotes several chapters to the subject. To me, as a former New Yorker, this description of "city magic" rings absolutely true:

"There is a subtle state most urban walkers know, a sort of basking in solitude -- a dark solitude punctuated with encounters as the night sky is punctuated with stars -- one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one's secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries. This uncharted identity with its illimitable possibilities is one of the distinctive qualities of urban living, a liberatory state for those who come to emancipate themselves from family and community expectation, to experiment with subculture and identity. It is an observer's state, cool, withdrawn, with senses sharpened, a good state for anybody who needs to reflect or create. In small doses, melancholy, alienation, and introspection are among life's most refined pleasures.

The newspaper carrier

"Not long ago I heard the singer and poet Patti Smith answer a radio interviewer's questions about what she did to prepare for her performances onstage with, 'I would roam the streets for a few hours.' With that brief comment, she summoned up her own outlaw romanticism and the way such walking might toughen and sharpen the sensibility, wrap one in an isolation out of which might come songs fierce enough, words sharp enough, to break that musing silence. Probably roaming the streets didn't work so well in a lot of American cities, where the hotel was moated by a parking lot surrounded by six-lane roads without sidewalks, but she spoke as a New Yorker.

The Flat Iron Building NYC

"Speaking as a Londoner, Virginia Woolf described anonymity as a fine and desirable thing, in her 1930 essay 'Street Haunting.' Daughter of the great alpinist Leslie Stephen, she had once declared to a friend, 'How could I think mountains and climbing romantic? Wasn't I brought up with alpenstocks in my nursery and a raised map of the Alps, showing every peak my father had climbed? Of course, London and the marshes are the places I like best.' Woolf wrote of the confining oppression of one's own identity, of the way the objects in one's home 'enforce the memories of our experience.' And so she set out to buy a pencil in a city where safety and propriety were no longer considerations for a no-longer-young woman on a winter evening, and in recounting -- or inventing -- her journey, wrote one of the great essays on urban walking."

You can read Woolf's brilliant essay here.

The trees of Riverside

The passage by Rebecca Solnit is from Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Viking, 2000); all rights reserved by the author. The photographs were taken in New York, the city where I came of age as young writer/editor, and that I still think of as my urban home. I highly recommend Patti Smith's book Just Kids, a wonderful memoir of her own youth in New York; Lauren Elkin's Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London; and Olivia Laing's The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. For more on the history of the Urban Fantasy genre, see Austin Hackney's survey of the field. For a post on the life and work of Urban Fantasy writer Charles de Lint, go here.

[Editorial changes, 2018: Urban Fantasy novels by Holly Black and Delia Sherman were added to the text above, and the works by Elkin, Laing, and Hackney were added to the reading recommendations.]

Comments

Country walking brings solace to the mind and soul, but I've always believed there's a wild and powerful magic to be found walking the city, especially when you go deep - to the alleyways and the back yards of factories or theatres, the forgotten stairwells leading nowhere any more, the lost doorways, the liminal spaces. And especially at night. I've seen such enchantments in a city night. And I've met people by moonlight or by streetlight who were strange, so strange, so magical - yet not really strangers, no one ever seems to be, in the city. All that cold stone maybe, or the clustering of our bodies, seems to intensify the sense of belonging with each other. Just my opinion - I mainly know quite small cities.

That comment attributed to Patti Smith struck a chord for me. Back when I used to do book tours (when publishers still sent midlist writers on book tours, when there still was a midlist), I spent almost every moment between events and interviews and the like walking in whatever city I happened to be in. It was such a rejuvinating experience, grounding me for the next day's travel/engagements. I think I first learned to love walking in cities--especially at night--when I was a teenager. It was often out of necessity because by the time I was heading home there were no more buses and I certainly couldn't afford a cab. I never really got to know any of these cities partiularly well but I certainly gained more than a passing familiarity with some little piece of it.

The only way to get to truly know a city is to walk it's streets. Early morning and dusk can be magical in a town. I remember watching the murmuration of urban starlings in Leicester Town Hall Square, on my way home from work.
Thank you for this Terri, sometimes I forget that there is magic on the doorstep. Especially when I am longing to have something different outside the door.

This is lovely, Terri, and speaks very much to my experience of walking in New York--which I do every day. I take long walks most mornings in Riverside Park, down by the Hudson. Country and city mixed, and great people-watching. But most of my walking in NYC is for transportation--purposeful weaving in and out of crowds to get somewhere I want to be, scanning shopfronts as I go, checking to see where the cars are (who cares about traffic lights?), looking at the buildings to see what street I'm on. It keeps me young--the city and the walking both.

The writing and the walking of words here has been a magic. With the rains just now calmed I have walked with Virginia Wolfe through the streets of London and glow with delight. In search of a pencil ... I have done that on the streets of Honolulu seeking times long long passed and found them, just as Virgina did find the dwarf with beautiful full foot. And this from her essay about second-hand books "Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world."

Truly, what unexpected opportunity in a walk, or turn up on a blog space. This was both the pencil and the company I was after this morning. Thank you!

I'm a walker wherever I live or visit, and mostly I love the early morning as the city and/or nature is just beginning to stir. There are others out and walking or running as well, but most of them are plugged into an ipod or other distraction. Different strokes, but I find it sad. Currently living in Birmingham, AL and love the diversity of the SouthSide neighborhood. I do stop to snap a few pix here and there, and carry I a small pad in my pocket, to capture what Whitman called those ‘melodious thoughts:
“…Why are there trees I never walk under, but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me
I think they hang there winter and summer on those trees, and always drop fruit as I pass;..”

I've never been to New York (would love to go). But I spent my teenage summers in Chicago. Our side of the block was white, across the street was Japanese and the next block down was Puerto Rican. The lake was two blocks east. What a wonderful area! We were not allowed in the Puerto Rican area but my girl friend and I walked everywhere else.

And of course your wonderful magical-New-York novels, Changeling and The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen, carry on the early Urban Fantasy tradition beautifully, and are highly recommended to anyone here who hasn't read them.

I was focused on the early Urban Fantasy titles of the '80s and early '90s, or I would have included them in the post -- so thank you for giving me an excuse to mention them now!

I like city walking just as much as country walking.

Suburban walking is harder for me to appreciate - things are so uniform and manicured, even in my working-class neighborhood. But I do try to LOOK on my walks. I generally go the same route every time (it maximizes sidewalks, and I know just how long it is [For Fitness Purposes]). I like when it has rained so much that there are frogs in the street. I like the doofy decorations my neighbors put up for holidays. And a car that lives way in the back of the neighborhood has my birthday for its license plate.

Not super exciting, but still worth noticing.

I'm so happy to see my comment helped sparked such a beautiful post.

Ah, city magic- first encountered it when I moved to Kansas City at 18 to attend art school. (Actually, come to think of it, I had applied & been accepted to lots of schools in NYC but the thought of being there alone terrified me, so it took almost 10 years before I finally arrived).

Alone with no family, friends, introverted and anxious, I spent many nights walking. I'd wear the most enormous sweater I could find, one that would make me look as androgynous as possible, pull over the hood and explore for miles, hands in pockets. I'd walk to made made-made waterfalls, watching the rush of it glow gold under the streetlights. I'd explore the old houses that had been converted into classrooms that were oftentimes left open overnight. When I finally made friends, we'd all wander together, holding spontaneous rituals under park trees, screaming like banshees all the while.

That was where I learned how to look for magic in cities, and it's proved very useful in NYC, whose magic is really all its own.

p.s. this poem by Billy Collins I see in the subways thanks to MTA's "Poetry in Motion" totally hints at the magic:

Grand Central

The city orbits around eight million
centers of the universe

and turns around the golden clock
at the still point of this place.

Lift up your eyes from the morning hive
and you will see time circling

under a vault of stars and know
just when and where you are.

-Billy Collins

*man-made waterfalls. Oh I have a head cold and cannot stop laughing at trying to figure out what made made-made waterfalls might be. I'm going back to bed now.

Thank you for this. In Europe we're blessed with old cities, the ravages of world wars notwithstanding. Walking through Seville, or Edinburgh, or Paris, with an educated eye you can see history stacked brick on brick.

What would Sherlock Holmes be without London, or Leopold Bloom without Dublin? But I'm still reminded of Yeats:

"I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core."

(Judy Collins sings a lovely version of this here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TleIuj9xIYE.)

When I lived in Los Angeles, I had a neighbor who wanted to walk together. Unfortunately, our definitions differed: she wanted to power walk and I wanted to meander.

I made her crazy, and the walks became a thing of the past very quickly, although I kept walking through my neighborhood, completely mystified that she didn't find it interesting to inspect flowerbeds and climbing vines and activities in parks.

I'm in Western Massachusetts at the moment, and you get a bit of this in New England. Not so many years nor is there the depth of tree rings in our towns or cities as the villages or the great cities of other countries, of course.

But enough to love this thought very much.

Western Cities

Once Portland was moist, gothic, strange.
I went there to college, from the range
Of high desert, cowboys, loggers, dust
And fir forest, to a city I craved. I must

Learn a new way, drop saying 'Ain't."
City life is a maze, tall buildings and quaint
Though now it is flashy, stylish, with towers
And the long, long life, of books at Powers.

But here for decades, still in the spell
Of gold, beatnics, flower folk. I tell
Stories and write poems of the city maze
Alleys, secrets, magic, love's blaze.

So many streets I've walked in the rain,
The fabulous hills, that bridge, I gain
Glimpses of Chinatown at midnight.
Backyards large for seeing starlight.

We have magic places, a little church
On a hill, haunted mansions, search
and you find, bookshops still alive,
Poet meetings, art, all thrive.

My three visits to New York City
Was a dream, so kind to me, so witty.
The Portrait of Jenny, still haunting,
All About Eve, alive and daunting.

In all three cities, I see three ways
To advance, befriend, to praise
Their mazes, their hidden spells.
Their ghosts, and wishing wells.

Such wonderful, lyrical responses -- literally, in the case of Phyllis' gift of a poem. Thank you so much, everyone.

On the subject of Urban Fantasy: though the name got co-opted by a different flavor of fiction, it was always a bit of an awkward fit for the books we're talking about here (as I recall Charles pointing out in one interview or another), since there are contemporary fantasy novels that share the same sensibility as the Newford Series or The War for the Oaks but are set in towns, suburbs, or even rural settings (Patricia McKillip's Something Rich and Strange, for example, or Midori Snyder's Hannah's Garden, or even my novel The Wood Wife). But the label "contemporary fantasy" is a bit *too* broad.

That's why Charles and I started using the term "mythic fiction" -- though even that seems too broad these days in that it gets used now for all kinds of myth-related work, not just mythic stories in contemporary settings.

I suppose I must leave it to the scholars to define and name what we're talking about here, as no doubt they will someday do.

Yes, what happiness to come here and find urban fantasy and Patti Smith and Virginia Woolf all wound together in one post! ***happy sigh***

And for me the difference between what urban fantasy novels used to be and what the are today is a sad one, and Terri has completely nailed the difference. I'll stick to reading Old School Urban Fantasy, thank you: de Lint, Bull, Block, Gaiman, (and Delia Sherman! and Holly Black!), who all continue to write great books.

There should be a t-shirt: Old School Urban Fantasy Rules.

"Except the Queen" by Jane Yolen & Midori Snyder is another good urban fantasy of recent years.

It is a great time to live, I think, when the cybernetic page allows those who write to converse and consider the naming of what it is we do. Is it the scholars work to define and name? I wonder, guess that you are right. For myself I look at how my work and the writing I piece together is influenced by the old old stories of Hawaiian chant ... language loss or hidden. But now, the young dig into it with relish and the language lives at so many levels. Mythic poetry being the oral language of choice for my ancestors, it is a great time to live, and to write and walk as the tides turn, the winds bring gossip and they speak all the languages.

My ears are topsy turvy with the stories. I have to turn myself into my boots and walk with the ducks to get things straight!

Mistaken: In the second stanza, I called the bookstore Powers. It does have power but
the name is Powells.

Therefore: Though now it's flashy, stylish, good looks
And the long, long life of Powell's Books.

Also, since one city was East, I guess the title is Two Cities West and One East

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