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“The street is democracy's greatest arena.”
What’s this? A feminist tract on walking?! Oh, my. That it’s so good is a testament not only to the author’s creative powers but to the spirit of the times. The personal woman’s essay is back, though riding on the dubious wings of Oprah and psychobabble. Rebecca Solnit, however, has seen her opportunity and taken full advantage of it.

The early chapters give a solid historical overview of walking and its inspirational qualities, from the Greeks to Rousseau to Wordsworth and his legendary ambles through the Lake District of England. Solnit then deploys her pop feminism with a charming coquettishness via first-person reflections on walking through various neighborhoods in her hometown, San Francisco, and in that favorite preserve of the upper-middle class, the Southwest. We are taken to Chimayo, where low riders in their flamboyantly painted chariots have superseded the traditional stroll in the town square.

In another instance, she argues against evolutionists who see women as less adapted to walking and then sets off to call one of them on the carpet at his own home. It’s all good fun, really. And necessary, for were she any less cheery or breezy, the book could easily lose its way.

Solnit also manages to get in a few pokes at her colleagues in the academy, still blathering on about postmodernism and such. In their “publish or perish” fever, scholars have turned the body into a spent force bristling with bourgeois neuroses about love, loss or long-distance travel. Theory, Solnit contends, has robbed the urban intellectual body of its power to empower the mind, whereas “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”

Election year is always a sad time for political cynics. While politicians can’t shut up about the beauty of democracy and how they intend to make it more beautiful still, all around us are exhibits to the contrary. Millions of virtual shut-ins are addicted to the TV, Internet chat rooms and porn sites. Others live in manicured splendor behind an iron gate or the tinted windshield of a Jeep that spirits them from mall to country club. Yet another slew are afraid to leave the house, lest a weirdo run amok or gangbangers start popping caps. In short, walkers are few and far between on the street. Very bad news for Solnit:

This is the highest ideal of democracy — that everyone can participate in making their own life and the life of the community — and the street is democracy’s greatest arena, the place where ordinary people can speak, unsegregated by walls, unmediated by those with more power. It’s not a coincidence that media and mediate have the same root; direct political action in real public space may be the only way to engage in unmediated communication with strangers, as well as a way to reach a media audience literally making news.

Solnit goes on to suggest that in the public march “walking becomes testifying,” a way of demonstrating a group commitment to a cause. This is a timely reminder of the tenet that helped bring us civil rights marches and might slow down the global economy — united we stand, divided we fall. There’s nothing McDonald’s and Microsoft love more than a divided population of fat automatons hungry for fast food and cheap entertainment.

The final two chapters have a distinct elegiac tone. Solnit visits Las Vegas where the privatization of public space is considered common sense. On the Strip, businesses can lease the sidewalk for a dollar a year, preventing various freaks and vagrants from ruining the excitement of gamblers and their families. Yet Vegas offers the visitor mile upon mile of private walking space — labyrinthine casinos and hotels, shopping malls and arcades, all designed to conjure up (minus the blemishes and inconveniences of the real McCoy) the great public spaces of the world — New York, Paris, Rio, Athens.

Pity us. The imitations will have to do.

Timothy Dugdale writes about books and visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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