Walk to “Santiago” with Joy

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton, J. A. 2008. Iowa City Press-Citizen (September 17): 19A.

You’ve probably guessed by now that I like to walk. There’s no need for me to moralize about this. I just think walking is good for the body and, if enough people join in, for our cities and the natural world as well. When undertaken with an open mind and spirit, moreover, walking can become a pathway to discovery and transformation.

A few years ago I walked 250 miles in southern France on the pilgrimage route to Santiago, Spain. Inevitably we pilgrims would ask one another: why are you walking to Santiago? Some wanted to reconnect with their Catholic faith, others hoped to learn more about European culture. Some sought non-religious spiritual renewal, while still others were just out for a recreational hike. In other words, the meaning of both the journey and the destination—“Santiago”—varied from person to person. As my feet grew more blistered, my hands more sunburned, and my body more fatigued, I gradually realized that with every step I too had to ask myself, why am I walking to “Santiago”? For me, it meant learning to pay attention to the richness of life in the here and now.

This past summer – after the peak of the flood had passed – I took another step on my way to “Santiago.” This step took me to a conference in Chicago, where a group of European and U. S. American scholars of planning had gathered, as we have done roughly every five years for the past twenty, to talk about technical and political issues pertaining to planning and development.

On my first night in this familiar city, my home during the mid-1980s, I walked south along Michigan Avenue to the bridge that crosses the Chicago River. Once across the river, I looked back toward the two statues that stood on either side of the bridge. Despite having been there many times over the years, at this moment I was able to truly see those statues. One of them recalled a massacre that had occurred in 1812 at Fort Dearborn, the military outpost once located on that site. The other recalled the most traumatic event in the city’s history. Inscribed on that statue’s plaque were the words: “The great Chicago fire in October Eighteen Hundred and Seventy-one devastated the city. From its ashes the people of Chicago caused a new and greater city to rise, imbued with that indomitable spirit and energy by which they have ever been guided.”

Looking up from where I was standing, I could see the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building, both of which are architectural icons built in the early part of the Twentieth Century. But I could also see many other buildings that visually moved from the Gothic style of the Tribune Tower through various stages of Modernism. Although far from perfect, the family of buildings collectively formed a stunning ensemble that seemed to continue – in concrete, steel, and glass – the story of Chicago as begun at Fort Dearborn.

Though enamored with the seductive beauty of the ensemble, I could not remain stationary. Soon I found myself walking along the south side of the river, heading toward the lake. There, much to my surprise, I came across a contemporary piece of sculpture with four abstract figures facing the abstract ruins of some ancient temple. Several large new buildings shimmered in the background.

This sculpture greatly complicated the linear narrative offered by the ensemble at the bridge. When visually juxtaposed against the new high rises across the river, those abstract figures and ruins seemed to proclaim, “From these ruins a great city shall rise.” But at the same time they seemed to say, “This great city too shall fall.” Further complicating matters were the alien figures who fixed their gaze upon the ruins. Were they the agents of the city’s destruction, or the architects of its recovery? Or perhaps both?

Similar questions can be asked about Iowa City as well: How’s our city doing? Is it rising or falling? Who are the agents of its transformation? To find out, go somewhere that interests you. Get out of your car and walk around. Pay attention to what you hear, smell, see, and feel in the here and now, letting yourself be open to unexpected encounters and juxtapositions. Use what you learn to help make this a better place. Walk to “Santiago” with joy.

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