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The Long History of Taking Long Walks in San Francisco

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Exterior view of the enlarged Hibernia Savings and Loan Society Building #3, San Francisco, CA, c. 1908. From the San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection

I recently read Stuart’s article “On the Joys of Perambulation” in the SFWeekly.  He wrote on the pleasure of an immersion in the city’s moments and details, taken in on long walks as a response to the 2020 shelter-in-place order.  In my reading, I was reminded of San Francisco’s prior response to a global pandemic in 1918 – how being outside was similarly a way of avoiding infection – in a time when virology was very much in its infancy.

Face masks were also a response in 1918, as well as mask-shaming. In an article from October of 1918, Dr. Hutchinson, a local “medical expert…and chief advocate of the mask” was shamed by a “youthful bench warmer” in a park. “Hey, I know yuh, Dr. Hutchinson, why don’t you wear yer mask?” – to which the doctor replied that in walking alone in the fresh air, he felt safe lowering his ‘flu-fence’.  “But yuh ain’t ten feet away from me now,” was the reply, and so the doctor wound “the tape around his head and hoist[ed] the gauze strip back into its rightful position.”  Social distancing and mask wearing a century ago seem more familiar than not.  But walking the city was a little different.

The coastline of San Francisco has been filled and built up over the last century so that most of what was seen by the incoming gold seekers in 1849 is now deep underground and mostly forgotten. Walking what is now downtown would have been over sandy beaches and dirt roads.

1850 map of San Francisco's east shoreline

1850 map of the east shoreline of San Francisco

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Around 1870, the city was still acquiring land from the adjoining ranchos and reservations.

1869 map of the Outside Lands

The ‘Outside Lands’ in an 1869 map

In 1915 the Twin Peaks tunnel started construction to new neighborhoods, and the city expanded to these ‘outside lands.’  Even as late as the 1940s, huge areas of the Sunset were still sand dunes – with some roads and underground sewer lines reclaimed by shifting sands.

A 1938 aerial photograph of the west of the Sunset District

Sand dunes in much of the Sunset District, 1938

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce published a pamphlet in 1915, claiming that San Francisco was ‘A City Out Doors’ – that we enjoy “a veritable Pleasure Land” as “nature loving, outdoors people.”  The famed fog was also extolled as “stimulating sea breezes” which blow during the “Summer afternoons…usually falling in the evening, so that the nights are extremely pleasant.” This was good for the late afternoon and evening walks at the leisurely pace of a stroll.

I’d like to think here about the act of perambulating – the walking act, the contrast to driving (specifically) or to taking a streetcar or bus. Stuart mentioned this in his “car-free lifestyle” and the variety of experiences taken in on each walk.  There are a couple very interesting things about the physical act of walking – one is specifically about how the brain functions differently when walking, and the other is in how we experience and sense the city.

The Guardian ran an article about ‘the superpower’ of walking in July 2019 – regarding a “backstage tour of what happens in our brains when we perambulate.”  The article was an interview with neuroscientist Shane O’Mara, who described walking as a system of ‘place cells in the hippocampi’ internally signaling changes in location as one walks.  This process is known as ‘cognitive mapping’ – a way that we see ourselves in the world in both a real, physical presence and a psychological, conceptual one.  O’Mara describes the ‘walking mind’ as that which alternates “between big-picture states – thinking about what we have to do tomorrow, plans for next year, engaging in what is called ‘mental time travel’ – and task-focused work.”  He relates this walking mind to a TS Eliot poem, calling it “a journey on foot, and a journey through states of mind.”

Since the end of the 19th century, there has been the character of the ‘dandy’ – Stuart’s “fancy fop in a waistcoat and coattails” – best known as the flâneur archetype from Charles Baudelaire as “passionate spectator” of modern life.  This flâneur was a product of bourgeoisie excess, those few who were privileged enough to stroll about carelessly, oblivious to the struggles for everyday life.  This character was critiqued and transformed in the middle of the 20th century – from ostentatious spectator to quotidian engagement – in the psychogeographic experience of the dérive.

The word most commonly used is ‘drift’ among the historians of the Situationist International and practitioners of psychogeography.  Guy Debord describes “the practice of the dérive or drift conceived as a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of modern, urban society, specifically a technique of transient passage through rapidly changing ambiences…”.  This is a different process of cognitive mapping, constructing new territories in our minds through experiences of these “ephemeral…mere ‘passageways’” as an ongoing ‘critique of urban geographies.’

Situationist International psychogeographic map of Paris

Psychogeographic map of Paris

This is the ‘construction of situations’ in Debord’s terms – the act of walking without intent of destination, the creation of opportunity, the possibility of encounter, the intention of chance.  This is meant to follow the city’s flows – the circulation of the city as it succumbs to the rhythms of daily life.  Finding moments in the smells of restaurant storefronts, memories of other places entangled with other sounds (also a type of ‘mental time travel’) – things that one only notices at that pace of walking – this is the joy of perambulation.  Over the last few weeks (I, too, am walking every day for health and sanity) I have run into friends in completely unexpected places – my ‘transient passage’ overlapping with theirs.

These are also the moments that would be obscured by driving.  The pandemic ‘slow streets’ are anecdotes: I see other people who recognize each other from work, stop and chat on the street – the chance encounter now a common event.  As we enjoy the fresh air with our ‘flu-fences,’ let us delight in the drift – the perambulation that leads us closer together in our journeys through states of mind.

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James Dunbar

James Dunbar

I'm an architect, an architectural historian, a photographer, and a part-time punk. I'm interested in lots of things - mostly avant-garde and oppositional radical movements (1920s and 1960s), the historical and material context of things, how the machine works and the fictions that challenge it.

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