This week marked my 2nd anniversary of living in a big city. The benefits of a big city are rather spectacular: always something interesting to do, always somewhere new to explore, and always plenty of people to meet. And of course, a lot of those people milling around the streets and the public transit systems are tourists. I know that some city residents love to complain about tourists getting in the way but I personally love it when I end up around them because their perspective on the city is totally different than that of anyone who lives here. Tourists teach me to look at things differently and appreciate parts of my own city that I have never before noticed. When I travel, I look at everything wide-eyed. I snap pictures of buildings, streets and scenes that stand out to me. I dash into local stores, eager to get a sense of what the locals like and how the locals eat. I am like a human sponge, looking to soak up every detail I can about whatever locale I happen to be visiting. Traveling gives me a sense of adrenaline, a feeling of discovery that is heightened as I wander around. And wander I do, because I fully believe that exploring a new town requires some element of stumbling upon neighborhoods and lifestyles. But sometimes we forget to look for these same details in our own cities. We get so used to the routine of hopping on and off buses, past the same buildings that we forget to look for the cultural clues of our own neighborhoods.
One of my New Year’s resolutions was to see my city as a tourist would see it. This means going on wandering missions around town with my camera, pretending I am in some far-off place that isn’t home. It means trying to feel that same sense of excitement I get when I visit a new town. And it means looking beyond what is on the surface of the streets and trying to get the bigger story. In his book Call of the Mall, Paco Underhill points out that city dwellers rarely look above street level as they make their way through their city’s avenues. His point is that stores on a higher level of a multistoried street don’t get as many eyeball views as stores at street level. Ever since I read that sentence, I have made a pointed effort to look up. It’s simple, it’s quick, and Paco is right- it opens a whole new world. I recently discovered a bright blue building with harshly modern angles on top of a beautiful, ornate bank. I figured out there is a penthouse with a really cool terrace on top of a building I pass all the time. Etc etc. Point being, looking up has added a whole new layer to my inspection of my city.
And that brings us back to the tourists. Actually following tourists around would most certainly qualify as some level of stalking, so I don’t recommend you do that. I do, however, recommend you look to see what the tourists find interesting. If a tourist snaps a photo near me as I walk on my daily commute, I always stop to look for what the picture captured. Frequently, that tourist has found some detail I never noticed. I consider myself a rather aware user of this city, but there are still millions of details I have yet to find myself. So as I enter into this third year of residence, I vow to continue to seek new perspectives, to pursue new adventures, and to always, ALWAYS look up.
* If learning about shopping mall layouts and usage interests you, check out Paco’s book: http://www.amazon.com/Call-Mall-Geography-Shopping-Author/dp/0743235916