This week, we interviewed Alex Wolfe, a graphic designer who writes Pedestrian, a newsletter about walking and moving through our everyday surroundings.
What's your Substack about in one sentence?
Pedestrian is about the people, routines, and connections made while moving through our everyday surroundings.
You write for “people who like to walk.” Why is walking so important to you?
Movement is how I find inspiration. Walking is similar to drawing in that it’s just so immediate. If I’m ever feeling antsy, I can open my door and hit the sidewalk. Walking is a tool I use to generate ideas and remain motivated. Over the years, my creative practice has shifted in so many different ways, but walking has always remained the constant.
Aside from the creative benefits, it’s no secret that walking is incredibly beneficial for your mental health, especially in an age of social distancing. Usually a good, long walk will bring me back to Earth and provide some perspective if I’m ever feeling unbalanced in my day-to-day. Walking is the closest thing I have to a consistent meditation practice.
How does walking influence how you experience a place compared to other ways of moving, such as biking or driving?
Walking is the most intimate way to experience your surroundings. It forces us to confront the world around us. I will always love riding my bike or cruising around in a car, but find that speed (often in the name of convenience) prevents us from fully experiencing the world. The faster we move, the more we miss out on the fine details. The world just becomes a blur. The windshield of a car acts as a barrier, allowing us to feel like we are occupying our own bubble. We can turn up the air conditioning or play our favorite podcast, but the world is still going on outside!
Moving slowly can be uncomfortable, but it allows us to pay attention to all the things many of us choose to ignore. With each step we are constantly presented with new information, and if you’re lucky, you might even strike up a conversation with a stranger along the way.
You live in New York, but grew up in Iowa. How does movement differ depending on where you are in the world?
It really boils down to one thing: does your environment prioritize the pedestrian or the car?
Here in the Big Apple, walking is part of the culture. There’s really no reason to own a car, thanks to an extensive public transit system – sometimes it’s even faster to walk! This city was built in a way that makes you feel like you are covering a lot of ground in a short amount of time. If you really wanted, you could walk from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx all the way down to Wall Street in Manhattan in about 3.5 hours with no problems. There's plenty of sidewalk waiting for you.
In Iowa, for example, the environment is so focused on the car, which makes walking a bit more challenging. The cities and towns are much more spread out, and sometimes there’s less infrastructure to safely walk around. The idea of walking to get around, or for pleasure, is often overlooked. Last time I was back home in Des Moines, I went on a pretty long trek across town, and even though I was on the sidewalk (when I could be), there were moments where it almost felt like I was trespassing.
I’ll admit I haven’t spent as much time walking around these car-centric environments as I’d like, but I have a growing interest after spending the last 10 years walking around dense cities.
What kinds of things do you look out for during your walks?
I have lived in New York City for over 5 years now and still feel like a tourist. When planning a route, I often find ways to incorporate historical landmarks or tourist destinations into my walk. I really enjoy stopping in Times Square or visiting buildings that used to be something significant back in the day. For example, I recently made the trek to the Robert Moses Building on Randall’s Island after starting Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker.
Additionally, I always make sure to bring my camera. I work as a graphic designer, so I’m always snapping pictures of old signage that’s been hanging on for eternity. I love to get a glimpse of what this city used to be. Sometimes I’ll even pick up detritus from the street, such as personal notes, discarded restaurant menus, or business cards, to save in my archive.
Can you talk about a favorite walk that you’ve done?
Last December I walked all the way to the Bronx and back from my apartment in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, which totaled 23 miles. It was a grueling walk, and the funny thing is, I didn’t even mean to do it.
I originally set out to walk to the Bronx and take the train back home, but once I arrived I could tell I still had some juice left in the tank. Eventually I walked to Midtown Manhattan, where I realized there was no turning back. If I didn’t make it all the way home, I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life. You can read more about that walk here.
Who's another Substack writer you'd recommend?
I’ve read Snake America by Sam Reiss for the last year or so. If you like vintage Italian furniture, designer clothing, or strength sports then this newsletter is for you. Those are not topics I naturally gravitate towards, but Sam always has a way of keeping my attention.
Before I go, I have to mention Way of the Walk, Bryan Formhals’ newsletter on art, walking, and mindfulness. Bryan is a fellow walker here in NYC and has inspired me in countless ways. His newsletter is often changing and surprises every week. Give it a read!