We met at the Mount Royal Ave. Light Rail stop across the street from the MICA bookstore. Not entirely sure where we were going or for what purpose, we boarded the next inbound train, rode it a few stops, and got off in a partly dilapidated neighborhood of Baltimore. We walked a few blocks west to meet our guide. It was a crisp autumn evening, the sun slowly sinking—the perfect day for a walk.
Graham was waiting for us near a foreboding building like something out of A Clockwork Orange. This hulking shell of redundant modernism, Graham soon explained, was some kind of federal facility until recently abandoned. It was now nothing more than a modern ruin, an empty edifice through which U.S. Route 40 runs east, slamming into Baltimore’s Seton Hill and Mt. Vernon neighborhoods. The awkward infrastructural transition forces high-speed freeway traffic to abruptly decelerate and adjust to the gridiron street layout of the city. Graham showed us how the modular Jersey barriers, ubiquitous along American highways, taper down gradually until merging with the granite curb, and interstate morphs into city street. This spot is where our tour began.
We weren't exactly sure what to make of Graham at first. For one, he was dressed like a camp counselor. But this was most likely part of his act—not that he was acting. We could tell that Graham took his work very seriously: his demeanor was sober, his desire to impart knowledge sincere. He wore a white brimmed cap, a bright green polo shirt with “Graham” embroidered in red over his left breast, khaki shorts, and hiking shoes. He seemed somewhat out of place in the urban setting. We felt like he might pull back a curtain and we’d begin our trek up the mountainside, Troop Leader Graham taking the lead.
Instead, guiding us past several signs that read “U.S. Gov. Property: No Trespassing,” our docent led us under the vacant federal complex to a small park area hidden behind the giant brutalist tomb. It was devoid of people. Graham told us how this secret green space used to be a lunch area for employees of the federal building, but now goes relatively unnoticed. We gathered around a strange tree with branches growing out from its base, forming a sort of chair. A few of us began to climb the tree as Graham matter-of-factly informed us that this tree is known as the “Blowjob Tree.” We climbed down and brushed off our hands.
We were then led south to a small overpass under which we stopped to listen to Graham discourse on the history of this unassuming structure. He showed us how layers of graffiti had been painted over by the city only to be undone by later taggers. This process continues over and over until the overpass walls take on the look of modern art. But even prior to the layers of paint, the modernist anti-aesthetic was there, imbedded in the very structure of the overpass. As our guide pointed out, traces of wood grain can be detected in the reinforced concrete walls. Plywood panels were used to hold the wet concrete in place until it dried. The plywood was later removed, its texture imprinted onto the walls. Graham explained how this was not a design flaw or poor craftsmanship, but an intentional decision, part of the modernist preference for the raw look. The palimpsest walls of the overpass preserve many layers of history.
Graham then led us out from under the overpass and we wrapped around 180 degrees to face north on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. We approached a busy intersection, while Graham explained how the City of Baltimore recently shut down a homeless camp across the street from us between two other overpasses. The area was now entirely fenced off. More “U.S. Gov. Property: No Trespassing” signs hung along the newly erected fence. With nowhere else to go, some homeless people have staked tents along the raised grassy median along MLK Boulevard. We arrived at the intersection and waited for the pedestrian signal. It was rush hour. The traffic was fairly heavy and menacing. The symbol of the little walking man lit up and we went for it. The motorists looked confused as we crossed the boulevard, as if they hadn’t seen large walking tours around this area before.
After crossing the intersection, we climbed to the top of a small grassy prominence overlooking a neighborhood to the west. It was very pleasant on top of the hill. There was a light breeze that cooled us as the sun slowly set. The clear blue sky complemented well the verdant hillock. Though not very high, it afforded a great view of the surrounding area. Graham relayed the social history of the Heritage Crossing neighborhood below us and how it went through various phases of decline and rejuvenation over the past century-and-a-half. A man, a heckler, saw us assembled upon the hill and hollered up to us. He seemed like he was torn between laughing at us and wanting to join us. Graham ignored him and we moved on.
Making our way towards Route 40, we heard the sounds of the freeway grow louder. When we reached the busy highway, we gathered along its shoulder as cars whipped past us. Litter was strewn in the grass where we stood. A city worker in an orange vest walked by, only mildly curious by our presence. Our leader pointed to a narrow path in the grass across the way, sandwiched between the inner Jersey barriers of Route 40. Graham explained how this unplanned path is called a “desire line”: an unofficial trail created by what he refers to as “radical pedestrians,” independently minded citizens who make their own way through the city despite seeming obstacles or lack of amenities like foot bridges.
The desire line brings to mind Valeria Luiselli’s description of relingos in her book Sidewalks, a beautiful, meandering text about the author's reflections on the city. In an essay entitled “Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces,” Luiselli explains how after its construction in the late nineteenth century, the Paseo de la Reforma, a wide avenue running at a 45° angle across the heart of Mexico City, left random triangular and trapezoidal plots of unused land. The new road “cut diagonally across the orthogonal layout of the city,” leaving behind the residual relingos, irregular shapes of abandoned urban spaces, “odd pieces of a jigsaw, the origin and purpose of which no one remembers any longer, but which, equally, no one dares to either destroy or use in any permanent way.” Luiselli humorously personifies the avenue and likens the relingos to missing teeth:
On the Paseo de la Reforma, that grand avenue simulating the entrance to an imperial Mexico City that of course no longer exists, there’s a quadrangle of tiny absences, small plazas, where once there were things that are now only gaps. As if the perfect, majestic smile of Madame de la Reforma now lacked a number of teeth. Only God and perhaps Salvador Novo–modernist chronicler of the city–know what was there before the appearance of those empty spaces.
Route 40 in Baltimore runs through the historic neighborhood of Mt. Vernon, forcing its two lanes to slow down and spread out a block apart as it integrates with the city grid. The major highway briefly becomes two city streets–Franklin and Mulberry–before merging back together at St. Paul on the other side of Mt. Vernon. Anyone can see how awkward a transition this is when viewing a map of the area. The transition preserves the streets and sidewalks of the historic area, but just a little further west, where we were standing, the highway cuts through a less affluent neighborhood. Desire lines form because no pedestrian infrastructure was included in the plans for Route 40’s intrusion through this part of Baltimore. If they want to get to the other side of their interrupted neighborhood, residents simply walk straight across the highway. And this is exactly what we did. After waiting for a gap in the traffic, we booked it across the highway, jumped the Jersey barrier, tread the desire line, and got to the other side. This was minimally dangerous but lots of fun.
At the end of our brief journey, Graham announced, “You are all now radical pedestrians!” To anyone who lives in or visits Baltimore, try to go on Graham’s “Crossing the Highway to Nowhere” walking tour. Here’s an excerpt from his website, newpublicsites.org:
Demolition for what was going to be an east-west highway cutting across Baltimore City began the 1960s. Thriving neighborhoods were cut in half and thousands of mostly African American families were displaced. Community resistance on the east side and further west led to the cancellation of the east-west highway. As a result, the completed section remains isolated from other expressways, making it effectively useless. What remains is now known as “Highway to Nowhere”. Among brutalist piers and pastoral landscaping, we will learn how people currently use this highly public yet overlooked space.
The desire line is easily missed, a minor disturbance in the overall scheme of the city. But it's within these liminal spaces of desire lines and relingos that one finds the forgotten parts of the urban terrain. They represent the abandoned and overlooked, the part of the plan that missed the drawing board. And it is our duty as citizens to leap off the grid now and then, to traverse through and subvert the urban landscape however we can. Who waits for the little walking man signal if there is no traffic? These minor acts of civil disobedience may not seem so revolutionary, but they are what keep us free from the machinery of the system. They keep us human.