Looking down, looking up, and looking around when walking
Years ago while walking to and from work in New York, I realized something obvious yet still remarkable about how we see our cities: most of what we take in happens at eye level, but if you look up or look down at even the slightest degree, you can experience an entirely different vantage on the city you see every day.
At the time, I tested this by walking nearly two miles on familiar streets, looking entirely at the second story of the buildings I passed and noticing striking facades, secondary businesses, residential decorations, construction work underway, and historic markers. A recent walk in Seoul before Cathlin’s cousin’s wedding over the summer reminded me how you can nearly trip over curiosities by looking down as well.
On Mugyo-ro (武橋路), I noticed a brass or copper square cut into the sidewalk encouraging me to “Enjoy Jakarta.” What an unanticipated reference, I thought, curious to learn more about the relationship between South Korea and Indonesia. Up next was “Splendid Taipei” a few steps further, followed by “The Model Capital, Ankara” giving visibility to Turkey shortly thereafter. A simply stated “Tokyo” wasn’t too far behind, with “Beijing welcomes you” another block further.
What could this be, I wondered. After the capitals of Mongolia, Vietnam, and Kazakhstan, came “The Charm of Bangkok.” I figured it had to be a regional conference until the cities expanded to Sydney, Honolulu, San Francisco, and Mexico City. This followed with a celebration of Washington, DC, with the U.S. Capitol and a declaration of “Taxation Without Representation.” To round out the next couple of blocks: São Paulo, Bogotá, Cairo, “Moscow is the city of the future,” Paris, Warsaw, Rome, and finally Athens. (See the full collection below.)
A few days later, I found similar welcomes imprinted into the sidewalk in the expat neighborhood along Itaewon-ro (이태원로) in Itaewon-dong, but I couldn’t find any English explanation of the stretch of city shoutouts along Mugyo-ro. (I haven’t been able to verify, but I have a feeling it might have something to do with the 2011 meeting of the Asian Network of Major Cities 21, when participants visited the nearby Cheonggyecheon (청계천) Plaza to see “a fine example of waterfront development.” That said, the sidewalk features several nonparticipating cities and is missing participants like Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Yangon, and Tomsk. If you know more, please leave a comment below.)
While I wish I could say why these are there, all I can say is that if your city is amongst the lot, go get warm fuzzies or pose for a photo to send back home from Seoul. And wherever you’re walking, keep an eye on what’s around you, but also force yourself to look up, look down, and look side to side. You might be surprised by what you find.