Urban Walking and a Sense of Place


As we all know there is a certain amount of sameness in places that were developed to accommodate automobiles. This phenomenon was described as the “geography of nowhere” by author James Kunstler in his 1993 book of the same name. I have made it a point to wander around to find locations and items that have a sense of place, or if you will, the “geography of somewhere.”

For example, in the older parts of Chicago, you can find areas where the houses are several feet below the street level. The difference in levels is a result of the street level being raised after the homes were built. Raising the streets has been only one of many engineering efforts undertaken over the past 180 years to deal with water in the Chicago area.

If you venture a few miles out from the older parts of Chicago you’ll run into areas developed in the early 20th-Century with mile after mile of “Chicago Style” brick bungalows. There are so many bungalows that this part of Chicago is oftentimes referred to as the “bungalow belt.”

If you travel an hour and a half north of Chicago, you’ll find that most of the older buildings are built of Milwaukee “cream city brick.” The light creamy color of the brick comes from the mineral content of the local clay.

You can find another example of “place” when you walk around the streets of New York City. There you can’t help but to notice the wooden water towers on top of most buildings over six stories high. The towers are there because the natural water pressure can only reach six stories.

On a recent trip to Baltimore, I had the opportunity to walk by miles and miles of row houses built around the turn of the last century. Almost all of them had white marble steps.

If you take a closer look at the Baltimore row house you might notice that many of them were “modernized” in the mid-20th Century with Formstone. Movie director, and Baltimore native John Waters, of “Divine” and “Pink Flamingos” fame called Formstone the “polyester of brick.”

You might even notice the local Baltimore folk art of painted screens. Screen painting began in Baltimore a little over 100 years ago and had been up until a few years ago a dying art. Fortunately, there are now several artists and organizations reviving the art and it is now possible to find painted screens on your walk.

Another local Baltimore tradition is duckpin bowling. Instead of regular bowling pins, duckpin bowling has short squatty pins and a small bowling ball without holes. (The ball is a little bit larger than a “Chicago style” 16 inch slow-pitch softball.) Duckpin bowling has been in serious decline over the past few decades because automatic pin-setting equipment for duckpin bowling has not been manufactured since the 1950s. In order to stay alive, an active duckpin bowling center will buy pin-setting equipment from a defunct competitor in order to have a supply repair parts.

If you travel to New England, you can find a local variety of bowling called candlepin bowling. Instead of short squatty pins, candlepin bowling has tall thin pins. Candlepin bowling uses the same small ball as duckpin bowling. Before Fenway Park in Boston underwent extensive renovations, there was a candlepin bowling center right beneath the stands in the leftfield corner. It was a separate business from the baseball team and had its own outside entrance.

I have been collecting examples of items unique to specific location for the past two years and eventually hope to compile them into a book about exploring cities. In the meantime, I will continue share various local items of interest in this blog. If you know of something that should be included in a potential book, please leave a comment or contact me by email. Thank you.


  1. Hi David Ryan. Freshwater here in Nevada with big lots and garages and houses that don’t sit below ground level. Very interesting walk this time, made me glad I live where I do. I really hope all those people like where they live and stay away from here. Don’t’ they have garages? I’ve lived in many places but never in someplace like this. Thanks again and since you are in New Mexico (?) I bet you feel the same.
    Freshwater 36

  2. Beautiful photographs! Fascinating information! This blog makes urban life look appealing and worth exploring. Thanks for this closer look at unfamiliar parts of the USA (to me!) – and to the local, colorful flair of the culture!

  3. I now live in Albuquerque, but lived in several of the places you mentioned here, and been to all of them. Since I lived in Chicago 47 years ago I might be forgiven for not remembering the streets above the houses. Where are they? As a kid I lived in Boston, and I loved bowling candlepins, partly because “ten-pin” balls were too heavy for me. Candlepin bowling has some interesting rules that differ from standard “ten-pin” bowling: 1) strikes are very rare because the straightness of the pins and smallness of the ball reduce the mixing action, so 2) one gets 3 rolls for every frame and 3) (the most interesting part) any “wood” that has fallen on previous rolls is not cleared away, but can be used to knock down remaining pins.

    • Thanks for sharing. I also live in Albuquerque and used to live in Chicago. The house below street level are in areas near the river and developed in the 19th century. Neighborhoods the below level house include Bridgeport, Little Village, Heart of Chicago, Bucktown, and others. Thanks again, DR

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