Winter 2005

“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.”
-Dr. Seuss
You get in your car in the morning. You look at the steering wheel, put your hands on 10 and 2, feel the texture of the leather in your grip. Do you think: “With this steering wheel, I could steer myself any direction I choose”? If it’s a regular day, chances are: probably not. It’s more likely that you performed a quick mental calculation to see if you could fit in a trip to Starbucks before the 7:30 bell. Who has time to break the routine? Who has the faculty to explore his exploring potential? There are, in fact, such people—one is Caleb Smith, New York City’s intrepid urban explorer.
I read about Caleb in The New Yorker, which featured an article about his New York City Walk. In May of 2002, Caleb decided to walk every street in Manhattan, to get an appreciation of the history that most people miss out on by only visiting tourist attractions. He chronicles his journey on his website, After reading the article and seeing his pictures, I just had to find out about the man who steps outside the ordinary, if just to take a walk. So I emailed Caleb Smith, and our interview went like this:
1) Why did you move from Albuquerque to New York?
I lived in Boston for a few years before I moved here. I love the west, and New Mexico, but I always romanticized the east. I thought of New York accents as exotic, the way other people might think of French accents, for example.
2) When did your love of exploring start? Have you always done your one-man walking tours, wherever you lived?
I learned it from my parents, my mother especially. She was always a great explorer. For instance, she was always pulling off the side of the road to find old segments of the original Route 66, things like that. As for the walking, I've never liked to drive; I enjoy living in cities like Boston and New York, where you don't have to. New York is especially easy to get around in- the subway, for all its problems, is amazing. It's the only 24-hour subway in the world, believe it or not.
3) When did you start learning trivia about New York's historical sites? What interested you specifically about it?
I've always liked trivia. When you know little facts about the places you visit, it imbues the place with meaning it wouldn't otherwise have.
4) What was your favorite unknown historical landmark?
That's a hard one, there are so many. In the 1850's, they constructed these cast-iron fire towers all over Manhattan, and there's one left, in a park in Harlem. On my site you can see the remains of the port where the Titanic would have landed- that one should be made into a monument. Also, I'm a baseball fan, and I just put a page on my site about the remains of a baseball stadium, the Polo Grounds.
5) How did this walk turn from an interesting idea into an actual project? Was there any preparation involved?
It just happened gradually, I was keeping track of where I had walked in the city, and eventually I decided I might as well do the whole island. Usually I would just spontaneously decide where I would walk that day, and then afterwards read about where I had walked.
6) What makes you the kind of person who actually does the cool things they say they're going to do, instead of just hatching the idea and talking about it a lot?
That's funny- there are plenty of things I don't do that I say I'm going to do. I am better at doing slow and steady projects than projects that happen all at once.
7) Did you have a very regular walking schedule? If so, how did you keep to it? Did you ever skip days because you didn't feel like it?
I didn't have a regular schedule- that was the beauty of the project: I could do it whenever I wanted to. If I was forced to keep a regular schedule, I probably never would have finished. Another nice thing was that if I got tired of one neighborhood, I could always go to another one the next day- the city is so diverse.
8) What are your other hobbies besides urban exploring?
I studied art in college, and I do a lot of photography & sometimes painting. I live within walking distance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick, the Guggenheim, and other amazing museums, and I go to those places a lot.
9) Do you like natural exploring, too, or just urban?
I love natural exploring; growing up in the mountains of New Mexico, I did it a lot. It's the one part of living in New York that's difficult for me- not enough nature. However, I spend a lot of time in the greatest urban park in the world- Central Park.
10) Do you think you would ever want to write a guidebook about urban exploring?
Yeah, I've thought about it, but the website is enough for now.
11) If you did, what would your central piece of advice be?
Well, unless you're really into maps, I don't know if I'd advise doing it the way I did it- you spend a lot of time thinking about your map and making sure you're walking the right streets- time you could be using looking around at your environment. Another piece of advice- public libraries and McDonalds are good places to find bathrooms...

I strongly urge all of you to look at Caleb’s website. For those of you who have been to New York, I can guarantee that the pictures you’ll see will look nothing to you like the city you visited, which just goes to show how easy it is to miss the things around you, unless you go looking for them. If anything, they should inspire you to do just that.

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