Ezra Haber Glenn is an urban planner and lecturer at MIT's Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches on community development, the use of data in public policy, and a special course in “The City in Film.”
“The World Before Your Feet” looks at Matt Green’s pursuit of a simple goal: To walk each block of New York’s five boroughs.
Matt Green, an itinerant wanderer, set out 2,522 days ago (that’s nearly seven years) with the simple goal of walking every block in all five boroughs of New York City. As seen in The World Before Your Feet—a new documentary directed by Jeremy Workman and produced by Jesse Eisenberg— Green uncovers and attends to the magic, mystery, and beauty that lies in the mundane city streets, sidewalks, vacant lots, stoops, and storefronts all around him.
Green is no stranger to the long haul and the lonely road. Prior to his current mission he trekked 3,100 miles across the U.S., alone, on foot, from Rockaway Beach in New York to Rockaway Beach, Oregon. Charged and changed by this experience, he has resolved to live a life of intentional vagrancy.
As he describes his current project on his blog “I’m Just Walkin’”, it’s a natural, deeper “counterpoint” to his cross-country walk: “Instead of seeing a million places for just a minute each, I'm going to spend a million minutes exploring just one place.” What emerges is a kind of
plain-spoken psychogeography, an honest fascination with the details of life and the little mysteries of the city.
Green is not alone in this work, and the film gives a nod to fellow travelers who trod these same paths, including William Helmreich (Professor at City College of NY and author of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City) and Garnette Cadogan (Editor-at-Large of Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas). But for the most part Green is confronted by others who are either perplexed by his choice or assume there must be some sort of eventual payoff to make it worthwhile. One incredulous workman he meets along a desolated stretch of Staten Island asks, “Are you independently wealthy or something?”
“No,” replies Green, “I’m independently homeless.”
And it’s true: he comes by his vagabondage honestly, living without a permanent home on $15 a day, cat-sitting and couch-surfing and subsisting on rice and beans. Interviews with his parents and former girlfriends hint as a possible pathology here, but to Green, the freedom he has bought would be cheap at twice the price.
Early in the film, we are introduced to Green’s technique of mindful walking: while strolling through the South Bronx, he keys in to the sound of birdsong around him, noting “there are a lot of parts of New York where you hear a lot of birds, which you might not think would be the case—a lot of times you don’t hear ‘em, cause you’re not listening.”
The remainder of the film is an exploration of this approach: a calm-yet-engaged process that combines watching and listening to the city with the patience to wander, stop, and actively wonder “What’s going on here?”
And so the film follows Green, from Ozone Park, Queens, to Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn and everywhere in between, usually a few steps behind watching his back as he walks.
The World Before Your Feet’s viewers will see the city in new and unusual ways and begin to appreciate just how much there is to see. Green is no tourist or “peakbagger,” and so while he does visit some well-known attractions (the Brooklyn Bridge, Hamilton’s Grave, the 9/11 Memorial), most of the time he’s in the neighborhoods or even further afield exploring workaday residential blocks, remote waterfronts, and vacant corners of this immense metropolis.
Perhaps most intriguing about Green's approach is the apparent lack of order or planning. He does not chart the city in advance and decided an ideal “plan of attack,” but rather flits about across the wide city like a butterfly on the breeze.
To date, Green has still not finished his walk (spoiler alert!); it’s quite possible he never will. Towards the end of the movie he pauses on a nondescript corner in suburban Bayside, Queens, to remark that he probably passed 8,000 miles somewhere over the past block, which was what he originally envisioned would be his target length. But he's not done, he confesses: he has miles more, plus a growing backlog of blog postings and ongoing research.
His tone in the documentary shifts to one of contented resignation (or perhaps simply acceptance) as he begins to realizes that “it’s impossible to take in even a small percent” of what one sees with every step. Looking back at his earlier work, he notes that he’s been missing things every day—more work back there, if he cares to return and revisit.
In the end, one senses that his goal is to walk, not to arrive; to ponder and explore without concluding.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the title of the film.