December 12, 2019

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An up-close, intimate portrait of New York City

Documentary shows former civil engineer's plan to walk the entirety of the Big Apple

This enjoyable and optimistic documentary tracks the quasi-kooky quest of Matt Green, a former civil engineer who has made it his project to walk every street, lane, byway, park, cemetery and beach in New York City.

This journey, which has been going on for more than six years and has passed the 12,875-kilometre mark, might sound like a self-promoting stunt, except that Green isn’t much good at self-promotion. He’s enthusiastic, thoughtful and sincere about every step he takes, and his attitude spreads to documentarian Jeremy Workman and, by extension, to us.

Green had already walked across America, from Rockaway Beach, N.Y., to Rockaway Beach, Ore., when he made this more focused but even more ambitious plan to explore one of the great world cities.

This is an up-close and intimate portrait of New York City, and it’s not the tourist New York or even the usual movie New York, though the Guggenheim Museum or the Statue of Liberty occasionally show up in the background. Green explores odd corners of all five boroughs, including scrubby wastegrounds, grungy back alleys, abandoned half-built streets, hidden gardens, forgotten forests.

Matt Green walks in Hudson Yards, Manhattan.

Matt Green walks in Hudson Yards, Manhattan.

He does down-deep research into layers of New York history, pointing out a small derelict building that once housed Margaret Sanger’s first birth-control clinic or talking about a gas-tank blast that killed 43 workers on Staten Island. He documents 9/11 memorials both official and heartbreakingly homemade.

He encounters unexpected flora and fauna, from flowers fighting their way out of sidewalk cracks to wild canaries, wild turkeys and an inexplicable backyard peacock.

The World Before Your Feet is not just about New York, though. It’s about the experience of walking through New York. And eventually, Workman suggests that Green is exploring not just a way to walk but a way to live.

"Are you independently wealthy?" one passerby asks after learning about Green’s project. More like independently broke. Green spends about US$15 a day for public transport and food — he eats a lot of rice and beans — and he doesn’t pay rent. He couch-surfs and does a lot of cat-sitting. (At one point, Green reels off names of his feline friends — Remy, Ed, Huck, Niko, Misha, Greta, Dizzy, Frosty, Miles, Henry.)

He documents his travels on his blog, which he jokes at one point has about 12 followers. He’s not an influencer, not a social media star and he doesn’t really see any obvious commercial use to his project. That’s kind of the point.

On his perambulations, Green is open and helpful and friendly, and the world meets him — at least in these filmed encounters — with a matching friendliness. He chats with stoop sitters, offers to help move an air-conditioning unit, gives a snowbound car a push and plays pickup street football during a blizzard in Brighton Beach.

Workman observes Green in a low-key, unobtrusive way, generating the film’s energy through peppy editing and some musical additions.

While this is overwhelmingly a feel-good story, Workman does imply the streets aren’t the same for everyone. He interviews another super-walker, Garnette Cadogan, who is black. Cadogan talks about his walking "costume" — a super-preppie gingham shirt and reading glasses — which he feels he has to wear in order to look non-threatening. It’s also hard to imagine a woman walking every New York neighbourhood with Green’s self-confident ease.

There is also a suggestion that while Green is making these lovely, momentary connections with all sorts of random, wonderful New Yorkers, his single-minded, all-consuming project might be a way of walking away from more conventional emotional connections. (Cue the interviews with two former girlfriends.)

You can see Green as an urban Thoreau, or, as he says self-deprecatingly on his blog, a bum who needs to get a job.

Or maybe just see him as a nonconformist who is trying to find a simple, self-reliant, self-aware way to live. "It’s just about the value of paying attention to something," Green says at one point. Green pays attention to the million little human details of N.Y.C., and this upbeat and engaging doc pays attention to him.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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