Max Grinnell knows his way around a city. The “urbanologist” has wandered on foot through Chicago, Boston, and Baltimore, and his book 24 Great Walks in Chicago guides readers through the Windy City’s most colorful neighborhoods. Grinnell spoke with Intelligent Travel about what makes him hit the pavement:
Karen Carmichael: How does walking change how travelers interact with a city?
Max Grinnell: It’s first and foremost the opportunity to interact with locals, and I think that the average walk down any street opens up this localized world fairly quickly. If one is willing to take a few minutes to pop into a bodega, fire station, or a bakery, there are stories there.
Walking enhances and increases our opportunities for a face-to-face encounter with a fellow human being, a mural, an architectural detail, an abandoned factory and so on. In a world where everyone is increasingly obsessed with speeding up every process, exchange, or interaction, walking gives us a bit of a breather, if only for 15 or 20 minutes. And ultimately, any knowledge we can gain from taking in some quirk of urban geography or learning about the life of another person will enhance our understanding of our own place in the world.
KC: What’s a memorable experience you had because you chose to walk somewhere?
MG: One of my favorite recent walks was when I left my apartment in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, and wandered over to the Italian Festival of the Healing Saints Cosmas and Damian, which takes place every September. On any other weekend, this tiny strip of Warren Street is just a mix of walk-up apartments and a bar or two, but the festival revealed miniature family reunions, a shrine, a few carnival rides, and piles of fried fair food. The persistence of these urban ethnic enclaves is fascinating and it was a good way to meet people who had left the community and felt the need to return.
KC: In your recent travels, have you encountered any particularly interesting city blocks?
MG: Baltimore’s St. Paul Place is quite an urban experience, and it also seems to me to stand as a nice symbol of the city’s recent renaissance. The block is dominated by the Tremont Plaza Hotel, which is a civic icon itself. The real treat in this block is the Tremont Grand, which is the former Grand Lodge of Maryland Masonic Temple. Go on in and wander around to get a sense of the type of “Eastern” cum Orientalism one would find in a truly mystic shrine associated with such a brotherhood. It’s an amazing collection of wood-paneled rooms and stained glass that is a riot of color and materials.
One of my favorite blocks in Boston is the very short Wigglesworth Street in the Mission Hill neighborhood. It’s a clutch of 1870s and 1880s buildings built in the Queen Anne and Second Empire styles that hint at the area’s former grandeur. Now they are basically tucked in between Tremont Street and Huntington Avenue (both of which are hardly quiet), and a quick stroll gives visitors a sense of what this area was like 120 years ago. Plus, there’s the great Squealing Pig restaurant around the corner and the rather curious and amazing Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard University’s School of Medicine, which should not be missed.
KC: What’s your next travel book about?
MG: My next book will cover 100 unique and unusual sights in Chicago, and it will be full of destinations that may surprise even the most well-traveled Chicagoan. Alleys paved with wood? Yes, I have that covered. A Buddhist temple in Lincoln Park? That’s in there as well.
Photo: Greg Perry/My Shot