Students in the course Walking New York walk the streets with their professor.

Peder Anker and students walking the East Village in early December. All photos by Tracey Friedman.

One of the best ways to get to know the city is by walking new routes. It's even better if you have a guide to connect those streets to the city's culture and history.

“It wasn’t so long ago that walking was the primary way of getting around. Prior to the 1930s or so, pretty much everyone did it—philosophers, painters, all kinds of old sources,” says NYU Gallatin professor Peder Anker. “That’s really important to understand. To really get at what they were thinking, you have to get out and walk too.” 

Anker’s first-year seminar Walking New York City sends students out to far-flung neighborhoods on a series of themed outings that spark engagement with city history, anthropology, literature, and culture.

A trip to Coney Island is paired with readings about the concepts of pleasure and escape. Walking the High Line, students explore the tradition of the “promenade.” A Governor’s Island visit is a springboard for a conversation about the challenges of urban planning. Hunt’s Point in the Bronx provides examples of graffiti as an art form. Walking the length of the Wickquasgeck Trail, students explore the indigenous history of what is now Broadway.

For many who have just moved to New York for the first time, the course also serves as a vital orientation to city transit and geography. 

Students in the course Walking New York stop to admire graffiti on a lamp post.

Walking on Sundays to prepare for weekly class discussions, students travel in small groups, document their walks with photos and selfies, and write papers spurred by personal reflection and research on what they observe.

In addition to texts paired with each location and theme, reading assignments also include philosophical works, such as Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to Walk, that invite students to contemplate the connections between body and mind.

“Do you think better when your body is walking?” Anker asks. One assignment that challenged students to take a picture of a community—not as easy as it sounds—resonated for this semester’s cohort of first-years.

“They understood that community was something they have to appreciate, form themselves, and be a part of. It’s not something that’s just there, it has to be shaped,” Anker says. Throughout the course of the semester, students often form some of their first strong college friendships through their walks, he adds. 

Students in the course Walking New York walk the streets with their professor.

For one of the semester’s last walks, Anker met up with three students to amble around the East Village after reading cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s writing on the French concept of the flaneur—a stroller who wanders with no particular destination in mind. 

The best part of teaching a course on walking? “It’s fun! I walk a lot,” Anker says. “I find that it’s a good way to remind myself that there’s a world out there, when I’m stuck in academic arguments on my computer.” 

For students being introduced to Gallatin’s interdisciplinary approach, the walks serve a similar purpose.

“I believe that if you want to succeed you have to be motivated. And when students are enjoying what they’re doing, they end up writing brilliant papers. I got some outstanding ones this semester, I think because students were motivated to do research by being challenged to be urban explorers.”

Student stops to admire scarves while walking the streets with their professor for the course, Walking New York..