Alfred Leslie on walking in the city

This afternoon my Downtown Scenes class was fortunate enough to take a walking tour of the East Village (or a portion of the Lower East Side, as he would have it) with Cary Abrams, a long-time teacher, friend of PWHNY, and affiliate of the Lower East Side History Project.

At the outset Cary shared a quote from Alfred Leslie, who moved to the Lower East Side following WWII and took up a career as an artist. Tomorrow we’ll watch the famous film he made with the photographer Robert Frank, Pull My Daisy (1959), and think about it alongside the poetry of the Beat icons who feature as actors in the film. For today, Cary wanted us to think about people who walked these same streets in past eras. To that end he quoted Leslie:

There’s an essay at the end of Thoreau’s Walden on the pleasure of walking. I can’t recall it exactly, but it went something like this: “I wish to speak a word for walking and for wildness, for taking little walks along unmapped paths, like the saunterers of old….” After the war, the wild was no longer nature, it was the city. You had the feeling that you were starting out on a journey that had no end in sight, and from which you’d never return. There was an element of danger in it, and of psychic and primitive power…… Everything was accessible, if you went after it…. And it was particularly so on the Lower East Side which was like an abandoned part of the city.

We’re not sure where the quote comes from. (Does anyone out there recognize it?) I tried finding it on Google Books to no avail. Cary says he took it from the placards attached to the fence on the Second Avenue side of St. Mark’s Church, which we passed today on our walking tour. Wherever it comes from, it’s a terrific quote, encapsulating the thrill of walking in the city in a particular moment of time whose echoes are barely audible to us.

Photo of Alfred Leslie, 1960, by John Cohen, from Artnet.com.

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