Savoring the Lay of the Land and the Sidewalk Ballet

  Figure 1: Atlanta, at Dusk. Photo Credit: Aretina Hamilton

Figure 1: Atlanta, at Dusk. Photo Credit: Aretina Hamilton

I have always loved walking around the city.  When I was a child, my parents would take me to shop at Stewarts Department Store in downtown Louisville.  From there we would make the one block trek to the local drug store for an ice cream float.  We would sit in front of the picture window and watch as masses of people walked by, some engaged in laughter.  Others walked in silence, lost in their thoughts. Yet they moved in unison and embodied Jane Jacobs's “sidewalk ballet”.  It was both a spectacle and an informative moment, as I began to understand that the city was an ecosystem which held multiple parts that made it run effectively.   When I was old enough to go downtown unaccompanied, I would spend the entire day outside, discovering my neighborhood and the city at large.  I spent my outside hours immersed in the geography of the city.  My day would start with a trip to the public library downtown or a trip to the Museum of Natural History and Science.  At the end of my day, I would walk along Main Street, where rows of Corinthian column-clad, cast-iron storefronts towered over me.

On those days when I stayed in my neighborhood, I would spend hours outside taking pictures or making note of the different types of houses I found: craftsman bungalows, Queen Anns, Tudors, Italian Villas, Georgian Revivals and shotguns.  From my neighborhood to the central business district, all of these places represented a different era and historical marker in the trajectory of my city.  They served as an archive of the city's thoughts, histories and ways of being.  As a child the city opened up my curiosities and provided me with a space outside of the traditional classroom that curated my intellectual curiosity. While I couldn’t comprehend how influential these moments would be in my life, they shaped my interests in planning, geography and urbanization.  They provided me with a real world perspective that could not be replicated in a classroom.classroom.

  "Ponce City Market" Photo by Aretina Hamilton

"Ponce City Market" Photo by Aretina Hamilton

At Lab Atlanta, we believe that students need to engage actively with the city. It's okay to step outside. It’s okay to wander and ponder new ideas.  It’s okay to travel outside of your comfort zone.  This is part of the process of engagement and cultivating involved citizens.  Geographers often talk about the development of a place-based identity. Atlantans understand this all too well. We are inherently shaped by this place that we call home and therefore have the responsibility to create a city that we are proud of. This can only happen through education, experience, and exposure.


--Aretina Hamilton, Lab Atlanta faculty