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Saturday, October 28, 2006 

i feel like a stalker

The introduction: This past week, we were given the assignment of carrying out a “Mis-Steps” walking project. The basic idea is to take a walk through the city, guided by some concept and structure other than a normal walk would be, and in doing so, experience the city in a new way.

The concept: During my stay in Amsterdam, I’ve walked up a street in central Amsterdam called Warmoesstraat a few times. It’s a skinny street, packed full of sketchy hotels, ethnic restaurants, “adult” video and novelty stores, and coffee shops (which, for those who aren’t familiar with Amsterdam, aren’t where you would go for a morning cup of coffee, but rather for an afternoon joint). Each time I’ve walked it, I’ve noticed how many different types of people were walking through and wondered where they were going. For our walk, Joe and I decided to follow some people who were passing through the area, and in doing so, not only find out where they were going, but experience the city as other Amsterdammers and tourists do.

The plan: Joe and I selected a starting location, the corner of Warmoesstraat and Brugsteeg, right in the heart of the coffee shop district. In the middle of this intersection is a metal panel in the street (pictured at left). To randomly select our subjects to follow, each time we arrived at the intersection, we followed the third person whose foot touched any part of the panel. We followed that person until they stopped at a place for more than one minute, at which point we considered that their destination, took a photo cube there, logged the route, and returned to our starting point to find a new subject. We also, very covertly and stalkerishly, took a picture of the subject we were following sometime during the walk. As we followed, we tried to experience the city as the subject was, going at the same pace, looking at the same things, and, I guess you could say, walking it in their shoes.

The execution: We ended up having a really awesome walk through central Amsterdam, just by following people. Our eight subjects were a variety of demographics, and it was interesting to make inferences about them (where they were from, what they were doing, their relationships with the people they were with, etc.) as we were tracking them. At right is a map of the routes we took, each in a different color. Here are the photos of the subjects, labeled with their corresponding color. It would take far too long to give a full description of my experience on each of the mini-walks, but there are some highlights that exemplify the experience. While following our first subject (orange) and his cronies, we think we were noticed, and realized that we needed to be much more covert in our tracking. Rather than focusing on the person, we tried more to blend in and look at our surroundings for the duration of the project, which made for a more interesting experience. Our second subject (light blue) and his buddies essentially went in a circle to get to their destination, which was kind of silly, but they might not have been in much of a state to navigate, considering their destination was a coffee shop. Our third subject (green) was with an interesting group of punk kids ranging in age from about 15 to 20, and his “destination point” was when he waited for his friends who had gone to use the public urinals. I saw more of those ugly gray urinals on this walk than I had in all my other experiences in Amsterdam combined, and they are really odd, in a kind of disturbing way. Our fourth subject (red) was in a group of really lost older folks who stopped to look at their map for a few minutes at their “destination point” and ended up turning around and going right back where they came from, and then eventually walking back out again. It was really interesting to follow them and stand looking lost while they looked at their map. Our fifth subject (purple) was a man on a mission, walking incredibly fast while talking on his phone. We suspect he may have been late for an appointment, but we’re not really sure because we lost him when he sped around a corner. Our sixth subject (dark blue) just putzed around the area, window shopping a bit, eventually for a whole minute, which meant, by our rules, that we had to stop following him. Our seventh subject (pink) had a rolling suitcase with him that he had to keep picking up to carry on the uneven cobblestone sidewalks. He eventually stopped to look at his map, and a nice bum helped him out. He gave the bum some change before heading on his way. Our last subject (yellow) appeared to be the type I would never expect to see walking through that part of town. Imagine my surprise when she turned into an alley a block from the starting point, unlocked a door, and went in. I have no idea why an older lady would want to live there, or have anything to do there, but I guess looks can be deceptive.

The conclusions: We set out on this walk with a bit of a “psych experiment” mindset (which can be expected, considering we are both psych majors), trying to determine the reasons people of different demographics have for walking through the intersection we selected. It turns out that a fair amount of them were just walking through the area on their way to somewhere else, and people such as our fourth subject, who you wouldn’t expect to have any interest in the area, had probably not intended to pass through there. I was really surprised that by randomly picking people to follow, we ended up traveling in pretty much every possible direction, which means that our intersection is kind of a hub for foot traffic. The walk itself was enjoyable, and we ended up experiencing areas that we may have otherwise not have found our way to, which I guess was the point of this whole thing. Mission accomplished!