Walk This Way

Old style NY pedestrian lights. Photo by Aidan O'Rourke.

When my oldest son was very young, the first words he learned to read were “WALK” and “DON’T WALK,” which is what used to be on the pedestrian stop lights before New York finally adopted the more intuitive and international walking man and hand, respectively. Although I was sorry to see something that helped my son learn to read go, I was glad that the self-professed capital of the world was finally doing away with something so antiquated and provincial. I thought perhaps this was a sign that before long, the US would at long last dump the Fahrenheit and Imperial systems of measure and join the rest of the world in using the far more logical Celsius and Metric ones. Well, no such luck yet.

Having lived in Canadian and Israeli cities, as well as the Big Apple, I was familiar with the green walking man, and thought that, for the most part, the one that showed up in New York was identical to his international brothers. Well, it turns out that I was wrong. New York-based Israeli photographer and artist Maya Barkai has collected, with the help of amateur and professional photographers from around the globe, photos of the pedestrian “go” lights in a wide selection of cities. There is great variety among them, with the figures often reflecting something unique about the culture in which they “live.”

Berlin "Ampelmannchen" light

On a recent trip to Berlin, I learned that East Berliners refused to give up their beloved Ampelmännchen, squat little men with brimmed hats, upon reunification with West Berlin. But I had no idea that there were many other cities around the world with distinctive pedestrian traffic lights.

Barkai’s Walking Men Worldwide project has become Walking Men 99, a public art installation at 99 Church Street in lower Manhattan. Life size walking men from around the world ring the large construction site for a new hotel, and will be on display for the next year. The artist calls it “a cultural representation and a subjective interpretation of our urban environment.” I certainly hope I have the opportunity to be in NY to see it while it is up.

The educator in me is already thinking of all the wonderful ways in which this art installation could be used with students. What an excellent catalyst for investigations of geography, urban geography, history, politics, art, photography, design, culture, and symbolism – or any combination thereof! And how fortunate students in NY are to be able to get out of the classroom to learn by interacting with art on the city streets!

Somehow I am not surprised that this was a project conceived of by a young Israeli. All the cities in which the photos were taken are ones in which Jews probably live today, and from which Jews likely emigrated as they made aliyah to Israel. But even more so, Maya Barkai’s Walking Men remind me of young Israelis who are in motion, stepping out of Israel and striding through so many cities as they explore the world “acharei tzava,” post-army service. Israelis, for the most part limited to travel in their tiny country, love to visit all corners of the globe. If they can, they don’t sit still, embodying and exhibiting the same bright energy and forward motion as the Walking Men.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


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One Response to “Walk This Way”

  1. Rose Barlow Says:

    Lets plan a jaunt to NY together to check this out! Love it!

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