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How well do you know your city? Likely it’s not as intimately as Matt Green knows New York. The feature-length documentary The World Before Your Feet begins in the South Bronx on his 1,258th day of walking the five boroughs, a quixotic quest that he estimates will cover 8,000 miles of sidewalks, roads, parks, cemeteries, beaches, and abandoned lots. Yet he’s in no hurry, as he ambles and chats with locals, and notices the minutiae that most of us overlook, from the metal bristles left behind by street cleaners, to DIY 9/11 memorials, to the love of using the letter “Z” in words like “cutz” on barber shop signs.
A recurring scene in the film is Green explaining what he’s doing to strangers. He’s not writing a book, and his incredibly well-researched blog — I’m Just Walkin’ — isn’t a moneymaker. “There’s no particular goal other than to just see the whole city,” he tells an inquisitive truck driver. And for the past six years, that’s been his main pursuit. He quit his engineering desk job in 2009, and his first major walk was across the United States, from Rockaway Beach, Queens, to Rockaway Beach, Oregon. He now lives on about $15 a day, sleeping on friends’ couches, his only steady employment being the cat sitting gigs. As a low key, friendly guy, he makes an amicable subject for a documentary, which was filmed by director Jeremy Workman over the course of three years.
“People may think they know New York City, and others maybe think they’ve seen it in films,” Workman told Hyperallergic. “But they’ve never really seen it quite like this film. That’s a real testament to Matt’s project. He doesn’t give any area more emphasis than another. For him, he’s equally fascinated with a side street in Staten Island as he is with 42nd Street in Manhattan.”
The film premiered earlier this year at SXSW, and is now on the festival circuit, with upcoming screenings in Oklahoma City and Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Whether an overgrown street grid in Edgemere, Queens, where the homes were torn down for a development that never arrived, or a ridge of glacial moraine jutting from Manhattan, Workman makes New York, and its rough edges, look beautiful.
There is something about New York City that inspires obsessive documentation. There are people here trying to visit every park, photograph every Manhattan bodega, eat food from every country, and sketch every person. (I admit to being on my own quest to see all the official NYC Great Trees.) The subject of Workman’s 2005 documentary short One Track Mind — Philip Coppola — has dedicated years to hand-sketching the architectural details of the subways. “I am attracted to people who do things simply because they want to do them,” Workman stated. “We live in a world that’s all about how many followers you have, or how many likes you get, or how much money you make — so, I feel really inspired by people who are able to look beyond all that and just want to achieve something just because they want to do it.”
Along with interviews with Green’s friends, family, and ex-girlfriends, are fellow New York walkers. The most essential voice is Garnette Cadogan, who moved to New York from Jamaica. Unlike Green, he has a whole walking “costume” involving reading glasses and a book in order to appear as non-threatening as possible (he wrote an illuminating essay for LitHub called “Walking While Black”). These are things Green, who is a white man, never has to worry about, and although the tone of the film is overall one of optimism and joy in everyday life, it’s important to acknowledge how that experience can be a privilege.
Although Green’s ambition is not to be a historian or tour guide, he spends hours researching the places he walks, which he meticulously chronicles on his blog. These street-level insights are as fascinating as his journey. For example, in East New York, he visits the unassuming Brownsville brick building where in 1916 Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. She was soon arrested and sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse. In Alley Pond Park, he tracks down the oldest living thing in the city — the Queens Giant, an around 400-year-old poplar tulip tree — and finds in its trunk a Tupperware container of notes left by previous visitors.
A small spoiler: Green does not finish his walk in the film, nor does he have any major epiphanies about the future beyond his rambling 30s. That may make the runtime of the documentary (95 minutes) feel a little indulgent if viewers aren’t on board with Green’s enthusiasm. Yet that length, culled from Workman’s 500 hours of walking footage, attests to how long it takes to really see a place, in all its layers. The film is ultimately a celebration of using what short time we all have on the planet to better connect with the world. As Green says in the film, “The goal of this walk is not really to finish it, the goal is everything that happens along the way to finishing it.”