I first discovered the work of William H Whyte when I was at university, studying architecture. He isn’t all that well known, certainly far less well known than he deserves to be.
He was a writer and urban theorist, but unlike many other people working in that field, Whyte didn’t just develop ideas about how cities work by imagining how people behave, he actually went out and observed people. He was a people watcher in the truest sense. His work challenged the orthodoxies that many people working in urban planning held (‘Most of their programs have in common as a stated purpose “relief from pedestrian congestion”‘ he wrote about city planners. ‘There is no pedestrian congestion. What they need is pedestrian congestion. But what they are doing is taking what people are on the streets and putting them somewhere else. In a kind of holy war against the street, they are putting them up in overhead skyways, down in underground concourses, and into sealed atriums and galleries. They are putting them everywhere except at street level.’)
Whyte wrote several books which are all worth reading, however my absolute favourite is City: Rediscovering The Center. He writes in a charming and informal way, and you can sense that his motivation for wanting to observe and understand people is driven by a genuine love of humanity in all its shapes and forms.
There is one short paragraph that has stuck with me. It is in a section where he describes various characters he has observed on the streets of New York City. It is the strange, sad and beautiful story of Knapsack Man:
He was a handsome man who walked with a curious up-and-down loping gait. He wore a trenchcoat, no matter what the weather, and on his back was a knapsack. Fastened to it was a photograph of him and a card with a hand-lettered statement. It read:
ONLY MY FAMILY HAS THE RIGHT TO ASSAULT ME. IF YOU ARE NOT A MEMBER OF MY FAMILY PLEASE DO NOT HIT ME.
Passersby were fascinated by the sign and would fall in behind him, peering intently at the sign. But the up-and-down movement made the reading of it difficult. Sometimes there would be several people trying to read it and they would jostle each other for position. At street corners he would stop and then stand immobile with hands folded as if in prayer. The people who had been following him could now read the sign and soon would disperse.
The last time I saw Knapsack Man he still wore a trenchcoat but there was no knapsack or picture and he walked with a normal gait.