THE WALKING MEN: Cross signals from around the world

by Kevin Walsh

A fascinating exhibit has turned up on the plywood boards surrounding a construction site on Church Street downtown, between Barclay Street and Park Place. It is the second in a series called Walking Men 99™ created by Israeli artist Maya Barkai and curated by the Alliance for Downtown New York. Many pedestrian traffic signals throughout the globe have switched over to the Red Hand and Green Man signal system, New York City included, though the red DONT WALK (no aprostrophe) and green WALK signals were holding out in spots as late as 2006, as shown on this FNY page.

Most of the ‘walk’ signs are in green; they’re about evenly divided between green dots and solid shapes. In NYC, at least, the green dots have shown a proclivity to burn out after a few months (and longevity had been promised). For some years, a pair of artists named Thundercut has been putting vinyl pants, dresses, jewelry, etc on the walk signals. Some, though, are in gold and blue. Pucon is a town of about 21,000 located in Chile several hundred miles south of the capital, Santiago. Fesis the second largest city in Morocco, with a population of approximately 1 million.

Note the NYC walking man’s strident, forward-hunched gait — there’s nothing getting between this New Yorker and a buck.

Most of the walking men remind me of Eck, the two-dimensional creature from the old Outer Limits. The Buenos Aires walking man is apparently running to catch up with something, or merely hurrying until the light changes and the street is take over by feet jamming heavily on accelerator pedals. The Berlin walking man is rather older and stockier, and wears a fedora — many Walking Men wear hats. Contrast to the Rio walking man, who looks like a Charles Atlas model. Perm is a city in western Russia, with an almost one million population. For a few decades in the 20th Century Perm was known as Molotov, after a Stalin protege. The famed gasoline bombs known as Molotov cocktails were so named by Finns defending against a Russian invasion in 1939.

There are a few, but not many, Walking Women. Dresden, Germany uses a pigtailed girl for its walk symbol. The Nice walking man is one of the more detailed — you can make out a hat, suit and shoes. I don’t think a lot of Kathmandu residents wear this style flat brimmed hat, but you never know.

As a rule, cities are represented, but smaller countries are depicted under their own names. Andorra, a small country in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, has a capital city, Andorra la Vella, but perhaps these rather weird (the walking man has bow legs) are in use throughout the country.

Tianjin (formerly Tientsin) is one of those huge Chinese megalopoli that don’t get in the news much, with a metro area population of over 12 million, though the city played a pivotal role in the Boxer Rebellion and was occupied by Japan during WWII. Its ‘walking men’ are rather wimpy and ill-defined. In Antwerp, a man grasps a woman’s arm to guide him across. In Amersfoort, Holland, the rather big-boned ‘walking woman’ favors a ponytail, a mini skirt and high heels. Several Brooklyn locales are named in honor of this city.

The exhibition is scheduled to be here for a few months more (as of July 2011). Istanbul is the only signal with a bent-knee ‘walking man’.

Of course, as Missing Persons informed us in the 1980s, ‘nobody walks in LA.