About four years ago, artist and photographer J.J. Tiziou set out to walk the perimeter of his adopted city, Philadelphia. A Knight Foundation-funded project of local Swim Pony Performing Arts, the walk included Tiziou accompanied by three Philly-based fellow artists. He figured it would be a sojourn into the familiar.
“I thought I knew this town,” Tiziou said. “I knew a lot of people, and I’m plugged into a lot of things. There are people who call me the mayor of my neighborhood. I knew all these things going on.”
But, he said, “I didn’t know Philly at all.”
From that first trek in February 2016, which took Tiziou and his colleagues a little over 100 miles on foot in five and a half days, “Walk Around Philadelphia” has grown into what the artist calls a “transformation experience” — a kind of annual pilgrimage for him that also holds something special for both young and old alike who now take on the challenge, too.
“It’s gone from being a weeklong, once-off creative project, to being one of my major projects and an ongoing thing,” Tiziou said. “It’s sort of taken on a life of its own.”
In 1997, Tiziou came from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia to study at Penn and made Philly his home. For the past five Februaries, he has made his annual trek around the city’s perimeter; he added an additional walk last September as part of the Fringe Festival.
The walk is very much an evolving entity. For the Fringe Festival, for example, the walk was self-directed and participants paid a sliding-scale fee for a registration package that included maps, safety and reference materials, and more. The experience was pretty freestyle, said Tiziou. Some walkers went as far as they liked, then took SEPTA or arranged a ride home; the next day, they returned to the same spot and resumed the walk. Others chose to stay overnight in a B&B. Many brought their own food to eat along the way.
The first year, Tiziou did the walk with the three other artists. The second year, the trek occurred right after the death of his father, and he chose to go on his own. In the subsequent years, other friends accompanied him.
They travelled through industrial landscapes, waterways, and wilderness. Sites where cars were being auctioned off would give way to herds of deer. With every trip, there has been something new and unexpected, something that went unseen on previous tours.
For the Fringe Festival expedition, he supplied others with guidelines and other materials to make their way around the city and find their own discoveries, rather than following him around on a tour.
“This is as much about discovering yourself as it is about discovering your city,” Tiziou said. “This is about personal challenge and accomplishment and exploration and reflection time, and the people you choose to walk it with.”
One person who made the Fringe Festival trek this September had just been laid off from his job. Another had just gone through a marital separation. Judi Space, a retired health-care professional from Center City, said she saw a bald eagle and foxes. She brought along spray paint to leave her mark at Graffiti Pier and gained a greater appreciation of her city.
“It’s a thing that can be a ritual for a transition period,” said Tiziou.
A group of seven children from the Natural Creativity Center made the walk around the city starting in September and ending in November. The Germantown-based nonprofit resource center supports homeschooled children and their families. The walkers ranged in age from 12 to 17.
Tess Liebersohn, the center facilitator who accompanied the children, said the walk was a learning experience about the city and about each other, both for her and the youngsters.
“I was born and raised in Philadelphia and yet every day brought something I’ve never seen before,” Liebersohn said. “I have learned new things about what my companions and I are capable of, whether it’s demonstrating teamwork as we all climbed over a 10-foot fence blocking part of the Delaware River Trail or pushing through our tiredness to get to our destination by the 3 p.m. pickup.”
Liebersohn said she plans on doing the walk again as a rite of passage for other teens.
Ann de Forest, a writer who went on the first Walk Around Philadelphia in 2016, accompanied Tiziou on his fifth walk in February.
De Forest said the experience has made walking a part of her creative process. It also brought her a new appreciation for the city that is her home, for just taking the time to walk the perimeter and seeing so much she had missed before, especially if speeding along in a car or just traveling in the city center.
“That close attention is a form of love, and I guess one way to express what the perimeter walk gave me is to say that my love for the city deepened,” she said. “I fell in love with Philadelphia, warts — i.e., trash — and all, all its grunginess, disjunctions, and contrasts.”
Four years ago, Samantha Wend was a staff member of Swim Pony Performing Arts, the support association of the first walk. She was also one of the original walkers. She said the experience has had an enduring impact on her.
The project, “changed the way I walk, the way I think about time and distance and scale, and the way I observe,” she said. “By walking the edges instead of the center — and often on terrain rarely trod on foot — I learned to shift my perspective, adapt quickly to the unexpected, and embrace a flexible, adventurous spirit in ways that stick with me everywhere today.”
Tiziou plans to continue the treks. He says he has thought of possibly organizing future walks that would bring together Philadelphians of different strata of society to see what that might bring. There’s already so much that has been a surprise.