If you live in Lansing, Ariniko O’Meara has been to your house. If you were sitting on your porch when she was by, you probably saw her. She was the woman with the camera around her neck who called out “good morning” to you as she walked past. She may have even taken a picture of your flowers, your unusual lawn ornament or that vintage car parked in your driveway.
O’Meara is the photographer/blogger behind City Saunter, a multimedia art project culminating at 5 p.m. Friday with an exhibit opening at 1133 S. Washington Ave. (formerly Art Alley) in REO Town. Her mission: to create “a showcase of all the wonderful things Lansing has within its borders” by walking every street within the city limits. For the past three years, she has pecked away at that goal, step by step, street by street, photographing the sights of the city and writing about her experiences.
“This project has completely changed my perspective,” she wrote in one of her blog entries. “It forced me to go outside my comfort zone in a way I had never done before. I now talk to strangers. I smile (and) say hello to everyone.”
But she’s not keeping the sidewalks to herself. Everyone in Lansing is welcome to join O’Meara for the final leg of her journey. She has planned a short jaunt that will begin at 4:30 p.m. Friday; walkers will be shuttled from the gallery to a starting point and accompany O’Meara to the gallery space for the opening of the City Saunter exhibit, which will feature photos from her walks as well as O’Meara’s monster master map displaying her routes. A computer station will allow visitors to page through a larger photo gallery and blog. In all, she will have traveled almost 500 miles, starting with a one-mile stroll around the Capitol building on a sunny day three years ago this week.
“I grabbed my daughter, drove down to the Capitol, and we walked around (it),” O’Meara said. “I just wanted to stop everyone and say, ‘Do you know what I just did?’” O’Meara, 43, is a freelance photographer and mother of four. She said City Saunter was partly inspired by several crimes that affected people she knew. She wanted to prove that Lansing was a safe place and do something that would
promote the positive aspects of Lansing life. She also found inspiration in Lansing’s recent Ignite and TEDx events, ideasharing conferences that got her thinking. Specifically, there was a presentation by Michigan State University alum Justin “Bugsy” Sailor, who visited all 50 states within one year, photographing and blogging as he went.
“I thought, what a fascinating idea,” she said. O’Meara said she suddenly realized that to draw attention to an idea or movement you have think big.
“You have to go over and beyond publicizing or marketing,” she said. “You have to make yourself visible, and the only way to do that is to do something really extraordinary.”
Before lacing up her shoes, O’Meara wanted to brand her project with a name and a logo. In her research, she came across Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Walking,” and one passage in particular helped her set the tone:
“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking … who had a genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING, which word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country … .’” “He was talking about the person who just walks, and how it’s a craft to be able to be a good saunterer,” O’Meara said. “That’s really what this is, just walking around and taking in what you find.”
The tools of the trade are simple: A paper map of Lansing, a ballpoint pen and a smart phone. For the first two years, O’Meara employed old school techniques to track her progress.
“I have a little notebook that I would take with me and would write down each street and where I turned,” she said. “I’d go home and Mapquest it and upload it to City Saunter.” Last November she got a smart phone with a tracking application.
“I cannot believe I’ve been doing this project without a smart phone,” she laughs. “Now I just do it on my smart phone, hit send and upload it to my Facebook.”
O’Meara doesn’t walk every day. Over the three years, sometimes a month would go by with only one or two entries; the average month saw about five outings. But things picked up heading into the homestretch.
On a recent morning, the weather was chilly but sunny — perfect for sauntering. O’Meara hits start on her smart phone tracking application and heads off at a comfortable clip. She crosses Washington, heading into a residential neighborhood bounded by McLaren Hospital and Everett High School. She calls out “good morning” and waves at what appear to be a couple of Everett High School students skipping class to smoke. They give her a slight wave; they probably assume she’s a narc. She passes a gentleman lovingly washing his Cadillac in his driveway. He gives her a grin.
O’Meara said that City Saunter is more than a walk around town, and more than a photography exhibit. She said it’s been an incredible journey of personal development. Her blog entries reveal growth; in three years, O’Meara has pushed herself, visiting neighborhoods that people warned her against entering. She could market herself as a Lansing tour guide, helping people to get exercise while visiting unfamiliar areas of the city.
She said the times that she’s felt unsafe can be counted on one hand, and only one incident had to do with a person making her uncomfortable, when a punk kid gave her a challenging look as they passed under an overpass in south Lansing.
“He looked scary,” she said. “He had his hand in his coat, and when he passed me he gave me a look like ‘I could take you down’ and it just freaked me out. You get feelings when you’re out there, and I had the bad feeling on this one. Once I got past him, I ran.”
Other issues have included barking dogs, creepy dead-end streets and one driveway domestic conflict. Overall, O’Meara has found Lansing to be a safe place, and one that would be safer if more people took to the streets.
As we walk along a sketchy section of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Cavanaugh Road, a bit of gray clouds O’Meara’s otherwise sunny disposition. She tries to remain objective about the conditions that she surveys, but she acknowledges that poverty plays a large role in the safety and appearance of neighborhoods.
“There’s a weird politicalness to what I’m doing that I never really realized, and I think I’m being naive about some of the stuff I write about,” O’Meara says. “I’m trying to be more” … she pauses.
Cynical? “Yeah, which is hard, because I don’t want to be cynical,” O’Meara says. “I’m still trying to figure out how to express what I see without really offending people, but maybe offending people gets people going. I’m just not very good at offending people. Or at least, I don’t want to be.”