Whoever shot it was obviously using a gimbal to steady the shot and an external microphone to pick up the snippets and scraps of the city inhabitants’ gossiping, teasing, wooing, joking, and griping. I dug in deeper and noticed there were more channels like this. Today, you can find similar one-take, narration-less walking tours on YouTube channels such as Nomadic Ambience, ProWalk Tours, and Watched Walker.

A Living Picture

As I learned more about the creation of these videos and their creators, I learned that though the videos are not scripted or staged, those who make them often do aim to capture a certain vibe in a place, and will reshoot things they don’t think are working—like being noticed by too many folks in the videos.

“I admit that I am a bit obsessive with perfection,” wrote Wanna Walk’s Pablo Kersz, from Argentina, years after I discovered the channel, in an email exchange. “I have recorded some scenes more than 15 times!”

“In order not to alter the scene and capture daily reality spontaneously, I must be discreet and go unnoticed,” he said. He prefers filming megalopolises because they’re like many cities in one, and he avoids tourist districts in favor of less visited neighborhoods.

Without a plot, obviously, there’s no conflict, but there’s always an element of suspense and surprise as the camera—and you along with it—meander with no apparent itinerary. Where will you end up next? Where are you going right now? You may be in a park on the city’s edge one moment, watching a man sell his street art, and wind up in the financial district at sunset as the skyscrapers disgorge their office workers for the evening.

On Wanna Walk’s channel, there are closed captions in 35 languages, sometimes more, so you can eavesdrop on the conversations of passersby even if you don’t speak the language. Kersz has recorded across the world since his initial Mexico City videos: Buenos Aires, New York City, Havana, Santiago, London, Madrid, and more. 

There’s a sense of novelty to the approach, but if you peer deeply enough into the past, you can find short films of quiet, lengthy shots on long-gone city streets. For the most part, they’re not saddled with narration because they’re silent movies. It’s as if as soon as people figured out how to add sound to film reels, they figured the audience would always want to hear them talking nonstop.

Timeless Memories

Making the rounds online in recent years has been 1897’s charming Bataille de neige, an early short film by the Lumière brothers of a snowball fight somewhere in late 19th-century France. Then there’s this short film of 1911 New York City, which doesn’t fit the single unbroken take aesthetic of the modern YouTube walking tours but has a similar fly-on-the-wall mood.

There’s something deeply personal and intimate about these sorts of personal moments in public places, moments we witness every day of our lives, or would witness if we’d snap out of our preoccupations and notice more often. Videos like these encourage us to do that.

I wonder whether it’s because we’re so assaulted by screens that we’ve lost much of our ability and motivation to take enough pauses during the day, and so we compromise by taking those pauses digitally, through our screens, in the way of watching unboxing videos and streams of people eating dinner. It’s still in two dimensions, but it goes down like white bread. Something wholesome and more real, versus all the sugar that is social media and useless clickbait.

In the end, I never made it to Mexico City. Something about a revolution in Sudan and a car blowing up in Arkansas derailed my plans to move the next year. But I must’ve watched those Mexico City videos a hundred times that year. Life was too chaotic to travel, and yet it still feels in my memory like that summer I went to Mexico.