Thanks to my newfound love for the Turner Classic Movie channel, I recently watched My Man Godfrey for the first time. Made in 1938, the film reveals our evolving attitude towards the homeless and downtrodden members of society. When Carole Lombard’s character stumbles upon William Powell, he is a “forgotten man,” living at the city dump. “Could you tell me why you live in a place like this when there’s so many other nice places?” Lombard asks all too sweetly. Powell retorts, “It’s because my real estate agent felt that the altitude would be very good for my asthma.”
Much has changed in society since 1938, yet one quote from Powell still stands out today: “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.” Perhaps no one has interpreted this quote quite like Sock Mob, a volunteer organization that seeks to provide opportunities for the homeless. Their most recent project is Unseen Tours, a guided walk through the popular sites of London. But this tour is unlike any other — all of the guides know what it’s like to be homeless in England’s capital. “A lot of people said, ‘Who would want to walk around with a homeless person?’ But we’ve proved them wrong. Since we started we’ve had more than 2,000 people come through,” says Lidija Mavra, an organizer for the tours. Unseen Tours isn’t just an amateur-led trek around the city — all guides are given history lessons and are trained in public speaking. But all of the insights of the tour guides are completely unrehearsed.
The project has been so successful that Sock Mob is developing tours in surrounding areas. What would compel someone to walk around the city with a guide who survived on the streets? Such a perspective is invaluable; through understanding the harsh realities of our city, perhaps we can consider new ways of improving and redefining urban life. More than that, Unseen Tours provides a platform for the invisible to become visible, where the “forgotten man” is once again remembered.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.