Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Pleasures of Walking

In a Times article this past summer, Alex Marshall discussed a resurgence of walking in New York, which he credits, in part, to the city's becoming "cleaner, safer and more prosperous." In the same issue, novelist Nicole Krauss sang the praises of walking in our city. She wrote, "I like to walk to be alone with the world, not to be alone. In this way, walking is a lot like writing. Both writing and walking (as I know it) are fueled by a desire to put oneself in relation to others. Not in direct contact — some aloneness wishes to be preserved — but contact through the mediation of language or shared atmosphere of a city street."

I echo Ms. Krauss' sentiments, but wish I could live in whatever city she is walking in. It sounds like New York circa 1990.

from t-squared's flickr: this is a parody

Throughout my first several years in New York, I loved nothing more than to walk the streets. Like Ms. Krauss, I enjoyed the sensation of being alone with the world, engaged in a "freewheeling thoughtfulness" or free association, one idea leading to another, blossoming and unfolding. When I felt like writing, I would go out hunting and gathering. The cobbler standing in his doorway with black-stained apron, the talcum powder smells coming out of barbershops, the old ladies leaning with elbows on windowsills. All of it fed my work--the way it did for city writers and artists like Frank O'Hara and Edward Hopper.

But the streets have changed. The little shops and the people who were once so emblematic of the city are vanishing. And the pleasures of walking are vanishing, too.

from t-squared's flickr: this is also a parody

Cleanliness and prosperity have brought sterility and narcissistic obliviousness to the streets. When once my fellow pedestrians generally walked on the right and passed on the left, paying attention to the crowd, now they weave and careen, distracted by cell-phone calls and text messages. They stop short. They clog the sidewalks to chat with friends. They use their baby strollers like battering rams. They exit buildings blindly and don't yield to the flow of traffic.

Just this week, a man with an iPod bud in one ear and a cellphone in the other came flying out of a Starbucks and landed on top of me. As I shoved him off, he only looked at me with disgust. Whatever train of thought I had been following was lost, swallowed up in a fantasy of beating this man unconscious.

In this environment, our aloneness with the world is not preserved. The small gestures of relatedness are disappearing, replaced by the rage engendered by alienation and invisibility. What would Frank O'Hara or Edward Hopper make of this new city where the flaneur's stream of consciousness is constantly being invaded and disrupted by phone calls and body slams? What can be created in a city that no longer permits "freewheeling thoughtfulness"? What art will be made from condos, cell phones, and the endless succession of carbon-copy chain stores?

from ebay: this is not a parody

Maybe one day, when I sell a couple bestselling novels and can afford to keep author's hours, I will spend the quiet middays strolling and will see the city I used to know. But I doubt it. The barbershops and cobbler shops are closing. The old ladies who leaned on windowsills are dying one by one. The people and the buildings that are replacing them don't feel like New York to me.

I rarely go out walking anymore.

Post Script:
Maybe future art will all refer to Starbucks and condos: Starbucks Gossip reports that a "very rare 1994 Starbucks coffee mug was just sold on eBay for $1,283.65."


L'Emmerdeur said...

If it makes you feel any better, I find walking the streets these days a nerve wracking experience as well. Even in England, where they drive on the left, people walk on the right. I almost never find myself swerving to avoid people who don't know how to use the sidewalk, and this is in the nicer parts of London which are similarly inundated with narcissistic dickwads.

Unlike folks in NYC, these people seem to have retained the knowledge earned via a rigorous kindergarten education, that one walks on the right in hallways and on sidewalks.

I find myself behaving more like a battering ram and less like a person, shoving faux New Yorkers aside in my feeble attempts to impose a tiny bit of order in this chaos. Funny, I associate chaos with this city that seems to have spent so much time and effort to reduce chaos.

Older New Yorkers mostly don't behave this way, because in the old days, running into the wrong person might have resulted in a stabbing. Pity, only fear seems to motivate the cattle, and in New Super Safe New York (ha!). I guess shiny glass box abodes and clean cut looks do not equate to a civilized citizenry after all.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention people seem to have forgotten or are too self-important to obey an elementary rule of civilization.

When walking in public, and your trajectory is set to interfere with another's, it is customary that each of you take a half-step to the side (customarily the right, but it doesn't really matter - than you will do that funny little dance that always brings a smile to my face) so that the other can pass.

This rule is dying or has died. Older New Yorkers still seem to abide by it, but my generation and younger seems to have no use for such a basic convention of civilized life.

I will concede, however, that I walk very quickly.

Andy (Bed-Stuy)

Anonymous said...

I still love walking about NYC=--I have my favorite places--especially the park--so beautiful and I can catch my thoughts while looking up at the tree designs below the sky.....

Robert said...

Once again, this brilliant and tragic blog reads my mind. I often fantasize of a time when all these narcissistic technophiles crawl permanently into their electronic holes, having not only their groceries but every aspect of their lifestyles delivered to them via faceless electronic transactions. Thus relieving the streets to those who value the random interaction they bring and know the role common civility plays in maintaining them.
One day?

BaHa said...

I'm sure you're familiar with Forgotten New York. While the walks it offers are not the same as the pleasure of walking as part of one's daily life, I plan to do a lot of exploring of the parts of my native city which I--shamefully--do not know.
I've taken to walking in my neighorhood and, even more so in midtown, with my arms rigid, so that anyone who walks into me or careens while on their cell phone, bounces off.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i've actually found that writing this blog sends me out walking, to hunt and gather material, but those walks are fueled by bereavement and anger, so not quite the same as before.

PatMinNYC said...

My reconnection with Lower Manhattan started when I landed my current gig down by the Five Points about 8 years ago and I was lucky enough to score a cube with a window view of Chinatown, Columbus Park & Foley Sq. A few years ago I started jumping off my train at either Union Sq, Astor Place or 8th St and walking down to my 9 to 5 after a stop at the Mud Truck for my large Mocha before deciding on a route. The day just goes so much better after that cup and it will generally last until somewhere around the NoLITA area. No doubt about it, the hood is going through some major changes and not at all for the better IMHO but I still enjoy the walks and every once in a while something will trigger a memory from the good old days and I'll grab a shot before it is gone.

Anonymous said...

I used to love walking around the city. 6th avenue in the
20's in particular. Now it's a cold, souless stretch of tall
Jam packed box condominium high rises.

There was 3rd avenue in the east village.
I used to stop by Roll & Roasters for a delicious
roast beef sandwich and cheese fries. Greasy, but who cares! This is new york city, or is it still?

Now there are flags up telling me what to eat,
voices in the subway reminding me to have better
manners. What is this?


HA! I used to stop at Roll & Roasters on my walks through the Village! It's long gone, replaced by some Flat Screen TV infested sports bar. I wonder if thats still there or if thats one of those cursed corners where no business survives long.

Well I've since relocated to LA and I dont go for walks anymore. I Live near the beach so I can go for bike rides along the sand! Traffic is hell though! Still there's nothing like going on a late night drive with no traffic with the music playing loud.