True, woodland paths are lovely this time of year, with their overarching greenery, their jutting rocks and their rooted, earthen steps, but if you’ve never hiked a 60-block stretch through the concrete canyons of New York, you just don’t know the whole story when it comes to the joy of walking.
Rarely are sidewalks shown to better advantage than in New York City. They are broad, they are wide, they are thronged with people going somewhere. An elastic energy bounds over the pavement, with its high-hipped curbs and its deep-cut ramps. Our sidewalks are accessible, firm and flat.
Under my own locomotion and of my own volition, I can go from here to there without mechanical intervention. How lucky I am to have legs! How lucky to have feet that bend at the ankle, that roll and flip the concrete backward at each big toe. I could practically sprint! How lucky I am to have vigor in the calf and stretch at the hip, and a sidewalk that pushes my comfort-soles onward!
The aggregate flashes sparkles into my eyes, minuscule doorways to another world: mica, burnt lime and siliceous rock. How now, concrete? How mixed, chert? How lay you, diatomite? In centuries past, it was all muck, horse-reek and piss. Then Georges-Eugene Haussmann rebuilt Paris with sewers and sidewalks, broad avenues where the bourgeoisie strolled to see and be seen – circa 1855. Then came the City Beautiful movement; the White City at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Wall Street took note. Sidewalks were a health-driven socio-economic political event.
Today, I’ve read, there are more than 50 million miles of sidewalks in cities around the world, which if stretched out, would circle the globe nearly 2,000 times
“Oh, I’ll just walk,” voices the insouciant New Yorker, going a mile by foot, a mere 20 blocks, unthinkable in the grassy suburb with its empty residential walkways; unthinkable upon the rural road, where dog walkers dodge the impetuous cars.
Walking the city streets is a never-ending riot of color, of black and silver buildings flung up like so many high kicks, of bobbing faces, sleek fashions, snatches of conversation, of store fronts and avenues deckled with every imaginable trade. My image wavers across the windows, shipping the hats and the shoes, shadowing the clerks and the tellers, the costly necklace, the imported rugs, and the dishes of many colors.
I am reminded of how lucky we are to live in a place unravaged by bombs; free to walk unmolested by the state. In the year 2000 BCE, the ancient Turks built something as simple as a sidewalk. The Roman Empire gave Europeans semitas, paved walkways. Not so hard to build; really just a state of mind, an attitude. A culture. Then came the crashing invasion of our barbaric ancestors, 5th Century CE, who destroyed the Roman Empire, plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, and left us wallowing in the muck for another 1300 years.
How lucky we are, I think, to have sidewalks.