Walking Will Cure What Ails You
For as long as I can remember, I have always loved to walk. In part, this might be because I grew up in Los Angeles, where being a pedestrian is a mark of profound suspicion — bro, what happened to your car? — and I enjoy being ornery. Feeling the syncopated clip-clop of your feet against the pavement, watching your surroundings slowly approach and fall away, taking in the comic and profound and absurd and utterly mundane theater of city life are enough to temporarily sink your troubles and remind you, hopefully, of the profound gratitude every city dweller should feel at the prospect of being surrounded with so much bounty. We live in cities to be surrounded by the vastness of human experience in close quarters, and nothing brings this into close focus quite like walking.
It’s a condition of the crisis we are still living through that our worlds have simultaneously grown and shrunk. I am intimately aware of the progress of the vaccine rollout in Britain and Israel, but I have also left my home borough of Brooklyn and visited Manhattan approximately half a dozen times since last March. I have not walked the six blocks from the Broadway-Lafayette subway station to the building where I teach in over 13 months. I miss New York. I live in New York, but I miss New York.
I have found myself, on numerous occasions, asking New York friends to tell me what conditions are like in their neighborhoods. They may live three subway stops away from me, or on a block that I once walked on a regular basis, but now, under the circumstances of life in April 2021, it might as well be in Philadelphia, or Paris. We are remote from each other.
And yet there is little that is as soothing as the feeling of leaving the house on a mild spring day or a brisk fall day and setting out without a precise destination in mind, letting your feet carry you where they will. From my apartment, you can walk north, toward Prospect Park, taking in the belligerent bikers suicidally speeding around the hairpin curves of the bike path, the barbecuers and quinceañera revelers, the children wielding hefty bags of stale bread to disperse to the ducks in the artificial lake, the ice skaters and the picnickers and the midday flaneurs. Or you can walk south, following the warp and weave of cultures that takes you past Russian bathhouses, Mexican grocery stores, Pakistani sweet shops, kosher delis, Bangladeshi mosques, and Ukrainian mortuaries. Brooklyn is ugly and beautiful, and I miss being out in it desperately.
One of the great losses of our COVID year was the anthropologist William Helmreich, whose book The New York Nobody Knows is an urbanist touchstone. Helmreich set himself the absurdist task of walking every single block of New York City, adding up to 6,000 miles in total, and reporting back on what he encountered. Helmreich died in April, one of the 41,000 New Yorkers who have lost their lives from this scourge. I will never walk every block of New York, but Helmreich was a totem for all the city explorers, and a reminder of all we had lost. “New York must be viewed as a broad portrait,” he wrote, “in which the sum is indeed far greater than its parts.” He understood that the best way — the only way — to truly understand a city was to walk its streets. In each neighborhood, a miniature world.
To walk the streets of New York remains, for me, a stressful experience. In my neighborhood (hyper-local news report!), too many people believe the only way to prove their political or cultural bona fides is to eschew wearing a mask, preferring to pretend that public health does not apply to them in particular. Putting my fears temporarily aside, I put a bottle of water in my rarely-used bag the other weekend, affixed two masks to my face, and began walking, snaking my way east toward the lush green lawns of Brooklyn College. I will walk again soon, I tell myself, bathed in the light of my computer screen, and I will do my best to remind myself what it feels like to be a walker in the city.