Tag Archives: New York

6,000 miles, and counting

March 11, 2014

What’s the best use of nine pairs of shoes? To avoid the expected and uninspired answers about donations to needy children, you may want to ask William Helmreich, professor of sociology at City College and the City University of New York, and, most recently, author of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City. While donating footwear is a worthy move, so is Helmreich’s eighteen-shoe effort, what the New York Times called an “unstuffy love letter to the delights of street-smart walking” in a charming interview with the much-pursued perambulist.

Helmreich is very adept at the thing-finding and game-playing that make walking the celebrated pastime and mode of transit that it is, having continued well into adulthood (he’s 68) the practice many abandon as small children. “My philosophy is, everything’s interesting,” he says, in the city he calls “the greatest museum in the world.” As he tells the Atlantic Cities, “Every block can be interesting. It’s not just about covering ground, it’s about how you cover ground.”

Between 2008 and 2012, Helmreich covered a lot of ground — 6,048 miles of New York’s streets, which is 1,512 miles per year, or a little over 4 miles each day. That doesn’t sound like much until you think about torrential rain, illness, vacations, other obligations. Missing a four-mile day means 8 miles the next day, 12.4 by the third, and so on. At a pace one can only imagine was leisurely, ducking into shops and courtyards and conversations, this could take the better part of a morning, an afternoon, or both.

Of course this venture was rewarded with lots of curiosity and good press. Since there’s still no copy available at the library that I can amble over and pick up, my perhaps outdated default for acquiring new reading material, I haven’t yet gotten my hands on the book. It was delightful to find Helmreich condensing some of his experiences into an essay for the always-lovely Aeon Magazine just past the new year. He wrote,

“The question, for a professional sociologist such as me, is: was this the best way to study a city?

Approached correctly, walking forces you to slow down and really look at what you’re seeing. Like the flâneurs of times past, one needs to stroll leisurely and engage people in conversations about how they feel about where they live, what they do, and how they perceive the place is changing. Had I driven through the city, along its highways and thoroughfares, I would have missed 90 per cent of what I found: the teeming life of the city’s backstreets, its parks and playgrounds, its outdoor and indoor eateries — all this would have remained invisible to me. Besides, driving (and for that matter, cycling) tend to mark you as an outsider, even if you live there. When you cover ground quickly, people assume you’re just passing through. But when you walk through a neighbourhood, people assume you’ve got reason to be there.”

What would this feel like in Detroit? According to Helmreich, New York has 120,000 more or less easily enumerable blocks. The chaos of Detroit’s wheel system intersecting with mile roads and all the smaller side streets in various repaved or crumbling repair pave an extra layer of challenge. It’s certainly possible, one step at a time, as individuals like Chris Kort have found, who walked the streets in 2012, inspecting every tree for the U.S. Forest Service’s records.

The city maintains 660 miles of main roads, plus 1880 miles of residential side streets, with an additional 210 looked after by MDOT or the Wayne County Road Commission; together, at least 2750 miles of roads over the city’s 139 square mile area. (Just under half of New York’s size, at 303 square miles, both cities have roughly equivalent street coverage per square mile).

One would probably see a lot of what the workers and volunteers on the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force saw over the past couple of months as they inched through the snowy city, cataloging each parcel of land and possibly setting to rest the last-house-on-the-block question. Projected to take place over just nine weeks, teams surveying the 385,000 – 400,000 of Detroit’s properties set out with tablets or phones, documenting each. (The number varies depending on whether you’re reading Crain’s or Model D — either way, it’s a lot. The phone number provided by the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force for resident questions about the survey instantly forwards to a generic voicemail). Recommendations for demolition of blighted structures will be furnished to the mayor’s office later this month, and the resulting Motor City Mapping project will eventually go public with its informational trove.

Aside from the obvious increase in people needed to complete it within a similar time frame, how might the survey have differed if done on foot? By all accounts, surveyors stayed snug in their cars, snapping pictures out the window before motoring along to the next site, “blexting” — LOVELAND‘s gimmicky portmanteau of ‘blight’ and ‘texting’ — their cursory data back to the headquarters. There was a lot of snow and no engagement with the community or the environment. This knowledge of the city hardly seems intimate. One wonders how surveyors could even adequately assess a snow-covered building’s status from that remove.

Although for many reasons I decided against walking a different section of Detroit every day in 2014, eventually covering it all, Helmreich’s project nonetheless inspired some movement. Deliberately undershooting numbers or patterns that seemed in any way grandiose, I set a goal of 1,000 miles this year. This is a modest three miles a day, mostly in Detroit, and an aim with which I’ve been shocked to find only mixed success. Three miles is barely anything, I thought — well below the 10,000 steps recommended by medical professionals, a mere hour of strolling at Google Maps speed. It’s not even quite a 5k.

I would love to undertake a Helmreich-style survey of the city, but a large share of my reluctance comes from a factor that often goes unaddressed in the context of this blogging — safety, a point Helmreich eloquently, if only briefly, addresses in his essay for Aeon. (He tells the New York Times that he avoids wearing blue or red shirts for their association with gangs). It would be great if Detroit really were a safe place to ramble, but numbers and instinct say otherwise. To counter the fear-mongering of many news outlets, the subject is rather deliberately avoided here, perhaps irresponsibly. The aim of the rambling network is to encourage people to walk, to feel safe walking — the more people who walk and feel safe walking, the more conducive to safe walking the city becomes. It’s just not quite there yet. At all. So, like everything else in Detroit, we rely on community. We band together and walk.

Maybe between all these walks, alone and collectively, we’re channelling a bit of Helmreich in the Midwest. Have you undertaken this kind of committed programmatic exploration? Would you? As Helmreich says, everything’s interesting. Especially here, in a city where time so palpably passes, the landscape is almost too literally a great (if haphazardly archived) museum. Let me know if you want to go for a walk in it.

Little lost

March 1, 2014

Sorry, Detroit, but New York’s walking culture is always on its toes. Perhaps that’s what happens, among other things, when you cram 8 million people into a space just a bit over half of Detroit’s footprint. One of these eight million is Yoonjin Lee, or Zoonzin, a student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Recently Zoonzin became what the Atlantic Cities referred to as the “unofficial curator of lost stuff” when she started a project addressing the sad plight of our most useful quotidian paraphernalia, such as the ubiquitous lost glove. Lighters, lip balm, candy, metro cards, hair ties, and even a sunny yellow paperclip are among her other subjects.

Photos by Yoonjin Lee.

Photos by Yoonjin Lee.

After locating a forlorn item hanging out alone in a public space, she creates a small note and affixes it to the object, leaving the tiny thing suddenly noticeable to passersby. Her messages are sometimes poignant, others, petulant, and the whole project is tremendously candid — how admirable it is that she’s not deterred by having kind of gnarly handwriting and only rough scraps of cardboard at her disposal. One can only cringe imagining how sad the lost stuff is as snow starts to fall and their weepy black magic marker voice spirals toward the dank oblivion of storm drains.

littlelostprojectscrunchy_subway

As Zoonzin said in an email interview with the Atlantic Cities, “I wanted to humanize everyday objects that we do not think much of and leave them on the streets. When people lose their favorite lip balm, it really annoys them but it does not ruin their life. If you change the perspective, falling out of someone’s pocket and being left useless on the street is life-changing.”

littlelostprojectpaperclip_2

Zoonzin’s kind of empathy, curiosity, and whimsy should be among the essentials we pack with us on any outing, among other more tangible trappings. It’s a wonderful world in which someone else cares enough about the possibilities, the varied life stories of these mundane little objects, to document them in such a small and transient way. It’s like craigslist missed connections, but without all the blundering “m4f hot waitress at Applebee’s” and dismal misspellings. (She does have the caps lock on pretty hard, though).

Where would these things be now, if they hadn’t fatefully plummeted to the sidewalk? We’ll never know, but Zoonzin isn’t hesitating to make it up. See more of her humorous assertions on the Little Lost Project website, facebook, or tumblr.

Don’t walk this way

February 1, 2014

There’s something eternally captivating about travel narratives, even the most mundane ones that happen close to home. It’s also the time of year — especially this year — when it’s tough to do much other than envision equatorial adventures through the lines of frost on the windows. Last spring, a new book titled On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz seemed to appear everywhere, basking in positive media mentions. I sought it out, walking to the library time after time only to find it out on loan. Imagining that the book was so hotly in demand that the library couldn’t keep it on the shelf for as long as it took me to get there after verifying its presence in the catalog, my fervor increased.

After about six months, I finally had the book. I sat down to read and was confronted by something less “breathlessly wonderful” as Maria Popova gushed on the always-fascinating brainpickings.org, or as “brilliant” as the New York Society Library would have me believe. “It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I’ve read in ages,” promised Popova, who went on to highlight perhaps every quotable passage in the entire book. Contrary to expectations, after a chapter or two, I realized that, despite the low reading level required by Horowitz’s halting prose, the reason this thing was never at the library was because nobody could actually finish reading it.

It took a truly humiliating number of renewals and late fines, but I made it through, and unlike a long walk, I’m no better for it. Sometimes I laughed so much I cried, not because the book is actually humorous, but because Horowitz’s struggles are so sad. The book is about attention, about taking time to notice, as Horowitz quotes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “the observation of trifles.”

Instead she practically jogs through the book, breathless at times, stumbling over both words and ideas. It’s one thing for elegant phrasing to elude someone who is a cognitive scientist by trade; that’s easily forgivable in an age when many of our books are written by politicians and basketball players and chefs who haven’t yet quit their day job to pursue a creative writing MFA. Popova’s review boasted that as “[f]irst, she takes a walk all by herself, trying to note everything observable, and we quickly realize that besides her deliciously ravenous intellectual curiosity, Horowitz is a rare magician with language,” but the evidence is scant.

It’s a lovely concept — who am I to say no to eleven walks with nice people who can narrate to you a world visible only to them? It’s magic. Horowitz, inspired and mystified by walks with her former mutt, recruited an impressive range of guides for the natural and unnatural microcosms of the Manhattan blocks she calls home. She walks with her nineteen-month-old son, her dog, a geologist, an entomologist, a senior scientist in the wildlife division of the Humane Society, a doctor and medicine professor, an urban planner, a typographer, an illustrator, a sound designer, a blind person, and, of course, herself.

Her fourth walk, and one of the most depressing, is with venerable illustrator Maira Kalman, beloved advocate of the whole walking-and-noticing thing. Horowitz quotes Kalman’s maxim, “If you are ever bored or blue, stand on the street corner for half an hour.” After thirty-five minutes of this (Horowitz seems always to be counting), she cheerily reports, “Not only was any glimmer of boredom vanquished, but I’ll be darned if I didn’t grow less azure by the second,” with the trite cheesiness that’s by now her unfortunate trademark. Boredom glimmers? Who knew.

It’s hard not to cringe as she dumbly tags along with Kalman, seeming perplexed at every turn how this could be taking so long. When she describes Kalman’s walking pace as “loitering,” it just feels disrespectful. It’s hard to doubt that, as originator of this concept, she truly wants to be there; nonetheless, most of the walks in the book feel rushed, even when she is busy verbalizing reluctance to part with her walking companions. Maybe she is cold, or has to pee.

She does fulfill the objective of expanding her range of noticeable things, even if among those is the humdrum onward march of the hours. “This is not to say that everyone I walked with saw everything. Moments into my walk with one of the world’s foremost researchers on the science of paying attention, she stepped right over sixty dollars lying in her path on the street. She simply did not notice it,” she writes incredulously.

Horowitz also assembles quite a parade of interesting tidbits over the course of the book. She seems to shy away from being present during the walks, groping to accomplish this with strategies like counting down minutes, spastically cataloging things of questionable relevance, or rambling tangentially about dogs or monkeys. Delving into fact, and better yet, scientific studies, is where she is at her most lucid. Her sigh of relief whenever she digs into this comfortable territory is so palpable it nearly blows the page out of your hand. Aside from most musings quickly devolving into a debriefing on some study about animals (clearly her work teaching psychology, animal behavior, and canine cognition, according to the author bio, is never far from her heart), the collage of facts is not totally unwelcome. It provides a respite from the onslaught of her poorly-wrought observations, like ducking behind a building on a windy day. Lest you believe that all of our actions come down to wiring shared with apes and canines, she writes, “Notably, not all of our crowd behavior mirrors the animal swarms,” but only in that we’re not also cannibalistic, like desert locusts. As Horowitz listens to bird calls, she suddenly conjures up a whale. Since this is not an animal usually found either in the lab or on the streets of Manhattan, she provides a lonely illustration.

horowitz-whale

Oftentimes bewildering, at her best Horowitz is giggle-inducing. “As the taxi passes, a stenciled POST NO BILLS is discernible on the scaffolding hulking over the sidewalk. Words are the ample cleavage of the urban environment: impossible not to look at.” Funny? Kind of, but Horowitz makes so many gauche blunders that one must wonder whether the joke is on her. Another highlight is when she lumpily wonders at how “in this part of the city the humanity is remarkably peaceable and hushed. I worried that we would only hear the rustle of expensive silk undergarments from this neighborhood.”

This hint of linguistic dexterity is a part-time phenomenon. When the geologist tells her about the precise type of schist making up a wall in Central Park, she says, “Yikes! Here I must pause, anticipating a collective drop in reader blood pressure. One risks, in writing about geology, numbing one’s readership with the terminology. Schist, gneiss, phyllite; metamorphic, sedimentary, siliciclastic, schistosity. It can be dizzying. I sympathize. I hear “Paleozoic” and I nearly drop right into a deep sleep.” Twelve pages later, we’re supposed to believe this is the same walker who, with her husband, owns literally “hundreds of dictionaries, whose main role in our lives are first, to wait uncomplaining until they are thumbed through by us, and second, to then offer up such masterpieces of grace and charm as omphalos, amanuensis, and picklesome.” Horowitz’s efforts to have it both ways are discordant, making her an unreliable narrator and guide.

It’s hard to be so disappointed by this book when one gets the sense that Horowitz, ever-toying with her own weird-fangled brand of whimsy, is a noble ally. In a particularly relatable moment, she confides that “[s]ome years ago I began noticing, then collecting, stray single gloves or mittens lying forlornly on the ground, displaced from the hands they had been warming. These melancholy creatures, always frozen in an awkward or pleading pose, indicated recent passage of someone busily doing something requiring a free hand, I found more right gloves than left, probably a reflection of the overwhelming right-handedness of people, and the inclination to remove a right glove to do something requiring dexterity: take out one’s wallet, punch in a phone number, retie a shoe.” While I can’t say I agree with her assessment, it’s a nice notion that someone else is monitoring these apparitions.

As Horowitz takes a loop around the block to determine what’s shifted in her awareness, she is overcome by a monstrous zeal. Everything has changed. Suddenly there are letters and rocks and triangles and noises and plants everywhere. She says, “It was a new street. My eye caught sight of something a few yards down the street. I nearly leapt toward it, rudely lunging right in front of someone happening to walk by and not anticipating nearly-leapers. The object of my lungely leaping was a gaping sidewalk crack, unfilled with mortar. I kneeled and peered in. Inside lived dozens of tiny, hopeful two-leafed plants pushing up toward the light. None bore the mark of an insect.”

Horowitz demonstrates a very interesting tactic to spice up other people’s walks, without all the bothersome invitations and consent — just jump in front of them and kneel down on the ground. They’ll be sure to notice lots of new things as they trip over you and you both end up in a woeful tangle on the sidewalk. The most important lesson for the reader is a simple one — don’t walk this way.

She concludes: “The result of these walks on my head is tangible: they refined what I can see. My mind can prepare my eyes to spontaneously find a leaf gall, to hear an air conditioner’s hum, to smell the sickly sweet smell of garbage on a city street (or the fragrance of my own soap on my face, instead).” I hope she enjoyed all those walks on her head. My mind can prepare my eyes to not read this book again.

horowitz-head

Ghosts: remembering

December 9, 2013

Note: This is the second installment in a series about public awareness of pedestrian fatalities in Detroit, once one of the most dangerous cities for walking. Read part one of “Ghosts”. Seriously, we’ll come across something heartwarming soon, even with lower attendance at a very chilly Noel Night, its signature whimsical handheld neon letters clamoring on the DIA steps spelling out “not for sale,” and it won’t be another Heidelberg house catching fire.

The dearth of memorials in Detroit for pedestrians killed by vehicles warrants a look at what other cities are doing with this conundrum. Death in this manner is tragic, and an added offense is the idea that a person will recede from their formerly vibrant life without a public trace. When something of profound collective gravity happens in a certain location, it should not pass unnoticed. As other cities show, history’s natural erasure can be easily shifted.

Although ghost bikes originated in San Francisco, and Los Angeles infamously suffers ill repute as a treacherous and unlikely place for walkers, it’s the half of the country with less clement weather that’s more active in memorializing the dead. The ghost bike appeared in St. Louis, Missouri as a symbolic tribute a year after the San Francisco art project began. New York has a number of activist groups for pedestrian and cyclist safety putting their mark on the territory. Advocacy groups Right of Way, TIME’S UP!, and Citystreets have been doing stencil markers at pedestrian fatality sites since 1996. A more recent development is the Streets Memorials project, which aims to honor each pedestrian with an often personalized plaque.

Right of Way traces the beginning of the stencil project to December 1996 and has memorialized over 270 lives to date, in addition to their analysis of traffic statistics and active organization of demonstrations to keep local roads safer. Citystreets and Right of Way were allegedly once the same entity, but split due to cyclists’ objection to the stencil project as focusing too much on pedestrian issues. Citystreets founder Harris Silver credits his group with the first of such pedestrian stencils after the death of Alice Wang in 1997, months after Right of Way began stencilling. Silver doesn’t describe how he heard of Wang’s death, but says that it touched him — it could have been him, or a friend, anybody. He says he then worked with an advertising art director at a prestigious firm to create the simple outline stencil darkly dubbed “Flatso” now used, it seems, by all three groups. TIME’S UP! shares the same medium with a more vocal and inflammatory stance, declaring that “Cars and trucks not only destroy our environment, but they can destroy each of us instantly!” Each group’s status seems to have fluctuated between periods of dormancy interspersed with their usual activity. The apparent lack of communication means that one group or another is working to establish memorials, but how they avoid overlap is unclear.

The stencils are abstractly human-shaped, and look as though they are dancing in place on the asphalt. According to Right of Way, which offers a fairly comprehensive FAQ on stencilling, they last several months, unless placed in parks, where they vanish overnight. They’re colorful and surprisingly cheerful, the dotted line reminiscent of children’s toys or craft projects, maybe even sprinkles on a cake. While death needn’t be somber (and one suspects many of these cyclists and pedestrians would have chosen against something drab), the memorials lack a sense of finality. Doesn’t it look like she might just be stretching after a nap?

A more recent development in pedestrian memorials in New York are the Street Memorials plaques installed on fences and posts near the scene of a pedestrian’s death. This group, founded about seven years ago by members of TIME’S UP!, Transportation Alternatives, and the anonymous art collective Visual Resistance, seems to benefit from better funding than previous efforts, and credits the ghost bike movement as their inspiration. A member of Visual Resistance said that while installing ghost bikes around the city, they had a “large response from people saying that they wish we could do for pedestrians what we do for cyclists who are killed.” Echoing a sentiment expressed by many others involved in the memorials, she said, “It’s oftentimes the same issues, where pedestrians are killed by cars and the drivers are usually not held responsible,” a polite phrasing of the belief guiding the instructive headline “How to get away with murder” on TIME’S UP!’s site.

This project has significant advantages over the stencils — a more concise deployment, perhaps within greater legal favor than what is tantamount to graffiti. It also looks more dignified, a seemingly undeniable tribute to the pedestrians who died. It’s something enduring that will not be run over thousands of times a day, with the possible irony of being hit again and again by the very car that killed the person.

Photo from Mode Shift

Photo from Mode Shift

Detroit certainly isn’t without memorials. As pictured in a recent article connecting Detroit’s streetlight woes, by now a national joke, to the summer’s high-profile pedestrian deaths on Gratiot, Dreadlock Mike has a memorial wheelchair. The collections of flowers and stuffed animals, crosses and hearts, that spring up worldwide in reaction to personal tragedies from shootings to car crashes are visible here, too. These memorials are potent, curated by family and friends, those who best knew the wishes of the deceased person.

They don’t, however, draw attention to the fact that a person died at a particular place while walking, the most simple, basic human activity that unites just about all of us. They don’t tell the full story. As long as something persists unknown, there is little chance of improvement. As another Visual Resistance member said, “I’d like to see the need for this really dwindle to nothing, but that’s not going to happen until there are changes on the streets.”

Watch for the third post in this series in the coming weeks as we consider these changes and measures we can take in the meantime.

“The walker”

November 19, 2012

A perennially adored narrative about walking accompanies this ethereal slideshow from the New York Times’ “One in 8 Million” series. Maggie Nesciur wanders the city, changing direction with the stoplights, drifting in and out of crowds. As incredible as her ninety-mile-a-week habit is the wonder in her voice as she shares her compelling musings on the difference between walking in the city and in the country, feeling like a tourist in her own city, and what constitutes appropriate footwear.

“I don’t walk fast; I don’t walk slow; I walk at my own speed. I have to keep moving. If I’m not moving, my mind isn’t moving much either. If I don’t walk, I can’t think.”

“I notice buildings, I notice people… And the quiet. The noise. It’s all here.”

Maggie Nesciur : The Walker