Still working my way through Robert Caro’s tome on Robert Moses, The Power Broker. We’re at the section—in the 1950s and ’60s—where Moses is “hacking his way” “with a meat ax” through neighborhoods to make room for superhighways that are 200+ feet across. Caro is describing East Tremont in the Bronx, the kind of place that most of us starry-eyed urbanists only dream of living in (to hear Caro’s sympathetic portrait of it).
It’s easy for a reader like myself, who loves the idea of the city (sometimes more than the city itself) and the experience of it, to be wistful as he hears about the vibrancy of yesterday’s neighborhoods and also to be envious as he considers what painstaking research Caro must have been able not just to endure but also to enjoy in order to word-paint such portraits of them. Going through Moses’ old Triborough Bridge Authority records on Randalls Island or in a Chambers Street archive or held at the NYPL (wherever they keep them) thrills some of us—writers who like to be alone with people and things of the past who change only when our keystrokes change them. And interviewing people who were “there” can be both invigorating and saddening.
When reading about the city—both the city of the past and the city that “could be” that we see in blogs about sustainable cities, walkable cities, the City of God and the city of man—it’s never about being “present” in the city around you. Reading about the city is about making sense of things.
For presence, I walk.
Sometimes things make sense, sometimes they don’t. But I often don’t have time to make sense of them; I try—in my best moments—to just let them happen around me as an observer.
Walking the sidewalks removes me from Armchair City Adoration and places me into a state that Tony Hiss (author of The Experience of Place) calls “simultaneous perception,” an almost zen-like movement through physical space where one is calm and experiencing the things and people nearby in an unhurried and very aware state. Holly Whyte, in City: Rediscovering the Center, wrote earlier and similarly about walking in New York City:
The pedestrian is a social being: he is also a transportation unit. …He moves forward with a field of vision about 100 degrees wide, further widening this with back-and-forth scanning movements to almost 180 degrees. He monitors a host of equations: two crossing patterns at left front, 290 feet a minute, three on the right, angle on the cars 30 degrees and closing, a pair abreast dead ahead, a traffic light starting to flash DON’T WALK. In fractions of a second he responds with course shifts, accelerations and retards, and he signals to others that he is doing so. Think of the orders and computers it would take to match him! Transportation engineers are spending millions on developing automated people-mover systems. But the best, by far, is a person.
We move through city space in Whyte’s way—autonomously aware of others’ vector changes—and in Hiss’s as well: we are aware of fellow walkers’ facial and fashion details and of aspects of buildings and street-level stores.
In this way, I can walk even familiar territory on the Upper West Side and enjoy simultaneous perception: getting off the train at 86th and Broadway (having known exactly which car on the northbound #1 to get onto so that I can easily get to the turnstiles at my stop); ascending the staircase with seemingly hundreds of others—a sudden burst of urban blood bursting through a narrow capillary that was barely widened by MTA workers last spring, a capillary that, when shut down during work, caused almost a stoppage in flow on the alternate staircase and underground heart attack—only to emerge and call Karen (“I’m off the train; want anything at the store?”); crossing Broadway with many of those others even though we pedestrians have the red hand (formerly “Don’t Walk” in a literate society) sign, knowing how long northbound taxis and other vehicles will take to reach us before we reach the median; passing Euclid Hall seniors and disabled, whose presence is ubiquitous enough in Mama’s Famous Pizza next door and in front of their own building to appear even on the street view in Google maps; getting then to Broadway Farm for a gallon of milk and grimacing at the prices we pay (we vow to switch to Key Foods one block out of our way) but reveling almost unaware at buying from a place that employs a Moroccan, several Dominicans, Pakistanis and a Caribbean Islander all under one roof consistently between Olympic Games; then back outside deciding to navigate either in front of the Victoria Secret windows and their Amazon-tall flesh-posters or past the Jewish restaurant that has always intrigued me but never appealed to me to dine in; deciding for Broadway and walking past the Origins store—pumping enticing cologne at us from vents—Baked By Melissa, and Coach; turning the corner to see the local homeless man defecating between cars on the south side of 84th Street in front of Ouest’s service entrance; then finding my body move into a steady rhythm as I walk downhill to West End Avenue, to our block, and then the final approach to our building. A stiff Hudson River-born wind blows up the bluff in Riverside Park, over the Promenade and then leaps the schist wall on Riverside Drive to meet me as I walk westward. I notice the white-wire holiday lights on the stoop of one brownstone. The scaffolding (“sidewalk sheds,” they call them) across the street on the south moves along the block from building to building like a worm’s sheath, fertilizing each townhouse and making it more marketable.
A few feet from our stoop, the temperature drops about ten degrees.
I reach our building and pause inside the vestibule to dig in my right front pocket for my keys. I am almost sad—glad to be home but missing already the intimate connection with the city I’ve had for the past seven to ten minutes.
It’s been a daytime romance.
It now becomes only an idea while I rest at home.
I write in sentences and carriage returns instead of think in paragraphs.