Pedestrian Walkways of New York

My delighted obsession with the pedestrian walkways of New York actually got its start far away from the Big Apple.

When I lived in Turkey’s big city, Istanbul, a sore point was the constant encroachment of construction onto places where I had to walk. Construction sites would spill over onto the sidewalk, sparks flying, pushing me into the street to squeeze anxiously alongside the hot, greasy, unpredictable tide of cars and taxis and motorbikes.

Each time this happened, it was a small reminder that—although the point of a city is human habitation—this city, this place, was in some ways not made for or meant for people. The needs and feelings of actual human inhabitants was not the point here; we were just an inconvenient annoyance hindering other purposes.

This is why I am so fixated on the pedestrian walkways of New York. In as dense and valuable place as Manhattan, there is also a constant rhythm of deconstruction, construction, development. But here, when the construction overflows onto sidewalks, they build elaborate tunnels of wood planking, fencing, and other barriers that protect pedestrians from both onslaughts of construction and cars. These “pedestrian walkways” are scrupulously labeled and marked with arrows guiding you along the designated path, scooping you into their dark forest-green plywood corridors and depositing you safely on the other side.

Some of the walkways are so thoroughly encompassing, insulated, winding, and mysterious that I like to imagine I will walk in and come out somewhere else, like Narnia or Middle Earth.

It is a nice fantasy because, even if you do not end up in another world, you’re not too disappointed: on the other side, you’re still in New York City, a kind of magical place that does its best to hold a genuine regard for the people who live here.

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Risk and Sidewalk Subway Grates

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Recently, the Village Voice published an article: “Twenty Ways to Die in New York.” Though comprehensive, it misses one crucial way, possibly the way that most intensely structures my daily life. That way is: electrocution by metal grate.

When I was an impressionable child visiting New York City for the first time, I heard a harrowing story. A woman stepped on one of the many metal grates or vents that dot the city sidewalks. Typically this would not be a storyworthy occasion but on that day, a wire had broken loose, touched the grate, and electrified it. The woman who stepped on that grate was electrocuted and, according to my memory, died instantly.

Whether or not this story was true, it was still clear in my mind when I moved to New York last year. At first I avoided walking on all iron grates and vents, either consciously or unconsciously assuming them all to be potential hazards in the urban landscape.

However, in the months since, my relationship with metal grates has become more nuanced. Specifically, they come to symbolize Risk, and how I respond to Risk depends on my mood and state of mind. If I am confident and happy, I stride over the grates with gusto. I taunt life: Things are going great, just try to mess this up. Or: My life is and has been full and interesting, and if ended now I would have nothing to regret.

If I am stressed, anxious, sad, or insecure, I avoid stepping on the metal grates. Life is already going badly enough, why make it worse? Or: I’ve accomplished nothing with all the opportunities I’ve been given, wouldn’t dying now be shameful? Coming home late at night, I avoid walking over the grates, as if being electrocuted is the biggest threat at 1 a.m. on Broadway.

If I am bored, the metal grates seem especially able to draw my attention, and as I approach them I psych myself up. What if the next grate is the one that’s electrified? I place my foot on the grate and feel a thrill through my spine, not of electrocution, but of excitement.

There is one attitude I can never have towards metal grates, though, and that is apathy or neutrality. Measuring and balancing risk always requires some kind of calculation and judgement.

That is why, to this day, with every encounter with a metal sidewalk grate I must examine my entire psychological state and philosophical outlook.

Safety and the urban environment

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I have observed before how the Turkish urban environment is less “sterilized” than in Western countries: Many of the routine safety mechanisms we expect to see in cities  just aren’t present here. At highly-trafficked tourist landmarks like Ankara Castle in the capital or Yedikule in Istanbul, visitors young and old climb to dizzying heights and then perch on precarious centuries-old ledges with precipitous drops-offs, no fencing to stop them from, say, falling to their deaths. At archaeological sites of ancient Roman and Greek cities, there are no barriers between visitors and the ruins, so we can easily walk onto and inside the ruins–actually an amazingly satisfying activity but certainly corrosive and destructive to the ruins themselves.

Other examples abound, especially in Istanbul. There is a massive construction site up the street from my house–it’s truly so abyssally huge that it resembles the fortress Dol Guldur in The Hobbit 2 (and I keep hoping to spot Nazgul flying out). The site is blocked off from our neighborhood surroundings by nothing more than thin, uneven strips of shoddily erected sheetmetal and wooden planks. I still have a scar from when I dodged out of the way of a taxi and scraped my hand on a sharp protrusion from one of these. (I don’t want to think about what it’s like to actually work there.)

Similarly, it is not uncommon to see builders using power tools on the vestibule of a building while pedestrians walk inches away from the flying sparks. Or a sidewalk is blocked off for repairs, but no pedestrian detour is cleared in the road–so we have to tiptoe our way alongside the rush of automobiles. Or a sidewalk simply stops abruptly, and instead there’s a three-foot drop down to the next walkway. Or buses pick up people up without fully braking, let people off in the middle of traffic, or brake suddenly while driving, sending less unsteady passengers–like the elderly–flying off their feet or out of their seats. The most absurd example, to me, is the intersection in front of my school. Five (or six?) busy, congested roads converge at this spot where hundreds of students and teachers must cross each day, where they have for decades. Yet in all this time, it hasn’t occurred to anyone to install a single stoplight or crosswalk or even a “school zone” sign.

With all the dodging, jumping, and sprinting, living in this city feels like an endless, inexorable Urbanathalon. Yet despite the lack of expected safety measures, schoolchildren walk confidently into the traffic and weave their way through the cars. Men and women walk, blase, past flying sparks. People live with it and life goes on. It always makes me wonder– are we too careful in the States, and in the West? Do we need to try so hard to eliminate all risks and sanitize every aspect of our lives? Millions of people here live under these conditions–why can’t we in “the West”?

Of course, this way of thinking is fallacious. Just because most of us can get by in strenuous, physically difficult environments does not mean everyone can. One time, my roommate sustained a knee injury and had to take to crutches–in Aksaray, Istanbul. First, we hobbled in a narrow margin along a highway while being buffeted by trucks roaring past. Then when we got to a civilized road with sidewalks, it was a wide avenue only passable by overpass. We had to painstakingly climb the stairs one at a time, descend them the same way, then double back halfway down the street to our destination. My roommate eventually recovered and got back on her feet, of course, but we couldn’t imagine having to navigate Istanbul on crutches on a daily basis.

Much worse or more sordid still, a news segment I caught the other day described a small boy–whose body was found in a defunct construction site near his home. The abandoned lot was open and accessible to the public, as they all seem to be throughout the country. Maybe if the site had been properly contained, he would still be alive.

Maybe most of us can tolerate the jumping, climbing, and sprinting that unsterilized urban environments present, and even have a bit of fun with it. But as usual, when safety precautions aren’t taken and urban environments aren’t made accessible and safe, it is the most vulnerable–children, disabled, and elderly–who suffer.

Image: Rush-hour Istanbul traffic in Zincirlikuyu.