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.

Snowstorms, Anarchy, and New York

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“Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes.”

— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

When I was a student, I attended boarding school in a cold Midwestern town where it snowed a lot and often. After a big snowstorm, the roads would be impassable by car, so I would take walks through the middle of the streets. It felt transgressive and a tinge anarchistic, to be a pedestrian strolling where normally only automobiles could pass. I would recite poetry or entertain apocalyptic fantasies of being the last person on earth. I could have been the survivor of an apocalypse because I was always alone, the only one treading the snowy street of the small town.

In the aftermath of a snowstorm in New York has the same transgressive feel. Stores, restaurants, and workplaces shut down. Snow gets plowed from the roads and piles up on the sidewalks. Transport stops on the roads. Blizzard winds roar over the Hudson and whip through the city streets into fierce wind tunnels while streetlights alternate colors impotently. We can live without cars and buses and streetlights–what other institutions can we tear down? What if the entire city got buried in snow, and a new city was built on top of the clean white layer?

In New York, I still walk in the middle of the street during a snowstorm and entertain these fantasies, but the difference is I am not the only one in the middle of the street. There are sledders and tobogganers; joggers; dog walkers; hide and seek players; football catchers; hooligans climbing on mailboxes; sirens in the distance and Latin music emanating from 24 hour delis. The streets empty except for people roaming through them are still subtly anarchistic and apocalyptic, but I am no longer alone at the dissolution of society and the end of the world.

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.

Anyone Can Fly

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“…It’s very easy, anyone can fly. All you need is somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way. The next thing you know, you’re flying among the stars.”

–Cassie Lou Lightfoot in Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold, a prominent and accomplished American folk artist, published Tar Beach the year after I was born, and my parents both read it to me when I was child. The large, striking illustrations always stuck with me–especially, for some reason, the whitish-pink ice cream the family eats in the middle of the story–but the book also grabbed me because the main character coincidentally has the same first name (Cassie) and middle name (Lou) as me.

I rediscovered the book earlier this year in one of my literacy teaching courses, and I realized with some vindication that I not only share a name with Cassie Lou Lightfoot, but am now living in the same city as her, near her neighborhood of Harlem. The things that she flies over–the Washington Bridge, the lights of the city–are now part of my landscape too, just as I always dreamed since I was cognizant enough to know what New York City was and know where it was I wanted to fly to in the world.

It’s true, it seems, that when you have somewhere to go, you can fly.

Light in New York City

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One of the first things I noticed after moving to New York was the light. Light is, typically, an amorphous and shapeless phenomenon. It might bathe you in its glow, cast long blurry shadows, blind you with its glare, or scorch you with its heat–but nevertheless it generally maintains a formless, fuzzy quality. In New York City, there is no such fuzziness: here, the light travels through a linear forest of skyscrapers getting progressively more bisected into sharp angles, rectangles, polygons, and shapes of all sorts which are cast in sharp relief onto the structure walls. Alternatively, the light from the setting sun may strike a series of windows, which in turn reflect the light back onto a building across the street, ad infinitum, casting a melange of jewel-like projections onto the structure walls around you.

I love these architectural-atmospheric interactions because they enliven even the most blase of buildings, turning them into scintillating canvases or real-life abstract palettes like something out of “The Dot and the Line.” In such an ironic and acerbic city, it’s a sincere little joy that I can latch onto in the late afternoons.

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Updates

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The past three months have been productive in many ways, and thought I’d share some of the stuff I’ve been working on.

  • I contributed articles for the website Yabangee.com. The Turkish word yabancı means “foreigner,” and the website caters to expat and foreign residents in Istanbul. Besides some brand-new pieces (including St. Mary of the Mongols and Nahıl Gift Shop) I revamped some blog posts: The Museum of Turkish Jews in Karakoy  and Aynalıkavak Palace.
  • I started running a Spanish language-learning Facebook page. It’s called Saucy Spanish Time, and I post comics there daily (with a special emphasis on puns). If that interests you, please check it out and “like” the page.
  • I began working on side projects related to my Thailand trip, which I hope to share soon.
  • And finally, I moved to New York City! More on that later.

Above: the view from the office in Istanbul I worked out of over the summer. Below: view of Lower Manhattan from a ferry.