"Welcome to WALKING IS TRANSPORTATION," my introductory post declares, "a blog about walking as a practical means of personal mobility."
Nearly two months and 26 posts later, I've decided it's more than time to revise that tidy little description. It wasn't wrong, as far as it went. Trouble is, it didn't go far enough. It was too narrow, too ideological, too confining. It made expressions of awe, delight or even fear seem somehow off-topic.
So I've decided to unlock the door to this cage of my own devising and step outside. From this post forward, this blog is about Walking As Transportation––and about everything else walking is as well.
[Those beautifully beat-up walking shoes shown at the top of the page belong to Staten Island clay and fiber artist Steve Nutt.]
Yesterday, I walked perhaps one-fifth of Pelham Bay Park in the northeast Bronx--at more than 2,700 acres, the city's largest.
Let me tick off the negatives first: The park's Mosholu-Pelham Greenway, dedicated in 1999, is kinda shabby and could use an upgrade overall.
Signage--directional, advisory and informational--is inadequate and usually directed at cars, not people. (So what else is new?)
But those are small complaints. What matters more is that the park is accessible to walkers and cyclists.
The accessibility started as soon as I got off the 6 train at Pelham Bay Park--about an hour's ride from Bowling Green (4 to 125th; transfer to 6 to last stop). At the Pelham Bay Park station, a major exit led me onto an overpass above the Hutchinson River Parkway. The ramp on the other side deposited me only steps from the Mosholu-Pelham Greenway, from which it appears you can reach any destination within the park on foot or bike (see map link below)
There's more. At the key intersections I saw, pedestrian crosswalks were clearly marked. Lights were timed to give pedestrians adequate time to cross the road.
This place is a remarkable natural environment--a place where, to an unusual degree, you witness an interplay between sky, water, land and vegetation that at first is almost startling.
Yesterday, I walked a bridge over the Hutchinson River . . .
. . . passed by Turtle Cove . . .
. . . ate an al fresco brown-bag lunch at Orchard Beach, facing Long Island Sound . . .
. . . and walked around the salt marshes in the Lagoon.
As you can see from the map, I've only begun my explorations at Pelham Bay Park. Still to come: Goose Creek Marsh, the Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary, The Hunter Island Marine Zoology & Geology Sanctuary, the Kazimroff Nature Trail, Rodman's Neck--and City Island!
For a long time after I stopped smoking, I had a recurrent . . . what my Aunt Harriet would have called a 'yen' for something. But what? The what, of course, was a cigarette. Once I realized it (and it happened, again and again), I would dive straight into the fruit bowl, the candy dish, or the refrigerator. On the theory that it was better to have love-handles than a round of chemo at Sloan-Kettering.
This week I've been shadowed by just that kind of 'yen.' Except there's no mystery about what it is I have a yen for. Simply stated, I need to be on the road, any road, anywhere, now. But landlordly, grandparental and volunteer duties have grounded me and will continue to ground me till the weekend, when I hope to get back on track. Literally.
Thanks for your patience in the meantime.
AN UNABASHED PLUG
There's a lot I miss about a city increasingly dominated by real estate development and national brands, the only tenants who can afford today's outrageous commercial rents.
Two of the things I miss most are (1) used book stores run on a tiny margin by people who love books; and (2) independently owned coffee shops--not franchise operations--where you can spend the morning over a cup or a conversation and the person who serves you is likely to be the person who owns the place.
Here in St. George (Staten Island), we're lucky to live close by just such an establishment, the ETG Book Cafe and Neighborhood Stage--that serves Fair Trade coffees and a variety of teas and fresh baked goods, and has a really large and interesting used book selection, vintage LPs, and a small stage used for all kinds of performances, including an open mic night.
Even in my short time as a volunteer book-shelver at ETG, I've developed an appreciation for the quality of its inventory. If you like friendly, slightly shabby used bookstores where there's enough to keep you browsing for a while, this is the place. The coffee's pretty good, too. And it's only three blocks from the ferry. (I'm the one with the buzzed head standing on a ladder in the back, squinting at a book jacket.)
I had my new digital camera in tow. The plan was to use visuals as well as text to profile a routine walk––an 'errand' walk, let's call it, rather than a walk for its own sake. Starting from my house in St. George
and on the way, passing through New Brighton (Unitarian Church book sale, Barnett Shepard's house, and the entrance to Snug Harbor Cultural Center) and West Brighton (Clove Lakes Park).
I had told myself I'd get some representative shots and then, and soon as I finished my errand, I'd head straight back home to St. George. But of course I didn't stick to the script. As soon as I exited the variety store that had been my destination, I turned right instead of left and just kept going till I hit Clove Lakes Park.
There I retraced a north-south route I'd discovered earlier this past summer, the sort of place that can mystify and intrigue you only once, after which it becomes beautiful but never again quite so magical.
Along this route on that earlier summer walk, I had discovered two stretches of fairly deep woods, often quite hilly, the southern stetch larger and wilder. Each was near at least one of the park's three lakes, Brooks, Clove, and Martling; each plateaued in a several-acre expanse of lawn. The first time I experienced it, this swift and sudden change––from being under a tree canopy, then emerging into a clearing and a ceiling of open sky––it was startling, even shocking.
This more recent Sunday afternoon was sunny and a bit cool. Clove Lakes Park seemed almost empty, as it often seems (and often is) during the week. Except for small assemblies at sports facilities, there was only the occasional dog walker or jogger in view. During my tramp through the woods, I encountered only one other solitary walker.
Soon after, my camera battery died. By then I was already well into my return trek, which took me, via a different route, through the smaller, more formal and more manicured Silver Lake Park, also remarkably empty on such a beautiful day.
Distance of this ostensible 'errand' walk: 7 miles, roundrip.
Perhaps a year ago, perhaps more, blue and white street signs began cropping up on Staten Island (and, I assume, in the other boroughs) directing drivers, in case of an emergency, to the nearest disaster shelter.
Are the disaster planners (an unfortunate term, but you know what I mean) seriously relying on private cars to shepherd New Yorkers to safety? In the aftermath of a disaster, designating private cars as a principal means of mobility is folly. Especially in parts of Staten Island and the other outer boroughs, where local roads are often three-lane former cowpaths or the equivalent. It's a prescription for Road Rage on Steroids.
When disaster struck downtown on 9/11, people didn't wait in vain for a cab or waste time looking for their car keys, assuming they had any; no, those who could, walked or ran from disaster as fast as their feet could carry them. Uptown, downtown, across bridges and onto ferries with 6,000-passenger capacities. Any way they could get away.
GIVE WALKERS MORE LEG-ROOM
The lesson here is that walking should be a central element of the city's disaster preparedness strategy. Which means that we should be doing much, much more to promote walking--not only as a good health strategy, but as a transportation option just like a bike, a bus, or the train.
But there's got to be more to the effort than feel-goody public service announcements. And what's needed is not only more space, but more access:
•In too many outer-borough neighborhoods, the roadway is for cars and the space on either side of the road is somebody's lawn you're not supposed to walk on. Install sidewalks on streets that have none, and maintain them for active use
•Every East River bridge has a pedestrian walkway, all in active daily use by walkers and bicyclists. It's long past time to retrofit all major regional bridges with pedestrian walkways to maximize access and egress for those who don't drive or own automobiles. I'm a Staten Islander, so the Verrazano, the Goethals and the Outerbridge Crossing are the three that come immediately to mind, but I'm sure there are many others.
Because they enhance citizens' ability to cope in an emergency situation, these projects should be paid for, in my opinion, by Homeland Security and/or other appropriate funding sources (FEMA?).
In a report entitled "Biking the Mean Streets of L.A." in the September 6 STREETSBLOG (http://www.streetsblog.org), contributor Jason Varone quotes from a Los Angeles Times story on the alarming rise of violence directed against bicyclists in L.A. by automobile drivers:
Scott Sing has had a tire iron hurled at him, a water bottle thrown at his head and been bombarded with racial epithets. And all he was trying to do was ride his bike on Los Angeles city streets.
His cycling and running brethren tell similar tales -- of being peppered with flying objects, cursed or otherwise assaulted -- and those don't even include the stories of near-misses and actual collisions.
To any pedestrian who's been yelled at or even threatened by a furious driver for not crossing quickly enough--or, worse, for failing to defer to the driver's assumed "right" to proceed across an intersection before the pedestrian does--Scott Sing's story has a very familiar ring.
Bicyclists who ride on city streets are certainly more physically vulnerable than pedestrians/walkers. But both groups share a common characteristic in the driver's mind. They--we--are impediments many drivers tolerate, but barely. We are a foot on their brake pedals, forcing them to slow down or stop; forcing them to take account of something other than other cars. When what they want to do, of course, is exercise their right to accelerate and roar off down the street--a right that countless TV commercials tell them is inalienably theirs. We are what stands between them and their ability to exercise that right.
My expectation, I'm sorry to say, is that as more and more people choose transportation modes other than the private car--and as they become a larger and more vocal constituency, demanding an equitable balance in how sidewalk and roadway space is apportioned--intimidation and outright violence directed toward bicyclists and pedestrians will worsen.
And you? What has your experience been? What are your expectations?
From the moment I laced up that first pair in the early 90s, Mephistos and I have been inseparable. Not just Mephisto walking shoes, but their sandals, sandal-clogs, and cap toe clogs, too. Every Mephisto product I've tried on has felt the same way: custom made.
COMFORT BEFORE BEAUTY
In recommending Mephistos to foot-sore friends, colleagues and neighbors, I've been defiant, almost proud of how ugly they are. If you could have a pair of shoes that felt custom made the minute you put them on, I've argued, who cares that they look like something designed in a basement in Bucharest in 1947?
So today, there I was again in the same downtown Manhattan shoe store I've patronized for years, surveying a typically uninspiring Mephisto display. I was all set to go for yet another pair of unobjectionable but deadly dull black walking shoes (my tenth pair? my fiftieth?) when I realized I had shelled out the same $385 plus tax only about six months earlier.
WHAT A CONCEPT!: JUST SPEND LESS.
So why was I replacing this six-month-old pair so soon, rather than just resoling and heeling them? I was replacing this pair because the uppers had stretched, making my step feel unstable no matter how tight I tied the laces. This was a problem I had noticed with the pair before these, and the pair before that. The stretched-out upper had become a problem, I realized, only when I started walking seriously long distances. Come to think of it, some of the stitching had come undone in places, too.
If stretching and unraveling stitching were problems I'd encounter with any reasonably well-made walking shoe, why not spend less for the same result? When I explained the problem to the salesperson, he suggested a brand--Ecco--that I'd had a good experience with in the past.
The Ecco walking shoes I ended up buying look more like hiking shoes to me; have an only slightly less boring but hardly exciting style; and come in a dull black of the sort that's not really meant to be polished. I wore the new pair of Eccos on the walk home--interrupted by a ferry ride--and they felt fine. Different, but fine.
Does all this walking-shoe strategizing sound familiar? I'd really appreciate hearing about your experiences and getting your recommendations, if any. Thanks.
According to the Google pedometer--thanks again to the readers who recommended this useful service ( http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/ )--I walked a total of 14.165 miles yesterday. High Rock Park in Staten Island's Greenbelt was my destination, and I got there--a total of 7.176 miles, one way--in two hours (3 1/2 miles/hour--not bad).
The first two-thirds of the walk were uneventful. Neighborhoods went from old to middle-aged to almost new. Complexions and spoken languages changed and changed again. Approaching the Greenbelt there were large institutional buildings on grassy "campuses." But once I was inside the Greenbelt, the last leg of the trip, everything changed. Wide sidewalks ended abruptly, leaving a walker only a narrow strip of macadam, demarcated by a not-always-visible white line (and sometimes, not even that). I could hear many of the passing cars slow down as they approached, and many gave me wide berth. But many whizzed by, fast and scarily close.
Walkers have right of safe access to the Greenbelt just as those who arrive in cars do. We represent a fraction of the footprint of a car, in terms of the space we occupy and the impact we have on the environment. Yet cars, often with only one occupant, are provided roads and other facilities built and maintained by the tax dollars of walkers as well as drivers. For our tax dollars, we get a narrow, dangerous strip of deteriorated macadam.
Sidewalks should be installed bordering every main road, street or avenue in the Greenbelt. Those who walk should not be shunted off to the side of a shared roadway where drivers have every advantage and walkers have none. Greenbelt purists may be mortified, at first, at the idea of sidewalks encroaching on the Greenbelt's 'Forever Wild' mandate. But providing a means of access for those who walk rather than ride is a matter of fairness and equity a pretty fundamental American ideal.
But as things stand now, at a time of dwindling energy resources and accelerating climate change caused in part by a transportation system based on the automobile, the message sent by the Greenbelt's roadways couldn't be clearer: Get some wheels or get lost.
I'm grateful to attorney Ellen Bate, who wrote to me, pointing out that I haven't discussed a major part of many people's walking routines, and that's Walking to Work.
Long working hours and other limitations, Ellen writes, can make walking seem "a lot like a luxury for many working stiffs like me. If one doesn't live close . . . to the workplace or have a . . . flexible schedule, it isn't always possible to . . . walk. I have the advantage of living just over the Brooklyn Bridge from where I work, and I walk home most days with lots of other pedestrian commuters."
But like me, Ellen Bate has been finding the Brooklyn Bridge a less than ideal route of late--at least for someone with a fixed schedule, a fixed destination, and a living to earn.
"[The bridge walkway is often crowded] during the evening rush hour," she writes. "During the tourist season (which seems to be all the time now), it is much worse. I have . . . been injured, trying to avoid people who cannot figure out that there is one lane for bicyclists and one for pedestrians." Another of Ellen's complaints: "people on cell phones (who) cannot walk and talk at the same time." Yea, verily, to both.
Given the growing number of people who are switching to alternative forms of transportation, it's past time for NYC's Department of Transportation to get more aggressive about order and safety on the city's bridges, greenways and walkways.
How about signage that's larger, clearer, and not painted on walking/riding surfaces, where it wears off fast? Why not more clearly defined (and, if necessary, separated) areas for wheeled transport and another for walkers, runners and joggers? And clear guidance as to appropriate behavior:
--Look to see who's coming, before entering another lane
--Look to see who's behind you, before stopping
--Walking two and three abreast on a crowded walkway is inconsiderate; it can even be dangerous
The idea was to begin a self-guided tour of the New York City park system--all of it, if I could manage it. I made my start in the Bronx, probably because of the borough's association with planned park development. The borough's abundant parklands (3,495 acres, all told, according to the Parks Department) were acquired long before serious development began following the five-borough consolidation of 1898, which produced the city we know today.
I began at Crotona Park in the southeast Bronx (174th and Southern Boulevard; the #2 stops right across the street). Crotona was a must-to-avoid in the 1970s because of its proximity to the neighborhood depicted in the movie, "Fort Apache, the Bronx." Today, it's a very different place, at least in terms of its former bad reputation. It's clean and pleasant, with evidence of many recent upgrades and improvements, natural and man-made. The landscape is open and rolling, there are a number of recreational areas, even a lake.
But Crotona Park is relatively small. In every direction, some closer, some farther away, there was a wall of unforgiving brick apartment houses staring back at me through the trees. No mystery, no intrigue, nothing to explore. It was fine if you lived in the neighborhood and wanted a pretty place to relax for a few hours. But it was not a destination; at least, not to me.
CLIMBING THE CLIFF
So I headed west, knowing I'd hit the Grand Concourse––and more subway lines––eventually. But first I hit Webster Avenue, a flat, wide, tired and treeless commercial street over which loomed a giant rock formation topped by the backs of some modest late-19th-century frame rowhouses.
To continue west to the Concourse, I would have to find a way over or around this steep cliff. Several blocks down Webster, I found a granite stairway––common in the very hilly West Bronx––to Clay Avenue, the street "above" Webster. It was long and relatively steep, but I climbed it at a steady pace and didn't get winded at all.
Because my wife and I had lived nearby for about a year in the late 60s, it seemed to me there was a park, Claremont Park, that probably wasn't very far away. And it wasn't--a bit north, a bit west. Claremont turned out to be pretty much as I remembered it--old stone walls, big overarching trees, rolling, hillier than Crotona, well tended and pretty. But again, no cigar. I wanted something that would make my heart go thumpa-thumpa.
ACROSS THE MIGHTY HARLEM
And then it came to me, with a slight shiver: High Bridge Park, on the west shore of the Harlem River in Washington Heights. A long swath of steep cliffs overlooking the river valley. Just beginning to revive after decades of shocking neglect, thanks largely to a local "Friends of" group.
Without major infusions of capital, however, this gem of a park cut into a hillside, with grand granite staircases and magnificent if wildly out of control vegetation, will continue to be too daunting for all but the most adventurous of walkers. And because it's been shunned by much of the community (which includes Yeshiva University) for decades, parts of High Bridge Park have become a home to the homeless. You can't always see them, but you can see their effects scattered everywhere.
I first explored the cliff walks of Highbridge Park after 9/11, when I was walking around neighborhoods I barely knew in Upper Manhattan, Queens and northern Brooklyn--I think, to reassure myself that the city was still there. I've come back a few times since--once with a group, once with my wife, once with a friend from out of town, and once alone. Nothing has ever happened. So, with some misgivings, I decided to go.
BENEATH THE STONE ARCHES
I headed west through the Puerto Rican/Dominican streets of the west Bronx to the Harlem River and the Washington (not the George) Bridge, which connects the Bronx and Manhattan at 181st Street, at more or less the midpoint of High Bridge Park. As all bridges should, the Washington was built with pedestrian walkways north and south. It even has little platforms on which to sit and look out at the river (less romantic than they sound, covered in graffiti).
When I reached the Manhattan/Washington Heights side, I didn't use the main entrance to the park, which leads down to an area where homeless people are encamped. If I'd gone that way, I'd have had to pass under the Washington Bridge's enormous granite arches in order to go north. That passage can be thrilling, but part of the thrill, I think, is the outsize quality of the experience, tinged with a bit of risk or danger. In a group, it's bearable; alone, I decided, it's not. So I entered the park farther north, descending a ruined but magnificent double staircase that empties onto a north-south path cut into the cliff about half way up from the valley floor. This change of entry-points made me less apprehensive, but only a little.
My goal was to go north to Dyckman Street, then west to Fort Tryon Park. The path in front of me was nothing more than a long meandering slab cut into a cliff, with huge trees, boulders and grasses above and below. It was utterly desolate and I found myself loping rather than walking, teeth clenched, hands made into fists, occasionally turning to see who was lurking (no one was lurking) nearby.
I could hear, though not see, the cars speeding by on the Harlem River Drive below. I knew they certainly could not have heard, much less responded to, my calls for help. How could I have undertaken something so stupid, so risky--simply because the more placid Crotona and Claremont parks hadn't registered even a blip on the excitement scale? And yet, there it was, the pounding in my chest, thumpa-thumpa, just as I'd hoped.
All the same, the path seemed endless. Again and again, it would appear to be winding down, inching toward the bottom of the hill; then it would rise again. Who or what lay in wait around the next turn, I tried not to think about. Finally, I could see the rooftop of a nature center I'd visited once before. And sure enough, the path seemed to be leading unwaveringly down.
By the time I reached Fort Tryon Park, going west again on Dyckman, it was 4 p.m. The light was changing. No time, really, to continue. And besides, the subway stairs, right at the entrance to the park, beckoned. But I've decided to return, in search of more thrills, to Fort Tryon (and to the bigger Pelham Bay and Van Cortlandt parks of the Bronx) very soon. Like, maybe tomorrow.