Years ago when I was still living in Virginia, my Argentine brother-in-law came to visit. Not crossing a single person as we toured the neighborhood, he insisted everyone must be on vacation. More recently, I walked about 20 blocks on a sunny spring Saturday in Denver, pop. 700,000. The only other people on foot were walking their dogs. I saw a yard sale of the accumulated excess of one house that would have filled three in most other countries. Despite the perfectly manicured yards, crack-less sidewalks and nice weather, this was not a pleasant walk. Not having a car, I felt exposed, somehow lesser, the dog-walkers looking at me curiously, like ‘Did you lose your dog?’ As I strolled past dozens of empty front porches behind fragrant rows of lavender, I knew exactly what my brother-in-law was talking about. It’s like no one is really there.
My feelings about walking are not a commentary on the need for more exercise, or the obesity problem or even the act of walking per se. There is a bigger picture here that I fear is hard to see from inside the frame. It’s about what we’re missing by not walking; and what we’re losing along the way: our ability to coexist. And hey, I know there are exceptions, neighborhoods of neighborly people where they do ‘front-porch Fridays.’ I once lived in one of those places. The very same one that shocked my brother-in-law, which I fervently defended at the time as a unique community of friendly neighbors who made good use of its sidewalks. I could not see it through his eyes used to people walking from corner vegetable stands, kiosks, shoe repair shops to butchers, hardwares, etc. on every block. And of course there are a few truly urban US cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, where people walk regularly to do their shopping, buy the paper, take the cat to the vet, get where they’re going. But in the vast majority of US cities, towns and neighborhoods, they don’t.
It is the sense of oddity, even suspicion, surrounding the act of walking in these places that concerns me. My husband, walking home from the library at dusk in small-town USA, his satchel of books over his shoulder, was once harassed by two guys in a pick-up, ‘Hey, faggot, get a car!’ A police car flashed its siren and pulled up to stop a friend’s father on a stroll through a Dallas suburb, ‘Sir, is there a problem?’ Another friend describes a guy she recently met in LA: ‘He’s great in every way, except he doesn’t have a car, which is just weird.’ Just last year, two siblings walking home from a playground two blocks from their home in Silver Springs, Maryland were picked up by the police; their parents were accused of negligence and social services called in. Incidents like these are beyond baffling to people from just about anywhere else in the world. Because in any city of any size in Europe, Latin America, Asia, wherever, walking is a natural part of life for everyone. The exercise is just a fringe benefit. Of course people in all of these places also take public transportation, bike and some even drive. But there is no stigma attached to one form of getting around as opposed to another. How people move around is not a measure of social hierarchy.
In the US, however, car culture is pervasive to the point of rendering all other means of transportation somehow inferior, with walking being the lowliest form. Who walks? Poor people, black people, homeless people. Foreigners. Or the fools who suffer big, crowded cities and surely long to move someplace where they can drive and never worry about finding a parking place, right? The lone walker, unless clearly dressed in expensive athletic gear, or attached to a dog, is cause for alarm. Because why would you? There’s a scene in one of the early episodes of Madmen, set in the early sixties, where the women are gossiping about a new divorcee in the neighborhood. They fixate on the fact that she’s always walking. Where is she going? Why is she always walking? As a measure of social norms way back then, the scene gives some sense of the historical dimension of what I’m talking about. She is an outlier, a rule-breaker — a divorcee, for god’s sake. She is a threat to their perfect suburban landscape.
While European cities took shape around pedestrian paths laid centuries before the invention of cars, the US concept of urban planning has been built upon the notion of individual freedom of movement by car. Our highways, suburbs and massive shade-less parking lots are an ode to that freedom. Like the mind-numbing sameness of suburbia, the hermetic seals on everyone’s individual mode of transportation for the past 70 years or so has taken a toll on our tolerance for each other, for our differences, even for our perception of climate change. From inside the acclimatized “freedom” of our comfy individual spaces, we have become both unable to tolerate extreme temperatures and at the same time able to ignore them. The same goes for other kinds of people.
It is hard not to see the implications of this drive-by culture of insensitivity reflected in the current state of US politics. Look no further than the current president, who recently took a golf cart up the hill in beautiful Taormina, Italy, while all the other NATO members walked together, taking in the breathtaking view and getting to know each other. This is the face we show to the world in our unparalleled freedom to drive by with the windows up.
I now live in Buenos Aires, a big, crowded city of millions at the other end of the planet. I walk, a lot. I also bike or take the bus or subway to get where I’m going. I generally have to allot several hours of my day for these journeys. It is often uncomfortable — hot, crowded, smelly, noisy — but I have learned to live with the inconveniences of broken sidewalks, exhaust fumes in my face or the human crush on public transportation at rush hour. And I have learned to observe, the good and the bad. Sometimes I get inspired and take a whole series of pictures of doorways.
Or I come up with an idea for an article about walking. A particular walking obstacle that many foreigners living here complain about is how Argentines always walk side-by-side instead of single file, making it impossible to pass them. How inconsiderate, right? The thing is, here it’s considered extremely rude to give your back to a friend, so that’s why people always walk abreast. It took me a while to come to this realization, but all that time walking and thinking about it as I try to get around them gave me the answer. So who’s to say whose version of inconsiderate is the right one?
Something else I’ve learned is that every time I take a street on the opposite side, I end up noticing something I’d passed dozens of times unawares. There’s a nice old house with typical Italianate details and ironwork that I always pass on my bike. Today I walked down the other side of that street and saw that the house has a fantastic second floor, set back from the façade, clad in very modern, dark wood slats that look like some Finnish spa. The combination of styles is fantastic. Or on my last visit back to the US, I discovered a historic public bathhouse that I’d never noticed on a street I’d driven down hundreds of times in Richmond, VA when I used to live there. I never knew it used to be full of public bathhouses.
I asked for walking stories from friends:
As I take my morning walk or run to buy my $5 cup of coffee in this nation’s capital, there is a particular homeless woman I pass throughout the seasons. Sometimes she’s sleeping on the metro grate in winter to catch the warm air rising, sometimes she’s collecting leftovers from the trash of high-end dinners of the night before. The other day on a warm summer morning, I noticed she had just finished bathing and washing her clothes in the public kids’ water fountain. I stopped to speak to her and her words for that morning were that the weather and life were wonderful and what more could she ask for!
For any long-time resident in one place, walks are an experience with historical accumulation: the mandala marking a late-night murder; the fading political graffiti from two cycles ago; the plaque on the branch library celebrating a local civil rights heroine. My favorite invisible story lies in front of the disability center, where the sidewalk looks like any other, but has very slightly different surface finishes. The wheelchairs and everyone else take diagonal shortcuts without a thought. But the blind customers follow the more polished path, which takes predictable right angles to the front door.
It is these snapshots of the lives of others that we miss entirely from inside a car.
My mother lives in a small town in Colorado. She is 81 and no longer driving. She describes this as a ‘punishment, like being in jail.’ Unwilling to use the taxi service or town shuttle (miraculous in its mere existence), she is forced to walk for the first time in her life. I can only hope she benefits, but the sad truth is I know she won’t be passing many others along the way and will likely be viewed with pity.
Car culture in the US is one small piece in the short history of seemingly benign developments that society has taken for granted as just one more convenience. But there are social consequences. It’s so easy to just drive past the guy holding a “Need Work” sign at the stoplight, you barely need to look at him. But in the time it takes to walk past a homeless person, you might just notice — like my friend with his expensive cup of coffee — how neatly they’ve arranged their belongings under the bridge, or that they’re shivering, or you see the color of their eyes. If any of these things causes to you consider that person’s predicament, even for a few seconds, you are that much closer to empathy than you would have been speeding past in your car. Walking takes longer, requires more effort and patience. But it puts us at eye-level with other human beings of all sorts. There is so much to see if you take the time to walk.