On The Aesthetics of Urban Walking and Writing

by

03/24/2004

141 w 72nd st ny 10023

Neighborhood: All Over, Multiple

A tugboat, wheezing wreaths of steam,
Lunged past, with one galvanic blare stove up the River
I counted the echoes assembling, one after another
Searching, thumbing the midnight on the piers.
Lights, coasting, left the oily tympanum of waters
The blackness somewhere gouged glass on a sky
And this thy harbor, O my City, I have driven under,
Tossed from the coil of ticking towers…. Tomorrow,
And to be….Here, by the River that is East—

— — Hart Crane, “The Bridge”

**

For all but the disabled, walking is a basic human activity, just below eating and sleeping. Consequently, peripatetic literature is vast: rarely does a novel or poetry volume lack some walk. But it’s a strange sub-genre: a writer can’t help wondering how to put a leash on the infinite. How do you begin to impose a structure on what could easily degenerate into shapeless listing? How do you distribute your attention between nature, passersby, architecture, social issues? What needs does the literary walk fulfill for the writer?

Most written-down walks are undertaken alone. The walk becomes a technique to deal with, act out, dramatize, defend, or deplore one’s solitude. With solitude, of course, comes a danger: self-preoccupation. The literary walk inscribes the struggle between self-absorption and self-forgetting, between the poison of ego-brooding and the healing parade of sensory stimuli. One of the classic preoccupations of peripatetic literature is how a mood changes in the process of traversing a city on foot. In the meantime, perception is sharpened, by charting the precise movement between interior monologue (“the daily fodder of my mind” is how Rousseau put it in The Reveries of the Solitary Walker) and outward attentiveness, like the rack focus in movies that pulls first the foreground, then the background into clarity.

Walking also offers the chance to sample other class realities: sipping the life above one’s station as well as below it. This peripatetic “slumming” (a combination of envy and disdain, voyeurism and sympathy, held in temporary abeyance) yields, at its worst, a numbed indifference to social inequities, by reducing them to spectacle, or by inspiring the fantasy that one knows how the other half lives; at its best, however, it can open one’s eyes to the realities of destitution, which beats a refusal to look at all.

The urban walk-poem or story is a species of travel literature, one in which, without going anywhere, you often adopt a stance of unfamiliarity in your own town. In New York, precisely because it is so polyglot and international, the walker-writer can turn a corner and imagine being in Prague, say, or Montevideo. Some walks follow habitual routes, and are intended to reassure; others are undertaken to disorient oneself in a strange neighborhood–to court, as in childhood, the sensation of being lost and afraid, albeit in safe, small doses.

Such walking requires leisure. Idlers and literary bohemians, looking down on nine-to-five “wage slaves,” try to swallow their guilt towards the worker and promote walking into a sacred vocation, much like the nineteenth-century flâneurs who strolled around Paris, and whom Walter Benjamin called “connoisseurs of the sidewalk.” A wine connoisseur appreciates the best and often the most expensive vintages; but the connoisseur of streets, while charmed by the leafy quiet and exclusive shops in a wealthy area, is more likely to grow enthusiastic over a section a bit more ragged. Street connoisseurs are often drawn to borders between neighborhoods, which inherit the different, high-low, joli-laid personalities of both. It’s this sort of cognitive dissonance that the urban connoisseur takes pride in recognizing and then resolving aesthetically.

The urban connoisseur is also an amateur archeologist of the recently vanished past. Not surprisingly, an elegiac tone creeps into this genre, as personal memories intersect with what had formerly existed on a particular spot. The walker-writer cannot help seeing, superimposed over the present edifice, its former incarnation, and he/she sings the necropolis, the litany of all those torn-down Pennsylvania Stations and Les Halles marketplaces that goes: Lost New York, Lost Boston, Lost Tokyo, Lost Paris.

*

In exploring the Manhattan waterfront, I’ve felt myself returning to an old habit, rambling around New York. I used to have a passion for walking; now it’s something I recognize I can do naturally, like falling back on an old coping strategy.

I first began coming to Manhattan on foot, from Brooklyn. My family would walk across the Williamsburgh Bridge at sundown on a Saturday night, like many of our neighbors, to mark the Sabbath’s end with a meal at a Manhattan dairy restaurant, usually Ratner’s or Rappaport’s. Not that my parents were particularly observant Jews, but living in an Orthodox/Hassidic area, they adapted to the local custom. Later, as a teenager, I took to walking across the bridge myself, a poeticizing adolescent mesmerized by motes in air. These spots, which I told myself only I could see, thanks to my sensitivity, floating before the housing projects that already walled off the Lower East Side’s edge from the river, represented the possibility of a transcendent escape from the ghetto where I felt imprisoned. Not motes but money, I came to see later, was the ticket out.

“Before him, then,” wrote James Baldwin in Go Tell It on the Mountain, “the slope stretched upward, and above it the brilliant sky, and beyond it, cloudy and far away, he saw the skyline of New York. He did not know why, but there arose in him an exultation and a sense of power, and he ran up the hill like an engine, or a madman, willing to throw himself headlong into the city that glowed before him.”

This passage epitomizes a literature about sensitive provincials from the Midwest, the outer boroughs, or Harlem, approaching the City with a lump in their throats. I do not propose to add my lump. Rather, let me fast-forward through adolescence, college, a first marriage at twenty, conjugal cocooning in Washington Heights, divorce at twenty-five, a California-runaway period; skip ahead to my late twenties, when I returned to live in New York, this time on the Upper East Side, and to search out the city, as an avid bachelor this time.

I walked. How I walked! In midtown Manhattan you walk as though on a conveyor belt, the grid pulling you along. It is not a restful sensation, true: there are none of those piazzas, like in Rome, where you can cool your feet in a sidewalk café and stare across at a fountain. You keep moving, you feel purposeful, wary, pointed, athletic. You can gauge your progress to an appointment by the rule of thumb that a block takes roughly a minute on foot, and, given the vagaries of traffic and subway delays, walking is often the most reliable transport option, as well as the most economical. Meanwhile, the grid acts as a reassuring compass, always ready to orient you. It pulls your eye straight up the avenue, to those long unimpeded vistas; looking left or right, if you are anywhere near the waterfront, you can catch a peripheral glimpse of river, or a sunset made lovelier by the city’s atmospheric pollutants; and so your gaze keeps adjusting astigmatically between long distance and middle range, and all the while there is so much coming at you that you have to attend to the immediate surround, dodging bodies and seizing openings. You take in the street by layers: this guy with the hat stepping too close to your shoulder; the storefront signs and window displays prompting impulse purchases; the stone-cut ornaments just above your head (cornices, cherubs, lions) and sometimes a whole second-story tier of retail or an upstairs restaurant; the wall posters on construction sites selling movies, politicians, rock stars; and finally, the tops of buildings, for which the best touches are often saved: Babylonian roof gardens, green copper domes, medieval castle turrets, Mayan setbacks, Greek temples, and all manner of pointy needles symbolizing the heavenward aspirations of commerce.

I also loved the ability of Manhattan’s streets to absorb without fuss the most varied mix of people. Rich or poor, white or black, gay or straight, for the moment, at least, everyone in the pedestrian swirl is assigned the same human value: you are either in my way or not.

Around this time I began to appreciate the performance art of pedestrianism. Each New Yorker can seem like a minor character who has honed his or her persona into a sharp, three-second cameo. You have only an instant to catch the passerby’s unique gesture or telltale accessory: a cough, hair primping, insouciant drawing on a cigarette, nubby red scarf, words muttered under the breath, eyebrow squinched in doubt. Diane Arbus used to say that in that split-second of passing someone, she looked for the flaw. I would say I look for the self-dramatizing element. How often you see perfectly sane people walking along grimacing to themselves, giggling, or wincing at some memory. Once, I passed a man in a three-piece suit who let out a sigh as intimate as if he had been sitting on the toilet. The expression worn on the street is perhaps more unconscious, therefore truer, than at work or at love. The crowded streets bring out, on the one hand, a pure self-absorption unembarrassed by witnesses; on the other hand, a secret conviction that one is being watched by Higher Powers, the anxious eyes of pedestrians all seeming to ask: Oh Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me?

*

With Walt Whitman, I encountered an even more omnivorous appetite than mine for walking in crowds. Whitman celebrated Manhattan at a time when it was elbowing aside Boston and Philadelphia as the most populous American metropolis. His positive love of crowds was unusual for the nineteenth century, when many American intellectuals were expressing a fastidious scorn for the “mob.” Whitman’s fellow New Yorker, Edgar Allen Poe, who said that “democracy is a very admirable form of government–for dogs,” wrote a short story, “A Man of the Crowd,” in which he equated the boulevard walker with an automaton who “refuses to be alone.” Whitman saw no contradiction between joining a crowd and being alone. His solitary, essential self was not threatened by the masses; rather, he took energy and comfort from their surrounding bodies. William James said admiringly of Whitman: “He felt the human crowd as rapturously as Wordsworth felt the mountains….” It’s certainly true that Whitman substituted the crowd for nature as a fit poetic subject, and made it a metaphor for American democracy, but the crowd fulfilled another function for him: it turned him on.

His gaze peeled beneath the city’s houses to the ghosts of remembered or fantasized erotic encounters. The crowd was for him a continually tantalizing, pullulating field of sexual potential: attraction, arousal, frustration, resignation, sometimes even fulfillment, a point he made clear in “City of Orgies”:

…as I pass O Manhattan, your frequent and swift flash of eyes

offering me love,

Offering response to my own–these repay me,

Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.

Whitman’s impact on walking-round literature was vast, partly because his all-embracing, synthesizing persona helped organize the streets’ random stimuli: what we now call the problem of “sensory overload.” Specifically, Whitman perfected the list-poem or inventory. It was a megalomaniac solution, perhaps, with the “I” becoming a vacuum cleaner that sweeps up everything in its path and warms it with the empathic suction-blast of self. This gargantuan process of assimilation, engorging the world by looking at and naming it, was fueled by the desire to make it with everything in the cosmos. “I Am He That Aches With Love,” he writes. In the process, Whitman ennobles the walk: his long verse lines are streets we’re asked to saunter along.

Many writers since have linked the physiology of walking and writing. The mind relaxes through the calming, repeated movement of a stroll, while the legs’ cadences trigger the rhythms of poetry.

Another solution for organizing peripatetic experience on the page was to shave the walk down to an anecdote. The master of this approach was Charles Reznikoff, the Objectivist poet who died in 1976. Reznikoff was a great walker, putting in twenty miles a day, usually starting from his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He walked, as much as anything, to get material. But he felt no responsibility to give a full report of the walk; on returning home, he would focus on only that image or situation that had moved him. Many of his poems are miniature narratives, told in spare, plain language.

Reznikoff was particularly interested in how different ethnic groups–Italians, Jews, Southern Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Poles–adjusted to New York. He sympathized with the poor, suffering, resilient city folk he met on his walks, and his poems conveyed the impression that accidental encounters with strangers or gregarious shopkeepers could be among the most nourishing experiences of city life. It was the unexpected rapport that touched him. Walking was both a way for the poet to be alone and–controlledly, indirectly–with others, knowing the spark of intimacy would last only a short while and incur no further obligations.

I knew Reznikoff slightly, and used to come across him in the Éclair, an old-fashioned German pastry cafe on West 72nd Street. Bald-headed, with glasses, dipping his nose in his coffee like a bird’s beak, he wore a somewhat resigned, defeated air, which made me associate him with the Depression years. Knowing he had received less recognition as a poet than he deserved (at times even publishing his own books), I thought I saw traces of bitterness and disappointment in him, fiercely suppressed behind a set of gentle shrugs. Alongside the manifest tenderness in his work, there was a preoccupation with cruelty, though the cruelty was often directed at himself–as in this walking poem, where his stale solitude is not mitigated by any invigorating encounter:

I am alone–

and glad to be alone;

I do not like people who walk about

so late; who walk slowly after midnight

through the leaves fallen on sidewalks.

I do not like

my own face

in the little mirrors of the slot-machines

before the crowded stores.

Self-dislike is the Doppelganger dogging the walker, who must evade it all costs by immersion in the present. We know that feeling of suddenly catching a reflection of ourselves in a car-mirror and not liking what we see.

*

After I returned to New York and resumed my habitual walking, it so happened I fell under the tutelage of a Jungian shrink who encouraged me to attend to the present moment–a hopeless proposition, in the long run; but for a while, I schooled myself in concrete detail (the opposite of motes), in the street’s one-thing-after-anotherness. No therapist alone could have gotten me to live in the present, but this was also a general recipe among poets I admired, such as Reznikoff, Frank O’Hara and Edwin Denby, and I wanted at the time to be a poet, like them, of proudly urban verse. In the meantime I kept diaries, telling myself: You need not seek, the streets will deliver all in due time.

In front of Carnegie Hall near the Russian Tea Room, there was a crazy man screaming his lungs out, something about “Man is an animal!”–in any case, not very interesting from the viewpoint of language or ideas. People were swerving away from him, but he was tyrannizing the whole street with his insane yelling. Finally I had had enough: I said, “Oh, shut up!” Straightaway he got a happy gleam in his eye. I made a beeline for the coffee shop across the street and sat down at a table, but he came in right after me, and in front of the cash register man and a dozen customers on stools, he began poking his finger at me. I realized now that he was much taller than I had thought. I started making the motion with my hand of patting the waves, the now-wait-a-minute-buddy-calm-down gesture.

“You want me on your back?” he yelled with satisfaction. “Huh? You want ME ON YOUR BACK, Mister?!” I had to admit he had a point.

**

The truncated anecdote: so often this was what I brought home from my walks and tried to work up into something literary. I was squeezing the sidewalks for free entertainment. Often enough, they obliged. Urbanists are fond of comparing the streets of a metropolis to a theatrical set–a tricky metaphor and, by now, a tiresome one. The American theater being what it is today, the streets are probably a more reliable source of diversion. But what they give you, for the most part, are curtain-raisers.

#

I walked, I walked. In cold weather I appreciated the chestnut sellers, the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, the chalky elephant-gray lighting of Radio City and the NBC Building, and the way various towers around midtown were suddenly competing to illuminate their crowns. In hot weather I became a connoisseur of halter tops and sidewalk book vendors.

After years of this peripatetic lyricism, the effect began to wear off. Alone, I’d walk the avenues annoyed, too indrawn to appreciate detail. At times, the city bored me with its density, it’s celebrated this-that-and-the-other. But then, whenever it suited me, I’d fall into my walker-in-the-city act. With Kay, for instance, a woman who dated me, off and on, for years, obligingly playing my femme fatale: when she and I went for a walk, and she began dissecting her depressions, sometimes, to change the subject, I’d show off my famous affection for the streets, pointing out brickwork, mansards, gargoyles, quoins, lampposts attracting snow, cute dogs with curly tails, the asphalt rainbows after a summer storm. She’d say: “It’s only when I’m seeing you that New York has that shimmer of enchantment. Because you love it so.”

There is about this walking (usually in the case of men, though not exclusively) an imperialistic vanity, as though you could possess a city by marking it with your shoe leather, side-by-side with a conviction of incurable solitude, that stems from early feelings of powerlessness: mind-locked, onanistic, boastful, defensive, and melancholy (as all flirtations with the infinite must be). Perhaps, like Whitman, I also walked looking for erotic adventure, and, though I never actually picked up anyone on these peregrinations, they were all undertaken under the sign of Venus. I was not looking to find romance itself, so much as to be invaded by sharp glimpses of heart-stopping beauty, to take back with me and muse over in my rooms. It seemed to me that with so many of the women I passed, I could achieve happiness. While my actual bachelor experiences ought to have chastened this naïveté, I never succeeded in rooting out the utopian dream of finding my soulmate, or at least her fleeting paradigm, in the street.

Then I fell in love in my late forties, and remarried. At first I wondered, since the aesthetic response to beauty never dies, if the streets might pose a continuous challenge to my fidelity, mentally if not physically. Of course I still look at pretty women, sometimes longingly, but one main result of marriage has been that I find myself walking less. Manhattan, that mecca for singles, has become less purposefully fascinating, now that the hunt is over. Besides, I am expected at home.

These days, when I walk around Manhattan, often I don’t really see the city: that is, I see it in a blur, taking in only what I need to navigate its streets. At times I’ll even perversely read a book as I walk, espying only as much of the streetscape as peripheral vision around the volume’s borders will allow. I resent the pressure (which I’ve put on myself–nobody asked me to!) to find grace in the old lobbies and water towers, or piquancy in the physiognomies of my fellow citizens. Yes, New York is amazing, but must I always pay it homage? As a native son, don’t I have the right to take it for granted? How often have I conned myself into being astonished by the Flatiron Building, making believe I was a tourist seeing it for the first time! No more. If New York is going to astonish me, it had better do so without my lifting a finger.

It still does, even if the astonishment is milder. In late May, I love to walk around Greenwich Village in the afternoon and see the three o’clock sun on the facades of red-bricked, Federal-style townhouses. I think there’s some mystery to the light at this time of year, but then I realize it’s only that the trees are coming into bloom, and I’m seeing the light filtered through and softened by erose leaves, which cast delicate shadows against the building walls. Also, there’s a perfect correspondence in scale: one tree, one townhouse. An equivalence, a relationship. By July, you are so used to the fullness of the trees that you don’t notice the light any more–you notice the heat. And of course in winter the sun is dimmer and the trees are bare. But there really is something miraculous about the sun-licked facades at that time of year. And your energy is higher, because it’s fun to walk around in Spring with a nip still in the air.

*

The above chapter appears in Phillip Lopate’s “Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan”

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§ One Response to “On The Aesthetics of Urban Walking and Writing”

  • Great piece. I just finished reading Coverley’s book on walking and writing (where your site was listed in the bibliography).

    I married a NYC (whose family moved to The Island) girl 45 years ago, which gave me opportunities to visit the city often.

    Chris

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