One thing that grad school has done away with are the stretches of actual free time. Time that you don’t have to spend working towards a deadline. Time that you can just spend, profligately. We talk about wasting time as a negative. But wasting time is in and of itself kind of an art. And in New York, the ultimate aesthetic wasting of time is taking a walk.
New York is organized along broad thoroughfares, which makes it perfect for a long roam. Manhattan boasts obvious virtues in this category: you can walk from the Village, up Hudson Street, which turns into 9th Avenue, which turns into Columbus, and ends at Morningside Park near 125th Street. Or you can trek the 13 miles up Broadway from one end of the island to the other. You can take Park from City Hall up to East Harlem. The long tunnels of avenues suck you in, pull you to see what’s one block down.
Outside of Manhattan, avenues cut through neighborhoods. As you follow them, you see the layers of the city built side by side and on top of each other. Flatbush Avenue will take you from Brooklyn Bridge, through Prospect Park, all the way down to the Rockaways. Myrtle Avenue will take you all the way from the trendy shops of downtown Brooklyn, through arty Clinton Hill and the colorful quiet of Bushwick, out to Kew Gardens, Queens.
In Queens, 21st Street will take you from Newton Creek, which separates the borough from Brooklyn, all the way up to the East River. And the Steinway to Newton to Woodside ramble of streets will take you through a nonlinear tour of the borough.
Grand Concourse, Fordham Road, and Pelham Parkway in the Bronx will carry you across the Bronx. Each of these roads is a artery, pumping you through the circulatory system of the city. And you miss out on the city’s heartbeat – you never quite catch the rhythm – if you never feel yourself a singular cell, whirling through its cardiovascular urban maze.
So many writers – E.B. White, Andre Aciman, dare I say, Fran Lebowitz – talk about New York primarily through walking. It’s a trusty metaphor for every stripe of urban angst and delight. Frustration with tourists walking slowly is frustration with the extractive nature of the city: frustration with the rich who treat it as a mine to pull wealth from, or the tourist who treats it as a playground rather than a patchwork quilt of neighborhoods. Both missing the basic sense of what a city is: a place to live and work and eat and grow and die.
Roaming in New York is a quest in search of something. Of what, you don’t have to be quite sure. But urban life is always a series of encounters with the unexpected – it’s unpredictable because you cannot control eight million other people who make the city what it is. When walking, you deliver yourself over to the unexpected, unsure of where your feet will take you or who you might encounter on the walk. This morning, I saw men setting up a grid outside of an exquisitely carved church, hanging religious knickknacks and doodads on the metal mesh. I saw stark, contemporary apartment buildings nestled next to pre-war townhomes built in the unassuming style of the outer boroughs. I saw murals painted on buildings and keys of return spray painted on the sidewalk.
New York can also be so insular. Your world can shrink to 10 blocks quite easily – everything you need for daily life is within a mile radius. You never really have to leave your little bubble, if you don’t want to. Walking is a way to remind yourself that your small neighborhood is part of something really impossibly huge. Something massive that you can never quite fully comprehend – the closest you’ll get to understanding it is by losing yourself in it.