Walking the City: Random Walks Through Manhattan Streets

In Street Life: Becoming Part of the City, Joseph Mitchell wrote:

What I really like to do is wander aimlessly in the city. I like the walk the streets by day and by night. It is more than a liking, a simple liking–it is an aberration. Every so often, for example, around nine in the morning, I climb out of the subway and head toward the office building in midtown Manhattan in which I work, but on the way a change takes place in me–in effect, I lose my sense of respectability–and when I reach the entrance to the building I walk right past it, as if I had never seen it before. I keep on walking, sometimes only for a couple of hours, but sometimes until deep in the afternoon, and I often wind up a considerable distance away from midtown Manhattan–up in the Bronx Terminal Market maybe, or over on some tumbledown old sugar dock on the Brooklyn riverfront, or out in the weediest part of some weedy old cemetery in Queens. It is never very hard for me to think up some excuse that justifies me in behaving this way…

I lived in Manhattan from 1993 to 2000 and often walked ‘aimlessly in the city’; Manhattan’s layout encouraged such roaming. It felt like a gigantic playground, laid out so as to invite exploration. I moved across the Hudson to 95th Street and West End Avenue in 1993, and soon began walking regularly to and from my classes on 42nd Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues). I wanted to vary my walk, so I chose different methods for changing my routes: sometimes crossing straight over to Broadway and then walking uptown, sometimes heading for Central Park West, sometimes letting the lights regulate my path. The feeling of stumbling onto a never-before explored city block never grew old; I often thought of checking them off a list but felt too lazy to do so, trusting that time and my randomizing algorithms would eventually exhaust the possibilities. When I moved to the Lower East Side (5th Street between Avenues A and B) in 1997, I continued walking to 42nd Street, and was able to conduct my explorations while heading uptown. As always, I found storefronts, buildings, street characters, food, and sundry other urban features and residents I would not have had I stuck exclusively to taking the subway.

Manhattan encouraged expansive walking. I dreamed up extravagant routes and sometimes acted on these plans. On one such jaunt, I walked from 5th Street to 110th (the northern edge of Central Park), moving from 59th to 110th along Central Park East, turned west, walked south along Central Park West down to 59th again, turned east to Lexington Avenue, walked south till 28th, where I stopped for some Indian food, before heading back home. I planned too, to walk the entire length of Broadway, never pulled it off, but haven’t given up that dream yet.

Walking on Manhattan streets reminded me, as always, that the best way to experience a city is from street level; the pace is right, its features pop into focus, you can stop and stare and sample. A city is made up of streets; walking on them is still how one best finds out what makes it tick.

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