As a boy I wandered through the streets, stores and parks of my East Bronx neighbourhood avidly noticing everything that I encountered. I took mental notes, but I was too young then to be able to articulate or write about what I experienced. Sometimes I would sit on the hard concrete stands of our local park’s sandlot ball field watching the Puerto Rican league baseball teams play, while listening to the middle-aged men (taxi drivers, letter carriers, furriers) watching the game. The men wore white ribbed undershirts and straw hats, smoked harsh-smelling cigars, exchanged insults, and vented about their jobs and domestic lives that only seemed to oppress them. There was some camaraderie but no intimacy between them – much loud, declamatory talk thrown out for their own pleasure and self-esteem, but little connection with the people they were talking to. On other days I would watch retired Jewish garment workers wearing fedoras and caps and dark overcoats gather on the park’s benches arguing angrily and animatedly in Yiddish and English about the merits and defects of Stalin, their union leaders, and Harry Truman vs. Henry Wallace. They may have been the last American generation where so many white workers would be so politically passionate and even ideologically sophisticated.

There were other times that I took long walks down the neighbourhood’s prime lower-middle-class shopping street. I watched how the stores changed over time. In the early fifties they were individually owned – jewellry, toy and clothing stores, dress shops, bakeries and ice cream parlours that were far from elegant and affluent, but comfortable and welcoming. Then gradually the street turned into a string of ninety-nine cent chain stores – their inventory sloppily laid out in overflowing cartons and scattered on tables – cheap pizza slice places, and a variety of other characterless, scruffy, downscale shops. The neighbourhood was clearly in decline. By the late fifties rows of stores were burned down for insurance, and their charred remains littered the sidewalks; and clumps of vaguely menacing gang members in black leather jackets and ducktail haircuts and their girl friends in their gang auxiliary sweaters hung out and self-consciously postured in front of a luncheonette. These scenes signified the street’s growing shabbiness and the neighbourhood’s general deterioration, prefiguring the white flight of the sixties, which turned my section of the Bronx into a generally impoverished Hispanic enclave. (And later into a burnt-out wasteland of abandoned buildings, shattered streetlights, and empty, refuse-glutted lots.)

During that time I was attending a municipal college in Harlem and my interest in and connection to neighborhood life and streets began to wane. Manhattan became my destination for parties, cultural events and just exploring, and it was ultimately where I established my permanent home.

From the beginning, for my walks to be truly meaningful they had to be solitary in nature; otherwise, I would lose myself in conversation with friends, and miss much of the social and personal detail and drama that aroused my curiosity. And even when alone I had to avoid becoming enmeshed in my own thoughts and feelings, and try to focus on what was outside myself. Though screening all the external sensation out when I walked did offer the kind of serenity that allowed me to dig deeper into myself.

That fervour for walking has held up over the years and I have continued to take these Bronx walks in Manhattan, London, Seattle, and other cities for close to half a century. However, it’s only when I began to write about them that I discovered that my passion had a name. I was a flaneur in the tradition but obviously without the talent of Charles Baudelaire, the great nineteenth-century French poet and prose writer, who distinguished his flaneurs from other people who either walk to work, or to meet somebody – for the flaneur’s walks are more fanciful and much less functional. They rarely have a particular goal in mind. What he or she does is to open his consciousness up to the scenes that one passes. The flaneur closely
observes how people eat, dress, speak, and play, their interest being whetted by daily living as much as by classical objects of art or historic monuments.

At seventy-six I continue to walk a great deal, but I am a step or two slower, and I get tired more easily. There are also occasional moments when my feet stiffen or tingle intensely (I suffer from neuropathy) and I begin to feel as if I’m hauling lead weights around. When that happens I can’t navigate more than a few blocks without needing to sit down and rest.

Still, on my solitary strolls I still try to notice everything that I pass. These are walks where I desire to prevent any significant detail or incidental drama from eluding me.

New York is a much different city now from what it was two decades ago. Manhattan is awash with money, and so are sections of Brooklyn. And on the Lower East Side’s rapidly gentrifying Orchard St., where once there were blocks of musty, unfashionable bargain clothing stores run by immigrants (my mother used to force me to buy at one of them) there are now French bistros, Japanese boutiques wood-panelled bars, hotels, small luxury buildings, and two expensive hotels.

In the adjoining, once bohemian East Village where in the eighties uniformed policemen might queue up to buy drugs in the middle of the day, drug markets were rife, and homeless encampments thrived, there is much less crime, and the streets are clean, if not beautiful. On almost every street three or four new, dull, overpriced apartment houses have been built (and a one bedroom on Avenue B can sell for as much as $1,395,000), and sometimes one sees a building with a touch of architectural uniqueness. Many of the area’s tenements have been renovated to appeal to younger, more affluent residents – close to seventy per cent of the population is now white – and a variety of first-rate restaurants have popped up to serve them.

In affluent areas like Midtown’s 57th St., a set of thin extremely tall towers is rising whose tenants are foreign billionaires, who essentially live in them only a few weeks a year. The buildings are sterile symbols of ostentatious global wealth, and only undermine the character of the streetscapes – dwarfing everything around them including landmarked buildings like Carnegie Hall.

In Manhattan new condos have gone up on almost every available empty lot, and replacing any tenement or two-story building that can be demolished. There are no Manhattan neighbourhoods that one walks through that are free from some glimmer of gentrification and the possibility of a future transformation. In addition, the city stands as the apotheosis of American income inequality where the infamous one per cent of top earners have over a third of the total income.

Walks also can mean encounters with strangers; though I don’t normally talk to people I pass. But one day I descend into a sweltering subway station and while waiting for a train I have a rushed conversation with a man who runs the newsstand. He claims to have been a painter in Bangladesh, and speaks of the anonymity of this tedious work where he never has a real encounter – complaining he must live with the continually jarring, dehumanizing sound of the trains. The talk lasts just a moment, but it’s a poignant one, and it strikes me that for every immigrant success story there are always a number who are able to make a living but find the dreams they came with dashed. They survive in America, but they are unfulfilled. Yes, what they have here maybe better than the poverty and violence they had lived with before, but the despair persists.

I have been moved to reflect with greater complexity about my walks by a new book, A Philosophy of Walking (Verso) by a Frenchman, Frédéric Gros – a philosopher interested in the quotidian. Written with consummate clarity, the book conveys Gros’s thoughts about walking, offering a discussion of various thinkers (e.g., Thoreau, Kant, Rousseau) for whom walking was essentially a contemplative act.

Most of his famous walkers take long rambles in nature, but I am most interested in his chapter on the city flaneur – my model. Gros writes that the anonymity of the flaneur does not ‘crush him, but is an opportunity for enjoyment, enabling him to feel more vividly himself’. More importantly, ‘he follows everything, observing, his mind always alert’. It is what I try to do, laying myself open to, in Gros’s words, ‘scattered visual impacts’. At times, as is my wont, I make social and political judgments. So I am aware how so many of the city’s aesthetic pleasures – the resurrection of Central Park, the grace of a Fifth Avenue Church, a Ralph Lauren store housed in the Renaissance Revival Rhinelander Mansion on Madison Avenue are rooted in the city’s corporate wealth and economic inequality. But, for the moment, I suspend my political consciousness and take pleasure in their beauty. For like most flaneurs, on my walks it is the sensations themselves that are paramount.

By Leonard Quart

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