Any city is filled with barriers that complicate movement. Some barriers are porous and easily surmounted, and others represent true impediments to movement. During your walk, find a porous barrier and pass through it. Next, find a barrier that cannot be overcome and explore what makes it so, and how the barrier itself becomes a conduit for new pathways. If you can, circumvent the barrier.
Bonus walk: It is easy to forget how privileged we are to be able to walk through a city relatively unimpeded and unencumbered. For this walk, everyone in the group should hold hands and close their eyes. The person at the head of the group should lead the rest of the group on a guided walk for ten minutes. After the walk is finished, discuss how it felt to be in the middle of the group, at the end. What did it feel like to walk without the benefit of sight?
Today, during the running of the New York City marathon, I walked to Times Square from my apartment in Greenpoint. As happens every year during the marathon, roads and bridges were closed to cars, and the route was lined with cheering supporters, cops, and marathon volunteers who distribute water and keep the crowds at bay. From the Pulaski Bridge, I saw waves of participants: first, the racers in wheelchairs, then the elite women, the elite men, and then everyone else.
I hoped to follow the marathon runners into Manhattan, and follow their progress along Central Park south until 8th Avenue, where I could veer towards Time Square. But when I reached the Queensborough Bridge, I was told that the pedestrian lane was closed for wheelchairs until 3pm. So, I headed north along the river to the 36th Avenue Bridge to Roosevelt Island. Along the way, I thought about desire lines (or their absence) in the heavily industrial areas of northern Brooklyn and southern Queens. While I couldn’t find any patches of grass cut through by pedestrians, I did have the very unusual experience of being able to walk on roads and thoroughfares normally filled with traffic, and move, as a pedestrian, through spaces entirely denied to cars and buses. I felt safe from speeding vehicles, which in itself seemed to me to be a desire line of my own making. My extended route also gave me the opportunity to experience the “state of inbetweenness” referenced in the dala CityWalk, especially on Roosevelt Island, where a broken escalator below a set of unused stairs seemed to me exactly “a fragmented space lacking character.” I left Roosevelt Island on a tram that soared high above the Queensborough Bridge and the East River, and I was able to see the stream of runners below me against the backdrop of the New York skyline.
Once in Manhattan, the structure and mood of my walk changed dramatically. While I had experienced long, empty walls and pathways in Queens, my path and steps in Manhattan were shortened and hindered by the crowds watching the marathon. The clanging of bells, the blowing of horns, the shouts of cops telling everyone to move along made the city alive with movement and noise. I reflected on the stillness of my previous miles, and the ways in which a city is often defined by the density of people on the streets, rather than the density of people behind the walls of their own apartments and houses. After threading my way through increasingly crowded places, I finally reached Times Square and the top of the red staircase. Unsurprisingly, I was immediately asked to take pictures of a number of tourists pairs, and I was struck by how chaotic and aesthetically unappealing the backdrop was. The day was windy and cold, so I was happy to leave the staircase quickly in search of the color red, which proliferated in advertisements, clothing, and streetlights. The color green also seemed to be everywhere, although I found the experience of seeking out red and green to be exhausting. In a place like Times Square, where there is so much color, it was hard to force myself to pause and go slowly and consider my surroundings. I just wanted to leave. Compared to the austere landscapes and bridges of my earlier hours, the scene at Times Square seemed overwhelming. As a resident of New York, I felt alienated by the space, and I was puzzled by the ease and good cheer of the tourist jostling for the best spots for selfies. I realized that my discomfort with the scene was to be expected: the space was not built with me in mind. With that final thought, I walked to Grand Central Station and boarded the final train back to Queens, where I disembarked and walked back to my home in Brooklyn.