My favorite walk is still a loop I used to take in the evenings when I was young and insomniac. I’d start at Houston Street and follow Broadway up to Columbus Circle, then take Fifty-Ninth Street to Second Avenue and then back down to my apartment in the East Village.
This was back in the late nineties and early 2000s, when New York had become safe but was still a bit scruffy and sometimes smelly. My loop took me from the edge of SoHo, which was only beginning to transition from hip to faux-hip, and followed a succession of distinct districts that may as well have come from different planets: the wide-eyed college kids in Washington Square, the druggies and punks who still colonized Union Square, then the high-end antiques district that abruptly became the wholesale perfume district; a fleeting taste of office towers at Madison Square, then the ever-increasing commercial presence that seemed to culminate at Macy’s on Herald Square. It didn’t culminate there, of course, instead pushing through all barriers of possibility to explode into the surreal hypercommerce of Times Square–intoxicating or disgusting, depending on your point of view, though I think it can be both at the same time. Then things got calmer and classier on the way to Columbus Circle, which mattered to me back then because it was home to Colosseum Books. I’d walk on the south side of 59th Street to look in the shop and hotel windows, instead of on the Central Park side, which was still not a place to be alone in the dark. Through the skyscrapers of Midtown, then, to Second Avenue, which was still a decidedly Honeymooners sort of New York–immigrants shouting out the windows to relatives on the streets, unpretentious and sometimes unwelcoming bars serving food and drinks that were “good” but not actually good.
I don’t know how long it took. I didn’t have any sort of timepiece back then–I’m too neurotic to wear a watch and cell phones were considered a needless luxury.
I’ve lived in a lot of cities since then, and the ability to take a long walk remains my chief measure of a place’s livability. (Not a hike in the woods, either. I’ll do it, of course, but I get bored looking at trees, and uneven ground makes me nervous. Also, in the woods there is very little chance that I’ll find a good eatery.) Whenever I read an article about “The Best Places to Live in America” (or the world) a part of me wants to call up the writer or editor or whoever and explain to them my criteria: 1) take all the usual measurements of cost of living, crime, job availability, cultural establishments, etc, and rank the city on the scale of 1-100; then 2) subtract one full point for every minute that you must spend in your car. Then give me your total.
I never drove a car in New York, and almost never even took a taxi. So New York ranks high.
In Virginia I had a neighbor who would drive from her garage to her curb in order to check the mail. Virginia ranks low.
In Colombo once I walked from my house to the office and when I showed up drenched in sweat my colleague was stunned. “You walked?” she gasped. Then, “Ugh, I hate walking!” Colombo, for all its charms, doesn’t rank very high either.
I now live in Kampala, Uganda, in a pretty neighborhood called Kololo that, except for a commercial strip along Acacia Avenue, is suburban and residential, mostly big houses set amid giant gardens. I can walk along Acacia to the supermarket or mall or whatever, but Kampala is hot and very hilly, so mostly I drive everywhere. I don’t really think anything about it; I’ve been away from New York long enough to know that purely walkable cities are an anomaly anyway, and none of my friends ever talk about talking long walks in Kampala (hikes in the country, yes, but I’ve already covered that). And Kampala is compact, so you never have to drive far to get to where you’re going.
Kampala does have a proper downtown area, though, clustered on Nakasero Hill and Old Kampala Hill. Nakasero is only about five minutes on foot from my house, but since I’ve been here the route there has been under construction as the city converts the old traffic circle into a regular intersection, and the resulting chaos has turned me off from going there. I’ve driven into downtown on occasion, but the traffic is hair-raising and parking is scarce.
Yesterday, though, I went for a short stroll and, on a whim, instead of turning up Acacia towards the shops, I turned towards downtown. The construction is finished now and a gleaming sidewalk now leads straight across into the heart of the city, so I went.
I always hear people rhapsodizing about walks on the beach or in the woods, but there must be something wrong with me because nothing makes my heart dance more than the commotion of a canyon-like city street. Kampala’s central streets are graceful and attractive, curving around the hills, lined with acacia trees (Acacia Avenue, weirdly, doesn’t have any), and dotted with smart coffee shops, art galleries, enticing restaurants, and charming little stores. The architecture is mostly that tropical-flavored modern-from-the-1950s, an ersatz Miami minus the beach. There’s some typical government gigantism, but also some picturesque spots that are lovingly adorned with decades of stories waiting to be heard.
And even here, among the steel and glass and business attire, giant birds swoop down from above and roost on power lines or traffic lights. I saw a maribou stork, a vulture-like beast about the size of a kindergartener, perched on a newspaper kiosk. Nobody seemed to mind.
I walked for about an hour, before the rising heat and steep hills took their toll and made me sweaty and unpresentable. I came home and plopped onto my couch and realized just how tired I was. I’d been out for maybe two hours at most, and my whole body was drained. Happily so. Even though I’d just spent two hours inhaling urban grit, my lungs felt clearer and cleaner than they had in months. I spent the rest of the day pleasantly mellow, and this morning when I woke up my first thought was that I can’t wait for my next day off so I can take another such walk. Retracing my route on a map, I can see that I only just scratched the surface. Next time I’ll plot out some goals, and remember to take pictures.
I still need my car to get around–in fact, as soon as I post this I have to jump in and drive to the office–but rediscovering my urban heart has, I think given me back something that I didn’t know I was missing, or understand how much I needed.