“We can all see the cracks in the sidewalks, and roadways, yet we fail to see the cracks in humanity.” ~ Anthony T. Hincks
I have been thinking of writing this blog for quite some time. I never really cared much about sidewalks until I began studying public health as a graduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Armed with a master’s in public health and years of city living under my belt, my appreciation for built environments – of which sidewalks are the most readily recognizable – increased dramatically. Sidewalks are also strong predictors in determining the health of millions of people, by reducing abysmally disparate health outcomes in providing a safe place to increase physical activity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines built environment as the physical makeup of where we live, learn, work, and play—our homes, schools, businesses, streets and sidewalks, open spaces, and transportation options. The built environment can influence overall community health and individual behaviors such as physical activity and healthy eating.
Turns out, sidewalks are more than chalk-covered canvasses portraying the imagination of expressive children. The well-manicured, tree and shrubbery lined sidewalks offer more than a signal of “good neighborhoods.” On the flip side, sidewalks in certain neighborhoods act as obstacle courses. Created by retaliatory root systems from trees stuffed between street curbs and inflexible walkways, buckled sidewalks invite the rightfully loathed twisted ankle. This makes walking and physical activity more of a chore than a pastime. I have stubbed my toe (yes, I was wearing shoes) and run out many embarrassing nearly-face-plant-trips while navigating the death traps of buckled sidewalks; think Birmingham’s Southside.
Fortunately, some cities – the District of Columbia comes to mind – have turned to a durable, concrete look-a-like rubber that allows sidewalks to bend to the will of determined tree roots systems while providing a treachery-free walking experience for pedestrians. Its seems as if solutions to most problems are oftentimes within reach.
The Importance of Sidewalks – Everyday Life
In an era of traffic jams, exploding inner-city populations, and the citizenry’s collectively growing waistband, building our environments to accommodate these trends is vital. Take the city in which Larry and I live now – Seattle. As Washington and the Pacific Northwest’s largest city – 725,000 residents – and a metro population estimate of 3.8 million people or 52% of the Evergreen State’s population, traffic in Seattle is abysmal. The geography of Cascadia’s largest principal city makes for limited highway infrastructure – a peninsula only connected to other parts of the city limits, surrounding suburbs, other Pacific Coast states and Canadian provinces via few bridges.
As part of an American obsession, waning or otherwise, Seattle too is a city of automobile enthusiasts. Motorists are crammed into traveling along one major north-south route, namely Interstate 5 or “the 5,” and few major east-west routes. Some researchers have observed automobile ownership’s steady decline, a trend driven mostly by millennials deciding not to buy a car. Many of Seattle residents in the neighborhoods closest to the city center simply walk to most places. It is safe to assume people living in Seattle’s other neighborhoods commute on foot as well, especially those near bus and light rail transit stops. A sizable cohort of the city’s commuters are avid bicycle riders, for both business and pleasure. All of this leads to more crowded sidewalks, including those bike riders who refuse to ride in the street where they belong.
Millennials are also forgoing purchasing McMansions in suburbia unlike our baby-boomer parents. Many people who are studying this trend have deduced we lack the cash for a down payment. Others pontificate we simply have chosen not to purchase homes; opting to rent for extended periods of time. Earlier in my adulthood, my reasoning for not purchasing a home was due to the former. Now it is definitely the latter. Accusations of wasteful spending by our baby-boomer, federal deficit exploding compatriots are ignored.
If we do buy, chances are we millennials purchase condos or townhouses in city centers. For those of us who never flocked to the suburbs chasing the overly hyped comfort of bedroom communities and “good schools,” we are now fighting alongside former suburbanites for expensive real estate in urban cores. Larry and I witness this form of suburban and exurban flight (back) into many a metro area’s principal city limits while living in Atlanta. For those of you familiar with the Peach State capital city, think of the breakneck speed with which East Atlanta transformed in less than a decade. The love affair with in-town living has only solidified our desire to be a part of the “urban vote”; we made the right decision to rent in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.
All of this points to why our inner city sidewalks are becoming more congested, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Abandoned, graffiti covered buildings once serving as the punchline for white flight and suburban sprawl, have been demolished and replaced by expensive high or mid-level skyscrapers stuffed with residential or mixed development units. Those buildings that survived the reverse flight, have been re-branded as “vintage” or “rustic.” They too have been retrofitted to the preferences of those seeking inner city residence. Not only are we able to live within a stone’s throw of our jobs, we can walk or take a Lyft with low opportunity costs to lively venues for fun with our spouses, friends, and/or select colleagues. Both options require the use of sidewalks.
You see the uptake of folks commuting on foot in crowds of people walking along sidewalks with Iced Venti Lattes and murses during rush hour. Commuters are packed into city buses and light rail cars like patient sardines. Schools of bicyclists wearing business causal attire or skin-tight, Lance-Armstrong-remains-my-idol gear with backpacks of work clothes in tow pedaling along brightly striped bike lanes. Hell, this may have always been the case and now I am noticing it more. Another trend we noticed taking shape in Atlanta before we left for DC was a massive lane re-striping effort on inner city streets to make room for bike lanes. We noticed in the DC-Maryland-Northern Virginia area the regular use of bike lanes had been the norm for quite some time. In Seattle, the hilly city streets are very biker-friendly.
All of this translates to millions of Americans being (or appearing to be) more physically active while doing things we usually do – commute to work and going to places where we have fun with our friends and relatives. With the reverse flight into inner cities and automobile ownership declining, we are spending less time idling and glacially moving along freeways comprising up to six thru lanes – think I-75 north of the I-285 junction in Cobb County, Georgia or the San Diego Freeway in SoCal. Such changes in behavior can only help the environment through shrinking our carbon footprint and our waistlines.
Yes, Sidewalks Can Be a Source of Stress
Sidewalks and other publicly funded, built, and maintained infrastructure are vital in addressing sedentary lifestyles. Strangely enough, many of our compatriots refuse to share the sidewalk. At times sharing the sidewalk is impossible; ask any New Yorker who regularly walks anywhere for any reason. This blog does not reference those situations. I am specifically speaking to situations where sharing the sidewalk is easily done, especially if all involved parties are willing. I find this notion of not sharing the sidewalk in these instances hilarious one day and infuriating the next.
Why hilarious? Well, some of our compatriots are so oblivious to their surroundings that unbeknownst to them other pedestrians also walk within the same general space. Neither city planners, the engineers who operationalize their vision, nor the taxpayers who fund it all intended for one pedestrian to absentmindedly walk in the middle of the sidewalk while others wrestle with confused dogs and crush adjacently planted annuals in attempting to avert a nose-to-nose collision. The responsibility of averting bipedal crashes rests on all involved parties, not just the over-worked one(s) passing out death stares. As with this type of idiocy, behaviors like unconsciously dominating the sidewalk is usually part of a pattern. Such a sidewalk hog may be the same person you would assume was either killed or severely injured from playing Pokémon Go and inattentively walking into traffic – a travesty discussed from a Tippecanoe County Indiana perspective by this Purdue University researcher.
This zombie-like gait and lack of situational awareness are related to other loathsome behaviors. Think of our fellow airline passengers – they are perpetually confused and flat-footed. Irrespective of the airport you travel to, from, or through – BOS, FLL, SEA, or SAN – a representation of airports in every corner of the Land of the Free, I guarantee you will encounter people slipping into full-blown crisis mode in trying to conquer the simplest of instructions. Sure, Transportation Security Agents (TSA) can be unapologetically impatient and intentionally terse – dispositions I once hurriedly judged. However, working for my previous employer required tremendous air travel which ushered in a different perspective of why TSA’s respond the way they do to “paying customers” and “taxpayers.” A reasonable person, and yes, TSA can be reasonable people, would think becoming completely befuddled by the simplest of tasks – taking your shoes off and placing them in the gray bin – is beyond the pale. I have seen it happen several times, disposing of unapproved liquids and removing one’s hat before walking through the scanner can be derailing and emotionally taxing for many.
From that perspective and many others that are related yet too numerous to reference in this blog, inattentive sidewalk monopolizers seem to fit right into the grand scheme of the American experience. These are the same people who frolic or drag along the middle of the sidewalk with zero understanding as to why I nearly dislocate their shoulder in not getting out of their way.
Given my growing desire to be more optimistic, there is a chance the sidewalk foe may realize (s)he is inadvertently blocking others from passing and quietly surrender his/her unfair share of the walking space. Everyone’s constitutional rights remain unblemished. Maybe this is not so much hilarious as it is saddening. Nope, I think I will laugh instead of cry. There is no need in crying over spilled selfishness on our sidewalks.
Yes, Sidewalks Have Always Been Racialized
Ugh, why is it that black people always bring up race? Some of us are millionaires; a few of us are billionaires. We have had a black President with a funny name. Why are we always complaining? Our present day white compatriots did not enslave us (yet benefit from the results of their ancestors’ murdering, raping, terrorizing, and enslaving ours while experiencing no accountability). They are not the ones murdering us outright in “standing their ground” or having the police do it “while fearing for their lives” if we do not clear the sidewalk for them. So, what gives? Do we not have something more pleasant to discuss, like Sunday Funday activities or Lebron James’ interview-abandoning $41,000 murse? Yes, I have used that word twice in this blog. It is belly-laughing funny. Race tends to show its face because it lurks everywhere all the time. We cannot spend one waking moment pretending racism in its many overt and insidiously hidden forms is imagined or an unfounded excuse to implacably complain. It is our reality in every facet of our being.
I am an educated, affluent black man with a white spouse. Ugh, who cares? Sure, my life is not the most terrible in the world. So, why are you complaining about race? Clearly we have come far as a country if you are married to a white guy. I share this because many people think racism goes away once you have “made it.” Made it where? Made it in China? “Made it” is not a destination to which Siri or anything else guides me. It is a ongoing experience akin to a never-ending journey, much as is the elusiveness of “being successful.”
Admittedly, my education and gainful employment as well as that of my spouse have made racism less damning. It is foolhardy to believe those things have completely neutralized the tendency of experiencing the deleterious effects of racism. Ignoring this reality would have me “waking up dead” as my southern mother would warn about precarious situations. Whether the sidewalk offender is unknowingly walking mid-sidewalk, skinning-n-grinning with her friends with whom she walks three-abreast toward me or whether he is “passionate about his country” and feels said “passion” should take up the entirety of the sidewalk, I have realized I cannot make any of them share this jointly financed space with me. Read this blogger’s take on the history of “real” Americans carrying on as if sidewalks paid for by everyone were only meant for them.
So, how do I handle the sidewalk fiends who may think my skin color renders the paved path inaccessible to me in their presence? I usually stake out my fair share of sidewalk turf by maintaining good posture and a forward-fixed, blank gaze. This modern, loosely defined duel either ends with the monopolizer(s) merging behind or in front of their friends, getting over to equitably share the sidewalk if he or she are walking solo, and/or playing a balance-destabilizing, high-impact, non-romantic version of shoulder-footsy. With the latter, the goal is to knock the violator entirely off the sidewalk, with minimal movement or contortion of one’s torso, and keep a steady face and walking pace as if nothing happened. It is a powerful lesson that seldom goes unheeded. Of course with this, the sidewalk hog will respond as if my shoulder nudge is synonymous to a meteor striking Puget Sound and created a 2,000-foot tall tsunami that toppled the sturdiest of Seattle skyscrapers. To keep up with this long-winded analogy, the violator landing in the shrubbery is the hypothetically toppled skyscrapers. As one of my mentors says all the time, “you have to teach people how to treat you.”
Sure, there is the possibility the sidewalk villain will overreact and call the cops to misrepresent our shoulder bumping encounter as a taxpayer funded way of putting me in my place. Some would argue assault with a deadly shoulder. There is a growing disdain for frivolously beckoning cops to scenes that can be defused by simply exercising decency toward another human being and/or having respectful conversations to move past simple misunderstandings. Also, not being nosy and/or racist is another way to eliminate unnecessary calls to the cops, wasting taxpayers’ money we so fervently argue when it is spent to feeding the downtrodden or providing legal aid to people seeking asylum from murderous dictatorial countries.
Circling back, the sidewalk queen giving such a false misrepresentation may prompt the men and women in blue to show up ready for combat with Hezbollah, placing my constitutional rights second to those of the sidewalk junkie (or irrelevant altogether because of my cantaloupe like calves or insert foolishness). The sidewalk gorger may very well understand this form of built environment is a shared resource for the use of real and fake American pedestrians alike. The lack of fucks to give clouds his judgement. May the “realest” American remain upright!
I would be remiss in refusing to clearly admit not of all our uniformed compatriots who protect and serve are racist murderers or poorly trained or using “in fear for their lives” as excuses to kill – just enough of them are. Many police officers dedicate their lives to ensuring my spouse Larry and I enjoy the privileges of the American experience. They are friendly, warm, welcoming, and a pleasure with which to interact. Many of them are very handsome too, just saying. I know this goes without saying (all of it not just the handsome part), yet it really did not given the tone I had in some of the preceding paragraphs. For those heroes, I am deeply appreciative.
Lastly, ending this blog on a pleasant note is anomalous. I never guarantee happy endings to my blogs.