Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Around the Block

Sidewalks might seem an odd topic for an essay, but I find myself thinking about them a good deal as I walk the streets of my little city. I live in Providence, and like any old city, it is a layered place. In some neighborhoods the sidewalks shift mid-block, alternating between modern asphalt, depression-era concrete, and decorative brick. And then there is the cobblestone. The New World measures age differently than the rest, and here the cobblestone is ancient, a remnant from a world now remote and gone. We have no Roman roads or Neolithic monoliths in New England, but the cobblestone is a reminder that a different yet analogous society once functioned here.

There is a particular street, an alley by modern standards, which holds my imagination like almost no other in the city. It is tiny and hidden, just a lane connecting two side streets, but it contains centuries. As I write, its name escapes me, though I know exactly where to find it. The street is almost too old for sidewalks, but has a narrow, raised strip on either side. To my delight, it is paved entirely in cobblestone. Worn and cracked from endless years of foot, cart, hoof, and eventually auto traffic, it remains as a porthole to a past that is becoming increasingly obscured by less substantial things. If one stands at the end of this street and looks down, the sight is not that different from what a man or woman in the Eighteenth Century might have seen. The gulf of time and culture that separates me and my world from the Colonial Englishmen who once roamed my neighborhood is fairly large, but it’s somehow reassuring to know that before anyone had ever thought of “America” as a political entity, people were living and dying in this city, some in houses that are still occupied.

Before America had a highway system, or the world’s largest economy, or even a self-conscious political identity, it had cobblestone streets and horses, and a population that got around without the thought of automobiles, or even electricity. There is something special about a place that allows one to feel this in a tangible way. I cannot help but regard places like my little alley as treasures of a high order to be protected fiercely from the intruding forgetfulness of world that doesn’t want to know its own history.

The sidewalk is an endangered thing in car-crazy America. Entire subdivisions are sometimes built without them. Many people now live their lives without substantial use of their feet. The fact that this does not disturb us more than it does speaks volumes about our priorities. And yet sidewalks have a peculiar and important place in the world. Urban people live much of their lives on the sidewalk. Street performers make sidewalks their stage. The sidewalks of New York City are as busy as any highway; in fact you might say that sidewalks are a kind of human highway.

My own sidewalks may never be as well traveled as those of Manhattan, yet they have seen centuries of traffic and they reflect this sometimes beautifully, sometimes roughly as they carry me from block to block, through the city and around again to the place where I began. They are always waiting.

The Urban Luddite.