From its beginnings, Los Angeles has run on wheels –– railroads, streetcars, buses, bicycles, and millions upon millions of automobiles. When we’re young, we often hear that nobody walks in the LA area, and that to do so is (at best) impractical and (at worst) downright foolish.
But not always. According to the award-winning writer and historian D.J. Waldie, the LA region can be a walking city too, with plenty of details to savor. From the sidewalk, a neighborhood‘s quirks and idiosyncrasies zoom into focus, and the walker can appreciate what Waldie has called the “sacred ordinariness” of the everyday.
By D.J. Waldie
L’histoire en commence au ras du sol, avec des pas.
The story begins down on the ground, with footsteps.
— Michel de Certeau
I look at sidewalks a lot. Miserable eyesight makes the far away a muddle better ignored. Miserable depth perception makes the up close a zone of missteps. Anything unforeseen underfoot can take a walker down. Yet walkers seem nonchalant, as if gravity wasn’t dogging every step. If you had to think hard about walking, you couldn’t do it.
Sidewalks were my suburb’s first choice: to have or to have not. Not preserves the illusion that home is indifferent to what’s beyond the front lawn. No sidewalk means no skateboarders, no casual strollers, fewer strangers at the door. Sidewalks mean chalked hopscotch grids, some woman walking her dog, a flyer slipped into the lattice of the screen door. A sidewalk has perils. With your first step, a sidewalk might take you anywhere.
Los Angeles prefers wheels to walking, any wheels at all: steel wheels on rails, chrome wheels on freeway concrete, urethane wheels on sidewalks. Angelenos are not who they want to be unless they’re in control of a vehicle—skateboard or Maserati—and that thing is in motion. They will do almost anything to stay moving: a rolling stop, a lane change to get one car length ahead. When their wheels stop, Angelenos suffer an intimation of mortality.
I walk every day. It’s not strenuous walking at about three miles an hour. I walk out of habit, taking familiar routes, but each walk is different, and not just because the conditions of light and air are various. In the midst of impressions that persist from walk to walk are just as many that I experience for the first and last time. These shadows cast across the sidewalk. Those shining tracks of snails. The rattle of the wind in a nearly leafless tree. Although minor, each day’s walk is the manifestation of a new story.
I sometimes walk before dawn, while the thumbnail curve of the moon passes in and out of the sycamores, maples, and liquidambars that line the blocks near my house. The trees had been planted with bureaucratic efficiency years ago in the grass strip between the sidewalk and the curb, but nature took that plan and twisted it, and the trees are no longer abstractions of the municipally supplied landscape. Each tree is itself—bent or straight, thick or slim, thriving or declining.
If I stop in the middle of the sidewalk and take in the whole sky above the rooflines, I know that the contrast of the white clouds against the blue-black sky is an artifact of the reflected glare of the basin’s tens of thousands of streetlights. So much light and wasted just for me on my way.
My walk is often punctuated by the warning cries of juvenile crows giving advice to other crows that I’m passing through their world just as the crows are passing through mine. Sometimes in autumn, when I walk under the low-hanging branch of the ugly Brazilian pepper tree at the corner, I cut an anchor line of a persistent orb spider who spins a new web there each night. I feel the web and shudder and know something of a life that has nothing to do with me. I walk on perfectly ordinary suburban sidewalks, where encounters occur unbidden.
You can be distracted by daydreams while walking, but then a birdcall, the smell of dry adobe or night-blooming jasmine, or the way the light of LA illuminates every tawdry palm tree will momentarily unfold your self-absorption. I encounter at every step the intersection of this place and my character.
As LA County’s transportation planning agency, we’re working hard to improve conditions for walkers. We assemble first/last mile plans that include pedestrian improvements to help riders get to and from our stations. (After all, every trip on transit begins with a walk.) And our four sales tax ballot measures also send hundreds of millions of dollars back to the 88 cities and unincorporated parts of LA County for all types of mobility improvements –– crosswalks, streetlights, street trees, sidewalk upgrades and many other fixes –– that make exploring Los Angeles on foot safer and more enjoyable for everyone.
Want to read more of Waldie on walking? You can buy his latest book, ‘Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory, and a Sense of Place,’ here!
And check out his reflections on Union Station here, written in 2014 to coincide with the building’s 75th anniversary.
Categories: Transportation News