I had intended to start this blog a little sooner. Already I’ve accumulated a lot of thoughts, anecdotes and more about adjusting back to living in New York City after over three decades away. I’ll slowly begin to share those. Today, however, I was motivated by an interesting observation.
Garage parking spaces are at a premium where I am living here in Starrett City in Brooklyn. There were no parking spaces available in the garage located near my building, on my loop. (Starrett City is basically a series of loops branching off the east and west sides of Pennsylvania Ave. The loops are named alphabetically-Ardsley, Bethel, Croton, Delmar, etc. Buildings in the complex are more commonly referred to their “place” in their section. My building in C-4, that is, the fourth building in the section including Croton loop. Never mind that only two of the buildings – C4 and C5 actually front on the loop.)
Anyway, the closest garage space I could get (and a rooftop space at that, so I hope I get an inside space before winter comes) is in the A garage. So on those once or twice a week occasions when I use my car, I have to make the trek to the garage. Today, as I was returning home from the garage after a relaxing afternoon drive out to Long Island (with no particular destination in mind) wheeling my shopping cart (I was going to go shopping but decided against it) I had what I can only think was a typical NYer’s thought: “why do architects always design walkways to follow indirect, meandering paths, often circumscribing large sections of lawns – lawns roped off the discourage people from walking on them?”
Thoughts swirled in my head. I realized that this was often just as true in other places – college campuses, other cities. I also thought about the ridiculousness of creating large swaths of lawn only to discourage people from using them (except, of course, in the proper place-the parks, or the country.) How odd that city architects often go out of their way to create green spaces, large and small, in the city, and then rope them off so people don’t use them.
The Dyckman Houses project in the Inwood section of Manhattan where I spent most of my childhood certainly had lots of open, green lawns between buildings, with pathways that usually forced you to take a less than direct route to your destination. In the city, there have always been those who simply disregard the “keep off the grass” signs and forge their own paths (and I’m not talking about “nature” types, but “selfish types,) but, at least as a child, by and large, I think most people followed the pathways and didn’t cut across the lawns. (Of course, the lawns aren’t fenced-off. There is usually a simple chain or wire between low posts surrounding the lawns – easy to step over.) However, kids will be kids, and we played lots of games – football, baseball, tag, ring-a-levio, hot-peas-and-butter and more – on the lawns. Oh, sometimes the housing cops would come along and chase us off, but that was pretty rare. Even with our regular play on the lawns, they didn’t look much the worse for wear-they remained green, and didn’t sprout huge bald spots. Some of the smaller lawns were actually ringed by bushes and were harder to get on, though we would sometimes use the bushes as pretend forts and shelters, too.
In my years away from NYC I’ve been on lots of campuses. On many of them, you could see the telltale signs of paved pathways that were added once it became clear that students were not staying on the allotted paths. I was always torn, emotionally, about such things. On the one hand, it makes a certain amount of sense to not overly inconvenience your students, and bow to their desires to be able to quickly get from one building to another with little time between classes. On the other hand, what sort of lesson does this teach students about respecting boundaries? It is interesting to note that outside of NYC, you don’t find as many lawns surrounded by low wires or chains intended to keep people off of them. I suppose people outside of NYC were less worried about preserving these lawns as they had more of them. (Green space is not as precious a resource in NYC as one might think. The city has many, many parks. Not all of them are in the best shape, but few neighborhoods are completely without close access to a park of other green area. (Even Manhattan has plenty of green spaces, though you might have to walk a little farther to get to one than in other boroughs.)
I have always struggled with shortcuts, myself. As a child, I rarely took a shortcut across a chained-off lawn. As an adult, I tend to be a very law and rule-abiding citizen. I’m not perfect, but I’m more likely to observe speed limits, not double-park, not stray from paths and walkways, etc. It’s an attribute that some of my friends and family have found annoying. I just can’t bring myself to do something just because everyone else does it. (Regular readers of my work may recall I’m found of the story that Eli Wiesel tells about the prophet who initially thought he could change people with her words, and now, after years of trying, he keeps preaching to keep himself from become like those to whom he preaches!)
I have to admit to a certain amount of surprise that I felt a mild annoyance at having to follow the less direct pathways back to my building. Was this an effect of being back in the city? Was I already succumbing to the tendency to be so time-challenged that even the slightest deviation from a direct path was problematic? What was my hurry? I was just concluding a leisurely afternoon and had nothing pressing to do. Sure, I’m older, and not in the best physical shape, so extra steps sometimes matter. But I’m not that old or out of shape yet for this to matter.
Things are relative. I knew that I had become used to life in small towns when three cars at a red traffic light was a traffic jam, when anything more than a 10 or 15 minute commute was long. We always get used to the ways things are where we are living. In Florida, we all enjoyed the light traffic during non-Tourist season,and bemoaned the change when the tourists came. In Florida and New Orleans one gets used to the muggy heat in the summer, and the threat of hurricanes. In Fargo, one gets used to the cold and the snow, the long winter, and the short but surprisingly hot summers. I have to be honest that I never really got used to anything in Nashville (except the high prevalence of allergies.) Living in the DC metro area for 5 years, I once again grew used to heavy traffic (in some ways, I found rush hours in that area worse than NYC.) Living in Amherst the past three years I got used to lighter traffic again (though it’s lightest during the summer when the students are all gone.)
My daily commute to work by bus and subway (from Brooklyn to Manhattan’s upper west side) now takes about 80-90 minutes door to door, so it is with amusement that I look back on those in the DC area who would complain about their long commutes, and even greater amusement at those who lived in the five-college area of Amherst-Northampton-Hadley-Mt. Holyoke – folks considered it a “long drive” to go the few miles from one to the other, especially if it required crossing a bridge over the Connecticut river. (DC Metro had a similar issue, with DC and Maryland folks always reluctant to cross the great “Potomac Ocean” to go to Northern Virginia. I routinely commuted (by car) from Alexandria, VA to Bethesda, MD for a number of years. No big deal.
I digress. Which is as it should be, and which should also be a lesson that it’s not always a bad thing to follow the meandering path rather than the direct shortcut. There are times for shortcuts, and times for meandering.
Sure, I’ve already begun studying my daily commute to figure which entrances/exits are closest and which subway cars will stop near the staircase that’s best to use, to know what alternatives there are when there’s a delay on one line. Which route will save a few steps, or avoid stairs. I’m considering which banks to use based on the convenience of which ones I pass on my daily commute. Yet sometimes, when I don’t feel time-pressured, I’ll take a longer route just for fun. In fact, being back in NYC has been healthier for me. I am walking a lot more, and using steps more often.
The real question for me is whether one of the keys to not feeling time-pressured is to, well, not feel time-pressured, and just enjoy the path you’re following, even if it’s not the most direct. This applies both when you are and are not in control of that. (Case in point is that I’ve had the opportunity to accompany my Mother on Access-A-Ride trips to and from Brooklyn and Manhattan. Each times the driver seems to take a different route. Some routes may not seem to be the fastest, but I have learned to enjoy seeing different neighborhoods. These are sometimes shared-ride trips, and I have often heard other passengers muttering under their breaths about the particular route chosen by the driver,m and how they know a much faster way to do. I never say it out loud, but I am usually thinking “hey, you’re not driving, so just sit back and enjoy the ride, and let the driver choose the route.” If I can think this, then what made me even become the slightest bit annoyed with having to follow some slightly less direct paths from the garage to my apartment building (and it probably is just a matter of seconds or a minute’s difference in time anyway.)
I’ve been in long-lasting traffic jams or subway delays where I’ve managed to remain calm and relaxed, with a “nothing you can do about it, just go with the flow” attitude. At other times I’ve been in shorter delays and have totally lost it, succumbing to the aggressive side of my passive-aggressive self. I’ve certainly gotten better over the years at remaining calm, though I will admit that returning to the city has presented some challenges in this regard. I pretty much try to not drive anywhere in the city unless I absolutely must do so. I seem less able to relax on those drives. I’m not scared to drive in the city, and at times I can be very patient. Yet Murphy’s law seems to be very active when it comes to city traffic. Should be a corollary to the effect that “the chances of getting stuck in traffic are directly proportional to your need to be somewhere on time.” You learn to allow lots of extra time. Sometimes even that doesn’t help. At those times, it may be more frustrating, but, at least for me, it’s easier to accept that it is out of my control. After all, I did make my best effort to allow extra time for the trip.
Now, back to those pathways that circumnavigate all those lawns in developments all over the city.
Growing up, my parents made it a point to get the family out of the city regularly. We went camping and hiking. We learned to appreciate nature and the great outdoors. I have thoroughly enjoyed living in places that have more green space, more “country.” North Dakota might be cold, but it is stunningly beautiful place to live, and has a great quality of life. Nevertheless, the big city has a beauty all its own. The avatar picture for this blog shows the beautiful flower beds found just out the back door of my apartment building in Starrett City. It is not just plants, trees, flowers, but also buildings, streets, subway stations and more that have beauty and can be a joy to look at (or, if not exactly beautiful, at least interesting, historic, or challenging.)
So maybe the architects have it right after all. I think I’ll try and learn to enjoy their circuitous routes. I’ll not seek to combat my naturally rule-abiding nature. I’m hopeful it will make me a happier, less-stressed person. I’ll let you know.
Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy)