Sunday, December 7, 2008


Sidewalks circling all over a block makes commerce and activity and crowds of humanity move forth and flower. Energy bursts like a powerful fragrance in the air. The structures and their details are fleshed out with vibrant colors. Beautiful lights, sometimes flashing, reflect off the sidewalk at night. People walk the sidewalks hand in hand. By day, sidewalk cafes put their tables closer to the sidewalk’s edge so that writers can read and others can drink coffee with the company of well dressed strangers who walk by and may even greet them. This is the ideal. An ideal that is not sustainable or even good for the rest of the town.

Sidewalks should grow like vines in our communities to link everyone but they do not always do so. Some neighborhoods have an abundance of sidewalks. In some places it is even hard to tell where the side walk ends and the pavement of the thoroughfare and the pavement of someone’s front lawn begins. People live in seas of asphalt, concrete, and brick. Some of these people even prefer it this way.

The sidewalk Gods though do not distribute their blessings equally. There are neighborhoods where there are sidewalks that are really bike paths that are really jogging paths and sometimes really like electrical cart paths. There are neighborhoods where sidewalks are a potential danger with their dips and valleys, cracks and tilts, and their slippery mold and hateful spray painted speech. There is only a sidewalk on one side of the street in some neighborhoods. Sometimes that sidewalk ends midway through a street. It is cracked apart by a crater of a garbage dump or by a monolithic tree run amok. In some neighborhoods, there are no sidewalks. You walk across someone’s grass. You take a risk by moving so close to the street that traffic could hit you. You better have the right shoes because the heel may catch on the uneven Earth. Weeds may brush across your pant legs leaving bits and pieces of themselves. Litter may offer itself as an obstacle.

A vine can grow wild and unpredictably on a wall leaving spaces and omissions in some places and an abundance of leaves and branches and even flowers elsewhere. It may seem that our sidewalks have grown in that way across the grid of the city but it is the illusion of time and circumstance unknown and therefore unreflected upon. There are reasons why sidewalks have grown through the city the way they have. There is a reason why there is a sidewalk over there and why there is not a sidewalk over here.

How often do people think about sidewalks? Only children without cars and parents with strollers and people with dogs that must be walked and bodies that must be exercised truly understand the sidewalk. These are people with leisure time and this is a commodity others do not have. The value of a sidewalk is hard to get a foothold on for the rest of humanity who do not have leisure time even though its reality can meet the soles of all our shoes.

A sidewalk is a mattress for the manual laborer. The roof worker can make a call on their back with their feet folded up and their eyes admiring the sky in front of someone’s house. The construction worker can lay out their lunch in a makeshift picnic on them. They are a work table for the carpenter. They are a marketplace for the vendor who seeks to work from home to ply their wares. A sidewalk is where a young desperate worker can be cajoled to wear a ridiculous costume or a sandwich like placard to advertise a business to people who drive by.

Sidewalks have cut out curves to allow the handicap to roll off and on them. Skateboarders don’t take that for granted. Bikers don’t take it for granted. Old women who push shopping carts home don’t take it for granted. The handicapped certainly do not take it for granted either but often are the only ones who understand why these cutouts really have to be there. It is not just about convenience.

Sidewalks help children learn to play skip rope and hopscotch. When they fall on a square and miss a crack, they reinforce cautionary tales of superstitions and give victories of free natural delight. When the sidewalk cement is still fresh, they give them a chance to etch their words into immortality. Childhood never ends for these children.

This is all good but what if you don’t have a sidewalk or a quality sidewalk? Bringing a sidewalk into your neighborhood is an ideal that in practice becomes a potential nightmare. To bring a new sidewalk into your neighborhood you need the bait of gentrification. That may mean that the sidewalk does not come to you. It rewards the newcomers in your midst. People you never invited in. They do not seem like bad people at all. What they are doing is good for the neighborhood at times. Perhaps you may free ride on the newcomers for a while even though you never intended to.

Suddenly everything is better. You enjoy the sidewalk. You walk on it. You may even watch an appreciative neighbor sweep it with a broom in the morning.

There are however disadvantages. You can’t always park your car sideways on it without drawing attention. The city may even pave over the grass in the right of way with intricate fancy stonework and gravel. Now the oil spots from your car appear more readily. You are one of those people who has to work on your own car. Dogs can be walked away from staining the sidewalks but what about those chickens of the poor. Evidence of your existence becomes clearer. It contrasts more. It clashes with everything. The newcomers do not have these problems. The newcomers are multiplying. One day you wake up and that neighbor who was sweeping the sidewalk is no longer there. She has been replaced by another newcomer.

Before long your house has the oldest paint on the block. People walk over and ask questions about it. Inspectors show up more recently. You are surrounded.

You look at the huge palms the city workers are putting. You see the temple of a bus stop they are creating nearby.

At some point, you wonder if you are going to be in a neighborhood without a sidewalk like this. You don’t think for long. You can not afford to linger on these musings. You have no time for leisure.

Eddie Hernandez

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