A Pedestrian Argument
A humorous essay about walking in Chicago
Flo Johnson Skelly, Chicago Times’ last editor, was probably the only editor I ever had who enjoyed my taste in facetia; the others merely indulged me. I wrote this in a way I thought might please her, which is probably why this is the best of the several paeans to walking that I’ve written over the years.
Topography favors the pedestrian in Chicago, but custom does not. Chicago likes a guy who runs where he is going—a Payton, a Daley—and disdains the plodding pedestrian. It was no surprise when the Cubs, who represent a city whose sole innovation in footwear design was cement overshoes, drew the fewest walks of any team in the league last season. Historians will dispute it, but I am convinced that DuSable was on his way to Milwaukee when he stopped to rub his sore feet and founded Chicago instead.
Walking styles vary from city to city, with both distance and speed of the average walk increasing with city size. In a fair race to the subway stop, for example, the smart money bets on a New Yorker. According to William H. Whyte, author of City: Rediscovering the Center, New Yorkers walk farther and faster than people in any other big city in the United States. Whyte isn't sure why: He says maybe they're busy, but I think they're looking for an exit.
Either way, walking is something that Chicagoans are happy to finish second to New Yorkers in. A few years ago the city commissioned a survey that found that the average walking trip by Loop workers was less than 1,200 feet. The distance is disputable: A workday walking trip is as hard to define for statistical purposes as good sex, since in both cases what matters is not how far you go but how many things you do along the way. If accurate, however, it means that an average trip is shorter than three-and-one-half blocks— which suggests that it isn't booze that causes celebrants to stagger up and down the sidewalks on St. Patrick's Day. It's lack of practice.
Of course, Americans in general don't walk much. The patriotic reluctance to step on that U.S. flag on the floor at the Art Institute was reinforced by the general opinion that walking on anything is un-American.
Walking is associated with subversives. Thoreau walked a lot; so did peace marchers. Harry Truman (many right-wingers contend) decided to recall General MacArthur while on one of his morning constitutionals. College professors walk; so do poets. Carl Sandburg, Poet of the Big Bunions, came to know Chicago by foot.
So did the late Ira Bach, long-time city planning director and author of Chicago on Foot. He walked from his Loop office each day, rain or shine, to his home five miles away in Uptown. To the sedentary this regimen did, and does, verge on the heroic; Wally Phillips resorted to italics to express his amazement in the foreword to a recent edition of Bach's book, as if it were odd that a man who loved cities might enjoy being in one every day.
Bach nevertheless lived to a ripe old age, confirming the adage that every hour spent walking extends one's life by an hour. Lewis Mumford, the great critic and urban historian, advised in The Culture of Cities, "A walk to work, as much as a mile each way, is at most seasons a tonic, especially for the sedentary worker." That's still true—unless, it is believed, you walk alone, after dark, in the wrong neighborhood, in which case you may shorten your life expectancy to a matter of minutes.
One can think of at least one recent mayor who might be alive today had he availed himself of Mumford's tonic. Politicians hereabouts love to run for office, but they ride in cars everywhere else. Illinois voters were briefly mesmerized by Dan Walker, who seemed to confirm walking's practical benefits by walking across the whole state into the governor's mansion. The spell did not last, however, and Walker was turned out of office after a single term by Chicagoan James R. Thompson, a pedestrian governor in every way but the way that counts. State-house insiders report that Thompson moved from the sprawling executive mansion in Springfield to his smaller North Side house in order to cut down the number of steps to the bathroom, with the result that the locus of political power in Illinois has shifted from Downstate to Chicago.
City hall is heir to the same tradition. (Why do you think they call them "sitting mayors"?) Aldermen were prepared to deal with a hands-on mayor when Richie Daley was elected, but a feet-on mayor? No move the new mayor made in the early days of his administration was as controversial as his decision to walk back to the office from a meeting at the Hyatt Regency. And making a city worker turn in his official car is like making a cowboy turn in his gun at the door of a saloon.
Is Daley yet another case of a politician out of step with the voters? Chicago's refusal to take to the streets seems impervious to reform, indeed even to explanation. These streets—all flat, and mostly paved—were made for walkin.' Weather? Montrealers walk in January, and Chicagoans don't walk on nice days either. Crime? History tells us that you're safer on a sidewalk in Chicago than in a car. Mayor Cermak, remember, was shot while riding in a car, and Bugs Moran's boys might have grown up to become sports agents had they stayed out of garages and spent St. Valentine's Day in a shoe shop getting half-soles.
The most persuasive explanations come from those most arcane of specialists, the perceptual geographers. These students of the ways people perceive space remind us that walking down a flat, straight street is boring. You can see where you are going to be minutes before you get there, which robs the trip of those qualities that liven travel of all kinds. A walk needs adventure, serendipity, surprise. Europe's old city centers are like rat's mazes with cheese at the end of every passage. Even Manhattan's grid is full of surprises; the island is so dense with skyscrapers that much of it is dark at noon, with the result that turning from a side-street onto a sunlit avenue is like stumbling out a canyon onto one of the Lost Cities of Gold.
Build a city on a flat former lake bed and then lay out its streets on a regular grid, and you have provided for a pedestrian's ennui. See people sitting on benches? They aren't tired from a long slog. They're depressed, having glimpsed what life holds in store before they've had the chance to live it.
What Chicagoans need, in short, is culs-de-sac, odd turnings, hills. Strollers on DuPage County's curvilinear boulevards move in a state of constant expectancy, filled with hope, the terrifying truth of their being in Naperville hidden by their inability to see more than a block or two of it at any one glance. The cynical Chicagoan, on the other hand, sees too much wherever he turns and grows weary of the world. ●