To promenade means to take a leisurely walk, to see people and be seen by people. In Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation Over Public Space authors Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Irena Ehrenfeucht write that wealthy urbanites in 19th century America “claimed the streets and attempted to insert bourgeois decorum into urban bustle.” These citizens “strolled to display their social status and define their respectability by the differences they created.”
A successful promenade required no interruption. Wealthy urbanites, women in particular, strolled with the sole purpose of being on display. Women had to “detach themselves from the surrounding environment by avoiding the gaze of other pedestrians…dressing inconspicuously, talking in low voices, and not laughing in public.” Naturally, social rules for men at this time were a bit more relaxed. Men were the ones who actually partook in the leisurely walking. Men could stop and chat if they so pleased, could gaze at whomever they wanted to gaze at, and so on. Middle- and upper-class women hardly walked the city streets in what one would consider a “leisurely” fashion.
Some of these behaviors still exist today. We will always enjoy seeing and being seen in public spaces, especially in big cities. Part of the pleasure of flipping through a tabloid magazine like US Weekly, for example, derives from looking at photographs of celebrities—the closest thing Americans have to royalty—infallibly fashionable and effortlessly beautiful, on their own promenades through New York and Los Angeles.
We can easily differentiate a tourist from a native. Tourists gaze up in wonderment at sky scrapers. They make eye contact with the people passing around them. Their voices stand out. They dress un vogue. Most of all, they appear completely engaged with their surroundings. They walk not steadfast and with purpose but in what might consider a leisurely fashion.
Say you’re walking leisurely through a suburban neighborhood. You look up from the passing sidewalk squares and see another person approaching. You make eye contact with this person, maybe flash a nervous smile. In a way, you’ve already met this person, even though there’s still some fifteen feet before you will pass each other. It’s rare to see someone out here, you know, walking leisurely, as you are.
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is what sort of greeting you will offer this person. This differs from one person to the next. Another thing you’ve got to consider is how exactly you will pass this person. Rather, whether or not you will be the courteous citizen and step out of the person’s way.
For most of your life you’ve stepped out of the way. It’s like holding open a door for someone, even when they’re several paces behind you. Stepping out of the way is a sort of passive gesture, but an undervalued one, no less. How people pass each other speaks volumes.
Then again, who’s to say you don’t deserve to have someone clear the way for you? Your whole life you’ve always stepped out of the way. You’ve paid your dues, as far as public politeness is concerned. Perhaps it’s time you passed on passivity and held true to your path.
He’s steadily approaching. What do you do?
Walking alone in an American suburb can be a strange experience. In the daytime, you stand out. In the nighttime, you disappear.
But no matter what time of day you walk you will find that you are probably going to be alone. Unless you are pushing a stroller, walking a dog, or holding the hand of your significant other, people will wonder what exactly your business is. People will probably think you are strange. Neighborhood watch is more than just a silly sign along the street.
Most people don’t like to feel alone, especially in public. In suburbia, people will watch you from the vantage point of their living room windows. Cars packed with teenagers will yell and honk at you as they speed past. Other drivers probably pity you. They wonder if you got in a fight with your wife or suspect you’re walking to work. Pathetic.
And if you’re not careful, the same drivers will not notice you when you attempt to cross an intersection. You must be careful. These younger generations of suburban drivers, many generations removed from any urban driving experience, are not accustomed to respecting the presence of you, the pedestrian. You, in one sense, are an interruption to the speed and convenience of the automotive suburban life.
Not too long ago, I had a job reading gas meters. My work involved walking countless miles and punching meter readings into a bulky handheld computer. It was a pretty uneventful gig, save for fighting off mean dogs, dealing with cranky homeowners, and occasionally getting lost and having to wander aimlessly in search of my car.
Everyone has heard somebody bitch about how inactive Americans have become, and how rare it is to see kids playing outside anymore. Maybe you’re the one who’s done the complaining. It’s easy to dismiss this as a crass generalization. Suburbia as a modern existential wasteland has become a tired cultural meme in pop music, literature, and movies.
Suburbia has never been all that awful. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago that I absolutely despised for most of my adolescence. My head hung heavy with suburban shame. I remember hearing “Down on the Street” by The Stooges and thinking, “This sounds like how I wanna live!” I gazed down on my street and it never felt like I was surrounded by “neighbors,” let alone anyone interesting or special. How could I become who I wanted to become here?
But I eventually discovered that I was foolishly wanting to flee one utopia for another. From nowhere to nowhere, I guess. I grew up, and when I did—only after the world had kicked me around a bit—I discovered how marvelous my leafy street was. It was never such an awful place after all.
Anymore, my work as a meter reader forced me to walk around and around and around for six months. I fought snow and rain and dizzying summer heat. I descended into musty pitch black cellars and low-crawled through damp crawlspaces. I was threatened with violence twice, both times by two different homeowners. Each informed me that the next time I went wandering through their cellar without them knowing I would get my ass shot. Or something like that.
Point is, I rarely, if ever, saw anyone in the neighborhoods outside. No dog walkers, no kids, no couples. I had it all to myself. Aside from the occasional death threat, the work was strangely satisfying. I lost some weight. I got to venture into the homes of many strangers. Most neighborhoods were quiet and empty and peaceful and I got a lot of thinking done on that job.
Some suburban and exurban homeowners despise the idea of having a new sidewalk built in their neighborhood. They feel strongly that a sidewalk would ultimately ruin the rural feel of their suburban neighborhood. The construction of a new sidewalk would sacrifice many trees and destroy valuable green space. Moreover, building a sidewalk where there isn’t one requires taxpayer money.
This dismissive attitude towards the sidewalk should irritate me, but it doesn’t. I can understand why homeowners would rally together against a new sidewalk. Most of the citizens who live in neighborhoods like this, affluent and older, have no use for sidewalks. Their concept of suburbia is not a hybrid of country and city. In a way, where they live is an escape from both.
And, besides, one has to wonder—who would use them anyway?
There is no such thing as the promenade in suburbia. It simply does not exist. Walking suburbia is simply not about seeing or being seen. There is rarely anything to actually see, and no one really wants to see you anyway—save for the shadowy silhouette of your “neighbor” parting the living room curtains and peeking curiously out at you before resuming interior life. Front yards, once the kids are gone, are really just moats.
Many of us grow up in places that don’t feel a whole lot like neighborhoods. With all the slick high-tech accoutrements of modern life, they’re feeling less and less so.
As a frame of reference, I am reminded of the Nintendo Entertainment System, which was released in the U.S. in 1985. I remember the day I got mine, and I also recall the games being either frustratingly difficult or unbelievably bad. This was a time when saving games was not always possible. Thus, when you and your 8-bit avatar failed the mission at hand, the game reset itself and you had to start all the way back at square one. This was the sort of thing that drove me outside. But the high quality and re-playability of contemporary video games encourages kids not to want to go outside and experience the joy of roaming.
Suburban kids are missing out on the visceral joy of the roam. Sidewalks—no matter where they are—empower us to wander peacefully. Sidewalks, as Carolyn V. Egan writes, “stitch a town into a neighborhood.”
For many, the Internet has become the third place. It’s our neighborhood, where we do most of our roaming, and it most certainly is a wonderful educational and social tool. In moderation.
I, for one, consume information on the Internet the same way my beagle would a bag of dog food if left unattended. I’m insatiably curious, and my curiosity can lead me to spending more hours on the Internet than I feel comfortable admitting. When this happens, I go for run, a walk, whatever. Sometimes it’s nice just to lay on the couch, listening to my cat purr, and stare out the window.
In his 1862 essay “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau examines the significance of walking, and suggests that the seemingly harmless act of walking is actually more than mere physical exercise:
He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.
We know exactly what depresses us most about suburbia. It is not each other. We are not the Infidels. The Infidels would be those who have constructed this banal game board many of us live upon; those businessmen and developers who’ve surrounded us with deep-fry food joints, automotive supply shops and vast stretches of asphalt parking lot and pointless commercial lawns. The Infidels are all those who partook in making where we live purposeless to us. No wonder we’d rather stay inside.
Taking a leisurely walk in suburbia—as awkward as it feels to be alone and on display, to see nothing and yet be seen by everyone—indeed does make a difference. Even if it feels like you’re going nowhere at all.