A few weeks ago, I posted to Twitter that I’d managed to micro-optimise my commute home by heading through an alleyway between a hotel and conference centre, then through a car park, and finally passing through a department store and shopping mall, direct to the metro station.
It only saves a minute or two (although it’s slightly drier on the rare occasions when it rains), but I enjoy doing it partly as a minor piece of urban hacking. The land is almost all the weird hybrid of public but private, or vice versa. The section through the hotel’s car park feels least welcoming, but the municipal car park requires a walk by the internal ramps, and using a shop that you never buy anything in feels a little odd to me too.
In the wake of mentioning it, I pointed friends at the latest in a series of New Yorker articles written by those who aim
to walk from the Empire State Building, on West Thirty-third Street, to Rockefeller Center, on West Forty-eighth, without ever setting foot on Fifth or Sixth Avenue — to knife through tall buildings in a single bound, or at least in stepwise forays. A writer for this magazine accomplished the feat in 1956, and a photographic attempt appeared on our Web site last year.
I was reminded of all of this because there’s recently been a proposal to turn an area a little way from this - from Fifty-first to Fifty-seventh, between Sixth and Seventh avenue - into an official path.
The New York Observer has more on how this space came to be, and it also explains the tiny POPS logo in the bottom right of the map:
If it seems strange that all these public passageways should line up, that is how it was always meant to be. These spaces are a legacy of the same era that brought us Zuccotti Park. Privately Owned Public Spaces, or POPS, as they are often called, have been much in the news lately, thanks to Occupy Wall Street. The spaces in Midtown are at once similar and different. While none are as big as Zuccotti, they were all built to add precious square footage to the towers to which they are connected.
Sometimes this meant little more than opening up the lobby to the public, while other times developers would build soaring open air arcades. The stretch contains one of the greatest POPS in the city, the UBS Gallery at 1285 Sixth, the southern anchor of 6½th Avenue, which houses works from the Smithsonian and not only runs north-south but also east-west.
The article goes on to note that the plan isn’t quite signed off yet, with the mid-block crossings the sticking point - also a problem on my walk, since I have to cut across Howard (Mission does have a mid-block crossing between the shops and parking). Still, it’s an interesting counterpoint to London’s declining highwalk system and its still-thriving backstreets, and I’m curious to see how it turns out.
When you turn seventeen in Britain, you take driving lessons. Well, almost everyone does. It’s not quite as universal as in the US, when it’s part of the school’s responsibility, but it’s pretty close anyway. Anyway, I took lessons too.
The problem was, I was never any good at it. The very reason I was meant to learn - the fact I lived in rural Suffolk - made it a pain. Thirty plus minutes to the town where I had to take the test, an hour of lesson, then the remaining time home, and it felt like I’d barely learnt anything. It required a certain amount of physical co-ordination, and I didn’t have it. I had some weird ticks, like using the noise of the car to guage speed - which bit me when I drove one without a huge advertising triangle on the top.
Then I saw Autogeddon, a BBC production of the poem by Heathcote Williams - “the most vigorous sustained flow of invective against car culture to date.” I thought about how selfish cars were. I thought about how I was heading to university, and probably living in cities. I worried about the cost of all my damned lessons. I couldn’t afford a car anyway. I stopped learning to drive.
For ten years, I lived in London. During that time, except for visits to my parents, I was in a car perhaps once or twice a year. That includes taxis. They’re expensive, especially once you move out to the fringes of zone 3, and anyway, if I stayed out very late, which was rare, there were night buses.
Of course, during the week, I never needed to drive, and it was folly to do so; £5 a time into the congestion charge zone, parking so expensive only bankers did it, and either the tube or cycling was faster, anyway. Oh, don’t forget the maze of one way streets - it’s one thing to learn your way as a pedestrian, but another to memorise all of that nonsense on top. Driving was for suckers. Rich suckers. I was neither.
At the weekends, well, maybe being able to drive would have been nice. Still, London’s commuter railways work the other way, too. Want to walk in the Chilterns, the North or South Downs, along the Kent or Sussex coasts, take a day trip to Southend or Walton? You can do that. It’ll take a while, but then, so does hacking around the bloody M25. It was rare for me to even consider thinking about it. Anyway, London’s got so much going on, why the hell would you want to leave?
In ten years, I don’t remember anyone being surprised that I never bothered to learn. Half the people I meet didn’t, either. It’s a choice, like not drinking.
America is a car country. There are more cars than licenced drivers. There aren’t that far off as many cars as people, full stop. Nationally, only 8% of households do not have a car. The freeways are wide and flowing, and the journey is as much fun as the arrival. I know of friends who, as students, would just drive around late at night as relaxation, as a place of their own. The US loves freedom, and the car is a physical, and personal, manifestation of that freedom.
I now live in San Francisco. In six months, I can remember more than a few people being shocked to learn that I don’t - can’t - drive. It’s almost as if not having that skill means I’m not a functional adult human being.
Still, so long as you work in the city, you can commute to work without a car. It’s slower than driving, but cheaper; parking is, by the standards of the rest of the country, absurdly expensive and hard to find. If you work in the rest of the Bay Area, though, it’s hit and miss. Oakland’s OK; if you’re close to Caltrain’s line it’s doable. Otherwise? If you’re lucky you’re on a company bus. If you’re not, you’ve no choice but driving down 101 or 280. It’s a good thing I work in the city.
As for weekends, well, the best thing about San Francisco, I keep being told, is that it’s surrounded by wonderful countryside. There’s Muir Woods, Santa Cruz, Yosemite, and a list of others. To get there, there’s the roads; I-80 to Tahoe, I-280 down the spine of the mountains, and above all, there’s Highway 1 - the Pacific Coast drive, the scenic bends and swoops on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. It’s not as fast as I-5, especially if you want to get all the way to LA, but for a weekend jaunt, it’s perfect.
But. I’m a pedestrian. (I’m probably a militant pedestrian, but someone has to be.) I like being able to see the magic. Yet I overhear in a café someone who’s just started driving say that without the ability you’re a prisoner, and I see online that I can’t be a photographer without a car. I can’t go for a country walk without getting a friend to drive me to the country. So for the first time in twenty years, I feel the pressure to learn to drive. I hate it.
Ben Terrett, reviewing The Hidden Park iPhone game.
I hadn’t really thought about it much, but this just shows how much I walk. It was also brought home to me when my parents were in London and we went from the RFH, via Trafalgar Square, to Leicester Square tube, which for me is a short-cut, saving a bit of faffing and with some things to look at on the way.
For them, though, used to a small town, it turned out to be a bit of a hike. Similarly, what Ben describes as a “lot of walking” is to me a short stroll.
In fact, the area he describes is very similar to that used for some of the games for the Hide&Seek weekender, and generally they didn’t feel too big. If anything, you were too likely to trip over another team (although that’s probably part of the game’s design).
Is there a point? Perhaps; it’s been suggested that those of us living in cities are less likely to be obese. Maybe it’s just that I have skewed perceptions; I’ve always been keen on walking.
He missed James Kunstler’s assertion that the whole thing should have remained a railroad.
In the early years of this decade, I always wanted to try and walk along the disused railway line from Dalston towards Broad Street. The old bridges dominate the eastern end of what was the the Shoreditch one-way triangle, and the arches form a line of spaces parallel to the High Street, and further north, on the other side of Kingsland Road. However, I never bothered spending enough time to figure out how to get onto it, and I was worried the various bridges would never be safe.
I’ve definitely lost my chance now; the northernmost three quarters of the track bed are currently in the last year or so of the work required to convert them back into a railway line, this time under the auspices of London Overground.
Of course, the geographical surroundings are very different; the High Line is in Manhattan (albeit one one edge), compared to the fringes of central London for the Dalston line, and the need for public transport along its route is far less pressing. (The Eighth Avenue / A-C-E line runs parallel to the High Line, two blocks further east, whereas the new East London line will be filling a fairly large gap in the railway map of London.)
All in all, I suspect the two cities have probably come to the right planning conclusion for each line. Still, I regret not walking what was, for twenty years, London’s High Line.