I look at sidewalks a lot. Miserable eyesight makes the far away a muddle better ignored. Miserable depth perception makes the up-close a zone of many potential missteps. What I'm walking on occupies me.
Like much of the everyday, the sidewalk's plainness conceals a history, not just of its being there at all (a product of mid-20th century convictions), but also a history of the decisions more than 60 years ago that determined the sidewalk's four-foot width and its transverse stress grooves that give skateboarders a warning clickity-clack when they overtake me from behind.
The sidewalk I'm on might be the result of dispassionate calculations having nothing to do with design, but that would make sidewalks as uniform as a 2x4. They aren't. Setting aside outliers and sports - the Hollywood Walk of Fame, say, or the Avenida Atlantica along Copacabana beach, even the most utilitarian of sidewalks is lifted from the mechanical. Variation within a set formula implies aesthetic choices.
Someone designed the curb along the street as well, its wall canted a few degrees away from vertical toward the grass strip in front of each house. The speckled white and gray aggregate concrete of the streetlight (designed in 1912 in Los Angeles by someone at the Marbelite Corporation of America) begins as a stepped base (sort of Doric Moderne) and ends the column with a cannonball finial. The column sprouts the ubiquitous "cobra head" light fixture (first introduced in 1957).
Every bit of the built landscape in my constricted field of view has been given shape by someone's imagination. The crosshatched ridges that cover a wide service grate to give its potentially slick surface some grip is repeated in miniature on the five-inch-diameter cover of a sprinkler control. The one is iron and at least 50 years old. The other is green plastic installed last year.
None of these things are beautiful. (Very little is beautiful here.) But each of them is marked by the application of hands. As I go on my way, monuments of the human imagination are at my feet.
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
The images on this page are from public domain sources.
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