I Am a Pedestrian in Los Angeles

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Los Angeles Walks, a pedestrian advocacy organization seeking for better streets for everyone, has just published the first edition of Footnotes, a report on the status of walking in L.A. I'm one of the contributors, which led me to some additional reflections on what it means to be a walker in an imperfect city.

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Imagination. I look down at sidewalks a lot. Miserable eyesight makes the far-away a muddle. Miserable depth perception makes the up-close a zone of missteps. What I'm walking on occupies me.

Like so much of the everyday, the sidewalk's plainness conceals a history, not just of its being there at all but also a history of the decisions that determined its four-foot width and its transverse stress relief grooves that give a warning clickity-clack when skateboarders overtake me.

Even the most utilitarian of sidewalk is more than an industrial product. The application of someone's hands made that sidewalk. Every bit of the built landscape in my constricted field of view has been given shape by someone.

Ordinary things aren't necessarily beautiful. But each of them is marked. As I go on my way, monuments of the imagination are at my feet.

Walking Dead. Los Angeles is a good place to get killed while walking. According to 2102 statistics reported by U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Los Angeles was second among big cities for the number of walkers killed by cars (99 dead). First in pedestrian fatalities was New York (127).

Pedestrian deaths are about 14 percent of all traffic fatalities, but in Los Angeles, 41 percent of all deaths resulting from a vehicle accident in 2012 were pedestrians, according to NHTSA. Cars are safer for drivers and passengers than ever but just as lethal for pedestrians.

California -- with 612 fatalities -- is the nation's most dangerous state for walkers, followed by Texas (478) and Florida (476).

A Durable World. The other day while walking to mass, I crossed the cement apron that leads out of the alley behind the houses on Clark Avenue. I've crossed the alley from the time I was a boy. But this time, a sheet of water -- probably leaking from a backyard hose -- spilled across the concrete.

For the first time, I noticed that inscribed in the concrete were names, but almost worn smooth. Children had written them awkwardly, haphazardly in the wet concrete but with respect for each other. Their names didn't overlap.

I'm not inattentive. The qualities of the everyday interest me. Yet here were persistent marks of lives that had neighbored mine for years and which I had never seen, would never have seen except for the contingencies of that moment. I stopped.

The route that takes me across the alley and down Clark Avenue hardly ever varies (part of my mildly obsessive/compulsive personality). The route is the same, but the walk is always different, and not just because the conditions of light and air and ambient sound are various. In the midst of the many things that persist are as many things that I will see for the first and last time.

I used to think that we sought permanence in marks like the children's names. I think now that what we get is provisional, despite our intentions. Enough stays the same on my walk to bolster my illusions about my place. Enough changes to question those illusions.

Time and the Walker. Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) walked to work. He lived in Hartford, Connecticut where he was a corporate executive for the Hartford Accident & Indemnity Company. A fellow executive there recalled that Stevens was ''respected, perhaps a little bit feared.''

Stevens never learned to drive. He walked from his white, two-story house at 118 Westerly Terrace to his office each workday, turning down offers of a lift from other men driving to work. It was a substantial walk of nearly two-and-a-half miles each way, most of it on a long, straight section of Asylum Street.

Stevens walked as he murmured to himself in rhythms and rhymes. Mornings, he would write down what he had composed before he turned to work at his office, writing down lines about a "Man with the Blue Guitar," the "Disillusionment of Ten O'clock," "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

Stevens was a successful businessman, an unhappy husband, and a poet who won the Pulitzer Prize in the last year of his life. He thought that having an everyday sort of career was important to his art. Stevens also thought that walking was a source of his poems.

Walkers see ordinary (even humble) vistas opening at a pace that lets contemplation occur unbidden. You can be woefully distracted by daydreams or sorrow while walking a suburban sidewalk, but then a birdcall, the rattle of the wind in the leafless trees, or the sight again of some pattern will momentarily lighten the darkness of self-absorption. And a poem might be made.

I am a pedestrian. There are 40,000 intersections in the city of Los Angeles. When I watch you from the corner, you seem oblivious, wrapped in your second skin of high impact plastic and sheet metal edged in shining chrome and powerful. We who do not drive are equally remote from you.

I'm the walker at the periphery of your gaze, standing at the intersection where you've just turned right on red without looking to where I stand.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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