I was well familiar with the adage about how nobody walks in the suburbs
when I arrived in them nearly three years ago. As much as I’d like to say my experience has been different since we departed the concrete jungle for the land of lawns, leaves and giant Hummers, the old axiom certainly seems airtight.
The first house we looked at when planning to move was a sagging Larchmont split-level within spitting distance of I-95—all we could afford in the trendy village amidst a white-hot housing market. I asked the owner, an earnest middle-aged man with wistful tales about raising his now-grown children in the house, about access to the train station. “Believe it or not I walk it,” he said. “It’s a mile.”
At the time I couldn’t comprehend why the fellow felt he needed to convince me that he walked a whole mile to and from the train every day. In the city, we wouldn’t think twice about embarking on a 20-block walk to try a new restaurant or hit a theater with a slightly better start time for a film we wanted to see. In fact walking frequently was the entertainment—a chance to do some peripatetic people-watching, a way to exercise without shelling out big bucks for the gym, or just an opportunity to get out of the claustrophobic confines of one’s apartment. Each evening after work, I’d take our (then) infant son out in his stroller, pointing out the beautiful town houses of Gramercy Park, the colorful characters of the East Village, the pubs were Daddy used to hang out prior to his arrival.
The empty-nester gent’s gambol to Larchmont’s train station took him past the picturesque pond, under the attractive stone entranceway to Larchmont Gardens that used to front an estate, and into one of the liveliest villages in Westchester. How the heck else would one get to a train station a mile away–a Segway? A jet-pack?
We didn’t buy that house, but did end up with another that’s a mile from a different Metro-North train station. My first morning in our new Mount Pleasant digs, a crisp and perfect October day pushing above the horizon, I set out for the train expecting to walk amidst an army of so-called Dashing Dans en route to our jobs in the city. I didn’t see a soul on the first block, the next block, or the block after that. I briefly wondered if it was, in fact, a Saturday; perhaps the madness of moving had messed with my mind.
When I got home that evening, my wife was distraught. Like me, she was adamant that she could retain her walking ways in the land of the SUV. She’d tried to navigate the baby stroller down narrow, sidewalk-less streets, past perilous highway entrances to a playground about a half-mile away—scoring disapproving looks from motorists all the while.
“There’s nowhere to walk around here!” she cried. (It wasn’t completely true. There is an elementary school, a church and, if you’re really brave, a gas station that sells snacks, smokes and other sundries within walking distance. But I got her point.)
Mind you, I’ve seen suburbs where walking is part of people’s routines. Our Mamaroneck friends walk to the train station, Miller’s Toys and, more recently Molly Spillane’s. Pleasantville types have an art house theater, upscale restaurants and pubs within walking distance. Typically towns such as these were established before the almighty automobile took over, where sidewalks link neighborhoods to a train station and shops. Likely many of the residents are former city denizens, well versed in the ways of the pedestrian.
Not out by us. Hills are foreboding, sidewalks are almost non-existent, and so revered is the automobile that it’s not uncommon to see one parked in the middle of a front lawn, like a giant chrome bird feeder. To be sure, I do see dog-walkers and, in those narrow windows of flawless weather in fall and spring, people walking for the sake of walking—most of whom I’m fairly certain are being mandated to do so by their doctors. But, as we approach three years in Westchester, I can’t say I’ve seen another person from my neighborhood embark upon that mile schlep to the train.
Walking in our part of the county can feel like you’re walking around naked, and it takes some degree of fortitude to pull it off. It’s not hard to read the look on drivers’ faces as they pass; where is your car? they say. Where is your license, your sanity? I’m fairly certain I ended up on a Neighborhood Watch list or two those first few months, before establishing myself as a benign fixture around town. Suddenly those suburban feelings of conformity that I’d known growing up on the other side of the Long Island Sound decades before came flooding back. In the city, a little eccentricity was cool. Out in the ‘burbs, I simply wanted to fit in.
But still I walk—to the train, to church, to the playground, and one time, to the gas station to get a six-pack before the Super Bowl. I push the babies in the stroller, pull them in the wagon, and walk them in the front-pack like a proud kangaroo. I’ve been stared at and beeped at (and not in the flattering way), but a few positives have come out of my ambulatory endeavors. I’ve become more familiar with our town’s idiosyncrasies—a quirky old Sears and Roebuck kit house, a neighbor’s soul-baring bumper sticker, a cool old tree–that would’ve flown right past me if I’d been driving. Walking has helped me meet people, which can be very difficult when you’re commuting most of the week. Walking with the kids almost always generates warm conversation. A trio of power-walking women greets me with hearty waves and warm smiles in the morning; their arrival officially marks the start of spring, and their absence means winter is here. At a block party late last summer, a woman I’d never seen before approached me, shook my hand, and told me she respected me for walking to the train. Another time, a neighbor I’d never met stopped to offer a ride. In the five minute drive to the station, she damn near broke my heart with a story about a local resident who used to ride his bike to the station, and the bike stayed chained to the fence for months after the man was killed on 9-11.
I walk through rain and snow and 95-degree heat. I don’t do it to save money or the environment, or to get exercise — though those are all plusses. I walk because I’m relatively young, reasonably fit, and unfailingly stubborn–I simply refuse to drive a distance I feel is walkable.
There will be a day when I’m unwilling or unable to walk. But it’s most certainly not today.
Michael Malone is a Westchester-based writer. He covered the region for the moribund “Westchester” section of the New York Times and his column appears every other Monday in New York’s Metro newspaper. His blog Trainjotting.com details his Metro-North commute.