The Slidewalks of New York

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by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

As I have previously mentioned, my family and I moved to Brooklyn last summer. In some respects this has been like a lengthy vacation, since, although we like our neighborhood, we still plan to move back to a more rural area some time in the future. Perhaps because of my “semi-tourist” status, or maybe simply because of their newness, various aspects of life in New York stand out for me in a way that the ordinary events in a place one is accustomed to seldom do.

For example, New York City, at some point, altered its sidewalks to accommodate wheelchairs. As one approaches a crosswalk, the sidewalk slopes downward to the street. This is fine in most weather. But when it snows, one is faced with a little ice slide down into the puddle of slush and freezing water collected at the edge of the street. I guess the handicapped lobby stands to gain if it can create more handicapped people.

I am reminded of the time I attended a wedding at West Point. In the hotel where the wedding took place, a woman in a wheel chair approached the front door, which was several feet below the level of the lobby. In the bad old days before we were sensitive to the needs of the handicapped – I probably should say “those differently abled in a peripatetic way” – someone would have assisted the woman down the steps. If no one were accompanying her, any of several dozen people in the lobby would have jumped up to help.

But today, we recognize that such assistance assaults the dignity of the handicapped. So the hotel had a ramp next to the stairs for those in wheelchairs. Unfortunately, the ramp was a bit steeper than the woman had planned for. She lost control of her chair, shot down the ramp, slammed legs-first into the wall at its end, and toppled onto the floor. Fortunately, she was not seriously injured, but, as several people rushed over to lift her off of the floor and back into her chair, she obviously was quite embarrassed. No doubt this way of doing things is much more dignified than if someone had simply helped her down the stairs.

I find I walk a lot more since moving to Brooklyn. One might think that living, as I previously did, in semi-rural Redding, Connecticut, would be more conducive to outdoor exercise than is living in extremely urban New York. Well, I did do more gardening when I lived in Redding. However, as far as walking goes, the suburbs are often quite hazardous. The major roads in Redding are two-lane state highways, where cars zip along at 50 or 55 miles per hour and there are no sidewalks. The side roads are serpentine affairs, frequently lined with hedges or stonewalls that further reduce visibility. Nevertheless, the ubiquitous SUVs charge along them at 35 or 40 miles per hour, racing to get the kids to swim practice or tennis lessons on time. At every turn in the road a pedestrian must be prepared to leap over a wall or dive into some swampy woods to avoid being flattened. But in Brooklyn one can walk down wide sidewalks and cross streets with walk signs.

Another motivation to walk in the city is that there are places to walk to. In Redding I, unlike the vast majority of the town’s residents, did have a small commercial area nearby. But the nearest supermarket, the nearest bookstore, the nearest clothing store, and many other amenities were out of comfortable walking distance. For several classes I wanted to take, I wound up driving 50 minutes from my home. In Brooklyn I can walk to Barnes and Noble in 15 minutes or to either of two local bookstores in 10, to the supermarket in five minutes, and to several colleges within 20. On the odd occasion where something I want is not available in the neighborhood, I can walk 15 minutes to the subway, take a 10 minute ride into Manhattan, and walk a few more minutes to find the object of my desire.

However, there is one major hazard for pedestrians in Brooklyn: bikes on the sidewalk. You turn a corner, expecting only to encounter pedestrian traffic, to find yourself rearing back to avoid being struck by a biker racing past you. The worst offenders are the Chinese-take-out deliverymen. I have to admire how hard these fellows work. They make their deliveries at an absolutely frantic pace. Unfortunately, their hard work consists in barreling along at 20 miles per hour down a sidewalk upon which almost everyone else is moving at 2 miles per hour.

Speaking of the Chinese, what’s with all of the Chinese postmen in New York? There were certainly plenty of Chinese people in Connecticut, but not once did I see one delivering the mail. At least in my section of Brooklyn, it seems like about a third of mail carriers are Chinese. Most likely, it is one of those situations where some Chinese person with quite a few relatives or friends got a job at the Post Office. He referred a few of his friends, and they each referred someone else, and so on.

Another ethnic curiosity in my neighborhood is the composition of the brownstone-refinishing workforce, which seems to be composed entirely of men from the Indian subcontinent. (I’ve never queried any of them as to whether they are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Sri Lankan.) Now how did that come about? Is there some part of India, chock full of brownstones, where these fellows learn their trade? Or is there an Indian equivalent to the trade schools that advertise on late-night TV in the US, telling Indians “It is you who should enter the growing and damned lucrative field of brownstone refinishing and not only earn a high salary but also secure for yourself a green card”? I don’t know the answer, but I plan to find out.

The cab drivers in New York are very busy people. So busy, in fact, that they cannot bear to sit through a red light without doing something besides waiting for the light to turn green. Quite often, as soon as they stop, they pick up a clipboard and begin doing some paperwork. I imagine that they are required to record each fare, but shouldn’t they be able to do that during one red light? However, the second light, and the third, and the fourth, generally find them at the clipboard again. Should the rare case come up where they have nothing to write while stopped, they instead begin reading. Actually delivering me to my destination seems to be an unfortunate interruption in a day full of literary pursuits.

I am frequently surprised by the conversations I either find myself in or overhear in the city. One night I was in a local bar, talking to a friend of mine about how frequently the New York City police break the law. Quite aside from things like shooting an unarmed man 41 times or sodomizing a suspect with a broken broom handle, New York cops routinely ignore the law in less serious matters. For instance, fire hydrants in New York could accurately be re-named “police parking space holders.” It is also quite common to see a cop park his car in the rightmost lane of a four-lane street, creating a traffic jam, in order to run into a deli for a cup of coffee. If you or I did that, the very same cop would no doubt ticket us, but they are apparently above such trivial concerns.

A woman sitting nearby overheard the two of us discussing this and jumped in to defend the police. Perhaps, she said, they frequently park in front of fire hydrants because if there were an emergency, they would have to come there anyway. It didn’t seem to occur to her that police cars have no mechanism by which to make use of fire hydrants, and that it is fire trucks that need access to those spaces.

When, during the course of our discussion, I pointed out that the police are, in theory, our employees, she was appalled.

“How degrading,” she said, “that you consider them your employees!”

I was stunned into silence. (And let me tell you, that’s a rare event for me.) While I regard the idea that government employees work for the people as a convenient fable – convenient from the government’s point of view – I had thought that essentially all Americans who support the state bought into the idea. But this woman – who was clearly a decently intelligent, professional, modern urbanite – was shocked that I would even suggest such a thing. Apparently, to her, the police are some sort of independent force, placed on the earth perhaps by the gods, charged with keeping us mere mortals in line. I think that those who claim that the US could never become a fascist state due to our freedom loving citizens are not paying close attention to what those citizens are saying.

However, I overheard a more hopeful conversation a few days ago, when I brought my kids out to lunch in the neighborhood. The place to which I took them is essentially a hamburger joint, made a bit glossier by a very thin veneer of New York hip.

While we were eating, a conversation in the nearby kitchen caught my ear. What I heard was someone saying, “In the 1930s, everyone thought this problem was solved.”

Wondering what sort of historical discussion was going on in the kitchen of a hamburger joint, I looked up. One of the owners was talking to a waiter. He continued: “And then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. All of a sudden, a lot of people said, ‘You know, maybe von Mises was right.’

“You see, the question is, how do we know which new businesses, which new processes, which new inventions, are worth devoting resources to? The answer is we really don’t, but at least in a free market people have to risk their own money on their own best guess. That way, those who are best at guessing get to keep doing it.”

Needless to say, I had not expected to overhear a lecture on the socialist calculation debate delivered by the owner of a hamburger joint to one of his waiters. But that is what cities are like. Urban life is a fascinating adventure for anyone interested in human society. If you’ve never lived it, give it a try sometime.

December 12, 2003

Gene Callahan [send him mail], the author of Economics for Real People, is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a contributing columnist to LewRockwell.com.

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