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Urban Renewal

Hoofing it from Van Cortland Park to Coney Island in the company of Whitman, Hawthorne, and James P. Johnson. How one man lost himself to find the city.


I thought I'd sleep in the park, Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx. I set my mummy bag on a pallet of fallen leaves atop a 500-million-year-old outcrop of gneiss overlooking the cross-country course. Thirty-four springtimes ago, as a member of the Francis Lewis High School track team, I'd run that two-and-a-half-mile path over urban hill and dale. It wasn't pretty, distance never being the kid's game. I was a quarter-miler, once around the track and out, but some guy was sick, so they threw me in, against Boys, Wingate, those cats. By mile two I was retching, rubber legs to the end. It was a dim memory, easily repressed, until now, back here, the full moon rising between spindly maples. I had history in this park, and that was good. If you don't have history, what is there to disappear from? That was the idea: to get lost. The notion had come to me a few days earlier, as I was checking the view from my friend's new thirty-seventh-floor apartment. "Isn't it great? You can see everything from here," he said, looking uptown and down, almost awestruck at the extent of his success and what it had gotten him. It was great all right, I agreed, struggling to keep from covering my eyes. It was more than the simple reality that this fabulous place belonged to him, not me. There was something deeply appalling about the Big Vista, the God's-eye view, the everythingness of it. There was too much city to take in at one time. It was more than the buildings and the traffic. Down there were layers of complications, plans and schemes, one-way streets followed, dead ends reached. Like the man says: Nothing brings you down like your hometown. But when your hometown is New York, it isn't like you can extend an all-inclusive middle finger as Greyhound pulls out for the bright lights, the big city. You're already here. That's what I saw out my friend's window: my place -- where I was born (Beth Israel, hospital of my delivery now converted to expensive condos, was discernible, right in front of the Con Edison smokestacks), where I grew up, got married, had three children. Yet things had changed down there, not all of that change being to my liking. Still, I felt responsible, because when a place is home, you always feel responsible. Below teemed the multitudes, millions of ever-moving dots, all of them no doubt clinging to their sweaty little egos with at least as much desperation as I clung to mine. New York, New York: You struggle to distinguish yourself, make a name, and in the final result, the city offers up nothing but the throng.

Therein, of course, lay the flip side, the salvation from everythingness. Amid the clutter below, one could get misplaced or, rather, misplace oneself. Wasn't that urbanity's tawdry selling point, the notion that anyone could turn a corner, disappear into the crowd? Because if you can't get lost in New York, where can you?

But I couldn't lock myself away in a Jackson Heights subbasement like a smuggled day worker. In the most public of all cities, the challenge was to hide in plain sight. To become a faceless face in the crowd. To do that, I had to walk. After all, to be a New Yorker is to walk, even if it's the same crappy eight blocks a day. The press of pedal extremities against pavement is what the city is all about, and not just because the place was invented before cars and if you walk in L.A. it makes the cops nervous and they beat you to a pulp on principle. Walking, you might encounter the Buddha. Stop in the middle of Allen Street, near Canal, and look up. There he is, a massively fat and smiling statue, illuminated by fluorescence in the third-floor window above the Hop Won vegetable market. Sometimes he takes human form. Peeking through acetate curtains of the tenement window on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, one beholds the Gautama of Gowanus: 350 pounds or more, he reclines upon his bed inside his cramped room, the greenish walls of his tiny room surrounding him like a bottle round a ship. He watches a giant-screen TV. Buffy is on, the stake in her hand. In the ever-panning surveillance camera of the walker's voyeur view, everyone and thing can be a Buddha.

For the walker, the city reveals a reality denied those in cabs, in Town Cars, or even on bikes. It is a roofless space, where time moves according to whim and every periphery is available. So that was the mission: to forge my path of personal urban renewal by walking from the city's top to its bottom, from the Bronx, through Manhattan, and to Brooklyn's Coney Island shore, knapsack on my back, val-da-ree, val-da-rah.

I would get lost to get found, and with the chill wind off the scruffy fairways of the Van Cortlandt public golf links fresh upon my face, this seemed as good a place as any to start. Out here, in all this night, it was no big trick to edit the buzzing planes from the patchy sky, to muffle the thrum of the Henry Hudson Parkway. In this void, time might be scrolled backward, beyond the advent of the Mosholu Parkway, Frank Crosetti, and the Savage Skulls, to when this land was covered by a vast primeval forest. Then, it might be very easy to imagine myself the sole soul ever to bunk down upon this rock, the Bronx's own alpha-and-omega man. It was with this thought that I curled into the sleeping bag, closed my eyes, and fell off to sleep.

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