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L.A. Constitutional

You’d be surprised by the best American city for walking.

Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By JOE QUEENAN
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In a New York Times article about the rise of the Urban Caveman (the Paleo Diet is heavy on meat) that I recently happened upon, the celebrity harbinger of doom Nassim Taleb remarked: “New York is the only city in America where you can walk.” Taleb, bestselling author of The Black Swan, has been remarkably prescient in describing how unexpected events can ravage financial markets. But his description of Gotham as a pedestrian paradise sounds like the sort of thing any poorly informed caveman might say.

L.A. Constitutional

New York is not the only walkable city in America, and in many ways—or let us say, on many days—it is a perfectly awful city to navigate on foot. Because of the tiny distance between its north-south streets, its maniacal cab drivers, its nonstop traffic, its belligerent street vendors, its hordes of tourists, and the huge number of pedestrians who fight their way along the major arteries to get to work, get lunch, or get to Barnes & Noble to buy Nassim Taleb books,
New York is a frustrating city to handle on foot at many times of the day.

In dismissing New York’s claims to exclusivity in this department, I do so as an avid walker who did not begin driving until the age of 51, and who has made his way on foot around American cities as diverse as Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Baltimore, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Portland, Seattle, and yes, Los Angeles. All of these cities have their own special charms and all are fun to walk in. Boston, a pocket-sized municipality, is a delight to visit on foot; you can get from Cambridge to
Back Bay in less than an hour.
Philadelphia’s cobblestoned historic district is equally appealing to pedestrians, as is the park along the Schuylkill that stretches for miles. San Francisco is a joy for walkers, as is Chicago, whose waterfront seems to have been designed to accommodate those on foot. Of the major American cities I have visited, only Dallas and Houston strike me as cities that are not especially walkable. This is, in part, because they are both quite vast, but mostly because they are exquisitely dull.

New York, in whose environs I have lived for the past 34 years, is an
interesting city to walk in, but that doesn’t make it any more walkable than
Baltimore or, for that matter, Columbia, South Carolina. People who say otherwise, I suspect, are people who don’t actually walk that much when they visit cities that do not have gigantic subway systems, so they have no way of knowing what these cities are really like. Either that or they are simply repeating the usual well-marinated urban clichés: Parisians are unfriendly (well, maybe 20 years ago), you can’t get a good meal in London (well, maybe 20 years ago), there’s nothing to do in Cleveland at night (well, maybe 20 years ago). 

This is another case of New Yorkers, arrogantly, provincially, yet somewhat desperately, hoping that if they say something loud enough and often enough, it will be mistaken for the truth.

People think I am being needlessly provocative when I say that I prefer
Los Angeles to San Francisco—I like the people, I like the sun, I like the beach, L.A. has better museums,
San Franciscans are horrible—but I do, and one reason is that I find it an endlessly fascinating city to walk in. Contrary to popular belief, it is not all that difficult for a pedestrian to get around in Los Angeles, particularly in the parts of the city he is most likely to visit. I have visited Los Angeles a hundred times in the past 23 years and almost always travel on foot. On numerous occasions I have walked from my hotel on the Sunset Strip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or up into the hills, or to Rodeo Drive. I have regularly taken my constitutional from the intersection of La Cienega and Beverly up to
Hollywood, and from the Beverly Hills Hilton to the Farmers’ Market. These hikes take about an hour, roughly the time it would take to get from Chinatown to Times Square.

From the first time I visited
Los Angeles in 1987 I was struck by how untrue most of the enduring clichés about the city were. The city is not merely a maze of highways; the neighborhoods between the major arteries—say, between Santa Monica and Melrose—are filled with quiet streets with sweet little houses where normal people live. This is equally true if you stroll between Fairfax and La Brea, or in the older Jewish community around Pico, or along the winding streets tucked away between Santa Monica and Sunset. These are wonderful neighborhoods to walk in, with great buildings and beautiful gardens, and there are lots of them.

Every couple of years, I make a trek with a few friends the length of
Broadway in New York, from the top of Manhattan to the bottom. The 13-mile jaunt takes five hours. We pass through all kinds of neighborhoods and see the entire history of the city as we do. It is an amazing experience. But anyone can do the same thing on Santa Monica Boulevard. You can start at Fairfax and watch as the demographics change as you wander the long strip out past
Beverly Hills. You’ll see all kinds of architecture, all kinds of houses, all kinds of shops, all kinds of people. There are lots of places to eat, drink, relax. I’d rather walk around Los Angeles than most other cities—including New York—any day of the week. There are no crowds, the sidewalks are in better condition, the vegetation is miraculous, and the sun’s out all the time.

Don’t believe me? Take a hike.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.


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