My love of urban planning initially took root as urban wanderlust, specifically a love of taking long, meandering walks through great American cities. I once worked as a copy editor and page designer for the San Francisco Examiner, and I would frequently spend my oddly scheduled days off wandering the hills of the storied City by the Bay. Theoretically, the goal was to really get to know the city in all of its various names and guises, to bolster my effectiveness as a copy editor. But I found that in the process, I explored a number of out-of-the-way nooks and crannies of the S.F. cityscape that veered far from BART and Muni stations.
I admit that this comes off as a sort of hipster urbanism, but to me this is about more than finding a pork belly pickled onion bahn mi at a food counter that only the coolest of locals have heard of. With population centers of major cities shaped by their transit lines, it’s easy to live in a metropolitan region for one’s whole life, while only having a skeletal perception of how the area hangs together. Cities are social organisms with a lot of forgotten, neglected connective tissue, and exploring them on foot is a terrific way to build a holistic mental map and really get to know an urban area.
My newspaper career ended in early 2012 when the Examiner’s parent company changed ownership and I ended up taking a buyout. Invigorated by a severance package and my first stretch of unemployment in years, I took aim at the mother of all American urban behemoths: New York City.
Over the course of a weeklong visit, I vowed to walk 100 miles, with significant stretches in all five boroughs. I ended up reaching my goal, with the great majority of my journey taking place over five days spanning nearly the entire longitude and latitude of the city — and, for kicks, a little bit of New Jersey.
Day 1: Staten Island
I began my journey in the spirit of contrarianism, walking an exhausting 23 miles across the forgotten borough of Staten Island. Staten is a geographic question mark in America’s largest city, the borough many native New Yorkers never bother to visit, except for the purposes of a free ferry ride with a great view of the Statue of Liberty. Culturally, it’s barely part of New York — it has tried to secede several times, and the island is historically notable as the place where the British troops landed during the first push of the Revolutionary War, adding to its outsider aura.
That sense of mystery, plus my longtime affinity for the Wu-Tang Clan (Staten natives who dubbed the borough “Shaolin”), was a major factor in choosing the island as the launch point for my epic quest. Staten is highly suburban and light on notable landmarks, and really doesn’t make for the most eventful walk, but it’s absolutely enormous, and it’s fascinating that such a quiet, distant community exists within New York’s municipal boundaries. My ultimate goal was a “tugboat graveyard” at the northwestern tip of the city that I’d read about, but unfortunately, I arrived to find that the graveyard was completely visually obscured by several private businesses and a tall fence.
Day 2: North Bronx/Manhattan
I spend (waste) a decent amount of time on Google Maps clicking around toward the distant ends of peninsulas and other geographic endpoints, fascinated by points of no return. I have a similar fascination with the distant ends of New York subway lines, whose names are familiar to every New Yorker (e.g. the classic film “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three”) but are rarely destinations in and of themselves. In that spirit, I decided to kick off my second day by taking the 1 Broadway–Seventh Avenue Local red line to its northern terminus, Van Cortlandt Park in the North Bronx.
One thing I quickly learned about New York is that just because a location is labeled as a “park” on a map doesn’t mean that it’s well maintained, or even easily accessible. This is part of the inescapable legacy of Robert Moses (more on him later), who, as NYC Parks Commissioner, expanded the city’s total park acreage from 14,000 acres to 34,673 acres. In a municipal behemoth like New York City, this inevitably results in a mix of winners and losers, and my journey featured both. Van Cortlandt Park was truly grand, featuring a running track at a scale I’d never seen growing up in the Bay Area, while Riverside Park, hugging the west end of the Bronx, felt like an overgrown afterthought.
To my dismay, the Henry Hudson Bridge was closed to pedestrian access, so I found a pedestrian stairwell that pointed toward the more accessible Broadway Bridge. From there, my adventures in Manhattan were mostly a story of “walk forward,” with the occasional pit stop for water or orange juice. I covered a lot of ground, but a lot of what Manhattan has to offer at night is indoors, so I decided to call it a day a couple of hours after the sun set and wrapped up my journey at the 79th and Broadway subway station.
Day 3: New Jersey?!
Many native New Yorkers would drop their halal cart lamb kebabs in disgust that I spent my third day walking in North Jersey, but bear with me. HBO’s The Sopranos is not only my favorite show, but in the running for my favorite work of art, period, and I feel that the series writ large captures something deep and profound about the contradictions of the American experience. Artsy-fartsiness aside, another thing I love about the show as an urban planner is that where other shows rely on soundstages, every Sopranos location is an actual, physical location, and is treated as such in the fictional universe of the show.
This is especially apparent in the show’s famous title sequence, which depicts crime boss Tony Soprano emerging from New York’s Lincoln Tunnel and taking the New Jersey Turnpike to his hilly suburban palace in North Caldwell. Numerous Garden State landmarks zoom by Tony’s window, and what fascinates me about the choice of imagery is that it isn’t scattershot — this is what Tony would see during an actual commute from New York to the Soprano house’s physical location. I can report that Pizzaland, the pizza shack that zips by during this sequence, sells slices roughly on par with Chuck-E-Cheese.
The Sopranos’ DiMeo crime family is effectively a pyramid scheme, with the mob bosses living in vast McMansions and everyone else relegated to ordinary apartments and single-family homes, and my walk reflected this gradient. As I moved away from the industrial areas and meadowlands near the Turnpike, the houses gradually got bigger and bigger and spaced farther and farther apart. My goal, the Soprano homestead, was tucked away in a remote court, the driveway where Tony picks up his newspaper at the beginning of every season shining like a golden staircase. I celebrated my pop culture pilgrimage with a quick photo and then quietly slipped away, eager not to be a nuisance.
Day 4: South Bronx/Queens
I actually spent my fourth full walking day on a northward route spanning Midwood in central Brooklyn to Astoria, Queens, but it was pretty uneventful other than some pretty high-quality pizza, doughnuts, and Peruvian food, but nobody wants to read about that. For my final day, I returned to the Bronx to visit East Tremont, infamous among urban planners as the community that Robert Moses destroyed for no reason.
The chapter “One Mile” of Robert Caro’s Pulitzer-winning Moses biography The Power Broker, which tells the story of the planning and construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, reads almost like a mob saga. In one fell swoop, Moses raised his arms and divided the Bronx in two; despite being told of a more viable option one block south, he opted to direct a one-mile stretch of the expressway through the heart of East Tremont, instantly displacing 5,000 residents.
Tremont today is depressing in its familiarity among American urban neighborhoods. Now that the Interstate Highway System is an ever-present fact of life, seeing a gigantic highway overpass in the middle of an existing community isn’t unusual. From my own experience, every Bay Area resident is familiar with the MacArthur Maze, which divides Oakland like a pizza and was largely built at the expense of majority-African-American neighborhoods. Likewise, Tremont has adapted to the expressway, with the stretches underneath consigned to junkyards, parking lots and dead space.
My New York walkabout concluded at another Moses project, the 1964 World’s Fair site in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Standing under the glow of the famous Unisphere at night, I realized that my final day in New York really illustrated the planning profession at its best and worst. Robert Moses’ grandiose monuments reflect his life as a planner with unchecked power who really wanted his city to be the greatest city on Earth. But with seemingly no capacity for reflective practice, he left deep scars that have yet to heal, and his influence is felt throughout the country.
Rich Bunnell is a second-year Master of Urban Planning student at UM's Taubman College, and Agora's managing editor of special projects.