I love walking around a city. It is the only way to really understand its life and rhythm. You see how people live. You feel the passage of time, both in the changes in architecture and in the passage of people on the street. When I travel I spend days walking neighborhoods, both touristy and homey.
I also have pleasure of living in one of the most walkable cities – New York. It goes beyond cliché. Manhattan is the center of the city, and it is a compact collection of neighborhoods. It is where I grew up. And I still spend hours walking around its streets. I walk in all weather, because New Yorkers don’t let rain or snow stop get in the way of what they want to do.
On the streets of New York, my eyes are often captured by signs. Not the new flashy LED signs with words and pictures moving around, changing images faster than you can process them. My eyes settle on the old signs. Some are for businesses that have been in the same place for decades. They still have their original painted signs up over their windows. They may even have phone numbers with no area code or even with letters in addition to numbers, showing their age.
Often, my eyes are entranced by signs that hang perpendicular to the buildings. On a good block they can layer the view, different colors competing for my attention with words in different styles. One of the worst things to happen in New York was when landlords decided that all of the businesses in their building had to have uniform signs, all the same color and font. They blend in together and nothing catches the eye.
But my favorite time to walk the city is at night. The distractions fade away and light gets to dance at the center of the stage. Once again, my eyes dodge past the LEDs, those new kids, moving fast. Like break dancers, their moves are too hard for me to follow. I search out the slow moving signs. There, over a diner – NEON!
Neon is a sensuous slow dance. Red light in the basement for a house party, it invites you in with a promise of more. Today neon promises an authenticity earned by age. Some new diners try to mimic the style, but you can tell the new from old in an instant. Old neon has a certain dingy quality, not quite dirty, but not clean either. There is a comfort level that it promises, whether in front of a diner, where you know just what comfort food to order, or over a dive bar, letting you know that there will be no frou-frou drinks, just beer and whisky.
You learn a lot about a city when you walk its streets. You see the people who live there. And you see how they live. So put on your walking shoes and take to the streets.