Last week, I walked to the Village neighborhood in downtown Jersey City for the first time since the pandemic began in March. Although this slice of the city is only a twenty- or thirty-minute stroll from my home, I felt as if I was embarking upon a great quest or journey. During the past five plus months, I have left my immediate neighborhood no more than a half-dozen times. Since I don’t own a car, my few trips have been on foot.
Walking remains my exercise of choice and allows my mind the freedom and quiet to roam. In my pre-COVID life, which seems increasingly distant, a brisk stroll consisted of one leg of my twice-daily commute. On my lunch breaks, I would often walk through the shopping district near my Lincoln Center office in Manhattan, enjoying the simple entertainment offered by the city sidewalk. After work, at least once or twice a week, I would find myself in a different Manhattan or Brooklyn neighborhood for a cultural outing and I would always allow myself some time to explore the neighborhood’s streets.
Discovering new buildings and watching people always inspired my imagination and re-affirmed my decision to make my life in a city. On weekends, if I felt cooped up in my home, I would amble down to the Hudson River waterfront in nearby Hoboken without a thought. Aimlessly walking in and observing the city—the characteristic activities of the flaneur—stands as one many simple pleasures lost or “paused” due to the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis.
Within moments of my recent ambulatory adventure last week, I realized how much I had missed the small surprises encountered when traveling along new and familiar routes and streets. While walking down a hill, I glanced below at a railway underpass surrounded by thick foliage and marsh. I cut through a block of residential buildings with a variety of architectural styles and design flourishes. I stared down a slightly overgrown service alley that appeared to cut through the entire neighborhood. I smiled upon spotting a cat slinging through a tiny urban side yard.
My morning walk left me feeling delighted and refreshed at a moment when I sorely needed it. The last few weeks of quarantine had proven particularly challenging, leaving me feeling glum and borderline terrified for the future.
Nearly every day, I read an article attempting to predict how cities might roar back to meet a population emerging from its COVID cocoon or face a dark repeat of their 1970s nadir. In the immediate future, small businesses, cultural organizations, public transit, and government services are likely to face serious challenges. Until a change in the White House, they can expect little help from the federal government.
Still, cities offer a greater possible release or break from the loneliness and isolation borne from the pandemic. One can walk to complete many regular errands and possibly bump into an acquaintance. One can safely meet a friend in a park for an afternoon conversation. One might even be able to sip a coffee or cocktail at a sidewalk café. These small exchanges and moments greatly impact one’s mental and physical well-being far more than a marathon shopping excursion or a big family blow-out.
What might the coming weeks, months, or even years hold for Jersey City, New York, and our nation? I honestly cannot say with any persistence confidence. However, I’m taking walks again and hoping to witness a return—no matter how marginal—to normalcy. Failing that, I’m waiting for a different world to begin.