A month ago, I couldn’t wait to go back home to Florida for spring break — to see the sun for the first time in months, to swim outdoors, to divide my time evenly between sleeping and impassioned Oreo consumption. But by the third or fourth day back, a weird sense of loneliness crept over me. With my parents at work and no car in sight, I felt like the only person in a world of plastic pink flamingos and swimming pools.
My immediate impulse was to walk. It was a tactic that had worked for most problems in New Haven. Yet though I came back from the walks somewhat energized and recharged, that subtle loneliness remained. In New Haven, walking means plethora of diverse faces and smiles, the chance and excitement of meeting a stranger, and the simple fact that I could actually see people. At home, a walk meant rows of neatly arranged houses, alfalfa grass, and those plastic pink flamingos I swear were following me. On rare occasions, I had the privilege of spying cars pull into their driveways, followed by the disappearance of men in collared shirts and khakis into their respective homes.
The solitary walk has often been romanticized in literature and for good reason. There is something about walking that can calm a frenetic and anxious mind or stir up a still, immobile one — as Thoreau once said, “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
But writers like Thoreau wrote far less about one of walking’s most important functions — that of creating and sustaining public life. Along with other aspects of public life such as public transportation or market squares, walking is the practical application of the Republican ideal, in which people of all different backgrounds and socioeconomic classes could mingle on the streets — to learn, create and inspire one another. I remember wondering in my high school history classes how events like the American Revolution or the Civil Rights Movement actually happened. There were, of course, great men like George Washington and Martin Luther King. The frontlines, however, were on the streets, with the Sons of Liberty sowing the seeds of the revolution in Boston and the people discussing and debating the March on Washington in Mobile and New York. Moreover, long after these events passed into history, lofty ideals like democracy and equality are renewed day after day by the conversations, the differing viewpoints, and the debates as people walked to work or ran errands around the neighborhood.
Public space and public life also goes beyond abstract ideas or great historical events. It is through public life that we become intimately acquainted with the possibility of trust and magnanimity in society. A smile from a stranger on the street or a friendly “hello” is irreducible, encapsulating everything about what it means to be a citizen in a simple, succinct manner.
So it’s sad then that walking along with other hallmarks of public life such as public transportation and market squares, seems to be declining. Some of this is spurred on by sprawling cities and suburbanization. The potential “hello” or “how are you” between two people has been replaced by honking and cursing that occurs when two cars meet. Suburbia encourages a rigid linear progression from cubicle to car to house — from compartment to compartment to compartment. Even when we walk in the suburbs, we tend to encounter those who come from similar backgrounds. There is no longer a diversity of viewpoints.
But the decline of public life is not exclusive to suburbs. In cities, even among those who walk on a daily basis, some are simply too busy or focused on the next task to observe that there are actually people all around. Such isolation amidst many people is perhaps inevitable these days, when our job or our grades depend on a machine-like diligence, but I can’t help but think that something is lost.
A week ago, a woman suddenly stopped me as I was walking to class and pointed to an object in the sky. She asked me what it was and we took several guesses: a weather balloon? A cloud? A giant floating marshmallow? We brought some others passing by into the game — an Iraqi immigrant, a Dwight Street resident, a Yale law student — and as our answers got increasingly whimsical, I felt a sense of kinship and community with complete strangers. One could write such an event off as trivial or completely inconsequential, but at the very least, it made the rest of the day a little bit better.
Charles Zhu is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.