Yesterday I tried out my new running commute. Starting next week, I have pre-school year staff development at Kurt Hahn, and I figured I should know the route and roughly how long it will take me to get there on foot. I’d driven there, and looked at some routes on googlemaps, so I knew it was 3.3 miles by the most direct route. That’s one of the advantages of running – you can almost always take the most direct route. When I drive, I have to account for one-way roads, so a direct drive is nearly 4 miles. When I bike, if I want to stick to bike-lanes, it adds a few decimal points to make the total 3.5. Not a big difference by any means, but I find it aesthetically pleasing that the spatially most efficient route is the technologically simplest: running.
One of the reasons I love running is the geographical intimacy it gives you with a place, be that a rural trail or a neighborhood in Brooklyn. I love New York City’s subway system (for sociological, ecological, and economic reasons) but it can leave you geographically dislocated, as your point of departure and your point of arrival are severed: the journey bears no logical connection to the destination. Especially when one first moves to New York, it can feel as if one drops down some magical rabbit hole and emerges, blinking into the sunlight, at some randomly chosen location. It has taken me years to understand how different neighborhoods and streets relate to one another in real-world terms, rather than abstracted points strung along multi-colored lines on a not-to-scale map. “Far” and “near” have nothing to do with actual distance, but in the number of transfers, the local or express status of trains, scheduled track-work, the reliability of a given line, whether or not busses are involved. Long Island City, Queens, for example, is 5 miles north of where I live, but feels considerably further than Harlem, which is a good 10 miles away.
The subway allows you to bypass everywhere between yourself and your destination; traveling on the surface forces you actually be in all the points in between. In a car, however, you can easily drive through a neighborhood or street without really being in it. Between watching for traffic, trying to make out street signs as they whip past, and of course simply traveling at high speed, I’ve passed through many areas without ever seeing them. Biking heightens one’s awareness, but there is still the vehicular distance: higher speed, a more acute need for awareness of one’s surroundings, always peering ahead for the next intersection, the next pot-hole, the next red light. Running forces you into the moment, into the exact location: even my fastest running pace is a crawl compared to biking. There is no vehicle between you and the earth as you physically step onto each curb, each yard of black-top and concrete and slate sidewalk. You feel the rises in the topography differently as well, as without a series of gears or an engine to eliminate the change in elevation, even a slight rise is noticeable. You are here, now, and you connect “here” to “there” with a physical, unbroken line of movement and awareness. Major buildings appear in the distance, and you have many minutes of gradual travel to watch them rise up against the horizon, shifting slightly against the clouds in the far distance, positions on the skyline edging askew with the altering angle of approach.
The first stretch of travel to Kurt Hahn I know well: Bed-Stuy south toward Eastern Parkway. From there, my course turns more southerly and further to the east than has been my experience, through the eastern stretches of Crown Heights, seeking Flatbush. A new route always has an element of a quest. I’m seeking out the few major avenues and intersections of which I’d made a mental note before leaving home, but since there are divers roads one can take to get to any given point, I’m moving in a general direction, peering about and tracking my position in a mind’s-eye map, recalibrating location and destination and the difference between. East along the Parkway, deciding which New York city to travel south along — Albany, Schenectady, Troy, Utica – turning right and moving south and east, peering along streets for the major intersection of Empire and Ramsen and Utica. South-east along Ramsen Avenue, which cuts a diagonal swath through the grid Crown Heights into Flatbush, bisecting roads not large enough to deserve names but merely assigned numbers — 49th, 50th, 51st – counting upwards until I turn on 56th, not an exact point but a figure in the high fifties, something that will intersect with Tilden further south.
The neighborhood that nestles beneath Ramsen, this warren of small, numbered side-streets, has a quaint, almost suburban feel: brick duplexes with pocket-sized front-yards, private driveways, and sloping, shingled roofs. Streets like this remind you of why Manhattan refers to the rest of New York as “the outer boroughs,” though of course further south and east is Mill Pond and Ozone Park and neighborhoods that blur the distinction between New York City and the closer reaches of Long Island. Still, these single family homes are a far cry from the crowded apartments further north, the glossy condos of downtown, or even the brownstones of Bed-Stuy.
The Samuel J. Tilden Educational Campus is a few blocks east along Tilden Avenue, a two-way street that looks much busier on googlemaps than it is in real life, and the massive building is surrounded on all four sides by the same quiet duplexs I’ve just run past. Unless you’ve actually seen one of the old, massive urban schools that once were the standard in cities like New York, you really can’t appreciate their size. Despite their worn exteriors, there is a majesty about them, a towering sense of gravitas that one normally associates with 19th century court-houses and museums. Once cannot easily dismiss three stories and nearly a full block of solid granite and limestone, the wings of the building reaching out to embrace a grassy front plaza spotted with towering trees, the peaked stone-work above the entrance recalling an enlightenment-era worship of everything Athenian.
Having started my teaching career in such a building, I know that the grand exterior belies what lies within: dingy hallways painted in dull, institutional hues; cracked and faded linoleum hallways; wire-mesh lined stairwells reminiscent of a turn-of-the century sanitarium. Still, despite the decades of neglect and decline, and despite the current trend towards smaller, more intimately staffed schools, one can’t help but feel there has been something lost in our communal turn from these old, noble buildings, that such a large, solid, ambitious structure speaks to the weight we once gave education. That the entrance recalls nothing so much as the Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of art or the Federal Courthouse of Manhattan, and that all these buildings are crafted with echoes of Monticello and the Parthenon, says that public schooling – not private school, but an egalitarian education open to all – was a cornerstone of municipal life: science, art , law and education.
I’m drifting from running again – the impending school year seems to have captured my thoughts quite a lot recently. Anyway, I arrived at my school (only my third time seeing the building) took a few pictures and caught my breath. I heard some grunting and cadence chanting from somewhere behind the building, and jogged around to find the football team doing warm-ups. I introduced myself to the coaches, and was pleased to see we have a full field circled by a track (another advantage of the older buildings). Then I headed home.
Already the route was no longer new. Even though I was coming back from my first ever run to the building, returning had a significantly different feel: passing through even once was enough to render it somewhat familiar, transforming the unknown into the known through the alchemy of mnemnosis. The reverse metamorphosis from residential streets to the crowds and noise of Utica, the roti-shops and Trinidadian flags, delivery trucks double-parking in bike-lanes and gypsy cabs, cresting the heights at Eastern Parkway, then back to the familiar territory of home.