Friday, October 28, 2011

Letter from Pedestrianica

I go for a lot of walks. It’s how I get places, for one thing, but it also serves as a sort of therapy, a varied repetition that soothes and gets me safely past the blocks (after blocks after blocks) in my head. It can also help alleviate anger, but then again maybe it can’t: I’m talking about a theoretical world here, I’m talking ideologically. I’m talking about a world without cars.

A world with breathable air. A world without the relentless, numbing drone of motors. A world where we aren’t on that constant grave-robberly quest to unearth oil, waging eternal war, slaughtering entire populations, and, woops, poisoning oceans in the quest to get our next hit of gasoline.

A world with fast, reliable, comprehensive, cheap public transit. A world where we can bike without fear of dying. One where freeways become so extraneous, we make them parks. Where the transportation needs of the elderly and people with disabilities are given priority.

A world that is crisp rather than blurred, where we linger and pay attention to the spaces we inhabit. Where we don’t have to look for parking. Where we don’t have to look both ways. A world with some room to really move.

Am I being a diva here?

Self-righteous, maybe, I’ll accept self-righteous. And hyperbolic. But I’m just one small body in the face of a nonstop flow of hurtling, two-ton chunks of metal (how’s that for hyperbole?). There’s a power dynamic here, one that I never hear talked about, but one that becomes conversely clear in times when I ride inside those chunks of metal.

When we're behind that windshield, we are God.

We can’t go on like this. And this seems so urgent to me, and obvious. It’s seemed obvious for most of my life.

"Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries," Roethke said.

There was one walk I went on, a walk around my neighborhood the other night, in the company of a thousand other people. The Occupy Oakland movement had just voted to declare a citywide general strike for Wednesday, November 2, and I joined them as they walked around downtown in celebration. It was the kind of march that took up the entire street, the kind you usually need a permit for, but there was an odd absence of cops, which must have felt extra freeing to the marchers who’d suffered through the cops’ fascistic tactics the night before (those who weren’t in the hospital or jail). We walked: past the jail and past Mexicali Rose, past apartment buildings with people dancing on fire escapes. Past a club where my friend Gabby had gone to dance, and after seeing us all out walking, decided to come say hi. Past an enclave of condos the city subsidized but never filled. Past the freeway onramp, where a debate ensued over whether we should storm the interstate (I’m not the only one who wants to make it a park). Past my house, how convenient: goodnight.

Mainstream media pundits have complained about the OWS movement's lack of a focused message (here is a great article about why those pundits are mattering less and less). So let me walk around the block for a minute and complicate their message even further. On second thought, though, how complicated is this? One of the movement's favorite chants is “Whose streets? Our streets!”: cars, more than anything else, embody the unhealthy, unjust ways in which we occupy this planet. And the reason we all need our cars like we do stems from money. Los Angeles once had one of the most efficient streetcar systems in the world. Prior to GM's buyout of their public transit system, Los Angeles—the city whose name now conjures immediate images of gridlock—once strove for the same thing I want.

What I want is a world without cars.

The reasons for this are many, and to be honest, right now, I don’t even know where to start. So this is just the first of many Letters from Pedestrianica, the name I’ve decided to give this carless world I’ve been talking about. Even now, as I write this, those wavy red lines have attached themselves to the undercarriage of carless: Microsoft Word has decided that carless is not a word.

The software feels the same way about the word, classism. But at the rapid rate political discourse now seems to be shifting, we’ll see how long that lasts.

Welcome to Pedestrianica. It’s a mouthful, for sure, as we lift ourselves up out of the smog. But who knows what sort of things we’ll articulate, one day when we walk together, that day when we’ve finally freed ourselves of our dull and cumbersome cars?

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