On Walking and Belonging

walking DC sunset

One day in January, I was washing a pair of mugs my friends gave me as a “leaving NYC” gift last spring. The mugs have a sketch of the Brooklyn skyline and are from Fishs Eddy, a quirky dishware store in Manhattan that I love. I’ve used these mugs many times since moving but that day I looked at them and had a flash of — well, yearning. Suddenly I missed Fishs Eddy, and the short walk up Broadway from Union Square to get there. In that moment those few blocks felt like something of mine, a tiny piece of New York that belongs to me, and I wondered what else evoked that feeling.

The stretch of 7th Ave in Park Slope that I walked up and down or took the bus along to go to Barnes and Noble and Rite Aid, yes. That block of Prospect Ave, also in Park Slope, with the flags along the expressway, where you could see the Statue of Liberty out in the harbor. A certain path in Prospect Park. Sherman Street in Windsor Terrace. The side street entrance to the library in Soho. The pocket garden near my apartment, and the tiny upper floor of the Park Slope Library. The stairs down to the 49th Street subway station in Times Square, after seeing a show.

Places I mostly walked alone, over many years. There are other loved places — the Promenade, Battery Park, the Highline and the Hudson Greenway, museums, theaters. But those are often shared memories, and I know I miss the people — I always knew that. When I go back to visit New York, it’s the people I go to see. I haven’t retraced my steps at any of these places.

Even with people roots here in DC, with many old friends and new ones too, I keep saying that I don’t quite feel like a real person in DC. Life as a graduate student keeps me from exploring the city on foot, and so I don’t own many places in DC. The walk to my apartment from the metro, maybe, and to the pizza place near my work — well, maybe not. The escalator in Dupont Circle metro station with the quote I like but can’t remember above it? Till I can at least say who the quote is from, I don’t think it’s mine.

That may be why DC isn’t quite a real place for me yet. But slowly I am starting to own more stretches of the city blocks. Because I don’t have an unlimited metro card this summer, I’ve walked to and from campus a dozen times. Along the way I’ve found personal landmarks, from the Little Libraries that dot my neighborhood to the property sign that reminds me I’m just a few blocks from home.

I don’t know why I need that muscle memory of walking a street alone for a city to feel real for me. It takes time to build up that personal map of a place and a year isn’t enough. On the eve of leaving for five months to study abroad, I wonder what it will feel like to come back in January. Will the distance gloss certain stretches of DC with that nostalgia New York streets have for me, or do I need more time on the ground for DC to belong to me?

We’ll see. In the meantime, I’ll keep walking.

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