Atlanta has more than 2,200 miles of sidewalk and roughly 26 pedestrians, meaning in the most congested parts of the city during the busiest times of day, it’s possible to travel miles without seeing anyone walking along the side of the road. Traveling by foot is so uncommon in this city that I recently had someone approach me in what might’ve been a disrespectful manner, if only beach bum/hobo chic weren’t a fashion aesthetic I’ve striven to perfect.
“Excuse me, sir, you’re homeless, right?” a man said on my trip from the store, preparing to share information about social services before learning I was ineligible. “Oh, I’m sorry. I always see you walking and so I thought you were homeless.”
“Thank you,” I said sincerely, and then to make my appreciation less awkward I added, “for the work you’re doing.”
Most Atlanta residents could move to Portland or Portugal without noticing much change in their daily environments. It doesn’t matter where you live when the extent of your interaction with your hometown is from the front door of your home to your car, then from your vehicle to the entrance of whatever destination you reach.
GPS takes care of the middle portion of every trip, so being a functional, competent adult no longer requires knowing directions to anywhere or the name of the street two blocks from your home. I’ve always thought Atlanta’s urban pod life resulted from being a highway-centric city of transplants, but by now technology has probably made Bostonians and San Antonians equally ignorant of street names, shortcuts and the character of their cities.
This isn’t a rant against navigational systems or car culture, although almost every modern critique of cell phones — especially that they isolate us from others and detach us from the “real world” — applies to automobiles, too. Instead, I resent the hickish narrative about “the city” now being repeated by folks who live in a metropolitan area but remain clueless about urban life.
We are a generation of perpetual strangers, forever unfamiliar with the areas we call home and susceptible to suggestions that danger is everywhere outside our doors. We believe the media telling us crime is out of control, when we could stroll through any neighborhood in Atlanta and realize most often the opposite is true.
It’s tough to raise this argument when police are still searching for the person who killed a lesbian (while walking) in Piedmont Park, although an absence of pedestrian culture generally correlates with a lack of witnesses. Random, awful violence can occur in Midtown Atlanta or Holcomb, Kansas, but we should resist efforts to keep us afraid of our streets and neighbors; and enablers of law-and-order excesses.
Part of the safety I feel walking around Atlanta comes from looking wholly un-muggable, as if I qualify for housing assistance or reduced bus fare. However, the rest of my comfort is knowing my community and city enough to vouch for their decency.