Sidewalks have been a part of urban landscapes for four-thousand years. Yet it was Parisian city designers five-hundred years ago who brought raised sidewalks separating pedestrians from road traffic to the forefront in urban design. The idea caught on and by the 20th-Century sidewalks had become common in most European and American cities.
My childhood hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana was no exception. By the early 1900s, Terre Haute was a thriving city of 65,000 people based on an economy of agriculture, mining, manufacturing and railroads. It became known as “The Crossroads of America” because two major roads–US highways 40 and 41–intersected in the heart of downtown. And throughout the city laced a network of–sidewalks.
Some of my earliest memories were made on sidewalks in front of my childhood homes on Barbour Avenue and North 34th Street in Terre Haute. So I was disappointed when both of the suburban neighborhoods where my wife, Mary Ann, and I reared our daughters had no sidewalks. Her own childhood neighborhood in Wyoming had not had sidewalks either. She recalls that what she especially looked forward to whenever she visited her grandmother’s house in Montana was that it had a sidewalk. There she could even use her roller skates!
In more recent years sidewalks have reentered my life again—and especially since our move to the city of Seattle. These have become a source of delight for me; let me explain.
I like to take walks in various Seattle neighborhoods. Each has its own unique character—and the sidewalks in each also vary. Some sidewalks take on a life of their own as tree roots and other influences distort their shapes and contours. When possible, I’ve tried to share my sidewalk sojourns with my grandchildren. It helps me to see sidewalks again through a child’s eye. For example, when my grandson Sam was about two years old I enjoyed walking with him on the sidewalks of his neighborhood. He would sometimes pause during our outings, crouch low and observe ants moving into and out of an ant hill that had been built into one of the cracks of the sidewalk. He looked for a long time with no conversation–just watched. I suppose he was “wondering” about these tiny creatures—much as I did when I was his age along the sidewalks of Barbour Avenue.
Then there have been times with my granddaughter Linnea in her neighborhood. She liked to push her “baby” down the sidewalks in a play-carriage—much as she’d observed adults doing. And her brother Henry more recently has used the sidewalks of our neighborhood in West Seattle to get close to and examine various plants along our way.
Most recently, during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve discovered a new delight in my neighborhood—sidewalk art. Some sidewalk art existed before the pandemic of course, but I think the stay-at-home orders this year have given families license—and opportunities—to be more creative with their sidewalks. Putting chalk on sidewalks was an activity in my childhood too, although I don’t recall actually drawing anything. I mostly now remember just making courts for playing hopscotch.
Today’s children—and adults—seem to be more creative with their sidewalk artistic efforts. Bright colors and hopeful symbols (like hearts and rainbows) usually show up in the creations I’ve seen in my neighborhood. There are sometimes more-permanent artworks too—like a stick-figure child’s drawing of a human figure I saw on a sidewalk near a neighborhood elementary school. I like to think of it as a “self-portrait.”
That same school also has permanent mosaic artworks embedded into the sidewalk in front of the building. Those appear to have been created by adults and children working together. They drew inspiration from the wildlife and other natural features of the local environment.
Finally, there are true artists who also indulge in making sidewalk art in my neighborhood. I know of several homes where practicing artists reside and these, along with their yards and sidewalks, can sometimes become works of art in their own right.
For instance, I recently came upon a mosaic set into a small area of cement that had been used to repair an uneven section of sidewalk. Whoever created this–probably an adult–knew what she was doing. However, I expect a child (or children) were involved while executing the project too. Its various objects—hand prints, a leaf, two lady bugs, a starfish, a frog, a sea turtle and colorful stones—speak of having been conceived through a child’s eyes. Whatever it’s origin, encountering this artwork on a day during the COVID pandemic certainly brightened my outlook!
East Side, West Side, all around the town
The tots sang “Ring-Around-Rosie”/”London Bridge is Falling Down”
Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke
Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York.
Now that I’m again in a community where sidewalks are a part of daily life, it’s hard to imagine living without them. There are all the aforementioned amusements–and inspirations–that come through various artistic and creative expressions, although even more importantly for me are the personal connections and memories associated with the past and present sidewalks of my life.
While writing this essay I recalled a popular song from the 1890s–“The Sidewalks of New York.” It brought to mind a special evening not long ago when my wife and I accompanied our daughter Jill and grandson Sam to view the musical film Mary Poppins Returns at a theatre within walking distance of our home. After the film, Jill and Sam went ahead of us as we began our trek back home. Suddenly they spontaneously began to “trip the light fantastic” while singing a song from the film together. It was a moment of pure glee–and it happened on a sidewalk, of course!
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this essay in 2020. All rights reserved.