1. You are currently walking every street in Manhattan- why?
I feel like I know many parts of the city quite well, but I continue to have flashes of amazement when I walk down a block in a neighborhood I thought I knew well and realize I've never been there before. Walking every block of Manhattan seemed like an attainable goal, but it's really more about the accomplishment than about the process. Plus it's a good source of material for my website, though that's not the primary consideration.
2. How do you approach a project like this? Do you buy special shoes? Any other required supplies?
At first I considered walking all of Brooklyn, but realized that the sprawl of Midwood, Canarsie and Sheepshead Bay would make it utterly intolerable. (I actually started that project one afternoon last year but only got as far as Downtown Brooklyn before realizing just how much walking is required to cover every block of even a small area.) Then I thought about walking San Francisco, but quickly came to the conclusion that it was impractical given that I don't actually live there. So, Manhattan: small (500 miles of street), dense, and infinitely varied, with only a few neighborhoods of cookie-cutter monotony. I decided on a goal of finishing in about two years, which dictated the average pace: about five miles a week, on average. I've tried to exceed that when the weather and my schedule allow; my longest day was one day in February, when I walked Broadway from the Battery to Dyckman Street and stopped because it was getting dark.
The only real essential is a good map. Unfortunately, the only good map of New York, the traditional hand-drawn Hagstrom, is dead, replaced by the modern computer-generated monstrosity that puts Manhattan at an angle, straightens curves, and omits all the interesting details. But I have to have some substrate to carry my annotations of what I have and haven't walked, and my old Hagstrom is too precious to mark up, so new Hagstrom it is. So far my list of new-Hagstrom errors is dozens long, and I'm only a quarter of the way through my walk.
3. What are you going to do on the Upper East Side? How do you kill the monotony?
I've been making an attempt to get the Upper East Side out of the way towards the beginning of the project, but you're right: Third Avenue, for example, was by far the most boring avenue I walked; there's just nothing of interest there. The odd thing about the Upper East Side is that the blocks between Fifth and Park tend to be full of architectural wonders, but once you cross Park it's nothing but white-brick towers and identical tenement walk-ups. So I sustain myself on the boring eastern end by remembering that in less than a mile I'll be back at the interesting part.
Surprisingly, I found Inwood even more boring than the Upper East Side, simply because it's such a monoculture of eight-story 1930s apartment buildings on slightly-too-wide streets. It's pretty, and it has lots of parks, but it still feels soulless to me.
4. What's the most interesting part of the island? The most dangerous? The least well-known?
I can usually find beauty in just about any area that's not modern and gleaming, but the places where I tend to enjoy the sights are either neighborhoods with a lot of street art (Lower East Side, East Village, West Chelsea) or those with buildings that look like they haven't been touched in decades (Central Harlem, northwest downtown, 125th under the Broadway and Riverside Drive viaducts).
As for danger, anyplace without lots of people out on the street feels dangerous to me. That includes a lot of Robert Moses' brick-towers-on-unused-lawns neighborhoods like the far Lower East Side (I've seen a drawing of his vision for Manhattan that had those same sterile, streetscape-free towers marching in an uninterrupted procession from the Bowery to the East River, sparing nothing in their path). Lowland Harlem in the 140s and 150s feels desolate and forgotten, and more than a bit menacing, in a way that most of Manhattan no longer does.
There are a lot of hidden gems out there -- the twin apartment buildings in Midtown named "The Hartford" and "Courant" because the real estate developer happened to own a big sign advertising the eponymous Connecticut newspaper; the Queens-style hyphenated addresses on Riverside Drive West; underpasses to nowhere; bi-level streets that dead end on both levels; the live poultry district -- and you just have to get out there and look for them.
5. A couple of other guys have done this already- is walking Manhattan a competitive sport? Any chance we could get it into the Olympics before 2012?
It'll be difficult to make walking Manhattan feasible in London or Paris, but I suppose that virtual reality will have made great strides by 2012. But no, it's not competitive, and in fact the one other walker I've met, Caleb Smith was happy to walk a few blocks with me and pass down some tricks of the trade. (Though not, fortunately, Paul Grand's trick, which is to carry an empty bottle with him for when he has to relieve himself.) Caleb convinced me of the importance of selecting in advance the last block you'll walk, and I've envisioned reaching that last corner many times. His was 33rd Street by the Empire State Building; mine will be East 77th, between Park and Lex, where I was born but never been on my own power.
6. You've been running Satan's Laundromat for a couple of years now: what's the weirdest sign you've photographed?
For sheer inexplicable delight, I'd have to say the huge, professionally-printed sign on an otherwise bland wood-frame house in the Rockaways that says: Teddy! We have walked softly. It's time to use the "Big Stick" (http://www.satanslaundromat.com/sl/archives/000211.html). I've never heard even a semi-plausible explanation for it, and when I mentioned it to someone I met who lives out there, he was equally befuddled. [Editor's note: we're guessing it's a political statement supporting the current American foreign policy, referencing the old Roosevelt foreign policy maxim.]
7. Which borough is superior: Brooklyn or Queens? Why don't you give the Bronx any love?
It's hard to say. I happen to like living in Brooklyn, which has a lot more in the way of picturesque decay and, I think, generally more interesting neighborhoods with funnier hats. But Queens can't be beat for cuisine: Chinese in Flushing, Indian in Jackson Heights, Bolivian in Sunnyside. There are endless tracts of postwar bore in both, but mostly in Queens. As for the Bronx, it seems a lot more residential than anything else, with lots of more-or-less identical apartment buildings that don't really appeal to me.
8. Graffiti is one of your interests. Who are the top street artists in NYC right now?
It's so hard to judge, and so much of the best work is anonymous. I think for sheer consistency of vision, and real dialogue with her surroundings, it's hard to beat Swoon, whose paste-ups, in varying states of dessication and decay, grace hundreds of walls. I have massive respect for REVS, whose diary entries on subway tunnel walls are as compelling and forboding a form of street art as I can imagine. (I've been fortunate enough to see two or three of them in person, and lots more through the windows of moving trains.) But there are also the little characters, endlessly repeated, that give me a feeling that the physical city is alive: scrawled orange infinity signs, screaming triangular stick figures, octopi, mysterious stencils, "i love you"s, old fading UFOs. It's a continually changing and diverse ecosystem, as chaotic as the city itself, and I'm glad that there's no one clearly preeminent figure like, say, Banksy in the UK.
9. You seem to know more about the city than anyone besides Kevin from Forgotten-NY; how'd you pick up this knowledge? Any books you'd recommend for newbies?
(blush) I honestly don't know. A lot is from just being here for a long time and being a voracious consumer of information. A lot is from being observant and trying to puzzle out what must have happened to leave the built environment the way it is today. The AIA Guide to architecture is essential but unmanageably comprehensive; Francis Morrone's guidebook is a more selective introduction to the breadth of New York's architectural merit. But there's really no substitute for walking around with your eyes open.