Notes: On Winter Walks

A Pittsburgh winter makes us wonder whether change is inevitable

Last week, with cracked fingers, I opened a 2009 article from The New York Times: Is Cold Air Cleaner Than Warm Air? by C Claiborne Ray. I didn’t need a definitive answer; I wasn’t sure they’d have one. I really only wanted to believe the colder air out there was better for me—that the sting was worth enduring. At the very least, it felt so with my mask off. I wear one from the moment I leave my apartment until I’m three blocks from my building—the point at which I’m alone in my neighborhood. Exploring this city on foot offers a sense of freedom, while forcing me to consider whether I’m also tethered to it. I’ll put my headphones on—21st-century earmuffs—and play a podcast or a few tracks I’d missed, at a reasonable volume. Loud enough to hear, but quiet enough to catch the soundscape that surrounds me.

There’s little natural noise here, though. The birds have fled for warmer weather. Trees have lost their leaves. There are no wild animals or audible oddities. Instead, there’s construction. Locals joke it’s never-ending. As someone who’s lived here before, moved and returned, I can (sort of) agree. In my neighborhood, they’re building more than 10 blocks of luxury residential real estate. I’d say 50% of it is finished. The listings appear and are gone before I can even imagine myself living there. The noise, however, lingers. Pile drivers play inconsistent beats in the background, trucks and trailers hobble over unfinished roads, the people at work stomp through their site and crank radios. I’m—despite the noise and the haunting shadows of the machinery—at peace on the walking trail tucked behind it all.

This trail was there before the work started. Part of it closed when it began. I’m hopeful there are plans to fix the parts they’ve blocked off with cement bricks and rubble. I wonder whose responsibility that is. I watch new homeowners sweep dust and debris off their steps. Cranes cast shadows across them. Because of the pandemic, construction’s behind schedule. There are parts of the project that remain unidentifiable still—stuck in a state of limbo before becoming another tower of apartments or a multi-story parking complex. I’m hopeful for a supermarket. The closest one is more than two miles away. Occasionally, if I need cleaning supplies or coffee, I walk there. It’s a journey that calls for crossing two bridges and two highways, cutting through a gas station parking lot, and hopping a waist-height brick wall to save time.

I’m alright with the distance, though. It gives me time away from my desk, couch and kitchen—the places I spend most of my time. It’s an excuse to bear the brunt of a “midwest” winter; an opportunity to test out cold weather gear I’ve closeted; time for my thoughts to swirl in the winter wind. I’d recommend it for anyone feeling trapped. In New York, where I lived until the end of last summer, I craved the buzz of a commuting crowd. Here, I await the emptiness of a cold morning or night. I see a biker but they breeze by. There’s typically a runner, too, but they’re gone before we can exchange pleasantries. I watch as they follow orange signs to the rerouted trail. I wonder if they’ve grown used to the change. I wonder what this neighborhood—our neighborhood—will look like when this is all finished. I wonder if I’ll be here to see it through.

On the main drag, mom and pop shops sell specialty groceries, fresh fish and flowers, and the sort of trinkets you’d gift to a distant relative—the kind that speaks fondly of the places their family members call home but will never visit. I wonder whether these businesses will see brighter days. Some of them are busier than ever. The holidays surely helped. So did some of these stores’ defiance of state-ordered safety protocols. I’ve skipped out on visiting the ones that seem not to care about these regulations. Others haven’t, though, and I wonder who’s right. I wonder if they’re the ones keeping this neighborhood intact; keeping it from fading, perhaps even from transforming.

I’m usually the only one on the trail. I tend to like it that way. Not that I’m greedy about it, nor am I afraid of passersby—I guess no one else uses it this way. Perhaps I’ve mastered my timing. I’ve only known it like this: my own private, although certainly not idyllic, escape. I wonder what it’ll look like next winter; in the winters of another generation. Selfishly, I hope it keeps its emptiness. I wonder who’s right.

Images by Evan Malachosky