By almost any measure, Chicago’s Little Village is a poor neighborhood. Crowded with Mexican immigrants who share subdivided houses and work two and three jobs to support themselves, its average income places it in the bottom 25 percent of the city’s neighborhoods. Gangs prowl the streets at night. Fewer high school graduates live in Little Village than in 99 percent of Chicago’s other neighborhoods.
Yet during the day, Little Village can feel like a party. Children dash up and down the sidewalks. Mothers stroll to nearby stores to do their shopping, and vendors peddle fresh tamales, shrimp cocktail, and fruit popsicles.
These are glimpses of what residents have long known, but epidemiologists have only recently confirmed: Little Village is wealthy in ways that some more affluent neighborhoods are not. In addition to its lively street life, it enjoys less crime and a lower asthma rate – and even suffered fewer deaths during a natural disaster – than its poverty would lead one to guess.
And much of that is due to the movement on its sidewalks.
In the years after World War II, as cars became ubiquitous and suburbs blossomed, driving replaced walking in the United States. Americans now walk less than residents of any other wealthy country. The average American takes 5,117 steps daily, compared with Australians, who average 9,695. To get the exercise we need, the American Heart Association recommends that we take at least 10,000 steps each day, which comes to about 5 miles.
As workplaces, homes, and shops spun farther apart, walking for transportation became more challenging, if not dangerous. Some neighborhoods originally built for walkers have become hostile territory for them. In urban areas where businesses have fled and streets have emptied, walkers can be targets for criminals. Hiking down a desolate urban sidewalk, alone, can be an unnerving experience.
But neighborhoods come alive when people walk through them. Small bits of neighborly contact – flashing a quick grin, stopping to pet a dog, sharing a complaint about humidity – spin threads of relationship over the built landscape. It’s known as the neighborhood effect: areas with strong personal ties and high interaction levels are linked to better health.
That may be one reason that Little Village, despite its poverty, enjoys such a low asthma rate – 5 percent, compared with an average of almost 19 percent in Chicago’s predominantly white neighborhoods. Researchers say its walking culture likely helps keep residents healthy. In part because of the Mexican tradition of socializing outside – in plazas and courtyards, or, in the United States, on sidewalks and stoops – the people of Little Village may, for example, escape indoor irritants such as mold.
The sense that Little Village by day is a safe place to congregate may also have a powerful effect in itself. Asthma, we now know, can be triggered by stress – and research has shown that residents who perceive their neighborhoods as dangerous are more likely to have asthma.
For children, walking conveys other advantages too, such as knowledge of their environment and street smarts. Without this experience, argues the National Center for Safe Routes to School, they may “lose some relatively ‘safe’ opportunities to make decisions independently. They may miss some of the lessons gained from learning from mistakes and the confidence that comes with success.”
Children living in close-knit neighborhoods also receive more guidance from adults and are less prone to trying dangerous behaviors such as smoking and drinking. In Little Village, one judgmental look from a neighbor might be enough to stop a young mother from having an evening smoke.
My second-grade twin daughters, whom my husband and I walk to their public school, spend about one minute every morning with the crossing guard. But that’s a minute a day for 200 days a year. By now, they know the guard’s name (Mr. Knapp) and what his job is like (surprisingly dangerous). They also know he’s looking out for them.
On the girls’ birthday, he surprised them each with a dollar, which they were meant to fix on their shirts with safety pins – a tradition from his own childhood. Little wonder that when he was out ill, parents pestered the principal about how he was doing and how we could reach him.
The lifesaving potential of neighbors extends even further than these day-to-day events. “Do you know your neighbors?” asks retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, who is credited with activating disaster relief in New Orleans when federal and local government efforts foundered. Now a disaster preparedness expert, Honoré has made it his life’s work to teach Americans how to protect themselves before catastrophe hits. One of his core rules: Know your neighbors. Look around your street or apartment building, he often tells audiences. The people around you are the ones most likely to save your life in an emergency.
In Little Village, corner stores coax elderly residents to walk out for their groceries. That habit encouraged them to head for air-conditioned businesses when a deadly heat wave slammed Chicago in 1995. In the neighborhood next door, with the same thermometer reading but a desolate landscape, 10 times more elderly people died during the same sweltering days.
This April, not far from Little Village, another Chicago community became a walker’s neighborhood of a different sort. In a declaration of independence from violence, members of 56 civic and church groups began walking the streets one night a week. Calling their movement Arms Around Roseland, the coalition pledged to hand out information, watch for fights – and, if necessary, act as human shields to stop gun violence among young men.
“When people are out in the streets,” the Reverend Phillip Cusic told the Chicago Tribune, “when their pastors are out, they don’t shoot. They stand down.” You wouldn’t say these neighbors are walking for pleasure, or even for their health. But by pacing the sidewalks of their community, the walkers intend to become no less than its lifeblood, transforming where they live by venturing into its heart.