Wherever I go these days I find myself looking for walking places. I guess it's the adopted New Yorker in me (the author is editorial director of House Beautiful in Manhattan), for I walk nearly everywhere here and assume I can do likewise in other places, although that is not always true. It's hard to get about on foot in spread-out Washington, equally difficult in Houston, and confusing in a place like Syracuse, N.Y., whose core is crisscrossed by superhighways. I once committed the unforgivable gaffe of asking a desk clerk at the Syracuse Holiday Inn if it was possible to walk to the center of downtown - only to be told I was in it.
As a child in suburban Eagle Rock, Calif., I walked everywhere. I knew every inch of the neighborhood. Twice each day, going to and from school, I walked the length of Townsend Avenue. I saw the delivery trucks, the moving vans, the new neighbors, the new paint jobs, the babies sunning in playpens, the garden hobbyists hoeing plant beds. People sitting on their porches waved; people had porches then.
To those of us on foot the whole life of our community was evident. I don't think I've known a place so well till coming to New York. This city, many times larger in area than Eagle Rock, is really a giant cluster of communities. I've explored many of them; there's something about having sidewalk and pavement underfoot that makes me feel in touch with a place I'm in.
I first felt this way in San Francisco, years ago. Hiking to the peak of Nob Hill, with the city spread out below me, I felt an exhilarating sense of place. I could find my way from Union Square to Telegraph Hill, from the Embarcadero to Chinatown. I had mastered the city's geography by walking it.
Boston's a walking place. I remember a crisp Sunday morning there in late autumn. Leaving my hotel for a stroll, I crossed the Common and found myself on Beacon Hill. In the distance I heard church bells, but at that hour the hill itself was quiet. There were few pedestrians and fewer cars. Now and then a cat would mew and skitter across my path, and from within fortress-solid Federal houses I could hear an occasional radio and the rattle of breakfast dishes. But mostly what I heard were my own footsteps. The effect was warming, reassuring; I've felt at one with that place ever since.
Savannah, Ga., offers some of the same sensations. Walking through the historic district, even on a weekday, I've felt a quiet calm that connotes the humanity of people living respectfully apart though in a community with a strong , cohesive identity. Heading east on Jones Street with its charming 19th-century houses and soaring arches of trees, I found it hard to believe the area had been a slum 10 years earlier. This is a wonderful place for walking, a many-faceted jewel of restoration.
Charleston, S.C., has more grandeur than its Georgia neighbor but a little less intimacy. It's a city that bustles; you have to look carefully before crossing a street. But walking can be delightful; history, and pride of place, is evident in every block.
I had a different brush with history during a twilight stroll along Bourbon Street in New Orleans's Vieux Carre. Passing one of those great wrought-iron-trimmed residences, I couldn't resist peeking through broken slats of a pair of closed shutters - and was astonished to see a young family sitting down to supper in a bright, new, contemporary setting. It was then I realized that the crumbling elegance of the architectural facade not only recalled the past but also concealed modern family life in a city ... just as hedges, fences, and lawns do in a suburb.
Perhaps my most joyous, because so unexpected, walking experiences have been in San Antonio, which I revisited last year after a long absence. To my eyes the city was as though reborn, and I felt an immediate desire to walk every bit of it.
I was directed to the restored King William district, a geographicaly defined residential community within sight of - and 10 minutes by foot from - city hotels and the Alamo. King William Street angles off South St. Mary's Street and greets visitors with the Anton Wulff House, a Texas Victorian restored magnificently by the architects Ford, Powell & Carson for the San Antonio Conservation Society. From there the district fans out along broad, tree-lined streets whose houses date from a century ago - some big, some small, some restored, others needing repair.
Overall, King William is real. Its ties to history enhance rather than clutter its role as a living place. Its uniqueness is evident as you drive through the district ... but more tangible, of course, if you walk.
''Footloose'' is a term that comes to mind to express the joy of discovering walking places. But that word has been co-opted by a recent movie. How about ''footfree''?