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Q&A with Ossining Author Dede Emerson

William J. Reynolds, a local historian, interviewed fellow Ossining resident Dede Emerson, about her book "A Different Kind of Streetwalker...Manhattan by Foot, One Block at a Time."

Q: What prompted you to set out on your 'Great Journey?'

Emerson: In early 2005, I noticed plaques embedded in the sidewalk on East 41st Street near the New York Public Library. They had quotes from Shakespeare, Mark Twain, E.B. White, among others. I had never noticed them before! At that very moment, it hit me.

A feeling of adventure and inquisitiveness wrapped its arms around me, and, at that point, I decided that I would walk every street of Manhattan. I then recalled a young co-worker of mine, years ago, at the UN. After he would return from his lunch break, he would mark on a map of Manhattan, the areas he had walked. He wanted to see how much territory he could cover, and, perhaps, walk the entire city.

Q: When did you start on your journey?

Emerson: April 24, 2005.

Q: And when did you finish?

Emerson: January 26, 2008. Exactly 2 years, 9 months and 2 days.

Q: Do you have any calculations of how many miles you covered?

Emerson: I walked 6,718 blocks or 504.3 miles, which is the equivalent of walking from Manhattan to Philadelphia five times!

What surprised you along the way?

Emerson: People were very friendly. I never felt out of place. I did find the city to be a lot cleaner and friendlier than in years past. It was a genuine thrill not to know what was just around the corner.

Q: When did you go?

Emerson: I started, initially, on Sundays, but, it gradually increased, to include the various days of the week. If I happened to be meeting someone for lunch in a certain area, then I would mark my territory for that day.

Q: What were your expectations?

Emerson: Being able to observe the everyday action all over the place.

Q: Did you go by yourself, or were you accompanied by anyone?

Emerson: I did go two or three times with someone, but in the long run, I found it to be too distracting. We'd get to talking, and I would, invariably miss something of interest along the way.

Q: What time of day would you start?

Emerson: I would take the 11am off-peak train down to Manhattan, and walk between 3 - 4 hours per day.

Q: In all sorts of weather?

Emerson: In all sorts of weather, unless, it was really bad.

Q: What were some of the inspiring sights you saw?

Emerson: The precious look on the faces of the Spanish children. The interaction of people. One time, I leaned over and stretched my arms across a building's wall, just to revitalize myself, in what may be described as a mini-energy boost, and lo and behold, a man in a wheelchair came rushing over to me, thinking that I was in some sort of distress. I was really quite taken by this man's concern, considering his own situation. I was also taken by the multi-cultural melting pot that is, uniquely New York. But, despite the cultural differences, I felt a sense of togetherness among the people of them all being new Yorkers.

Q: What sights or sounds broke your heart, or brought a tear to your eye?

Picking up the book, Ms. Emerson turns to a page entitled 'Hard Times.'

Emerson: On the corner of 47th Street and Sixth Avenue, there was a man, obviously down on his luck. He was sleeping, surrounded by garbage bags and boxes. The irony of the picture is that just to the left of the man's foot, propped up against the mountain of garbage bags is a red and white bag with the 'I Love New York" logo. That photo really spoke to me.

Q: Did any tourists stop you for directions, etc.?

Emerson: Yes, very often. They'd want to know where a good coffee shop was in the area, and I would point them around the corner.

Q: Any unusual sights?

Emerson: Perhaps, the most unusual was atop the Red Square Hotel. I couldn't believe my eyes, but atop of the building was a statue of Lenin. I went inside the hotel, and asked about it, and I was told that after the fall of Communism, the owner of the hotel had acquired it as a souvenir of the end of Communism, and he placed it atop the building.

Q: Besides the most unique sign 'Beware Pickpockets and Loose Women,' any other unusual signs you saw along the way? On 87th Street near Amsterdam Avenue, there was a sign that reads: "Same Day Drop Off Service, Plus Wash & Fold Tailor."

In the Tribeca area, outside a bar, there was an area, where patrons could park their motorcycles. There was a sign that said, 'Please do not rev your engine.' In the book, you'll see on 112th Street and Broadway, a canopy sign for a bakery and cafe named 'Nussbaum & Wu.'

Emerson: Well, yes, many, as a matter of fact. I took over 2,200 photographs, and there are only 56 in the book. There was this unusual site in Tompkins Square Park. It was a Banana Tree. It was in June or July. I thought it was odd, because it is was not in its natural habitat. The climate, what have you, would not be conducive for it to grow. I went back to the same spot in January, and found the tree gone. I called the New York City Parks Department, and was told that they bag the trees in the winter and store it in a warehouse.

Q: When and how did you decide to do a book about your journey?

Emerson: My friends would encourage me along the way, and they'd continually ask me about my progress. I'd map out my routes on a map of the city of where I had gone, and what areas I wanted to travel through next. In addition to taking the photographs, I would take meticulous notes of each one, where and when I had taken it, and upload it on my computer at home.

Q: What suggestions would you offer to anyone who would want to follow in your footsteps?

Emerson: Two good pairs of walking shoes.

Q: And, when you finished your journey, that's when you decided to publish it as a book?

Emerson: Yes, but, before even taking my idea to a publisher, I was advised to go to the various bookstores and inspect other photographic books of the city, and avoid any duplication of ideas. The books I did see were these huge coffee table type books, filled with 200 pages, and costing $50 or more. I did not want to go that route. I wanted something smaller, and more affordable. I wasn't interested in the bottom line for myself. I wanted something that everyone could enjoy.

Q: Have you given any thought of doing the same with the other boroughs?

Emerson: No, but, perhaps, if I were younger, I would go --

Q: Brooklyn.

Q: How can one purchase your book?

Emerson: At It sells for $18.99. If you purchase two or more, there is free shipping.

Q: Are you planning a sequel to the book?

Emerson: Yes. I have 2,144 more photos to sift through and to sort.


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