In the Margin of the Margin

“The Friendly City” is a weekly column about walking in Harrisonburg that will run during 2024. Each week, your friendly correspondent, writer and teacher Sofia Samatar, will reflect on a walk in our city. 

Public space is a border zone, made for everyone and no one. To walk down a sidewalk is to inhabit the margin.

Today the streets sparkle as if fresh from a spa. Over the weekend, a hailstorm pummeled the region like a cosmic masseuse, followed by a sandpaper wind that scoured it to a brilliant shine. Drenched, frozen, whipped dry, and exfoliated all over, the city gleams. I’m heading up Martin Luther King Jr. Way, walking against the traffic that roars over the hill from the direction of the mall, to take a stroll through Old Town.

In the scrubby bank that slopes steeply up from MLK to Ott Street, there’s a flight of concrete steps, one of my favorite things in the city, a gift made especially for pedestrians. Cars can’t cut through here; a bicycle would be something of a liability, as you’d have to carry it up or down; but for a walker, this half-hidden stairway is perfect. It appears suddenly, as if by magic, perpendicular to the sidewalk, inviting: Come up, come away, get out of the noise! If the sidewalk is the margin of a neighborhood, a ribbon of public space among private lots, this stairway represents the withdrawn and secret heart of our common territory: the backstage of the street, the margin of the margin.

Climb the steps among the rustling creeper and spindly trees and you will emerge into the quiet of Old Town. In this neighborhood, listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, houses from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century stand in grand, hushed ranks, each one different, all beautifully maintained up here on the hill, their windows glittering, their gardens graceful with trimmed hedges of box and holly.

I don’t live here, but I can walk here, among these elegant homes, in the shade of the pines, under a lavish pink magnolia already in bloom, its tulip-shaped flowers balanced like wax candles. I admire the inventive designs of the windows: dormer windows roofed like miniature houses, angled bay windows, French doors, decorative half-moons like segments of orange, a pair of fan-shaped panes flanking a chimney. I pass the white house with black trim, the wraparound porch with the huge pillars, the balcony overlooking the Italianate garden, and I feel that I know these houses, I’ve walked here so often, I greet them from the sidewalk and then, when the sidewalk ends in typical Friendly City fashion, from the street, not forgetting to send a special glance toward the attic window where a chair waits, turned toward the view of the mountains, for someone who never comes.

Here’s the sign that says Dead End, on which a local wag has stuck the word Grateful. And yes, I’m grateful, because this end is dead only to vehicles. To walkers, it’s marvelously alive, because it leads into the alley, a third realm between the private shade of the yards and the public glare of the street.

A network of footpaths crisscrosses the Friendly City, sometimes paved or covered with gravel, as here, in Old Town, where the alleys provide access to garages, and sometimes so overgrown they’re nearly impassable, clogged with volunteer saplings, discarded garden equipment, and stacks of wood. The alleys are the margin of the margin: the back of the city’s tapestry, where the knots show, colorful and ragged. They are one of our greatest treasures. I hate to see an alley blocked, to find myself forced to turn back, tripping over logs and rakes.

I remember a story a friend once told me, concerning a conference at a small Christian university in the Midwest. My friend, who had helped organize the conference, was excited to welcome several guests from Europe for the weekend event. But how horrified these visitors were, my friend told me ruefully, to find that, first of all, the campus was dry, without a single beer garden or cozy pub, and, worse, it was impossible to walk anywhere! “We are good walkers,” they insisted, “just show us the way to town.” Brusque, square-shouldered, and shod in excellent leather, these athletic foreign professors gazed with mountaineers’ eyes across the fields of grain, but my friend was forced to tell them that they really could not walk to town. The problem was not the distance; the problem was that there were no paths.

“No paths? No paths?” the guests repeated in disbelief, color draining from their faces. No, my embarrassed friend replied. On the roads, where no one expected to find walkers, the risk of accident was too high, and if the visitors cut through the farms, they might get arrested or even shot.

This story has stuck with me, the moans of those scholars marooned on a desert campus echoing in my imagination, conjuring a glimpse of a world where pedestrian access is taken for granted: a walker’s paradise.

Lovely aqua-blue gate, little gazebo, wicker chairs in the backyards. I walk between fences covered with ivy, passing a swimming pool, the dome of an outdoor pizza oven, stone benches in landscaped bowers, a sweeping stretch of lawn. Even the sheds are adorable here! I’d live in one of these sheds. Pinecones dance in the wind. Forsythia bushes extend their golden froth. The grape hyacinth is blooming. I imagine I planted these flowers, this is my yard, I’m going to read the paper on the screened-in porch. Maybe this is my mullioned window, the old glass thick as syrup. I’ve slipped behind the curtain to dwell in the dark interior. These houses invite dreams that are only possible here, in the margin of the margin, among those who are just passing through, because if I lived in one of these houses, I’d have to keep the windows clean, I’d worry about the age of the bricks, that cracked step would become my problem, and that leaning oak, and the patches of mold on the stucco of the shed, and this overturned canoe all scored with rust. I’m grateful to be a passerby, linked to these things by affection rather than ownership, greeting the topiary clipped in the shape of flames, the rose trellis, and the lantern on the wall, only to leave them behind in this space where no one and everyone belongs.

Scroll to the top of the page

Hosting & Maintenance by eSaner

Thanks for reading The Citizen!

We’re glad you’re enjoying The Citizen, winner of the 2022 VPA News Sweepstakes award as the best online news site in Virginia! We work hard to publish three news stories every week, and depend heavily on reader support to do that.