“Just passing through,” my partner said with a quick side-wave. The dog kept barking.
My walking partner was Moses Gates. Though he's a licensed tour guide, this trip was not quite a tour. Gates, 35, is trying to walk every one of the 2,217 Census tracts in New York City.
Strolling east along the former Bushwick line of the Long Island Railroad, which now only sees a few freight trains per day, we had passed into an industrial corner of southern Maspeth, Census tract 0595.
Another quarter-mile ahead, Gates spotted people walking in the distance.
“I don't want to give you the impression that all my walks are like this," he said, after an aborted escape had us climbing along the side of an overpass, into a tangle of barbed wire, then back to the dirt embankment, and finally over a fence into a delivery truck parking lot.
Several blocks later, on a quiet corner in Middle Village, Gates added, “Usually it's more like this. One thing I've learned in all my walking is that a lot of New York is pretty boring. A lot of it is just houses, stores, a church."
An affordable housing advocate by day, Gates has also trained as an urban planner and demographer, led tours full-time, run the subway tunnels, lingered in the darkness of abandoned train stations, and monkeyed his way to the tops of the city’s most majestic and obscure bridges, towers and amusement park rides.
His quest is for total knowledge of the city, though he recognizes it is unattainable.
“This is just one level. If I walked all of New York and never talked to anyone, would I know New York? No,” Gates said. “And obviously, by the time I finish things will have changed everywhere I’ve been.”
Still, Gates walks. In his ten years of probing New York he’s met homeless people and graffiti artists, historians and thrill-seekers - and historian thrill-seekers, like his friend Steve Duncan, who has drawn a slew of documentarians into New York’s forgotten pipes and a brave few friends onto its bridge cables.
Gates, for his part, is content to chronicle his own walks (and climbs: one, to the top of the Prison Martyr monument in Ft. Greene Park, he counted as a “vertical walk” of Brooklyn tract 0031) on his personal website alongside demographic studies.
His criteria for what makes a tract “walked” are variable, but not what you would call loose. A rule of thumb is one major street and one side street per tract, or a path across the tract. But more essential is securing a feeling that he knows something about where he’s been.
Gates counts tracts he is absolutely sure he walked before he began keeping track in 2005, such as places where he lived and worked in the past.
Hunched against the wind amidst the tombstones of Mt. Olivet Cemetery - cemeteries and parks tend to be their own census tracts, larger than inhabited ones, and so require a special effort to knock out - Gates bristled at the suggestion that he might somehow cheat his way to all-city status.
“It’s not like I’m getting paid for this,” Gates said. “There’s no prize.”
He expects to finish by this fall. Another of his goals is longer-standing and loftier, though he’s downgraded it in recent years.
“I’ll probably never climb every bridge in the city, and I’m okay with that,” he said. “Some are harder than others, and, I’m just at a different stage in my life. I’m not saying I won’t get boozed up and climb a bridge, but, you know...”
Track Moses Gates’ progress via his website.