Dede Emerson is a renaissance woman who has accomplished much in her 75 years. She has a twinkle in her eye and a quickness in her step that those of us 20 or 30 years her junior would envy.
Her life has taken a series of strange twists and detours along the way. She originally eyed a career as, of all things, a jazz musician, but ended up working for some 30 years at the United Nations in her quest to help those less fortunate.
Several years ago, she took on a very ambitious project. Yes, she had seen the sights and sounds of Manhattan – everywhere from the jazz hubs of the Lower East Side to the United Nations headquarters, Central Park, and the Upper West Side. But she had never stopped to "smell the roses" and take in all that Manhattan could offer – from the mundane and everyday to the decidedly strange and off-beat.
In early 2005, she promised herself that she would walk every single block of Manhattan. From top to bottom, East to West, and everywhere in between not leaving a stone unturned in her endeavor. Recently, we had the pleasure of meeting with Ms. Emerson for lunch where she relayed her fascinating story which she has compiled into a book now available at Amazon.com, A Different Kind of Streetwalker ... Manhattan by Foot, One Block at a Time.
US TOWNHALL: Tell us about your early experiences as a jazz musician.
DEDE EMERSON: I studied at Juilliard, specializing in jazz improvisation. I enjoyed several years as a successful jazz pianist in the New York area working with my own trio or quartet. Jazz was in its heyday. I was quite good. In fact, the agent for singer Johnny Mathis wanted to sign me up, and promised me that I would have a very lucrative career.
USTH: What happened to dissuade you from this wonderful opportunity?
DE: I took a six month trip around the world in 1962-63 and was moved by the abject poverty that I saw. It was everywhere. It deeply moved me. From that point on, I made a vow to do what I could, to help alleviate such misery in the world. Of course, a few months later, President Kennedy was assassinated. His words from his Inaugural Address kept ringing in my ears, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
USTH: And that led you to – ?
DE: That led me to the United Nations.
USTH: Tell us about your career there.
DE: I started in 1964 and worked my way up in increasing responsibilties. Eventually, I would go on over sixty missions, in 91 different countries, for the UN as well as serving as the Acting Director of the United Nations in Trinidad for six-and-a-half years.
USTH: What was your final position at the UN?
DE: Project Management Officer for fifty projects in southern Africa.
USTH: When did you retire?
DE: In 1993.
USTH: What prompted you to set out on your "Great Journey"?
DE: 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.
USTH: So, the plaques near the New York Public Library and your adventurous co-worker were the impetus for you to start your great adventure. When did you start on your journey?
DE: April 24, 2005.
USTH: And when did you finish?
DE: January 26, 2008. Exactly 2 years, 9 months and 2 days.
USTH: Do you have any calculations of how many miles you covered?
DE: I walked 6,718 blocks or 504.3 miles, which is the equivalent of walking from Manhattan to Philadelphia five times!
USTH: Amazing, simply amazing. What surprised you along the way?
DE: 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.
USTH: What days during the week did you walk?
DE: 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.
USTH: What were your expectations?
DE: Being able to observe the everyday action all over the place.
USTH: Did you go by yourself, or were you accompanied by anyone?
DE: 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.
USTH: What time of day would you start?
DE: I would take the 11am off-peak train down to Manhattan, and walk between 3 to 4 hours per day.
USTH: In all sorts of weather?
DE: In all sorts of weather unless it was really bad.
USTH: What were some of the inspiring sights you saw?
DE: 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 multicultural 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.
USTH: 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."
DE: 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.
USTH: Did any tourists stop you for directions, etc?
DE: 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.
USTH: Any unusual sights?
DE: Perhaps one of the more unusual sights 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 souvenier of the end of Communism, and he placed it atop the building.
USTH: Besides the unique sign "Beware Pickpockets and Loose Women," any other unusual signs you saw along the way?
DE: 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."
USTH: You recently gave a presentation regarding your book. Are you planning another one?
DE: In Manhattan, I will be presenting a slide show before a Senior Group at the Epiphany Branch of the New York Public Library, 23rd Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, on April 13 at 1:30pm.
USTH: And what about outside of New York City?
DE: A slide show for the AAUW, May 5th at 6:30pm, at the Greenburgh Public Library in Westchester.
USTH: Any favorite sites that did not make the book?
DE: 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 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 tree in the winter and store it in a warehouse.
USTH: When and how did you decide to do a book about your journey?
DE: 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.
USTH: After having taken this unusual journey, have you ever given a thought to becoming a licensed New York City Tour Guide?
DE: Not at my age. Maybe 30 years ago, but not now.
USTH: What suggestions would you offer to anyone who would want to follow in your footsteps?
DE: Two good pairs of walking shoes.
USTH: And, when you finished your journey, that's when you decided to publish it as a book?
DE: 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. That's why I went the self-publishing route.
USTH: By any chance, have you sent a copy of the book to, say, Mayor Bloomberg?
DE: Yes, as a matter of fact, I told him about the book before it was published. I received a very nice letter, personally written and signed by him. He thanked me for sharing it with him. I am sending one to President Obama.
USTH: Have you given any thought to taking a similar trek through the other boroughs?
DE: No, but perhaps if I were younger, I would go –
USTH: Are you planning a sequel to the book?
DE: Yes. I have 2,144 more photos to sift through and to sort.
USTH: On behalf of US Townhall, I want to thank you personally for your time this afternoon to tell us about your fantastic adventure and beautifully inspiring book.