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Harrop: The pitfalls of public exercise

The most memorable scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 film “North by Northwest” is Eva Marie Saint hanging from the side of Mount Rushmore in a tailored red suit, sheer stockings and pumps. The character hadn’t planned for that situation, but her dress was nonetheless deemed proper, circa 1959, for touring South Dakota’s Black Hills. In the previous Chicago and New York City shots, she, Cary Grant and most everyone else wore business or evening attire. No shorts, no flip-flops, not even jeans without rips.

America’s distinctive city, suburb and rural cultures, have since blurred into a blob of “activewear.” Sophisticated urbanites once confined “working out” to indoor gyms, baseball fields or tennis courts. Now private gyms put exercise bicycles in street-facing windows, so passersby can see. Exercising has become another activity to “share” with the world.

Is this a good development? For cosmopolitans, an allure of cities is the drama of being part of a street scene. Formality in downtown dress has pretty much collapsed, but turning public downtown places into exercise arenas seems another step toward weakening the communal spirit.

Some are objecting for other reasons. Denver, for example, has cracked down on group exercise sessions being held in its public plazas and parks. It seems fitness instructors were conducting business on taxpayer-owned property without a permit or paying.

But money issues aside, there are the aesthetic issues. Must residents and office workers step around large groups of sweating workout enthusiasts on a city plaza? As for the big, leafy urban parks, they generally provide places for sport, but they’re also there for picnics and quiet reflection.

On weekends, the pastoral drives in New York’s Central Park become a veritable Tour de France, as Lycra-bottomed cyclists race around the loops. Pedestrians trying to cross the drives (closed to vehicular traffic) take their lives in their hands as the pelotons whiz by. And if the bikes don’t get them, the marathoners may.

Speaking of bicycles and New York City, the addition of bulky bike-share stations on densely packed city streets is nothing short of insane. In some neighborhoods, there’s barely room on the sidewalks for all the pedestrians and baby carriages. As New York becomes a “biking city,” more and more bicycles chained to poles clutter the walkways. The city’s bike lanes are sweet, but they mean less room for the vehicles essential to the functioning of a modern society.

Perhaps Portland, Ore., can pull it off. Manhattan cannot. We know some enjoy bike transportation. But giving this minority so much public space in a packed urban center makes no sense. The way the vast majority of New Yorkers get around is by walking, mixed with public transportation and taxis.
A chief rationale for promoting such activities on public urban spaces is health.

“Nobody needs any discouragement to get active and healthy,” a group exerciser in downtown Denver told a reporter. “If somebody can put their shorts on and get out the door, people should be clapping.”

Some cite the obesity epidemic as reason to applaud pushups in plazas and biking down broadways. But rewind “North by Northwest.” The one person needing to drop pounds was Hitchcock himself, trying to get on a bus. The 1959 masses in ties and suits, stocking and dresses, looked fitter than their 2013 replacements. That’s probably because they just walked more and ate less.

• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence Journal editorial board. Follow her on Twitter @fromaharrop.

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