MOST people visit New York City and spend a lot of time looking up: skyscrapers, signs, blinking lights, billboards. But for a day, we decide to look down.

If a pair of shoes tells something about a person, a bunch of shoes should offer some insight into the people of the city.

On this day, the streets, stairs, sidewalks, and curbs become an urban backdrop. We watch people walk by; they dawdle, lumber, strut, stomp, and clomp.

Some agree - often reluctantly - to stop and talk to us about their shoes, maybe even give their names and pose for some photos. After a few minutes, people warm up to the idea of shoe-talk. They realize we aren't crazy, working for the David Letterman Show, or taking a poll.

We find the best shoe-watching in the Village. Here, clunky is trendy, sturdy is stylish, and black still seems to be the color of choice.

The 1970s are reinvented as platform shoes and clogs. One aspiring model wears her four-inch platform thigh-high boots "to make me taller." Sneakers pop up a lot too, from pumped-up Reeboks to Converse hightops.

But most noticeable are the heavy-duty shoes and boots with brand names such as Bronx, Dr. Marten, and Juliano's.

Slipped on, laced up, buckled down, they're unisex and the ultimate in city gear.

"They'll last. They're all-terrain," says Minje Kim, a student at Parsons School of Design who wears black lace-up boots.

Such hardcore boots make you think of motorcycles or the military ... or Olive Oyl (friend of Popeye).

What was once combat or skinhead apparel now has a more mainstream, common-sense appeal. Urban survival calls for street-smart shoes.

New Yorkers walk a lot. A good clip can get you "a block a minute," as a friend says. It sure beats gridlock. It's cheaper than a bus. And best of all, it's non-polluting.

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