Prompt: The assignment was for students to take an unguided stroll through an NYC neighborhood and examine social systems and interactions between the area and its inhabitants.
In my project I chose to adopt Jane Jacobs’ approach to analyzing neighborhoods through their public spaces. At the time of the writing I had been living in Manhattan for about six months and had a daily commute in and around the East Village / LES area and this was the perfect opportunity to deviate from it or at the very least develop a more intricate understanding of it. I chose to wander through the neighborhood very late at night on a weekend when the area is the most lively and when I figured I could see its residents in their most honest, drunken, relaxed forms. From this I was able to make observations about the socio-economic conditions in the area and also analyze the startling wealth desparity in the neighborhood.
Jane Jacobs. The New York native and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Although moderately problematic in her writing, Jacobs proposed many interesting theories on the sometimes complex relationship between members of a community and the streets they walk. Her observations in and around New York City neighborhoods over 25 years ago inspired me to closer examine communities in the world around me.
To explore these communities, I was to go on a derive (observational, unguided stroll) around the city. I chose to explore the Lower East Side and Alphabet City neighborhoods to make some observations on the relationship between people and streets.
I started my derive on a rainy Saturday night in Manhattan, the lower east side more specifically. I hate when it rains in the city, whenever it rains it seems to downpour all day with intermittent showers of relief. It seemed that feelings weren’t the same for the people of lower Manhattan as they flocked to clubs, parties, and bars just as they do every other weekend. The streets are communal for people looking to have a good time. People of all walks of life come together in the streets; broke college students and off-duty cops all standing in the same line for the same bar. I’ve been living here for nearly six months and by now I’m used to the nonstop partying. My immediate neighborhood seems to be the intersection of dozens of college dorms where everyone is as new to New York City as I am. Just past the dorms is Alphabet City and the rest of lower Manhattan. Those places are actual neighborhoods rather than environments constructed by NYU and The New School. The people aren’t aliens in those streets, they’re home, and for that reason I chose to study their unique systems.
I chose to do observations at night because I feel that people are wearing disguises of decency and professionalism during the day. Ties are tightened and hair is kept all to maintain a general image of a functioning society. The streets are little more than bustling concrete causeways to get people from one point of their journey to the next. It is only at night, when the streets and the people are less formal that you can start to get a glimpse of the peculiar relationships that exist between New Yorkers and their streets.
I immediately noticed the difference in people’s walks. During the day people seem to walk as though they’re being pulled towards their destination. Nearly everyone is walking so fast that they almost fall forward but at night their strides are much more leisurely. Once the sun goes down, the marches and jogs are replaced with struts and swaggers. This only makes sense as the duties of the day are done and it seems everyone can finally relax. It was especially interesting to see this meandering considering it was constantly raining and the streets were a less than desirable place to be at the time.
Unfortunately, homelessness is a fairly common reality that we all have to either witness or experience living in the lower east side. It’s impossible to discuss the relationships between New Yorkers and the streets while omitting the homeless. It was the homeless’ relationship to the street that was the most impactful one that I observed that night. It was on that night that I began to understand that the street is really their only home. I had overwhelming feelings of empathy and sorrow watching a homeless man lay on top of a subway vent among trash as it was his only source of heat. The streets are a support system for more people than we commonly would consider. For me this was a unique lesson in the importance of maintaining infrastructure within communities. Although homelessness is a very complex, tiered issue that can’t be easily solved, the very least we can do is better properly maintain our streets.
Another noteworthy observation was in the perceived confidence in people’s mannerisms. I feel it’s important to note that there are many bars and clubs in the lower east side which may have had an effect on my observation. Whether it was the alcohol or not, there was no shortage of spontaneous laughter and chatter that night. The street had gone from being a doric causeway to a welcoming host to any and all. As the night went on I began to truly realize the depth of not only the confidence but the trust that these people had with their streets. Even in the most poorly lit alleyways, there were people walking without concern or worry. This definitely confirmed my beliefs in the amazing level of safety in lower Manhattan. It proved to me that residents of this neighborhood had the utmost faith in the general safety and effectiveness of social systems and institutions that they could never imagine their neighborhood and its streets being dangerous.
After hours of walking and dozens of awkwards photos taken, I finally ended my derive and headed home. While walking home, I contemplated doing a second derive during a weekday to better observe the significance of the difference between the streets at different times. I got home soaking wet and sniffling, but I also had a more in depth understanding of the city I now call home and the streets that I walk everyday.