In Sorkin's building, Jane is an elderly woman who, from the stoop, keeps an eye on the street from the vantage point of her lawn chair. Jane is what Jane Jacobs would call a public character, or as Jacobs writes in Death and Life "anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom...he just needs to be present." Jane engages in community gardening and other social projects, doles out treats to neighborhood dogs--she even fulfulls her quintissential Jacobsian role of being an "eye on the street" when she thwarts a mugging on the street. To Jacobs and Sorkin, Jane's presence alone increases the habitability of the street, pushing people to behave better and promoting what Sorkin calls "civic behavior."
Reading Sorkin's description of Jane reminded me of another public character: in Mitchell Duneier's ethnographic study of the West Village, Sidewalk, he asks one of his subjects--Hakim Hasan, a 42-year-old African-American man who makes a living selling books and magazines on the street of Sixth Avenue--about the role he imagines himself to inhabit in the public life of the sidewalk.
"I'm a public character," he answers, echoing Jane Jacobs.
Much like Jane, Hakim is "suffiently interested" to make himself a public character. By also making his living on the street--as opposed to just passing through it--Hakim's existence straddles the lines between public and private. In a later scene in Sidewalk, a deliveryman leaves his flowers under Hakim's book table, asking him to watch them in his absence. When Mitchell asks Hakim why he imagines the deliveryman trusted him, Hakim answers, "People like me are the eyes and ears of the street...That deliveryman sees me everyday. I'm as dependable as any store owner." (Duneier 17)
Traditonally, figures like Jane and Hakim keep the order in urban settings by making people, from dog walkers to deliverymen, feel comfortable. They dissolve the anonymity commonly associated with urban life; neighborhood people pick up wanton trash because they know someone is around who cares about the street and the larger space. However, I also feel like it's worth mentioning that earlier on in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, Sorkin discusses several of the of urban renewal's motivations to destroying this comfortable, often-civic life of the sidewalk--in some cases, the public character of the sidewalk is seen as its "problem" (Sorkin 39); in this way, and as is seen later on in Sidewalk, figures like Hakim--black men who live and work on the streets, as opposed to those like Jane who are readily able to open the door and go inside their buildings--may sometimes seem to do more to threaten public space than maintain it.
Bertolucci homage, from ‘The Dreamers:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yg-l-ReMLEs
Sorkin writes that “much has been written about the revolutionary effect of cinema in constructing visual narratives of the everyday,” and so I cannot fault him for not wanting to summarize that here. Still, I wish Sorkin had offered more on this ‘perceptual revolution,” the product of a “complex of technologies and events that has radically remade both the way we read the city and the way the city is made.” So this is my attempt to fill in the gaps myself:
The everyday has always had a narrative quality to it; was the effect of cinema to change the cast and characters? to add new plots to the everyday?-- I don’t think so (Death of the Author, right?) although both have obviously undergone considerable mutation. It makes more sense to believe that the contribution of the “Man with the Movie Camera” was to capture ‘everyday life’ through a sort of cinematic gaze (I put this in quotes because ‘everyday life’ might be the product of something like this), which changes on the ways we think of space and time, just like the novel did. I’m not saying we ‘think’ in montages, but in our own psychogeographies, is that so far from the truth?And did the new visualization of that narrative make us more conscious of the way we are always performing, not just gender but also ‘characters, etc?”
Godard once said that ‘Everything is Cinema.” Sometimes, when I watch this clip, it seems that the three young people (the characters, not the actors) are very conscious of the ‘cinematic nature’ of their derive. It is a hallmark of the French New Wave to blur the lines between art and real life in Cinema.
In some ways, this post fails because I wanted to make the connection between the cinematic gaze and the flanuerial behavior in the clip above. Any recommendations on where to go would be very welcome.
In Sorkin's chapter The Block, he breaks down the idea of walking. Using the New York City grid and his narrative of his daily walk, from his home in the west village to his studio in Tribeca, he illuminates the walk as more than a simple mode of transportation but rather a state of being. “Walking is not simply and occasion for observation but an analytical instrument. As a particular way of being in the city, strolling is more recent—the walk self-consciously detached from destination is another fruit of modernity”(81). The stroll originated in Paris, as Sorkin believes, because of the city plan. Manhattan on the other hand with its grid does not seem to foster the stroll. It becomes difficult to wander when the streets are straight, wide and long. However unlike the rest of the city the West Village where Sorkin lives remains an un-gridded oasis that brings the city down to the so called pedestrian level. It's tree lined streets invite its street dwellers to wander.
On Sunday night I found myself sleeping at a friend's apartment in the West Village among the lack of block grid. I was planning on waking up around 4:45 to go surf but first I would have to walk down to SOHO where I would meet some friends and the car. This gave rise to a peculiar situation in which I found myself walking through the west village streets at 4:45 on a Monday morning. Although I had a set destination I found myself wandering. I still get lost in this part of the village from time to time because you can't see any of the tall buildings so it becomes difficult to determine which way is uptown and which is downtown. It was early and I was tired so I ended up wandering about a half a dozen blocks in the opposite direction from my destination before I realized my mistake and headed back downtown and east. Then the eire part of the walk came as I walked down Broadway in SOHO but I was the only one. I had never before walked through the city when it was this quite.
Sorkin says the 1811 NYC grid tamed nature and it seems it did so to the pedestrian as well. The block becomes the root of social and political order. Sorkin criticizes the block as it devotes its public space to the storage of parked cars. The grid, it seems, was designed as an efficient home for buildings and streets but not the people.
In “The Block,” Michael Sorkin writes of the flâneur, or stroller: “The flâneur was a man who was part of a crowd, whose walking was a product of leisure, who reflected in the idleness of his pursuit a degree of alienation and who walked in order to observe” (82). Although it’s not often that I walk outside with no destination, there are times–especially on the first nice day of the season, for example–when a casual stroll can be quite nice and a perfect time to do some clear thinking. However, there are certain spatial qualities of a place that can make turn an uneventful stroll into a quite fulfilling one.
Within days of moving to New York, I realized that I was walking more than I ever had. This didn’t come as a surprise; it’s something I was told and expected. However, I hadn’t thought much of it, at least not beyond the basic fact that I was walking a lot. It was a particular day this past summer, June 12th actually, that I began to think more about walking, or in this case, strolling. I was back home in New Haven for the Arts and Ideas festival and had just gone to a concert at Yale’s Woolsey Hall. My mom was out of town and my ride there was heading another direction and so I walked home. The walk is by no means lengthy; it’s actually quite easily done, but it is a distance I would have, on any other day, traversed by car. But why?
Woolsey Hall is situated near the edge of the densest part of Yale’s campus. As I walked away from the center of New Haven I passed several new buildings, among them the new Kroon Hall, home to the Yale School of Forestry and one of the greenest buildings in the world. In this case it was nice to be on foot, as I had more time to explore what, while driving, would be merely peripheral. However, as these impressive buildings became fewer, the walk became longer. Aside from a flâneur every so often, the remainder of the walk was a bit uneventful and a bit lonely. It became clear that the less dense (both in terms of people and buildings) a stretch was, the longer that stretch would seem.
The walk is 1.2 miles, approximately 25 minutes, and only slightly longer than my daily walk from Greenwich St. to the Gallatin building, which is 0.9 miles, approximately 18 minutes, yet it seemed to take twice as long. And although the same walk repeated many times can get tiresome even in New York, this walk between Woolsey Hall and my house had the potential to become tiresome much sooner.
While visiting my grandparents in Florida over spring break, I noticed for the first time the extreme un-walkability that many of the neighborhoods suffered from. That, in addition to the scarcity of other walkers and interesting sites, make it no wonder why nobody wants to stroll there.
In his discussions of the politics of “The Block” and Washington Square Park, Michael Sorkin investigates interesting ideas about ownership of public space, and who has the right to take over this space. He begins the discussion by noting, “In a city organized in grid form, the block becomes a crucial increment of both the physical and the political and social order” (Sorkin, 91). As his argument travels from the participatory democracy and the power of the block party to his personal feelings of bitterness about having Washington Square Park invaded by movie stars, I found myself questioning how New York’s public space interacts with the larger community of tourists and industries it attracts.
Is Sorkin right to criticize the films that take his neighborhood as simply a convenient “backdrop…so picturesque and so filled with signifiers of ‘New York’” (Sorkin, 100)? Is part of the “localized identity” so crucial in maintaining this democratic neighborhood power destroyed when places like Washington Square Park become commercialized? Or is public space just that: public space, up for grabs for anyone who happens to walk by?
At least part of the answers to these questions seems to come from the line, “local resistance is the citizen’s last defense against the big processes that shape our everyday lives” (Sorkin, 92). Neighborhood coalitions, organizations, and even block parties can become a symbolic way for local residents to assert their power over the broader forces acting on New York City. Sorkin emphasizes how the unusual characteristics of the block party in particular—mainly that people overtake surfaces usually designated for cars only—helps the residents of a city reclaim their ultimate power over the places they live and work in every day.
I used to live next to a block in the heart of Bushwick that had the hugest, most enthusiastic block parties I have ever seen. The block was on Bleecker Street between Central and Wilson Avenues, and I lived right across Wilson Avenue. These parties would happen every few weeks or so during the summer—road blocks (my roommates and I were pretty sure these were stolen) went up on either end, and everyone in the apartments lining each side spent the day in lawn chairs, grilling, and playing football in the street. The fire hydrants were opened and all the kids played in them; sometimes fireworks were set off at night. The parties were obviously the result of the block’s organization, since there were not commercialized at all. And although I’m pretty sure a lot of things about them were illegal, the police station a block away never did anything to stop the residents.
Most of the buildings on that block were part of the Hope Gardens Housing Project. We’ve already discussed some of the ways in which government housing in New York can totally disrupt people’s lives, and Bushwick’s projects certainly have a history that attests to this. Certainly, all of us deal with the broader forces of governement and regulation that act on our lives daily—but especially in Bushwick, or in Sorkin’s neighborhood, the forces of gentrification or reckless New York housing relocation play a big role in shaping residents’ lives. Ultimately, I think Sorkin is at least somewhat justified in ranting against Robert Duvall, Tea Leone, and Morgan Freeman overtaking Washington Square Park. If the disruption of public space is caused by the very broader forces of daily life that the disruption is supposed to counterbalance, then what is a resident left with? If Washington Square Park is so commercialized that everyone who sees it identifies it as classic New York, and therefore feels they have the right to use the space in all the ways a resident would, what is left for Sorkin?
However, as an outsider—a non-native New Yorker—who feels that Washington Square Park is my own, in some small way, I also heartily disagree with Sorkin’s rant. Part of the essence of New York is the fact that everyone knows about it. So if that means that sometime a movie closes off Washington Square Park—I think that’s just what comes with such a dearly loved space.
It is clear that Sorkin argues for the local, the community, for small building vs tall building, sidewalks, etc - all the things that Jane Jacob fought so hard for. However, the way he writes in this sort of flaneur type language- floating between architectural history, new york history, and personal anecdotes and opinions, it doesn't seem as much like an agenda as say, Kunstler's work did.
When he says things like "possession displaces participation" he doesn't appear to be yelling at the people buying million dollar condos. His tone appears as a kind of mourning for the loss of the New York that he clearly was so in love with. He is hard to read at times, comes off as angry, even nasty, but I can hear a certain longing for certain things that seem to be missing, in his voice.
He misses the "social reciprocity" that makes us feel like we belong. Rather than move in our own orbits, quickly and separately around the city, he seems to miss the days when people more slowly and interacted with each other.
The stoop, which he speaks volumes about, is very important for this "social reciprocity." He speaks of it as an in between space- not totally private or public but mixed, and capable of stimulating social interaction. I have to agree with Sorkin here. Perhaps it is because I grew up in a neighborhood with sidewalks and front porches - with spaces where barriers between people were broken. But I believe these spaces can work just as well in urban areas- should we fight to keep them.
I have to agree that New York is becoming decreasingly filled with these types of spaces which foster a sense of community, family, intimacy, and are being replaced by either multimillion dollar high rise buildings or large housing complexes, which provoke isolation and violence, crime and fear, respectively.
I used to live on 115th st. and 1st avenue. 116 street, from lex to 1st avenue, is an incredibly vibrant stretch. It is full of brownstones with stoops, and people sitting on stoops at all hours, talking , listening to music, sharing stories. On 115th street and 1st avenue is a gigantic housing project. As I walked from the subway to the apartment, I never felt scared or isolated until I turned the corner.
Community can exist anywhere, even in incredibly poor and desecrated urban areas. However, when one tries to build a community by building a large scale housing project, it rarely works. Sorkin sites Oscar Newmans idea of defensible space, and I absolutely agree with Newman's ideas. Building large buildings removes the human scale and leads to feelings of loss of control over space. Stoops help us gain control over urban spaces - they are looking out points, places for social interaction, leisure spaces, and most importantly instill in us feelings of comfort and community.
Having grown up in a suburb with no sidewalks where the nearest place of business was three miles away, functional walking was not something I experienced all that much before I moved to New York for my freshman year. Despite all of the issues I have with this city, this ability to walk not just for leisure but for the specific purpose of going from one place to another is something I always miss when I spend time at home. When I'm at home, I walk so much less than I do when I'm in the city. This is not because I don't want to, but because it is not functional. Often, it is actually dangerous. I once walked the five miles to get to the nearest coffeehouse in my town - and due to the lack of sidewalks and narrow curvy roads I was almost run over by a car several times.
When I go on a walk at home, it often happens in a local park. Walking for an hour and half on a trail somehow always feels so much different than walking on city blocks. Even though I know I surely walk at least that much everyday, it doesn't carry the same weight as those nature walks do.
I have found that what I really require is a mix of both. While the functional walking is a necessity for my health, the time for meditative walking is just as important. While Sorkin primarily fills his twenty minutes of walking in Manhattan with the histories of culture and architecture and all the historical events that occurred there - The city blocks have always somehow felt more potent to me when they are charged with memories of my own experiences there. Everything that Sorkin encounters along his way seems to serves as mere entryways into discussing his vast knowledge of a tradition or history.
The character of these blocks is defined by the layout of the grid and the organization of the streets. The strictly rectangular, equal sized blocks in Midtown make it hard to discern 38th street from 56th street, for example, but the oddly organized blocks of the Village and Downtown give every block a distinct sense of place.
Imagine a walk through the city. As Sorkin writes, “the walk takes on a narrative quality,” in that the experience is distinct for every individual, speaks to something personal about that person, and no route is ever the same (80). It is because on every walk, “Each of us brings a private map along and revises it every time we step out the door. These maps have consequences not just for our feelings about the city but for our literal ability to negotiate it” (84). The way we conceive of our routes, our relationship to the grid and to streets, and our place in this city, determines the route we take, how much of it we observe, and how we relate to others along the way.
Sorkin writes about walking: “Walking, considered as something more than simple movement from place to place, puts one in mind of previous walkers” (80). Walking, though an individual activity, is dependent upon the choices of others and reveals a lot about how you relate to others. Do you chose your routes based on who and what you’ll encounter, or rather, what you’d prefer not to encounter? Also, one must acknowledge that the route he/she walks was chosen specifically by someone at some time before and was walked by someone else—there is history imbued in every path and every route someone chooses to walk through the city.
Rent control drives prices up. This is true of limited price controls of any sort, and is one of the few simple, relatively universal laws of economics. By limiting the available supply of an item, in this case, rental apartments, demand is spread over a lower number of units, and price must go up. Real world studies comparing cities with rent control to those without, for instance New York and Philadelphia, almost universally find a massive increase in market housing cost; often up to or even greater than 100%. It is of course difficult to compare the housing market across cities, but these studies try to compensate by looking at long term trends, acknowledging in advance that certain areas and certain cities cost more or less, adjusting for desirability to isolate the variable of rent control. Rent control has another effect, as well: it creates a large black market of appeasement space. If an individual has a deeply below market rate apartment and the means to rent another, higher quality one, they will often illegally sublet the older space and pocket the difference. Not only do prices therefore continue to rise, but because this subletting is prima facie illegal, it is not subject to the usual legal scrutinies, such as making sure it is not driven by racial or other prejudicial ideas.
Source. Note: I hate to link to the Cato institute as much as anyone; I find their work to be biased and unfortunate in many ways. But the graph presented above is both clear and based on the hard data. Even if I don't agree with most of their politics, in this case, there numerical analysis seems fair.
Michael Sorkin seems to have a deep misunderstanding of what a market fundamentally is. It is essentially a way of distributing a limited good, in this case housing, amongst a large group of people; it does so by means of money, a substance transferable for other goods or services, and thus makes sure that there is a moral hazard, for the spending of money means there is less to spend on other goods. It is not always a perfect way of distributing goods, but a lot of the time it seems the fairest we can come up with. To distribute housing based on merit, for instance, would require giving some agency, more than likely a government one, the ability to decide quite literally who deserves what housing, a position that should rightly make anyone pause. The art critic Dave Hickey, himself not at all on the right side of the political spectrum, has a quote he uses to defend his love for his home of Los Vegas*: "They think it is all about money, which, I always agree, is the worst way of discriminating among individuals, except for all the others."
*From A Home in the Neon in the book Air Guitar, p. 21.
This is not to say that rent control cannot be justified; it is rather to point out its vastly problematic nature. To call those who do not support it free market fundamentalists, as Sorkin essentially does at one point, is to draw a line in the sand so far to one side of a political debate as to make it seem purposeless; all that can follow are ad hominem attacks. To deal with the idea on his own terms, let us take up his idea of the perfect city, one where an individual has a huge degree of freedom to choose where they live but thence it is difficult if not impossible to remove them if they choose not to leave. On paper, this seems a wonderful ideal. And rent control, let it be said, deals with the second half of this equation beautifully; it allows an individual to essentially stay in their home in perpetuity at a price far less than perhaps many other would be willing and able to pay. But in doing so, it breaks the first half of the equation: fewer and fewer people can in turn decide that the Village, for example, is a place they want to live; the rising price, due directly to the lack of available housing, prohibits it. This is only made worse by those who decry the creation of new housing, such as Sorkin does, at least in part, about the new apartments on West Street. New housing is one way of lowering the unit cost of apartment space and giving more people the option to live there, perhaps not in this latest building, but in the then vacated, older structures around it. Again, there are reasons to be against such a development, one may truly feel it does not fit into the neighborhood, for instance (though in this particular case, I'm not sure I'd agree), but either way, if we overly limit production of new housing, prices will only continue to rise.
I've spent a long time ruminating about this, as does Sorkin, and like him, I don't have a great solution, either. As he says, the system is in many ways broken, and in some ways, vital, and the correct response is hard to divine. Perhaps, for example, rent control should be limited to some length of time, say ten or twenty years, enough to slow seismic-level shifts in the population of a neighborhood without allowing individuals to stay paying the same price they paid forty or fifty years prior. Or, perhaps a long-term, but still more highly sloped graduated rise could start to bring rent controlled spaces towards the market rate. This would too eventually lead to one no longer being able to afford their house, but would greatly slow the process. The real solution, of course, is the most difficult, and the one that can least be handled on the local level: to reduce income inequality. Neighborhood redevelopment is now often ridiculed as "gentrification" even when in the minds of most it makes a region more pleasant. It's not hard to see why; this increase of pleasantness brings a concurrent increase of prices. If we could all afford something similar, this would be less of a concern, but if we can't, well, they system is then not working well, and it should be repaired.
On the one hand, rent control solves the problem of keeping people in their home. On the other, it privileges those who rented their apartment at one time to a huge degree from those who would rent now. This is not an easy trade off, and one which should not be taken lightly.
One last thought is that city's should not be beholden of a sort of historic conservatism: that because a neighborhood is made up of x group of people and y structures, it should always stay that way. Cities are constantly changing, and thrive on change; a city which allows no neighborhood to ever change is a dead one, a theme park at best or a hollow shell at the worst (I'll leave it to the reader to decide how fine a distinction that may be). This needs to be balanced; to destroy Penn Station for Madison Square Garden is a travesty. To rip down five old-law tenements in a neighborhood of hundreds of them to erect something new may not be. And, if that process happens again and again, the calculus may change, to preserve a certain amount of those left. Cities change; it is a fact we need to appreciate.
Cities are complex organisms, and are subject to the laws of unintended consequences like almost no other entity. Rent control is one such system with a host of unintended consequences. I wonder how other ideas, such as Sorkin's greenways, would play out. I must admit, I like the idea of, at least in certain, dense areas, extending sidewalks, bringing them into the public domain and giving them public ownership; it could greatly enhance a city. On the other hand, especially if brought to areas that currently don't have the level of pedestrian traffic needed, it could be in essence reinventing the superblock- creating a vast amount of lonely, dangerous, almost empty and unpleasant land. This is not to say we should not try to fix the city for the future, but to recognize that our actions will have far flung consequences, and to realize that not every solution can work for every neighborhood. Such is the nature of urban complexity.
In the same way that the stoop in Sorkin’s neighborhood encouraged interaction and participation, the open door and hallway invited communication amongst neighbors on my old floor. In many instances, the hallway is thought of as merely a space of transition, from the more public outside on the street to one’s private home. In a place with no stoops but filled with many people trying to find a sense of community, opening one’s door was akin to Sorkin’s old neighbor, Jane, spending time on their building’s stoop and interacting with passers-by.
The layout of the hallway, in addition to our willingness to leave our doors open, very much facilitated communication amongst neighbors; like a one-way street, once one emerged from the stairwell (hardly ever the elevator, since we were only on the second floor), there was really only one direction you could go - to the left, to walk down the hall where one would have no choice but to pass every door until reaching his or her own.
In contrast, the layout of the floor in my sophomore year dorm on Broome Street was more complicated; depending on where you lived on the floor, you could pass many doors or hardly any doors at all. My suite was nestled in a corner a short walk away from the elevators, which meant that I only ever passed one door on my way to mine. Also, by sophomore year, friendships are often already established, and the drive that freshman usually have to meet new people and find a community was, at least for me, almost gone or at least directed elsewhere.
Based on these contrasting experiences, I feel that although the architectural features Sorkin discusses work well to facilitate a sense of community and caring for one’s neighborhood - both for the people in it and the physical place itself - it still takes human motivation and one's own choice to leave the door open or step up to a neighbor’s open door to say hello.
As with the injured, the trouble with stairs is that they also create a problem for the elderly. In my building, there is an 87-year-old woman who lives alone on the fifth (top) floor. It takes her about 10 minutes to get from the street to her apartment and she cannot even walk without the aid of a walker, which is too heavy and wide for her to use on the staircase so she has to have someone carry it up and down the stairs each day. She told me one day that she had been living in that same apartment since she was a teenager, and she wasn’t going to leave until the day came when she could no longer make it up the steps.
On the first page of the book Sorkin touches on buildings with elevators, describing how we are often dissuaded from using the stairs, as they are “residual,” “unpleasant,” and frequently “alarmed to prevent non-emergency use” (10), and I immediately pictured my sister’s building in Chelsea. It’s an upscale building so it has elevators and what Sorkin describes as the hidden, emergency-only staircase. The only problem is, I have no clue as to where that staircase is located. I have never seen them, a door labeled “Stairs,” or a sign in one of the hallways with an arrow pointing to the stairs. I wonder if the tenants know where the stairs are…
After reading Sorkin’s analysis of the stoop I realized the unique social interactions the stoop catalyzed in my own life. Living in a duplex in the West Village this past summer, I met my neighbors, mailman, and the surrounding shopkeepers all while entering or leaving from my stoop. I quickly learned from the fellow occupants of my building that Dave, an elderly homeless man, had enjoyed reading books on our stoop for many years and that I shouldn’t be bothered by it. Patrons of the ice cream stand on the corner however, were not welcome to use the stoop and that I should direct them to a bench on the sidewalk several yards down. This inclusion and exclusion of the stoop gave it personality and gave me a subconscious sense of ownership and comfort. The two-step up stoop allowed me to have a different perspective of space as well. Walking up the two steps I was no longer part of the city street but now an observer. I was able to have an objective view now that I was no longer physically on the level of the street.
Living in NYU’s Gramercy Green dormitory this year has made me realize how much I miss the sense of a stoop. The street level access of the building prohibits almost any form of social interaction to go on outside of the building. The immediate outside of the building is strictly used for an entrance or exit out of the building. Smokers scatter awkwardly around the building, as there is no designated place for them to perch. I feel the building thus lacks a sense of character and community because of the design of its entranceway.
The stoop has numerous traits and purposes. “Along with being a meeting place, the stoop is also a space of spectatorship…Hanging out on the stoop allows the sitter to observe the dance (Jane Jacobs’ ballet) of daily activity, to notice what is out of the ordinary, to provide the kind of public presence that prompts neighborly behavior” (67). Sorkin argues that the layout and use of stoops promotes a respect from the neighborhood dwellers. The stoops extend into the streets, but are connected to people’s homes. This “no mans’ land” urges people to be upstanding citizens. The stoops also invite people to sit and watch. Especially during the summertime, “audience members” gather on stoops and watch the daily comings and goings of passerby’s. This ritual of people watching instills good behavior. People obviously act better, stay quieter and friendlier, and clean up after themselves when others are watching.
More than being a transitional space between the buildings and the streets, stoops act as a place where things happen. “The stoop is also the site of many holdings of the door, vettings of strangers reading the bell, shmoozings with neighbors, sidelong glances at kids, tourists, and homeless people” (67). Some of the most telling human interactions happen on stoops. Greetings and goodbyes are often performed on display for the rest of the block to see. What might be private interactions in suburbs are completely out in the open in New York City.
There is a certain sense of mystery and romance to a stoop as well. Movies and TV shows filmed in Manhattan often have pivotal romantic scenes on stoops. Conversations about the next potential date or coming up for coffee always happen on the stoop.
There is even a mini talk show revolving around city stoops. Talk Stoop plays on all the taxi televisions. It features different interviews that literally take place on the front steps of a beautiful brownstone building in the village. In addition, a character on the kids show Hey Arnold is actually named “stoop kid” and he just sits on his stoop all day and plays games. Stoops have become a common reference in entertainment and media. It is something that every city dweller can relate to; whether they have their own stoop, congregate on the friends’, or chill on a stranger’s.
Don’t jump down my throat, I don’t mean to imply that people should disrespect the city and run around acting rude and cavalier towards one another and comport themselves with complete disregard for the city itself, but I have always enjoy the sense of anonymity and displacement one can feel in the city. I have always loved being on those derelict parts that seem to have fallen into complete oblivion, as if no person dared even run quickly down the sidewalk, if not merely to get to the other side.
Sorkin talks about his walk to TriBeCa and passing by many streets and places that I associate and interact with very differently. Sorkin touches upon a sense of reciprocity that he finds in the city and in the people. When he talks about the stoop and his friend Jane who seems to know the most inconsequential details about her neighborhood and interact with people who might otherwise pas her by, it makes me so uncomfortable. Personally I like the idea of floating through the city like a ghost. It’s probably to morbid “New Yorkerness” inside me, but I prefer the parts of the city that are left sort of forgotten about and not in pristine, maintained condition.
Sorkin’s talk about rooftop gardens reminded me of the High Line Park in the Meatpacking District. Personally, while I see the benefits of having more rooftop spaces (I enjoyed the one I had in TriBeCa as a child) I fear they would become more like the highline, and less like rooftop gardens I grew up with in Sorkin’s world. The Highline has a very “put-together” feeling to it, the wood boards are still perfectly aligned, the greenery maintained, and the features someone tourist-like (the telescopes for example). The rooftop gardens I always enjoyed were places of exclusive retreat. Not in the sense that no one could go to these places, but in the fact that they were not “designed” so much as fell into place. There was no purpose for society, just purpose for whatever activity was going to take place there, at the moment. It’s the same with the meatpacking district and what it is becoming: its places are all becoming design to be utilized in a specific way, with a specific design in mind. In this sense Sorkin and I share similar ideals, his distaste of gentrification on Hudson Street for example.
Personally, I like to make the city my own, do what I want to do in a space and not feel the pressure of the design of it imposing its expectations upon me, but most importantly, I like the feeling of being hidden amongst chaos. This is the distinction for me from Sorkin’s view, where he would rather be part of a homely town-like city. Sorkin would rather engage with chaos and think of ways to create a city more interactive than blend in and be isolated from it. I see value in the neighborhood aspect of areas within the city, and do have fond memories of certain “small-town” elements growing up in TriBeCa, but I’m of the mind that would rather appreciate it from a distance – it’s nice that those neighborhood interactions exist, but I’d rather not be a part of them. I suppose Sorkin is right in the sense that they need to exist as part Manhattan, I just don’t share the same proclivity for participation as he does.
Sorkin’s continues the chapter by describing a “deeply moving” scene he watched from his stoop (Sorkin, 71). His story, of the guy who picked up a piece of trash from a nearby tree, led to a consideration of a shared sense of responsibility when it comes to special places. When a community or neighborhood is well maintained, people feel more compelled to keep it that way. He uses Disney as an example of an immaculately maintained pleasurable escape. Sorkin explains, “It’s further noted that his high level of cleanliness is largely the result of visitor restraint, not of extraordinary efforts on the part of the staff” (Sorkin, 74).
Unlike Disney, my block isn’t the type of environment that makes people want to behave properly nor is it considered, by most, to be special. My street has two bars, a pizza place and a burger joint. The buildings, on my side of the street, are extremely old and worn. Every night, when the drunken crowds come out to play, there is a high level of littering and general misconduct. What I find to be deeply moving is the local effort to keep the area clean. I haven’t seen much civic effort at maintaining the street, but there is definitely a visible local effort. Helga climbs the fire escapes to clean the windows, the delivery guys always collect trash to throw out with their end of the day trash, building residents take turns cleaning the door/stoop, and even Skippy has curbside manners. Sorkin closes the chapter discussing preferential zoning by the government, but it is encouraging to at least see an effort at my streets local level. The camaraderie of our street keeps us actively working to maintain the sense of place.