15. Parting Thoughts
No one can understand “place" (sure that I don’t) without running into politics, geography, economics, history, philosophy, literature, physics, etc--but none of these categories can sum ‘place’ up. And no one, I think, can approach 'place' from the few or all of the perspectives I've just named. For my own part, I've focused on history and geography (the latter of which seems a conglomeration of many of the different categories that I’ve just mentioned) but dabbled in each of the others, and Gallatin has provided three chances to learn each: this class, Marie Cruz Soto's "Narrating History, Memory, and Place,” and Becky Amato’s Place and Memory (which i haven't written about). The most challenging part is to put them into dialogue. Here So this is what I'll do with my last post.
Narrating History, Memory, and Place.
A Sense of Place (of its history, of what defines it, who it belongs to) is implicit in one’s politics. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Unlike this class which in some ways was an examination of places, NHMP was about the stories we tell about them.
Marie's class was very much about the intersection of history (of places big and small, socially constructed, socially imagined—no sympathy for Genus Loci here, no searching for an unreal Arcadia), politics, and media in the defining of places, and of making the implicit claims within those identities known. For example, Robert Moses, backed by his own political machine, wanted revenge for Jacob’s successful defense of Washington Square Park. He planned to eradicate her home, but before he could do so he needed to declare areas of the West Village “blighted.” This is a necessary erasure of a vast magnitude: of the people the homes within that absolute space; of the interconnections in relative space; and of the history of the West Village. He in essence declared it a ‘space’—an area without meaning, without any felt value—and tried to cast New York as the fledgling great modern city in need of highways and high-rises to ascend to the heights of its potential. He declared himself the promethean hero of this story, though perhaps his brand of creative destruction is more like Faust’s. To fight back, Jacobs narrated the West Village as a Place. To do this she re-write the American Urban narrative, and in doing so she made some very populist claims about who should govern the use of space. This is why her vision has been called republican by some. She changed the whole idea of the city in history—it is something that stretches on, always changing, never finished with a final form. Robert Moses felt very differently—that once the modern city was completed, it was done forever. As we can tell from this story, the narratives that we tell ourselves about places compete with other stories to be the dominate understanding of that place.
Another instance when I was happy to have the classes overlap was in reading James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere. Kunstler is trying to change the history of a familiar place—the United States—by writing a different story, to change what Doreen Massey calls “The Space Time Envelope.” If his version of postwar American history successfully became the dominant narrative against what has been called the Pastoralist of American political and social understanding, the public might be convinced that we have indeed neglected issues of ‘place,’ that the car is responsible for many of our ills, etc.
Ever since I spent the summer in Nebraska in 2009, I’ve been coming to grips with the fact that I don’t enjoy living in the Northeast. Though so many aspects of my life and personality have been shaped from growing up here, and the people I have met throughout my time living in New York City (if the time spent attending New York University can actually be called that) have inspired and helped form the person I am today, I find the basic experience of living in this city (and in this area of the country in general) to be stressful in a way that other places I have lived are not. While I enjoyed reading Twenty Minutes in Manhattan and agree with a great deal of the material it touched on (or rather, complained about), I also found that the book served as an example of a strange response that many people I know (and that I as well) have had to living in New York: making fun of it relentlessly, but also somehow taking pride in being able to weather the insanity of making a life here. At the root of this humor, it always seem to me that people (myself included) are actually just miserable as a result of their day to day life here. While I’ve taken a great deal of joy in weathering this enigma of a city for four years, my time in New York this semester has cemented that this is not the city for me – at least for now.
My current plan for this summer is a road-trip across the country spent visiting cities I am thinking of moving to but have never been to. Now, if only I can get Kunstler’s ideas about the suburban sprawl I am bound to see out of my head…
[photo taken by me, driving from colorado to nebraska, june 2009]
While it is important to think radically and to create, this class allowed me to really think deeply and ground all of the things I've been learning for the past four years. It was something like an overview, yet delved deeply into important topics. We learned things theoretical but also factual and most importantly learned to experience and think about the places that we occupy everyday.
Reflecting on this course has me questioning why we don't learn about architecture as part of our fundamental education. We learn art and music alongside the fundamentals, but unless we choose to study it, we don't learn how to experience and think about places. Perhaps if we revamped the entire teaching process of architecture - implemented it at an early age, made sure we taught classes like this one before we started designing in studios - perhaps we would have more places in our world that evoke a great sense of place and less of the buildings and cities that do nothing but propogate social and economic problems.
my photo of the architecture studio I took at Columbia
This semester was my first at Gallatin. I applied into the music composition program at Steinhardt and stayed there for three semesters before feeling that I needed a change. I was losing interest in the theories and principles taught in music school, not that they were no longer pertinent, but rather, I felt a shifting of focus into a realm of music that didn’t operate on the moment to moment, fixed basis of standard notation.
I was beginning to see a strong and helpful connection between the music I was interested in and architecture. In short, a building establishes certain confines, and in doing so, caters to certain functions while making others quite difficult. In some way, it limits what a person can do inside of its walls, but in no way does it determine moment to moment activity. Toward the end of last year I started experimenting with a system of graphic notation; my goal was to provide a score to an entire piece within the limit of one page. I divided the page into two boxes, creating two distinct sections, each containing a set of musical directions and possibilities. It struck me one day that this sort of score was working very similarly in relation to the improvisor/performer as a building works in relation to its inhabitant(s): In both cases, certain predetermined structures limit what can go on inside of them while allowing and encouraging creative decisions to be made in order to best use this predetermined material to and within its limits.
When I decided to transfer to Gallatin, this interest in architecture was very much at the front of my mind, and while looking through courses, this one was the first to catch my eye. I wanted to better understand the effects of space and place in order to work towards a new way of working with music. I expected the course to take a mostly spiritual standpoint, and through Tuan, this expectation continued. However, as we moved onward, the course quickly shifted toward a concern for space and place within the real world, and as a result, my understanding, awareness, and concern for the “built environment” was heightened, while my interest in the spirituality of space and place with regards to music, continued to be stimulated.
During the Fall, I proposed to create a sound installation as part of a fellowship program at school. I had never before worked in this way, as much of last year was spent writing chamber music for other musicians to play. I spent a lot of time, some of it thinking, some of it procrastinating, and finally, during the Spring, started working on this installation, which I showed at the Gallatin Arts Festival. Many of my concerns and thoughts either originated in or were informed by this class, and so I can confirm with certainty the positive effect it had on me.
This summer I am going to study with a favorite composer of mine in Paris, whose work seems to share a consideration of space, as he often writes for monolithic forces, not for the complexity of hundreds of intertwining parts, but for the effect that such a crowd can have on the way the music moves in space. Whatever I am working on or doing while there, I am sure that Kunstler, with his high regard for the Parisian streets and cafés, and our classes’ concern for the urban environment will be ever-present.
(Photo taken by me of an aforementioned score)
The one thought I’ve had over and over again, why is this not a freshman prerequisite? This should be mandatory for all incoming new students! If NYU wants to tout how “connected” they are to the local community, why are we not required to take a course like this, a “History of the City” course, that actually teaches students about the area in which they live? My one regret is that I did not take this course sooner, as I now feel like I’ve been walking around the city for years with blinders on. No wonder the Village hates us, we take over historic buildings and exclude the citizens, all while acting as if we don’t even really care about this city. Do we bother to teach our students about the history of the buildings they live and work in? In general, the answer is no, and the students don’t seem to mind. It’s embarrassing. I remember overhearing some students on the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire:
“What’s all this for?”
“I don’t know, some people were killed around here or something.”
“Like, a long time ago or something."
Overall, this was such a fantastic class, especially for a school within a city. I’m very glad I signed up. But, I must say, Take Back NYU? How about Give Back NYU, give it back to the city until the students learn to care.
I lived in the East Village for the majority of my college experience. My lease ends this June, and I will be moving to Brooklyn. Although I am excited to explore my new neighborhood in Brooklyn, I’m also sad to say goodbye to the East Village. Many young people in NY move from apartment to apartment, and it is easy to feel displaced. For me, the six months to one year leases are teases when it comes to a sense of place. I often feel I’m just getting to know a street or neighborhood before I have to pick up and move on. This process makes the symbols and meanings I give/find in places seem that much more important. I recently revisited a West Village area that I lived in during my freshman year. I was immediately a bit disoriented, and I clearly felt that I had been removed from the neighborhood for quite a while. Several of the stores and restaurants had changed, and many of the people I interacted with daily had moved on. Even so, I did feel a level of nostalgia at certain points of my trip. I reminisced on the personal importance of a certain street, trash can or café. Although I definitely don’t feel the same level of ease in the West Village, I still look back on my experience with it fondly.
As I part ways with the East Village, I can’t imagine what a couple years will do to its sense of place. That is not to say it will get better or worse because these ideas can be extremely subjective (as we’ve seen in our readings). Rather, I am interested to see the new group of people who call the neighborhood home. This flow of people throughout NY can seem disorienting at times, but it also possesses a really beautiful quality. Knowing that someone else a week, a month or year before me had loved or hated my apartment, my street or my neighborhood makes me feel connected to the city. I’ll definitely miss my home in the East Village, but I look forward to exploring Williamsburg.
Thank you for a great semester, Professor Hutkins!
I notice that many of posts are concerned with qualities of space and place that aren’t inherent in the design or implementation of it. I return often to Tuan and Jackson’s ideas that what actually happens in the space lends to its character. I think these ideas resonate strongly with me because I feel the strongest connections to places that hold some sort of meaning—usually because of the people there or a significant event that happened there. Of course, I do find myself in awe of places for their aesthetic qualities and the feelings that design and use bring out in me.) This realization has shown me that this course has helped me to realize that the qualities of spaces and places are complex things.
A quick Google search revealed that Edgar Allan Poe lived on 85 West Third Street from 1844-1845. When I arrived at this address I found a red brick building incased by a larger building, NYU Law’s Furman hall. The brick façade is marked with a plaque to signify Poe’s previous presence in the space. It explains that it was in his Greenwich village house that he began writing "The Cask of Amontillado" and where he was living when "The Raven" was published. In 2001 the original 19th century house was torn down by NYU’s expansion of its law school. It was reconstructed a half a block from its original site using none of the building’s original materials. The building’s façade now is just a symbol of what used to be.
It is interesting to think about how symbolic historical landmarks such as the Edgar Allen Poe house can subtly influence our modern lives. Walter Benjamin, a historical theorist, describes the past erupting into the present as the “dialectical image.” The marking of historical places with plaques is a representation of this image; they signify in the present significant moments of the past.
My fascination with the Edgar Allen Poe house or various other places that served as settings for great thought or action, is propelled by the power that accompanies the dialectical image. This power is be manifested into that eerily feeling that can come over someone when they stand before a place and realize the significance of all that has happened before them. Benjamin argues that we should not look to the future but to the past for progression as a society. We must acknowledge the past in order to understand the capabilities of our own actions to impact the future. Whether symbolized by buildings in the West Village of New York City or by the temples and theatres of ancient Greece, places where the past and present interact with each other are to me, profoundly inspirational. Is it possible that the greater power of place lies not in inhabiting it but in remembering it?
I am cursed, like my mother, I can't seem to escape the constant striving towards the perfect aesthetic and like her I too am a nester. I think it is easy to say it was the way I was raised. My mom was an interior designer and my dad was in real estate. Obviously they have put an emphasis on the importance of a space or environment. Between the two of them they could spend hours and hours gawking over the smallest, and to some unnoticeable, design features in a space (which was often our home). They can't help but go to dinner parties and notice every single thing they would have done differently. The couch should be there and the windows should be single pane and the plaster wasn't applied in the right strokes. That's why I say it is a curse. Perfection is simply our of reach Growing up I also had a unique outlook on spaces and places. My family has moved, on average, every two years. We left San Francisco and moved down to our cottage in Carmel when I was only 8 or so and stayed around there ever since. It would be hard to say I ever had a favorite house. Each one occupies a transient moment of my life, one grade school, the next junior high, and another high school. We moved so much because my parents would make a place “perfect” as they thought yet this would only bore them to death. Just this month my mom opened up a French antiques store in Carmel Valley that might just satisfy her aestheticophilia.
Now I am for the first time looking for a place of my own in the city. My younger sisters and I have grown up house shopping so this process is nothing new. It's a bit of an art. You can't just search for the most expensive place, or the newest. This is only depressing. It has to be somewhere with character, somewhere that can compliment, or even define, the narrative of your life.
This class has expanded my understanding of a more theoretical sense of place. Understanding city planning and architecture helps understand the smaller spaces we actually inhabit. It has also freed me of the aesthetic driven mindset which I have realized had gripped me before. Though I realized whether unconsciously or not my parents and I too have always been concerned with the feel of a place more than the appearance. There style was never alienating but rather comforting as a home should be.
Thanks Steve for the great class, I look forward to taking the travel writing class with you this next semester!
But now I'm in a whole new place - New York City - and it has been almost impossible since I started at NYU to remember what that strong desire to write felt like back in that walk-in closet. It's a feeling that I need now more than ever because, in the city that never sleeps, one is always competing against others to be the best in what they want to do. After an exhausting semester and another one (my last one) on its way, I think I might need that passion back to push me through.
It's not easy to recreate the specific feeling one gets in a special place. As we've learned throughout the semester, there are many different factors involved in creating a certain sense of place. New York is perhaps the complete opposite of my parents' walk-in closet. Despite this fact, thanks to this class, I've learned to pay more attention to my surroudnings, to find the spaces in the city that echo back to that special place.
The first step to making these discoveries was slowing down. It’s hard work, slowing one’s mind and body and opening them to one’s surroundings, especially in a fast-moving city like New York. But it was unavoidable. For the journalism class I took this semester, all of my work was focused on a specific place – the West Village, which I wrote a post about, too – and a large part of what I had to do to succeed in the class was to be more aware of my surroundings.
In doing so, in taking the time to walk a little more slowly, to pay a little more attention to the people and the places surrounding me, I eventually forged a deep connection to the West Village and to many of its residents. It helped to take this class at the same time as my journalism one because it made me so much more aware of what I was experiencing in relation to others and in relation to the spaces through which I moved. My head was thinking on two different levels when I interviewed others about why the West Village was so significant to them. With all that we've learned, it was so much easier for me to understand the importance of this place, especially to locals.
Although I still have a lot to learn about the area – and the rest of New York, for that matter – I feel there, perhaps more than in any place else, the same kind of feeling I used to have in that walk-in closet so many years ago. Maybe it’s the winding streets, the bustle of people, or the unique neighborly atmosphere that calls to my mind that closet. It might even be the history of the place, the fact that it used to be a hub for artists and writers alike, that inspires me to keep chugging on even when I feel I have no energy left to report or to write.
Whatever the case, I know that whenever I walk those streets, somehow finding my way around to say hello to local residents or friendly storeowners, I am flooded with that feeling, that strong sense of place, an echo of my old home.
In many ways, the study of sense of place fascinates me because of this very paradox. I was raised in the most conservative, religious stretch of East Texas by northeastern natives who often vote for Ralph Nader (because voting for the democrat in Texas is a losing battle, and they figure we may as well give Ralph some votes) and very rarely go to church. In other words, I was raised by outsiders to be an outsider. I was specifically told never to say “ya’ll” or “ain’t,” and would be reprimanded if my parents detected any kind of twang. I was raised vegetarian in a county whose official food, if there was such a thing, would be brisket. And I was raised with the constant notion floating about my household that this place—with its fire ants, annual three-month drought, and 110-degree summers—was merely a temporary resting point before we all made our way back to the northeast.
Moving to New York was hardly a decision for me. After growing up with the constant notion of leaving, the only thing that seemed strange was when people asked if I would stay in Texas. Would I stay in Texas?! Of course not. The northeast, on the other hand, shone like some beacon of a promised land, the place where “my people” were, the place I would finally find a sense of place that made me feel at home.
That’s not really what happened when I moved to New York during the spring of my sophomore year of college. Sure, there are parts of New York that make me feel very welcome, a part of the city. I love Brooklyn, and the way so many neighborhoods are sprouting arts festivals, craft fairs—even writing workshops. I love walking around the West Village imagining Jack Kerouac planting his feet along the same worn streets I travel on. I even love going to midtown and imagining F. Scott Fitzgerald carousing through the nights with his crazy wife. But I am not a New Yorker—I’m still a visitor. There is nothing about the environment of New York—its subways, its grid, its constant movement—that really feels natural to me. It is not the home I was so long searching for in Texas.
But it is a home for me. Just like Texas is a home. Neither place ever felt like the quintessential idea of home to me, a place where I felt comfortable with everything. So I started wondering about what the sense of place was in each of them that made me feel some connection. For New York, I think it’s the history and the identity of the city that I relate to. A place is full of what happened in it before, and New York is always full of all the fascinating and wonderful things that happened before I moved here. For Texas, it is the environment more than the people that make me feel at home. The heat, the red dirt, the cicadas, the bats—all of these elements create the ideal home environment for me.
I think that many people probably feel conflicted about their home in some way, and it is that fascinating transition from one place to another that allows us to decipher the elements of a certain city or state that made it our home. A sense of place is not objective in memory—it is idealistic, sentimental, the best parts of something that we end up remembering. But maybe this remembered sense of place is the most real—it’s the sense of place that made us feel, at least a little bit, that we had made it home.
Another reoccurring theme that is present throughout several of my blog posts is gentrification, specifically in Soho. In one of my posts I highlight Kunstler’s notion of a loss of community in his book Geography of Nowhere. I applied his declaration that “we have become accustomed to living in places where nothing relates to anything else, where disorder, unconsciousness, and the absence of respect reign unchecked”(185) to the corporatization of Soho. I returned to this notion of the gentrification of Soho when discussing Sorkin’s claim that “gentrification suppresses reciprocity by its narrowed scripting of formal and social behavior, by turning neighborhoods into Disneylands or Colonial Williamsburgs, where residents become cast members and the rituals of everyday life become spectacle or food consumption”(145). The ones that seem to be responsible for these ever increasing problems is the government and its relationship with the largest business conglomerations that are monopolizing the market place, an issue that has been prevalent in several of my other courses this semester as well. In my Social and Cultural Analysis class as well as The Culture Industries, we have discussed how the close yet unspoken of ties between the government and the largest of conglomerates shapes our culture and world we live in today. I believe many of our readings and assignments especially on the construction of public spaces directly relates to this as well.
I thoroughly enjoyed A Sense of Place mostly because it acquainted me with the city I live in and I realized, no almost nothing about. This course has provided me a better connection and a deeper understanding of the place where I live and has allowed me to develop a sense of home that I had lacked. All I could have wished for is that I took this class earlier in my college education. While studying abroad in Paris next semester I hope to find a similar course in which a sense of place can be contemplated and analyzed even further from my notion of home.
(Photo by me)
Even as someone who was born a raised in New York, I have always had a mixed view of the city, mainly composed of my own personal experiences and the widely accepted and perpetuated cultural representations of the city. I often found that these two elements specifically played off of each other and influenced each other. The stories and the plot lines from television shows and movies came from the experiences and observations of the writers, directors and producers of the films as they lived their lives and registered observations about everyday life in New York and the things that came to define that. The shows and films were widely watched and discussed (though obviously not exclusively) by New Yorkers who incorporated the experiences of watching the media themselves into their collection of experiences.
Shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Will & Grace, Law & Order, to name a few, all took place in New York (though most were obviously never filmed here) and centered around certain quintessentially “New York” issues. When looking to movies, the list is too long to even select any specific one to discuss. I will say though that Woody Allen movies were at one time considered to be quintessentially “New York” films and I remember my parents (and myself later on in life) referencing them as oracles of the New York condition.
One of the things that really drew many New Yorkers to these media was the fact that most of the experiences and opinions that played out in these shows and movies were very indicative of real, every-day New York life. It was fun for New Yorkers to see the “isms” that they observed exposed and made fun of or addressed and idolized in a public manner. For non-New Yorkers, these media were ways to relate to New Yorkers and understand about their lifestyles. Either way, the media were considered to me relatively representative of certain New York lifestyles.
It almost becomes a chicken and egg question: what came first the identity of the experience? Did having it happen to a particular writer make it part of the identity of NYC life, or did writing about it and having it play out in a film make it known and therefore induce others to make it happen in real life and therefore part of the New York identity?
I see it as life imitating art, imitating life. We experience things every day, but it is only when those experiences become widely recognized and associated with the circumstances that they become part of the identity. The media representation of New York and the New Yorker perspective will always be intermingled and interdependent because not only has media become the vehicle for so many forms of communication and come to define our understanding of the world, but it also has the greatest ability to entertain and inform when it is focused on relevant truths.
For New York especially, to establish a comprehensive identity of the city with respect to the media and the people who live it and breath it every day, both elements will have to continually look to and borrow from each to maintain and progress New York’s Identity.