Social performance in the contemporary street.

Starbucks 2nd Ave. and 9th St.

In the northwestern corner of 9th street and 2ave there is a Starbucks cafe with a nice terrace that takes about 3 meters off the avenue’s walkway. At 4:30pm  on Monday I sat down and began writing notes on pedestrian and social life in the corner.  The afternoon sun covered everything in a golden layer and the weather was breezy.  To the left there was a bar called The 13th Step; in front,  2ave ;  to the right, the cafe’s entrance as well as 9th street (stretching further into the east village and out of my field of sight). I wrote in my notebook:

“Monday, 26, Sep, 2011

2 ave, East 9th st

NW Corner

Starbucks

(4:27pm)

Seven tables in Starbuck’s terrace, completely

full, people reading, writing,

doing howeork.

Bought an ice tea.

Am sitting next to a girl on a table,

Couple, waiting

for a cab on the street

3 bicycles go by...”

During the first half hour,  each observation I made appeared to be completely unconnected to the next. I felt a bit uneasy at the idea of the city being this  random, chaotic environment in which each actor was completely independent of the next.

Slowly, however, certain patterns began to emerge through the regularities found in my notes. It was then that I began to pick up on a variety of threads that seemed to be running in, out and across different aspects of the urban texture. Each single dance was orchestrated in what seemed to be a deeper, organic,  whole:  the pulsating city.  I thought of Jane Jacobs…

My field of view from the café.

The first thing I noticed was that regularities in social signifiers were expression of the street’s particular nature. The speed at which people moved, for example, the style of clothing they wore, the tools they worked with, etc, were all indirect pointers of the type of services and activities demanded and provided by the street. The constant movement of kids with backpacks holding on the their mother’s hand and the groups of five or six teenagers with backpacks (all coming from the same direction) allowed me to infer that there was a school somewhere south on 2 ave. The movement of people pushing carts confirmed the presence of restaurants and bars in the area. Furthermore, hearing these people talk in a familiar form of spanish allowed me to infer that they were working-class mexicans, stocking up local businesses with their daily supplies.The café, on the other hand, was full of NYU students (this was inferred by their university merchandize ) most of them studying by themselves or waiting for a person with whom they where talking to on the phone.

“5:00— another mexican pushing a cart,

couple, corner of 9th and 2 ave, waiting for a cab

young man takes cab before but cab driver’s not going his way, young man stays on the street (squared shirt)I can hear him tell the cab driver that he’s going to the lower east side.

some cyclists going down,

constant traffic, but not heavy”

Next thing I realized was that certain contours of the street’s physical structure actually performed a social functions distinct from their  obvious one. A spot just above the pedestrian lines on 2 ave seemed to be an attractive spot for couples  to pick up a cab ,for instance. Newspaper dispensers served as a gravitational center for people waiting on someone ( who had either gone in the café or was coming in from the streets). The corner of the building and the entrance to the café were also common spots for waiting, while others preferred to rest against the pedestrian pedestrian-light post, patiently waiting for someone to arrive.

Circles stand for meeting/waiting spots

Through these lenses, it seems that the corner´s function was for people to meet especially young couples. This became especially obvious when focusing on the  usage given by these people to mobile technologies such as phones. Some persons, for example, would walk  around in circles in the same spot of the street, thinking while talking on the phone to someone that was coming their way. Others would leave the café and stand in the terrace entrance with their phone pressed against their ears, looking for someone that was supposed to arrive.

When thinking about how technologies affect our relation to space and time I would have to say that, although they certainly affects the way people conceive their urban experience (by reducing the visibility of other factors apart from the what is needed right ten) I don’t think it affects the role of a street corner as a common meeting ground. It is, however,  nice to know that we can still infer things from the street without having to rely on external tools like Google Maps. However, this capacity to read our social environment seems to be changing drastically, especially because our perception of the social space is becoming less environmental and more linear. Especially through Google Maps, which is making our urban experience  more directed to a specific goals at a specific time (An idea put up by Adam Greenfield in last Thursday’s class).

Once again, I  wonder how these experiences change in an underdeveloped context such as Mexico City. While the axiom of “people attract people”  holds, I am not so sure that the actual conditions and manners in which these forms of attraction take place  are comparable at all. Sure, street corners are meeting spots almost everywhere in the world, but in a city  so completely reliable on motorized traffic, in which the public sphere is threatened by pollution and crime, meeting conditions turn towards private places such as inside cafes, houses or shopping malls. Maybe this is also the case with New York City in the wintertime, given the harsh weather conditions. I will have to wait and see.

 

Pd- For this assignment  I had to revise 11 pages of random written material, I think this speaks  of the impossibility of expressing the complexities of city life in one single take. I’ll have to give up the ambition to do so, sooner or later.

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