Cultural Studies and Placemaking

Cultural Studies and Placemaking

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” – Jane Jacobs

My academic concentration and personal interest lies in the field of cultural studies. In fact, for my senior thesis, I am currently writing about skateboarding as a subcultural practice, an expansive, commercially successful industry, and an inventive use of urban space.  In my own research, I have noticed that skateboarders (along with other subcultures) are heavily romanticized by some and demonized by others. For many cultural studies theorists, subcultural members have been characterized by their radical expressions—be it in fashion, music, political views, art, or hobbies; they are championed as conscious rejectors of societal norms who bring vibrancy to an increasingly homogenous world. In dominant cultural ideology on the other hand, these various groups are rejected and delegitimized because of their perceived differences and resistance to accepted tastes. To me, both perspectives seem reductive and gloss over the nuances and contradictions which are integral to understanding how subculturists actually function in the context of culture at large. This is a much more complex issue, but for the purposes of this post, what I feel is an agreeable assertion to make is that their marginalized position—whether it’s due to conscious rejection of dominant culture or not—has shaped their worldview in a distinctive way, and has necessitated them to construct alternative senses of place.  Since the needs of subcultural groups are generally not taken into careful consideration in the planning of cities, they must appropriate existing space in unconventional ways or create new kinds of spaces to facilitate their existence. Sociocultural dynamics and spacial creativity in this context can be useful in evaluating both who and what needs to be involved in the placemaking process.

Since my thesis is focused on skateboarders, I will use them as a case study here as well.  In general, skateboarding is viewed as a disreputable and destructive activity that causes property damage and is dangerous to its participants and bystanders.  These attitudes are reflected most significantly in legislation, which often make skateboarding illegal in public parks as well as on sidewalks and roads. as writers like Iain Borden have pointed out, instances of skateboarding-related injury lawsuits are rare, and the property damage skateboarders inflict is frequently blown out of proportion. Not only this, but the levels of danger that skateboarding presents are comparable to other sports and activities that are not illegal in the same spaces. In his Skateboarding, Space, and the City—a work which I draw upon heavily in my thesis—Borden puts forth the argument that it is neither damage nor danger which drives politics in this arena, but it is instead the perception of skateboarding as a chaotic activity that disrupts both the social and economic order of the city.

In an attempt to provide an alternative space for skateboarders to exist, the first skateparks were built in the 1970s, and have been popping up all around the world ever since.  While this is an instance of placemaking in and of itself, it is still only somewhat successful because it disregards the thoughts of those who feel they should have the right to skate in public.  As I’ve mentioned in my previous post about Southbank, street skating—and the ostensible establishment of skate spots—is widely popular because it is an organic experience that requires a balance between imagination and discipline.  Instead of walking into a skatepark and using its resources in a more structured, limited way, street skating allows the skateboarder to use objects like handrails, benches, planters and ledges that are seemingly mundane to the average citizen as obstacles to push the limits of their craft.

But regardless of whether it’s on the street or in a purpose-built park, there is an emotional, physical, and creative stimulation inherent in skateboarding.  An understanding of this fact can be important in the placemaking process in several ways: for the average citizen, it can be a starting point for a shift in ideological values and social acceptances, while for the architect or urban designer, it can be used to better understand the variety of people who use public space, as well as the potential for shifts in use-value in the resources that make up those spaces.

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Sound and Vision: The Spirit of Place in Music

Sound and Vision: The Spirit of Place in Music

In the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll course I’m taking this semester, we spend a lot of time talking about the variety of experiences and places that music has been rooted in historically—a theme which seems particularly apropos for this assignment.

Like poets or authors, musicians often write songs that describe their vision of a location, whether it’s their hometown, the city they’re recording in, a vacation spot, a memorable stop on tour, or even somewhere they’ve never been. The spirit of a place is reflected most directly through a song’s lyrics, which can give more objective insight into the way a place looks, smells, sounds, its social environment, or the political climate. Lyrics can also be used to express biases or tell the story of personal experiences in a place, drawing upon emotions ranging from freedom to isolation to acceptance to struggle. In fact, place is such a common and diverse theme in music that there’s a whole wikipedia page dedicated it to it, where you can find a list of thousands of songs that have been written about cities all over the world. (New York City has its own separate page, by the way.)

Manifesting the spirit of a place in a song is not just limited to its lyrical content, and can also be evoked through the sound and structure of a song itself.  For example, songs that are associated with New York City are often loud, raucous, with a chaotic energy that reflect the overwhelming sensory experiences one might have while walking the streets. On the other hand, songs about cities in the south tend to be more acoustic and stripped down, giving the impression of a slower-paced, simpler lifestyle. Finally, coastal California is often immortalized in music through reverb-heavy guitar riffs that mimic the rolling waves of the ocean, offering a beachy, laid-back vibe.  Of course this is not to say that every song about California is going to be surf rock, but there are often lyrical and sonic threads that run through songs which root themselves in specific locations, and over time they begin to form the quintessential sound of that place.

Just as musicians can use their craft to capture the spirt of place through lyrics or rhythm, music can also can shape your own sense of place as a listener.  Whether I’m walking to class, sitting in a cafe, studying in my room, or taking the subway, it’s pretty much a guarantee that I’ll have my headphones in and my iPod blasting. And on the off chance that I’m not actively listening to music, there’s bound to be a song stuck in my head. These songs form the soundtrack to my life; they shape my mood, my memories, and my associations with people and places.  I form such strong connections with some songs that it’s as if they are able to transport me back to a different time entirely, regardless of whether they were written with those locations in mind or not.  When I hear Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play”, for example, I imagine myself dancing in the dark, smoky, underground London club I wrote about in my first post on this blog. Or, when I hear The Growlers’ “Sea Lion Goth Blues” I can almost feel the wind blowing in my hair and smell the salt in the air as I drive home from Jones Beach on a warm summer day.  Finally, when I hear Elliott Smith’s “L.A.” I can feel both the spirit of his place—the streets of Los Angeles—as well as my own—Coronado, California, where I was living during the height of my love for his music.

As a fun bonus, here’s a song about New York which perfectly encapsulates how I’ve felt during my time here:

 

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Finding Refuge in Community Gardens

Finding Refuge in Community Gardens

My sophomore year at NYU (and my first year at the Washington Square campus) was a period of adjustment and new experiences.  I grew up on Long Island, so I’d been to the city many times before my official move. The bulk of my trips were made with my friends in high school, when we’d take the LIRR into Penn Station to shoot film for our photography class.  In our eyes, the city had much more to offer than anything in our suburban town, and it also gave us the opportunity to do some exploring ourselves.  Over the course of these visits, we formed a sort of romanticized image of New York, based on its most aesthetically pleasing points of interest.  We were able to go in and immerse ourselves in the hectic, energizing atmosphere for the day, but could retreat back to quiet suburbia as soon as we got tired of it.  These trips convinced me that New York was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life, even though I’d never had a chance to truly experience what that life would be.  When I decided to go to NYU, the opportunity arose to do just that—to carve out a temporary place for myself in a corner of the vast expanses of a city I thought I knew so well.  That place, at first, was the East Village, on the particularly loud cross section of 3rd Avenue and 9th street.

Despite feeling like I was a “city person”, I often found Manhattan overwhelming.  Even from my small dorm room on the 13th floor of my building, there was a constant flow of noise from the traffic below and the construction across the street that started like clockwork at 8am every weekday, and friends were always popping in and out of my room, sometimes staying for a few hours and sometimes for a few days. I knew I needed to find a place where I could escape to, one that didn’t feel too far removed from the business all around me that I thrived on in many ways, but that still provided a comfortable refuge when I needed it.  Luckily, I found that in the shared garden spaces a few blocks from my home.

The first time I visited a community garden was after learning about them one early Fall afternoon at the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, located on Avenue C.  I was immediately intrigued by their history and the sense of community they seemed to be able to foster, especially considering the fact that New York can be so isolating. To be honest, I was also surprised that they still existed in a time where it a lot of our homegrown cultural gems are being lost to commercial development.

When I stepped into the first garden, I could still see buildings around me and quite a lot of people walking around on the streets, but I felt enveloped in a world that was so different from the city I was used to and even from any of the parks I’d visited here before. I didn’t even have my own plot to speak of, but I still felt like I immediately became part of welcoming community, something that I hadn’t ever experienced so deeply here before.  Everyone I encountered in the garden, whether they were reading a book or tending to their plants, stopped to talk to me and invited me to stay as long as I’d like.  Not only did I stay for a while that day, but I returned again and again throughout the year, sometimes walking over from my classes at the Silver Center to get some reading done, others to simply enjoy my surroundings in solitude.

At the time, the community gardens were exactly what I needed from the city, and unfortunately living in the West Village, I don’t get the opportunity to visit them as much as I used to.  With the stress of my thesis and finishing up my last remaining classes this semester, I’ve found myself needing a space that I can escape to while still being productive, and I’ve noticed that I haven’t really found a suitable alternative in my area.  When the weather warms up, I’m making a promise to myself to start going back over there again and hope that I’ll be welcomed back just the same.

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Placelessness of The Hard Rock Cafe

Placelessness of The Hard Rock Cafe

The Hard Rock Cafe is one of the worst offenders of placelessness in my view.  This is because it encompasses almost every aspects of the concept that Relph describes all at once; they are kitschy, museumified, Disneyfied, homogenous, corporate, tourist hotspots. Whew.

Admittedly, I’ve been to several Hard Rocks all around the world: New York City, Orlando, Amsterdam, Atlantic City, San Diego and London to be specific. I’d never really thought about why I’ve been to so many of them, because I don’t find them particularly remarkable in any regard, but I realize now that I’ve usually ended up one at when traveling with my parents.  Even in a foreign country, they have sought out the Hard Rock as a beacon of familiarity, knowing that all of the neon signs in the shapes of guitars, the memorabilia lining every inch of wall space, the glossy wooden tables, and the burgers will be just like the ones they’ve always known. 

Hard Rock Cafe Hollywood Hard Rock

As Relph writes of corporate entities like Howard Johnson’s, “Whether in advertising, packaging, or the product itself, there is very little that companies involve in mass production leave to chance.  Everything is carefully design and deliberately contrived to aid in the selling of the product, and this involves both a response to max culture and an attempt to maintain and creat culture by dictating uniform tastes and fashions.” (114) This is the Hard Rock to a T.  The company prides itself on its atmosphere and consistent dining experience, while simultaneously carving out a space for itself as a recognizable global entity.  An understanding of this has made for a less comforting experience personally, because although each location boasts unique, one-of-a-kind pieces of rock history, if you laid out pictures of them, I can guarantee I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.  In fact, the only distinct recollections I have about them is that they’re the same in virtually every way, even down to the playlist of music—ranging from Fleetwood Mac to AC/DC to Jimmy Buffett—that blares over each of their speakers.

Hard-Rock-Cafe-Lovia copy

In their own right, I suppose Hard Rocks do look distinct on the quaint riverside walk of a city like Amsterdam, but this is not a testament to its unique history, but instead to the infiltration of corporatism and unfortunate ubiquity of mass produced places. In Amsterdam’s greater landscape the restaurant is strange and out of place, but for people like my parents, it is a safety net with little possibility of a bad experience.  It seems like Relph would agree that this fact in and of itself makes it a “bad experience”, because at the hands of convenience, you are sacrificing a true understanding of the country and culture you’ve travelled so far to be in, leaving yourself with a series of photos of Brian Jones’ guitar, a margarita, and a Hard Rock t-shirt that differs only in the name of the city written under its logo from the one that’s already sitting in your closet.

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You Can't Move History

You Can’t Move History

When I think about issues of place and historic preservation, the first thing that comes to mind is the inspiration for my senior thesis: the undercroft at the Southbank Centre in London, the oldest continually used, found (i.e. not purpose-built) skate spot in the world.  In 2013, while spending my second year abroad in London, I witnessed the unfolding of a commercial redevelopment plan which hoped to replace this iconic spot with a series of shops and restaurants, and the swift creation of a grassroots campaign that was intent on preserving its cultural legacy.

Built in 1951, the Southbank Centre, of which the Undercroft is a part, is a large performing arts complex on the south bank of the Thames river in London. It has 3 main buildings: Royal Festival Hall, The Hayward Gallery, and Queen Elizabeth Hall, all of which are meters away from the National Theater, BFI London, the London Eye, and the Houses of Parliament.  Not only does the Centre’s various events attract more than a million visitors annually, but it is also in the middle of a tourist hotspot, an important fact to note when considering why the Southbank Centre would have wanted to commercialize the area.  The Undercroft itself is located underneath Queen Elizabeth Hall, which sits one story above ground level.  Although there has always been an open space under the Hall, it was unappealing and generally avoided by the public until the 1970s when skateboarders adopted it as their own. Since it became a skate spot, it has attracted hundreds of thousands of skateboarders, BMX bikers, street artists, and spectators from around the globe, and serves as a second home for many London skateboarders as well. 

Southbank Centre

In March 2013, a new plan was unveiled for the Southbank Centre’s £120 million Festival Wing project, which, as I mentioned before, intended to replace the iconic skate spot with a series of chain retail shops and restaurants.  By the very next month, a campaign against this redevelopment—called Long Live Southbank—was already in full swing.

SBC Festival Wing Project

One of the campaigners’ main arguments for the preservation of the undercroft (apart from its obvious use value to the skateboarding community and spectators alike) is that the location and architecture of the space could not be separated from its rich history, culture, or community, all of which worked together to add life particularly to the dull, brutalist architecture of the buildings that surrounded it, but also to London in general.  They felt that to remove this unique space and replace it with shops and restaurants would make it almost identical to the shopping center which already existed only meters away, and would represent a further homogenization of a city that is renowned for its arts and culture as well.

The vitality of the undercroft is something that I can attest to from personal experience; every time I visited—both before and during the period of potential closure—there was a constant flow of skateboarders traversing the grounds between every graffiti-covered wall, creating not only ample visual stimulation but auditory as well in the echoes of their wheels and boards hitting the concrete.  There was an equally continual flow of people, from children to senior citizens, stopping at the thin metal railing which separated the skateboarders from the pedestrians to watch in excitement.  It was a vibrant, energetic space unlike any other I’d been to before, which is why I became so invested in the LLSB campaign along with tens of thousands of others.

Inside the Undercroft

In November 2013, after months of relentless correspondence between Long Live Southbank, the city council and the Southbank Centre, a proposition was made in an attempt to appease the campaigners. This came in the form of the Hungerford Bridge skatepark, a £1 million project which would essentially relocate the Undercroft to a space under the Hungerford railway bridge just 120 meters away from its original location. Although it is true that an organically designed, found space is typically more appealing to street skateboarders than a purpose-built skatepark, a notion which has been supported by the case of the Undercroft itself, this particular space was not well-received by activists for a variety of reasons.  For some, it was a flawed design resulting from a lack of regard for the needs and desires of the skateboarders who would be using it.  Criticisms ranged from the space being too flat, to it not including enough big obstacles, to the detrimental impairment of sound due to the trains passing overhead.  Even just comparing images of the two spaces, it is clear to me why these concerns would have been raised.  The new park looked sterile in comparison to the original, dynamic undercroft space.

Hungerford Bridge Skatepark

For other campaigners though, the layout of the space was entirely irrelevant because they believed that the concept of an alternative skate spot was inherently flawed.  They felt that whether it was to be moved 1 meter or 1,000 meters away, the rich history of the Undercroft is irreplaceable and non-transferrable to any other location.

After releasing their formal rejection of the Hungerford Bridge skate space, Long Live Southbank’s fight for preservation without relocation resumed as usual.  They continued petitioning, letter-writing and tabling until September 18th, 2014, when the Section 106 settlement agreement was finally drawn between the two parties, which required them both to withdraw any applications or plans to alter the Undercroft, effectively saving it from redevelopment and securing it as a future home for skateboarders.

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Spreckels Park

Spreckels Park

Coronado, California is an island resort city just outside of San Diego that markets itself as an escape from bustling city life.  Although it has its own school district and about 25,000 permanent residents, the city relies substantially on tourism, capitalizing on its picturesque beach, the historic Hotel Del Coronado, and the range of (predominantly) independently owned shops and restaurants.

It’s separated from the mainland of downtown San Diego by a tall, long bridge which is only accessible by car, or short ferry ride from a pier on the east end. Despite its clearly defined boundaries both to other cities and—on a more individual level—to each home (most of them are distinctly separated by fences), Coronado is a relatively tight knight community with a range of public spaces that are well-maintained in part by proud, active citizens who do what they can to preserve the charm and integrity of their home city.

Coronado Bridge Aerial

In contrast to the variety of unique, vibrant boutiques that line the main shopping and dining street of Ocean Avenue, one of the most valuable public spaces in the city is rather commonplace: Spreckels Park.  Like those boutiques, Spreckles is also located along Orange Avenue, and essentially provides a retreat from, well, a retreat. Spanning about 2 square blocks, the park is dotted with trees of all kinds, features a beautiful old gazebo at the center, and a playground on the south corner.  On some days, the park draws people simply due to its beauty and simplicity; it is a place where one can go to enjoy the fresh air and warm weather without needing to purchase anything or worry about getting sand all over the place.

However, there are other times where, to use Jackson’s words, “the space itself is less important than the content, where space simply plays the role of background.” Here, the park becomes a much more lively social space, though the activities that pop up here are temporal and never change the permanent landscape of the park. For example, one day, the park will be host to friendly soccer games for local kids, often using nearby trees as goal posts instead of bringing in regulation ones. Then, there might be a flower show the next day, a craft fair or farmer’s market the next, an art show the next, a yoga class the next, and an outdoor concert under the gazebo the next.  Less frequently, the park is also host to more niche activities that aren’t necessarily open to the public, like weddings and meetings. In fact, my robotics team once held a community service event under the gazebo, where we taught local school children how to build and operate robots for competition leagues.  While it may have been more logical to stage such a demonstration in the place where they would eventually be doing this activity, i.e. the classroom, it seemed a much nicer option to buffer the mechanical with the natural.

Concert at Spreckels park

Although Spreckels is across the street from the police station and several other city buildings, I never thought of this as a particularly political space. Upon reading Jackson’s essays though, I began to realize it is one of the places where people are most aware of their role in the maintenance of their city, although it doesn’t serve the same function as the classical public square.  Instead, the importance lies in the fact that by patronizing the park through its various events, people are doing 3 important things: socializing with each other, thus creating a close sense of community, supporting the local businesses that sell their wares there on market days, and making their values and interests known so that they can be best served collectively. Finally, this park is also a place where people attempt to organize and assert control over their surroundings, mostly through preservation efforts (planting trees, cleanup efforts, etc.).

Tree Planting in Spreckels Park

In my experience, the entire ethos of the city has become clear just through an understanding of how this park is used: its patrons—the citizens of Coronado—ultimately favor nature over industry, connection with neighbors over the often isolating conditions of big cities, and local culture over corporate culture.

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/ / A Sense of Place, Vernacular
Long Island's Changing Landscape

Long Island’s Changing Landscape

I grew up on Long Island in the moderately sized, centrally located suburb of Hicksville. Hicksville is the northerly neighbor to Levittown, which Dolores Hayden describes as a mass-produced suburb sprung from potato farms after World War II.  Known for the uniformity and low-cost designs of its homes, Levittown became the archetype for many future suburbs.

When I was a kid I didn’t know much about the history of my town and to be honest, I didn’t really care to.  Frequent visits into Manhattan to visit my grandparents had left me bored by suburbia at an early age.  I was also pretty pissed that I lived in a place called Hicksville, because people from out of town would laugh at me whenever I told them where I was from. In fact, they still do.

One thing I did notice, though, was that there was not much variety in terms of housing models; there were about 3 or 4 different kinds of houses that were popular in the area, all of which were given individual flair through slight variations in color choice and the material of the siding. The smallest type was essentially a shingled box with the front door in the center, flanked by a large window on either side. Inside, they had four rooms on the ground floor, two on the top floor (one on each side of the staircase), and no basements. The second style was also very boxy and equally unremarkable, thought it had two stories instead of one and a couple more windows.  The third were modest Cape Cod homes, which had the most character of the three because they allowed for the addition of awnings and wraparound porches. I would later find out that all of these styles were referred to as Levittown houses (colloq. “Levitts”), after the man who essentially laid the framework for suburban sprawl. Regardless of exactly what category the homes in my town fell into, I would see them knocked down, built up, and extended out in increasingly large numbers over the course of my life.

Levittown

Since I’ve been moving around so much over the last few years, I don’t get to spend a lot of time back home on Long Island.  When I do, I can’t help but notice how many people are remodeling their homes, simply because it seems like there are more and more each time. “There goes another one,” my mom will inevitably say as we drive around our construction site riddled town, “I wonder what they’re gonna do with it.” 

Hicksville, NY

The small, boxy homes that once dominated my area are not the most aesthetically pleasing, and they’re certainly not to my personal taste which is suited to more modern, minimal designs.  But as much as I welcome the updated look that has come with redevelopment, I did begin to appreciate the unique charm in the classic homes, and find myself saddened by their destruction. It is clear that, like Kunstler, this is entirely sentimental—fostered by my own nostalgia and memories—like spending the afternoon at my grandmother’s sunny yellow Levitt with bright white shutters and a lamppost firmly planted into the ground in the front yard, or walking over to my childhood best friend’s brick and wood paneled Levitt after school.

For me, Kunstler’s words are as pertinent as ever.  Even today, in my small corner of the suburban landscape, we’re still “ever-busy, ever-building, ever-in-motion, ever-throwing-out the old for the new, [hardly pausing] to think about what we are so busy building, and what we have thrown away.” (10)

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/ / A Sense of Place, Suburbia
Birds of Passage Securing the Streets

Birds of Passage Securing the Streets

For Jane Jacobs, one of the main attributes of a good urban space is safety and security. This feeling is fostered by a vast network of strangers who police the streets, voluntarily looking out for both themselves and one another.  In Chapter 2 of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she also recounts a moment when she witnessed such acts of policing when a struggle ensued between a young girl and an older man (who turned out to be her father) on the street.  She noted that the tenants of the high-rent building on the block were the only ones who paid no attention to the incident, while the neighboring shopkeepers and lower income tenants made sure the girl stayed out of danger.  This brought to mind an incident that I was involved in one night in London, with slightly different characters but similar implications.

One night sometime in the spring of 2012, a friend and I were walking the short distance home from the Russell Square tube station after a concert.  About a block into the journey, we saw a couple—a young woman and an older man—up ahead on the other side of the street who began to argue.  We couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying at this point, but we could tell by their body language and the increasing volume of the fight that something was wrong.  So, we began trying to decide how and when we should step in.  I should note that there were other people on the street as well, albeit not many; there was a college-aged man a few feet ahead of us, a girl about the same age slightly ahead of him, and two middle aged men behind us on the side of the street where the incident was unfolding.  Although they weren’t together, both the girl and guy in front of us were clearly attentive to the situation, and after about a minute or so of keeping an eye on things from our respective places, we all joined up together and decided to intervene.  As we made our way across the street, the situation escalated; the man grabbed the girl’s arm and tried to pull the girl down a narrow side street as she resisted.  We immediately started yelling out to the man to let her go, and that we were going to call the police.  Initially, he didn’t listen, but as we surrounded them, he fled.  The girl thanked us all for the help and insisted that she’d be fine to walk herself home to King’s Cross, which was only a short distance away. None of us wanted to leave it at that just in case he came back, so we decided it would be best to walk her home and ensure that she was safe.  The girl and the guy who helped us both said they wouldn’t mind being the ones to walk her home since they lived in residences at Goodenough College, which was not far from where the incident occurred.  My friend and I, both attending NYU London, also lived down the road but slightly closer to King’s Cross, so we thanked the pair for the offer and insisted we’d take her home. On the way, the victim expressed her gratitude and said that she didn’t know the man who was (apparently drunkenly) trying to accost her.  She also said that she didn’t feel like she was in much danger at first, figuring she could’ve waved the man off alone, but it was lucky there were other people around who were willing to step in when that became too difficult.

The thing that I find most interesting in comparison to Jacobs’ story is that she talks about the high-rent tenants being so transient as to be uninvolved in the protection of their streets, but in this case, it was only the students—“birds of passage” in our own right—who offered any sense of security.  Apart from this isolated incident, I never felt unsafe in my neighborhood, which I’d always been assured was an “intellectual hub.” Now I wonder if that was not because of the affluent tenants in the surrounding flats, but the students who roamed the area more, stayed out later, and always kept a watchful eye on the streets.

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Lost in Greenwich

Lost in Greenwich

If there’s one thing I’m proud of, it’s my ability to orient myself even in entirely new places, which means that I don’t get lost too often. But as I mentioned in my last blog post, it’s fairly easy to get lost in London. 

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It was the first week of my freshman year of college, and as part of orientation, the programming board at NYU London planned a bunch of activities to get everyone accustomed both to our new surroundings and to one another.  Like most of my peers, I’d had just enough time in the city to know the basics: where the nearest supermarket and tube stations were, how to get to campus, what times I needed to be there once the semester officially started, and the names of the people I was living with.  So, when we were told we’d be going on a day trip to Greenwich the next morning, I figured we’d be all set with a fully planned itinerary, and there’d be no need to look up directions to or from home beforehand.  I was wrong.

The morning of the trip, we were picked up in a coach in front of our residence hall and were off to Greenwich.  After a guided tour of the area and several more hours of free time to have lunch and explore, we were suddenly all free to go.  It was then that we learned we wouldn’t be getting a coach back after all, which was a problem because quite frankly, no one had any idea where to go from there.  Even when a few of my roommates and I decided it would be best if we went back together, we realized there was a second problem: none of us had time to get UK phone plans set up yet, so we had no internet and nothing on which we could access wifi.  All we had were a set of very vague directions and an overhead street map from Google Maps (which, by the way, was zoomed out too far and didn’t list all of the streets in the area) that we hoped would lead us to a DLR station called Cutty Sark.

After pacing the streets for a good ten minutes, we finally found the station and got on the train. Since all we needed to do was make one transfer from the DLR to the tube, I thought we were home free.  Nope! After a couple of stops, an authoritative-looking man in a DLR uniform came around began checking everyone’s Oyster cards. When he made his way over to us, we had just finished joking around about our day’s mishaps, so as put each of our cards into his handheld machine, we were still giggling. He handed our cards back quickly, but instead of moving on to the next patrons, he stood in his place and grimaced.  Apparently none of us had tapped in at the station, which was easy enough to do because unlike the underground, you don’t have to go through a turnstile.  Instead, you’re just meant to tap your card on a small stand at the entrance/exit of each station, which we must’ve walked right by without even thinking about it.

Slightly frustrated at our stupidity (and rightly so), the attendant told us to get off at the next stop, go down the stairs and tap in, then come right back up and hop on the next train.  Easy enough.  We apologized again and thanked him as the train pulled into its next stop.

We followed the man’s instructions, going back up the same flight of stairs and onto the next train on the same platform, without worrying about whether or not it would actually take us to our destination.  As soon we got on I asked a young woman nearby if the train was stopping at Bank, our transfer point for the tube, just for good measure.  She said no, and that it was terminating at Tower Gateway instead, which would be the next stop.  Faced now with problem number four, we went out to the street in search of the nearest alternate tube station, where I took the liberty of asking the only other person around for directions.

“Tower Hill is just over there, but the station is closed today.”

Of course it was.

At this point we were all feeling pretty foolish and defeated, so we decided to just walk around for a while figuring that we’d eventually happen upon one well-known landmark or another which we could use as a marker for finding the way back.  Thankfully, after blindly turning a corner or two, I saw Tower Bridge up ahead.  Having been there on my first night in the city, I was able to look around and figure out exactly where we were, and even remembered a bus route that would take us close to home.

Tower Bridge

Despite still feeling silly about the whole situation to this day, it wasn’t without any positives.  We never felt as though we were in danger at any point, and knew that we’d eventually find our way home—even if it meant calling someone at the academic center—so we used the opportunity as a bonding, learning, and sightseeing experience.  And if it’s any consolation to myself, at least I’ll never forget how to get from Greenwich to Mecklenburgh Square.

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Legibility in London and New York

Legibility in London and New York

When I talk about my experience abroad, people invariably ask me how similar London and New York are, and I always feel conflicted in my answer.  On one hand, London’s history is so rich and vibrant that it’s almost palpable, a sense that is entirely lost for me here in New York. This has an effect not only on the way I feel when walking around in both cities, but of course, on what I see as well.  Most notably, I find the architecture in London to be much more scaled down, varied and aesthetically pleasing compared to the concrete skyscrapers that litter the New York skyline. On the other hand, my experiences in both cities are limited by my own interests, and it’s not as if there is a remarkable lack of resources in either one. So, I suppose when approaching the question objectively, the differences in the two cities are much more apparent, but when I factor in my personal ties to each, I find they are more similar than not. 

Considering this in conjunction with Lynch’s writing, I tried to image a circumstance where someone asked me how similar London and New York are only in terms of their legibility. Interestingly, I arrived at an equally conflicted answer as my first.  When considering the general structure of the two cities, they seem to have more differences than similarities. New York is well-known for its grid system which is generally easy to navigate, while London is a web of smaller streets which intersect chaotically, and the bigger roads often change names without warning or apparent cause.  For that reason, I found myself much more susceptible to getting lost in London than in New York, and I never felt I could get as strong of a foothold in the city in that sense.

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But the most important part of both places for me, being the ones that I routinely navigated every day, were the routes between my home and the NYU campus.  When I reached into my memory and thought about my respective commutes, I realized that they are nearly identical.

To start, I’ll trace the 18 minute walk from my old dorm in the West Village of NYC to 1 Washington Place.  The journey starts on Greenwich St., which is relatively quiet despite being lined with apartment buildings on all sides. In any case, I don’t stay here for long, making a right out of my building and a quick left ontoScreen Shot 2015-02-09 at 9.55.13 PM Morton Street.  Taking Morton up past the intersections at Hudson and then at 7th Avenue, I notice the street getting increasingly narrow. As this happens, the continuous walls of gray cement on either side of me transform into charming brownstones, each with their own wide, inviting staircases separated by intricately patterned wrought iron fences.  There is a change of scenery again as I turn onto Bleecker, where I am faced with an equally narrow street, though this one is lined with boutiques and restaurants instead of homes.  I always find myself paying particular notice to a guitar store which faces me as I approach the block, not necessarily because there is a lot of traffic in front of it but because the windows are lined with all different models of guitars that I could neither play nor afford.  Making another quick left from Bleecker onto Cornelia St., the three scenes which I have described up to this point converge; Cornelia houses several quaint restaurants, a brownstone-style home complete with staircase and wrought iron fence, as well as a much bleaker looking apartment building.  Next, I cross the bustling, wide open intersection at West 4th St. and quickly approach Washington Square Park.  There is always a flurry of activity in this area which is simultaneously shocking and refreshing, the former from being on fairly desolate streets up until this point, and the latter because I appreciate being surrounded by greenery whenever possible. Finally, I head straight out of the park’s easternmost exit and walk a few more blocks down, arriving either at the Silver Center or 1 Washington Place, depending on the time and day.

 Now, for the walk I took from my dorm at 26 Mecklenburgh Square to the NYU in London academic center at 6 Bedford Square nearly every day for two years.  Like Greenwich St., Mecklenburgh Square is quiet and mundane by London’s standards, with very little pedestrian or auto traffic at any given time.  Here, I head straight out of my door, veering slightly right to take a back alley shortcut to the main road.  The alley is narrow and features tall fences which runScreen Shot 2015-02-10 at 12.32.54 AM along either side of it, mimicking both the proportions and dullness at the beginning of my trip across Morton St.  As I come out of the seemingly infinite alleyway and right onto Bernard St., everything widens out a bit, albeit not by much.  The left side of the one lane street is lined with essentially the British version of brownstonescomplete with their own staircases and wrought iron fences in betweenand on the other, a series of small shops and restaurants.  After crossing the busy intersection of Woburn Place and Russell Square, I enter Russell Square Park.  Much like with Washington Square, I have the option of bypassing the park entirely and walking along its outer edge without sacrificing time, but by this point in the commute I am happy to be surrounded by grass and trees.  After exiting the park, it’s another short, straight shot down Montague Place, home to the side entrance of the British Museum that no one really uses. Finally, after approximately 18 minutes, I’ve arrived at the door of NYUL.

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