I’m not exactly sure what constitutes as ‘public space’ in America today. The British, as early as the late 12th Century, started privatizing what might have been known as ‘public space’ (a process known as Enclosure). Therefore, it is arguable that the Western World, including New York, doesn’t really have ‘public space,’ for there are certainly no ejidos to be found in Manhattan.
That is one of the reasons why the subway platform never ceases to confound me. It’s incredibly social, and the American public makes use of it, but is it ‘public space?’
First of all, the social aspect functions a lot like William Whyte’s documentary in that two main principles of successful public space are somewhat covered. There’s pretty ample seating space, both on the platform and on the train itself. On particularly crowded platforms however, I don’t see why the whole platform is not covered in seating which could line the wall.
There’s also the enjoyment of looking at other people, which is a process filled with an immeasurable subtlety of gestures and eye-contact (or near eye-contact). As Whyte noted, the number one activity of people in a public space is watching other people. One time, on the 1 train going up to Cloyster’s Museum, I saw a large, intimidating, 6’3’’ man wearing sunglasses, who had huge claw-like toenails painted fire-truck red. Naturally I shared a good (but quiet) laugh with my friend on the train and we still talk about how unexpected that sight was.
Furthermore, people on or waiting for the train, especially like to talk about people (fictional and otherwise) who appear on advertisements. I recently overheard two mid to late 20’s women criticizing every aspect of a woman’s wardrobe on a fashion advertisement. It took up the whole trip from 14th Street Union Square to the Bedford stop.
Returning now to where I started, these ads are some of the clearest examples of a privatization of ‘public space.’ In this essay I wrote for a critical pedagogy class last semester, I assumed the point of view of a group of middle or high-school students waiting for the train to get to government mandated school (another social mini-cosmos in itself). For these students, morning and evenings are dominated by advertisements for things like: joining the army, prescription medications, and fitting into the ‘norm’ (thank you GAP) – not to mention the police ads “If you see something, say something” encouraging an Orwellian level of suspicion and paranoia.
Despite all this however, I like riding the train and waiting for it. I love to read and look around at the vast variety of life swirling around. I just consider it necessary to address the discrepancy between my understanding of ‘public space’ and the State’s understanding of ‘public space.’ After all, Manhattan was ‘bought’ from the Native Americans, and therefore it is (by rights of man and God) owned, possessed, and ruled over by the State.