July 26, 2008

Divided Cities | Textual Readings of New York

Textual Cities | Notes on New York

By their very nature, most global cities are divided. Cities by necessity have to be divided for one reason or the other; if not anything else, at least from land division and real estate point of view. But beyond that, they get further divided in more ways than one. Apparent equity or equitable ‘sharing’ gets defined and redefined to suit various good and not so good purposes… politics, socio-economic disparities, physical boundaries, use (or abuse) as well as disuse due to certain limitations of the fabric…. Psychological barriers and lack of potential, economic downturns/upturns or mobility either social or economic play out their part too. But at the heart of it, the most interesting and intriguing issue in such textual readings of cities is the notional divisions that occupy human minds… and reflect in social as well as physical fabric of our cities. New York is a great example of this phenomenon - and others mentioned above. The ‘neutral’ landscape of New York in reality is cluttered with ruptures, disjuncture and at times not easily decipherable layers of complexities…. Politics of space rather than poetics constantly define, redefine, complicate, recombine or rupture civic space, social structures, and other physical attributes of the city for whatever reasons. In spite of such textual neutrality based on rational logic of land division, zoning and use, there are other ‘divisions’ that remain… subtle, hidden or stubbornly and blatantly obvious at times…. New York’s potency and promise as a city lie in the fact that it allows and calls for multiple ‘readings’ of itself from everybody… it remains one of very few cities in the word that reads like a map and at the same time has a maze-like experiential attributes that require encyclopedic deciphering of its taxonomies without allowing the observer or the inhabitant to loose interest, awe and amazement. Architects/designers at times remain oblivious to the fact that there are theses multiple readings of the city, its fabric and (text)ure by people who inhabit them that define what cities are or ought to be; and overtly rely on their self-indulgent, technocratic and data-based observations that are self-limiting and represent only a limited view.

A friend recently asked which part/aspect of New York City I enjoy the most…. It is a difficult question to answer because, unlike most, due to my professional background I have a very different relationship with the city, I guess. But as an inhabitant and an observer who has lived here for many years… the city has come to mean a lot of different things to me.

There are two answers: one is more abstract than the other. In abstract terms, I like the city for its capacity to challenge traditional notion of how you develop a sense of belonging and practically ‘own’ it. New York disallows it or at least challenges you in that notion. You are immediately restricted and confined to the space around you and feel like an island within the island city we live in…. This is not to be interpreted as ‘limiting’. It is a city that behaves and operates like an enterprise, an economic and financial machine – and all who live here have a definite, defined role to play. This is also, I think, due to the fact that there are many of us who have come here as outsiders in more ways than one…. And we remain so in spite of making it a home. I love this fact about New York as it constantly makes me define my role, my place and my relationship with the city everyday, every time. It is more like a relationship between two people where you constantly work towards establishing, maintaining and nurturing a dialogue, more an amorous discourse, with the city and space you inhabit or occupy. New York offers this intellectually stimulating…. and engaging opportunity as well as a challenge to connect, relate and refine one’s relationship with the city, its people and oneself…

On a more immediately intuitive and emotive level, (which may contradict what is stated above), it is also a city that makes me feel at home… with it and with oneself, more immediately than any other city in the world, because of its diversity, people, languages and neutrality (in physical as well as how it invites, accepts and adopts people from all walks of life, nationalities, cultures etc…). It is a crowded city but it allows me to be myself, my personal space and be alone in a crowd …..

The less abstract answer is about particular place/experiences I enjoy and cherish everyday. It is when I ride my bike along Hudson every evening to the Battery Park and back up. It reminds me of being on an island (New York is an island city) and how it actually makes me feel…. to be on the ‘edge’ in both, physical as well as metaphysical sense. With the river, Nature on one side and Culture on the other (with the city and its neighborhoods of varying types from residential/tribeca, village, SoHo to meat-packing to art galleries in Chelsea). Second part of this, and it is related, are the sidewalks of Manhattan that I enjoy…. rivers of people that you flow with or away from. They immediately put you in the ’public’ space, always there, make no distinctions, are about chance encounters… seeing and being with strangers and yet be comfortable…. They surround you, wrap around and are the connective tissue between the different parts of the city and between the people - you and the city…

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