Surveilling The Locals of The David Rubenstein Atrium by Natalia M

For starters, I don’t live in Midtown or the West Village. Although I do end up wandering around there for most of my weekends, I don’t have the same local experience and connection someone who does live there could have. In many ways, I’ve only seen and experienced these neighborhoods as what urban developers have sold them as; Midtown as an epicenter of business and the West Village as a safe haven for New York City’s wealthy artists. As a result, I can easily go shopping in Columbus Circle and then wait for a friend at a local cafe in the West Village for some good conversation. However, I can’t ignore the fact that I am a young woman who lives in Washington Heights when I’m in these neighborhoods because that is the source of most of my discomfort. In Washington Heights, there are spheres of privilege of course, but there are also the bodega owners who’ve known my family since I was born and the Spanish music coming from the giant stereos inside passing by cars. When I’m downtown, I don’t have a relationship with the locally owned cafe owners or the familiarity of seeing the same strangers every morning. Instead, I see lines of people outside of Trump Towers as they wait to take pictures with highly militarized security guards. On other days, white artists carrying bags of oil paints as they walk cooly towards their loft on Christopher Street. Going downtown is always filled with experiences of disillusionment and fascination because I witness the effects these neighborhoods have on different audiences while becoming even more curious to understand the systems in power that are allowing this to happen.

As my final project for Urban Studies, I am interested in the real life stories and experiences of the audiences who occupy spaces that may or may not be designed for them. From Highbridge Park on 191st street to Grounded Coffeehouse on Jane Street, I spoke to different locals about their relationship to the space and its changes over the years.Through these blog posts, I have collected my observations of each space because they all are important to my ever evolving definition of a safe space and what that constitutes. Lastly, this project forced me to understand the reasoning behind my personal relationships with specific spaces and how those conclusions aren’t coincidental. It’s not an accident that a privately owned public space in the middle of Midtown Manhattan made me feel so rigid. In many ways, the intention of creating a space for business people in Midtown already prevents other audiences from feeling welcomed and comfortable there. The intentions, cycles, or systems in power that actively decide which spaces are for which audiences framed most of my immediate questions in this project. I sought out the experience just to cultivate my truth and expose it for what it is. Will you?

Privately owned public spaces are places that have corporate ownership, yet are open for public use under governmental zoning laws. By blurring the boundaries between completely private and public spaces, these types of places provide more flexibility of what ownership and accessibility look like. These places are usually less known, but have the potential to easily become apart of someone’s routine, memories, and New York experience. I found David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center during a sunny weekend in December. Off 62nd and Columbus Avenue, the atrium had the type of architecture that blended in with the overall aesthetic of the block. Immediately as I entered this atrium, the presence of Lincoln Center was imposing and evident. From the repetitive slideshow projected on the wall of Lincoln Center events, the public and private donors names on the welcome sign plaque, and a help desk for Lincoln Center tickets. It wouldn’t have been hard to know where I was whether or not I entered by accident or with a purpose. It was free and accessible due to the fact there was no admission fee, but this isn’t a place for protest or community organizing. People here sat, ate, talked, and then left without any disturbances.  This process and the way people functioned here seemed very impersonal to me. The atrium, although very beautiful, was set up like a classroom and the workers at the ticket booth had easy going smiles, but no motive for true conversations besides which show the customer wanted to pay for.

I sat down by an empty table closest to the door; I wonder if that made me seem like I entered for the sole purpose of leaving after seeing a friend, reading a chapter, or eating a snack. There was one homeless man sitting at the table beside me. The man sat there alone and had half closed blue eyes that grew alarmingly wide after seeing another old man, who had just entered after me, with dirt covered clothes and a cart filled with trash bags. The only seemingly homeless and hungry people in this atrium, they sat next to each other without a frown. In fact, they seemed to enjoy their small talk about the freezing weather, the card game they’ve forgotten the rules to, the quarters they exchanged to scratch off lottery ticket numbers. Maybe they’ll win the lottery someday and buy this atrium. Make this space for men like him who buy the cheap Dunkin Donuts coffee from across the street, comes to this atrium to play cards with people like him, and sit in silence otherwise. I wondered about their story but grew hesitant to ruin their company. I sat in silence and looked for my next spectacle.

Afterwards, two elderly women walked past me and spoke vividly in another language. As they held up a map of New York to their wide faces in frustration, they sat down together on the seats in front of me. The younger woman walked over to the Lincoln Center ticket booth, assumingly to ask for help, and left the other older woman at the table. She had hazel eyes and pale gray hair, and looked very motherly. I wondered if this was her first trip to New York with her already grown-up child and didn’t know it would be this cold or confusing.

Lastly, there was a couple who was sitting two tables away from me, but spoke loud enough for me to hear. I don’t remember exactly what they were arguing about but I know the woman was more upset about the man’s laziness in this conversation, than what he actually did in the past. At first, they whispered violently but the calm of the atrium made it seem like they were screaming at each other. They glanced at me from time to time because my surveillance of them wasn’t so invisible. I think they could tell I was taking notes about them.  As I listened to them, I drew the leaves and branches coming out of the wall with deep green, yellow, and brown markers in my sketchbook. People would come and go, glancing along the way.

I visited one last time and found similar people occupying the space. In the afternoons, the atrium is busy with business meetings, tourists charging their phone, and homeless people sleeping by the wall. Although there weren’t police officers or security guards, the atrium being an extension of Lincoln Center allows for implicit and unspoken social rules to still be followed.From my observations, the atrium did not facilitate economic transactions but the businesspeople of Midtown were encourage to make it their space. By doing so, I felt super uncomfortable and rigid because there weren’t any other eccentric teenagers drawing in their sketchbooks and wearing cuffed mom jeans.

What would’ve happened if I did feel comfortable in this atrium immediately? What would it take for me to feel comfortable in this space? What would that expose about my own  personality? Although the homeless men were content with their rounds of card games for a while, what does it mean to be a spectacle of difference and inequality in this atrium? I left the atrium with unanswered questions and scattered thoughts about my own relationship with Midtown. Is David Rubenstein Atrium reflective of the audience Midtown, as a whole, serves? I think so. White business men can gather around for lunch breaks and discuss their next paycheck, while across the same room homeless people walk in with the intention of just finding some good company. Where else can you see inequality manifest right in front you? Where else can you avoid it on your way back to work?

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