The Ballet of the Street

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It was a grey and dreary, rainy Sunday afternoon on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Snow slush coated the ground and people walked on the streets with their heads hung under their hoods, protecting their faces from the cold water droplets falling from above. As I stood on the corner of 78th Street and 3rd Avenue, I observed the people passing me by, holding umbrellas over their heads like grand hats. The street was lined with businesses: three banks, a wine store, a Gristedes supermarket (a more popular Citarella supermarket was one block down), two shoe stores, and a few restaurants. The street fulfilled Jacobs’ central tenant of street safety, that there be eyes on the street. Jacobs asserts that “the basic requisite for such surveillance is a substantial quantity of stores and other public places sprinkled along the sidewalks of a district,” which this block certainly had (Jacobs, 36). She believes that this keeps the street safe because 1) People use the streets continuously, which I found to be the case, as this street was constantly occupied, even on such gloomy day, 2) People will walk past places that would not in themselves attract people, 3) Storekeepers street act as guardians for the block, and 4) Street activity incites other people to watch the street, as people tend to like watching other people (36-37). I saw evidence for Jacobs’ second point because most people I observed walking on the street were not entering into the stores on the block themselves, but instead appeared to be coming or going to other places in the neighborhood. I saw many people carrying Citarella shopping bags, coming from a couple blocks down, passing by the adjacent shoe stores that were not frequented.These people simply lent their presence and eyes to these establishments on the block as they passed them on their way to somewhere else – their home or a friend’s house.

As I watched people scurrying every which way on the street, I could not help but be reminded by Jacobs’ metaphor for the street. She describes the street as “an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole” (50). One of the ways in which this stood out to me was seeing people run into and recognize each other by some coincidence or fate of being on the same “stage” of the street at the same time. I witnessed a middle-aged couple recognize a man who seemed to be their friend and stop to talk to him. Two teenage girls ran up to and hugged a boy whom they knew from another school. These, however, were the only public street interactions I witnessed. The other “dancers,” who were people of all ages – primarily 30-year-olds to middle aged adults, teenagers, and children – seemed content to go about their own business, often walking alone or in a pair with a friend or partner. Children with scooters raced ahead of their parents and others with colorful umbrellas held the hands of their nannies as they walked down the street, occasionally playing in a puddle. People stopped to buy fruit from street vendors, while many others in gym clothes or toting gym bags raced across the crosswalk to make the light, ironically getting their exercise from the street. Parents pushing strollers passed younger adults wheeling their suitcases, possibly coming back from weekend getaways.

I also noticed that the people on the street had many similarities, nearly to the point of being homogenous. Almost all the people I saw were white and appeared to be financially well-off, judging from their fine clothing and the commonality of having shopping bags in tow. These people seemed to be residents of the neighborhood, or at least of New York City, as they lacked the tell-tale map and confused faces of tourists. Most people I saw seemed to be running errands, carrying coffee cups, grocery bags, and backpacks. This could have been different at another time, however, because people likely would not want to venture out into the awful weather if it were not necessary. The appearance of very few elderly people and fewer people in general than usual on the street could have also been influenced by the weather, as it was not an appealing day to be outside. I noticed that the sounds of the oncoming traffic proved a pertinent point of contrast to the lack of conversation or interaction on the street. I did not see the public contact or public characters that Jacobs described. I think this could be explained by Jacobs’ description of a homogenous neighborhood in which the residents have “no public acquaintanceship, no foundation of casual public trust, no cross-connections with the necessary people people” which “does work well socially, if rather narrowly, for self-selected upper-middle-class people” (64-65). Alternatively, I wonder if technology, not homogeneity is an isolating factor. I observed many people wearing headphones, enveloped in their own world, with no opportunity for interaction with others. It may not have been a problem in Jacobs’ time, but I think technology is changing how the New York City street functions and the public contact New Yorkers have with each other.

One thought on “The Ballet of the Street

  1. Zoe-

    This is a wonderfully evocative description of the UWS, and reflects your close observation of the behavior of the people on the street as well as your engagement with the ideas of Jane Jacobs. I like that you note the homogeneity of the community, though as you note, the sidewalk life of the UWS certainly does have the public relationships and casual connections fostered by sidewalks and businesses in the neighborhood. You nicely note how smart phones undermine the nature of the public sphere — Like Jacobs’ description of the modern apartment building in her beloved Greenwich Village, those focused on their screens are not outwardly looking, not providing the same level of “eyes” necessary for safety and connection. Perhaps we might note new “rules” that govern sidewalk behavior — when do people look up from phones? When do they break down their walls and engage?

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