Seeing these images, and the way that this is still identifiably New York despite the dust, and the death that we know lies as under a shroud below (and the years of death to follow in the new imperialism) – this vertical perspective evokes that city like no other. I am forcibly struck by how this is not at all like looking down on London. It seems somehow important. Sure, most of us do look down on London in some way nearly every day (but not always from high buildings, or from a helicopter [though right now I am typing this from the eight floor of the New Cross estate tower block – with superb views]). Our usual view of London from ‘above’ is more or less glossy, and typically stylized: the tube view of London is that of the visitor who does not yet ‘get’ that the tube map is more art, not a guide to space – the stations are closer or much further apart than the design indicates (the tube map is a simplified, relative view of the network, where lines run only vertically, horizontally, or on 45 degree diagonals. It was designed by Harry Beck in 1931). The contrast with the horizontal evokes the visitors’ view of New York which must necessarily involve looking up from the street (or down from a plane as a prelude to control, Dick Tracy, Spiderman, Google™). In New York the skyscrapers fascinate the visitors from out of town, while the locals seem more concerned with moving across the grid. Recall the fabled comment of the film auteur Antonioni that he would only make a film in New York if the rectangle of the cinema screen were built on a vertical axis. This was reinforced in the televised scenes of downtown Manhattan on September 11, 2001 – the view as if in cinemascope from uptown or from Brooklyn just made the event look like a motion picture spectacle. But on the street, passers-by looked up aghast and saw their city anew. That I think was the strange thing of the day, well one of the strange things.
I recall TV images of people on the street that day staring up at the towers shocked and awed as the planes crashed into the buildings and they fell. Tourists aside, this looking up is usually unusual. Quotidian street protocol does not often include such moments – people look up at advertising hoardings, or the increasingly prevalent public screens of the city, tourists gawp at skyscrapers, but generally city folk mind their own business and carry on. Head down, sidewalk traffic, hustle and bustle, going somewhere. It was much more besides, but September 11 in New York was a neck strain, televised to all.
The people of the street are quintessentially the crowd, the masses of festivals, street party (lights out in New York), café’s (Ash Amin conducting a seminar), conviviality, the rows of shops, the enticements to buy, the seductions of commodification that grab us and make as part of the all consuming apparatus. The street market, with its connections and flows – commerce to the illicit trades, drugs, street people, organized crime, sex work (Berman 2006), restaurants, fashion, fantasy, spectacle (also Berman 2006). All the time careful to note as we pass: the infrastructure of the street; power supplies, underground cables, roadworks, traffic disruptions; a massive network of material labour which still produces the street; lighting: the streets as avenues of neon. CCTV, security guards, doormen, Jane Jacobs, out for a stroll. Taxis – in Cairo I am hailed by a taxi driver who says, without taking a breath: “in my taxi I will take you anywhere you want to go to my brother’s emporium” (see also Mathew 2005, and Kalra 2000b). Marshall escorts his students to his favourite bar. Cars and trucks: delivery vehicles, lorries, buses. The street also as the site of accidents, car crashes, stalled or too fast, traffic; bars, cafes, street food; cinemas, amusement arcades. Pollution – sewerage, drains, the gutter – rubbish, garbage disposal – Boy George working off his community service; rag-pickers – detritus held up to the gloaming by Siegfried Kracauer, who was not the least of these, whatever Benjamin says. Who makes and maintains the street? Monsieur Hulot has been mechanized, the steamroller more rapidly paves what took aeons before, a team of pavers pave the footpaths and painters paint the signage in rapid time.
The rackets, the numbers, dealers, look-outs, scams, pyramid schemes; passport and visa forgers, job search entrepreneurs, denizens of the doorstep, visitors to the soup kitchens, survival strategies of the many; looking out for the street-peddlers, the organ-grinders, and if we are lucky, the lazzaroni; if we are hungry, the Iskon krisna consciousness devotees offering free vegetarian recipe booklets; muggers, petty thugs, street-smarts, wise-guys, the cleaner, the fixer, marabout (Simone 2004:41); criminal slumlords, drunks, musicians; money-changers; carum players and pan-handlers, Reclaim the night, dykes on bikes, the strip, at sunset, and after hours, arcade workers, meter maids, hawkers, buskers, vendors of sweets and treats. Exchange at this level involves all sorts of informal economic connections. I walk with a roll of money seeking trinkets, transgressions and the routines of my 24 hours. The city is alive, has a pulse, skips a beat. Marshall Berman stops and shows me a sign in Times Square. There are all sorts of mixings, the transgressive has become the rule. For sale as well – everything on offer. Multiplicity with corporate sponsorship, and always escaping the ratchet that would bolt everything down and stop it from moving, pluralizing, hybridizing.
The street is horizontal plane – if we go up the lifts of the towers, even those in the Eiffel tower, we see the city as plan, as flattened space. But this view from the gods erases diversity and community in favour of a privileged and sanitized position. On the horizontal plane, the issues are about sanitary drainage and the cacophony of the crowd. This evokes the class and racial hierarchies of the Megacity which are visible at street level just as much, if not more, than in the high-rise and boardroom. An equally important but less uniform global heterotopia assembles at street level – in what has been called a culture of congestion – the ‘urban jungle’ is worryingly described as a ‘potent yet troubling term’ (Cairns 2000:125). There are reasons to both valourize and worry over this scene, since jungle bunnies is an unhelpful designation. Even as the ethnicity of the street-scape is apparent, it cannot be adequately discussed without reference to shifting articulations of racial hierarchy, national chauvinism, communal politics and geo-imperial consequences such as the war on terror or economic restructuring. Los Angeles as city of migration is differently diasporic than the migrations that have swollen Mumbai or Shanghai. The Megacity is always one of movement and babel.
Street politics also deserves mention, the tunes are buzzing round my brain, the page is organized to the tunings of ‘Street Fightin Man’, by the Rolling Stones; in cinema everywhere there would be moves from ;The Commune; or ‘Favela Rising’, Watts to the blak bloc; marchin’ chargin’ feet, offering rehearsals for police crowd control; the over policing of Eid in Manchester has a different soundtrack, sirens and bhangra; in Brick Lane street bombs made of nails, racists attack; on May day there are anti capitalist and anti-war rallies, and these affirmations of the spirit (Rosie) also serve as exercises in crowd control – hasn’t this always been necessary in the Capital? There is a history of house to house street fighting that stretches the horror from Berlin to Nablus to Falluja; the future urban wars will be still more brutal – and on to the future – ‘Terminator’ chronicles devastation, or ‘Bladerunner’ with its polyglot urban chiasmus that has been recreated so often in subsequent films like ‘The Fifth Element’… Slum clearance in honour of Indira’s lost son Sanjay Gandhi, who died in a plane stunt … The reserve army of labour is currently living in dormitory metropolises, 85% ‘occupy property illegally’ – if one accepts a notion of legal property at all in such a context, as Mike Davis suggests: ‘Street vendors and informal sector entrepreneurs’, as well as regularized low level service sector workers, often squat in subsistence accommodation within (long commuting) reach of the inner urban centres of commerce and wealth. In what Mike Davis calls ‘Haussman in the tropics’, the ongoing ‘conflict with the poor’ characterizes the situation of ‘most Third World city governments’ (Davis 2006a:99). Although his capitalization of the relational-hierarchical term ‘third world’ indicates some level of adherence to what Aijaz Ahmad had denounced as the three worlds theory (1992), it is clear that the street is uneven here. High housing costs, long commutes…
Of course the streets of the ‘gated community’ have gates and access security systems, which significantly changes the formation of ‘community’ in such places, as does the fabled presence of ‘armed response’ signs on the lawns of residents of Los Angeles, and the burly doormen outside the clubs and bars. Access is denied, the arcades are privatized. The electronic swipe-card ingress to urban compounds, the video surveillance of new build estates in London. The difficulty of walking the streets now because the way is blocked with fear. ‘If I had a shotgun what would you do?’ asks a guy near Madison. ‘Anything you like’ I reply. We laugh and can talk. But not everyone has it so easy. The necessarily scripted visit is a research requirement, and provokes a humbled awareness of the need for the researcher to begin to learn new rules, protocols and the order of any street – fifth avenue or a sewer ridden slum lane come close together for once. The word on the street is not free.
More pictures of NYC here.