Mapping the City — But Whose?

Navigating urban worlds, New York

According to British novelist Will Self, “people don’t know where they are anymore.” The “student of psycho-geography” was recently chronicled walking from JFK Airport in Queens to his hotel in Lower Manhattan, an apparently perilous journey involving the traversing of a sidewalk-less overpass at night and being tailed by a suspicious black SUV in a rather desolate portion of the outer boroughs. What is Self after? “In the post-industrial age, this is the only form of real exploration left,” he claims. “Anyone can go and see the Ituri pygmy, but how many people have walked all the way from the airport to the city?”

I once heard a professor of physics claim that one could not really experience travel unless one’s feet literally hit the pavement and one could stop and observe every little oddity passed or occurrence transpired along the way. For reasons I can’t seem to remember, he also claimed that, setting out from New York, the average pedestrian could get no further than New Haven walking continuously. This, he noted, was the greatest distance within which humans could truly embrace the true nature of the terrain they passed through; longer distances, and swifter conveyances, would ultimately distort one’s impression of passing towns and fields to some degree. Relativity results in blurred and refracted images of passed-through places; their topography cannot be internalised. Self refers to this problem as one of “windscreen-based virtuality.”

Along with Self and the discipline of physics, it has been a number of French thinkers, particularly the existentialists, who have attempted to define what such internalisation means. Michel de Certeau famously wrote of subjective self-impression’s capacity to “appropriate” the city’s terrain for oneself even in the face of the most totalitarian attempts at planning. Memories, he writes, create a sort of personal geography which can be grafted atop the sort Corbusian rationalising schemes imposed from city leaders on high. In this sense, appropriation, and by extension internalisation, becomes a template for personal freedom and agency.

Appropriation, however, holds an inherent double meaning. Where there are no demigods dwelling in the clouds of the city planning office, such rhetoric implies less of an insurgency and necessitates more consideration of its diametric consequence: loss.

Blur World, 42nd Street, New York

When urban spaces are appropriated by some, even in their thoughts and impressions, they are translated in such a way that such spaces may forever lose their significations for those on the outside; indeed, in such a way that invites a more tangible fallout. The writer who appropriates the forlorn tenement district for the aesthetic of cool, for example, glamourising its landscape and even inhabitants for the digestion of the bourgeois intelligentsia, acts as the spearhead of their eventual colonisation. This is the inherent problematic of flânerie; like the Sanskrit scholars who swarmed India following the Battle of Plassey or the anthropologists of the South Pacific, they are enablers of a knowledge-power dialectic invites conquest by facilitating its tools. In this case, it is the tool of perspective; just as Indian language guides or manuals of tribal customs appeared to make domination of antipodean colonies feasible, so too does the linguistically-enabled transformation of the shamble to the chic.

Beyond their consequences, however, the words used by such authors themselves seize and appropriate; the writer-as-tourist fails to appreciate the signifiers of locality what what they are, indeed, locally seen to be. This method of exploration fundamentally substitutes an interest in people with one in things, things which can be divorced from their own users’ perceptions. While Self’s walk begins at least somewhat empathetically—a Christmas display in Queens is a “work of beauty and a joy to behold”, a humble church service on the apocalypse is compared to his own recent work—it quickly devolves into the knee-jerk projection of concepts that would seem strange beyond Self’s cerebral circles of cognoscenti. Clad from head-to-toe in back, Euro-hip transparent handback strapped by his side and cigarette dangling casually from his lanky-haired head, he is the very picture of an alien explorer, his ready camera indicating the immanence of transmission.

His prose gives us a fleeting glance of what his journey epic, that which will be inevitably consumed vicariously and voyeuristically by Manhattan-and-nouveau-Brooklynites with the same fascination with the theory but aversion to the reality of their own city, will look like. That same Christmas display elevates Self to a “state of almost absurd satori”, the dialogue between a rabbi and “two coffee-colored men” is greeted with the frightfully anthropologic cry of “there’s the interface!” The subway is rendered “the afflatus of the city’s bowels”. The closest Self comes to connecting with the lived reality of this, environment, however, is a pithy and hastily forgotten pity parade. “There is a deep sadness to American poverty, greater than the sadness of any other kind,” he observes. “It’s because America has such an ideology of success.” Eager to imbibe this impulse rather than any he was ostensibly seeking in this realm of the (characteristically rendered) “off piste”, Self eagerly seeks catharsis. He is disappointed by the lack of any true vista from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park but holds out hope for the triumphal entry back to the Manhattan metropole. “Perhaps we’ll feel better when we get to the Brooklyn Bridge,” he wonders aloud, almost pleading for escape. “We’ll hear the skirl of the Gershwin clarinets, and we’ll believe in the dream of possibility once again.” Self passes a junkyard; “the city is flowing out to embrace us,” he observes. One might have believed from the outset it had been him attempting to embrace the city.

Man and Geometry, Krakow, Poland

Self finally crosses his bridge of possibility and arrives in Manhattan, by which time his theory is working in full reverse; it is now the grid, the overpowering totality of the metropolis, that determines man. “Instead of looking at individual buildings, it makes more metaphorical sense to think of New York as one enormous chunk of masonry that has been cut up and carved away,” he considers. “It says, ‘This is the ultimate polis, through which humans move like nematodes.’” The implication is clear; he who is explorer, translator, hero in the wilds of the Eastern Queens bush is just an overachiever among many in the concrete canyons of what metropolitan New Yorkers still sometimes refer to as “the City”. Proceeding to the National Arts Club, where he is to receive a grant to work in isolation on an island off the Scottish coast, Self remarks that he doesn’t see the point in paying writers to isolate themselves. This is the wit of the man who proudly strolled into Manhattan from the gate of his transatlantic flight, having only deigned to speak with one native, who, as it turns out, amused Self by considering the idea of walking to Manhattan ludicrous. Hilarious provincial! Didn’t he know this was a famous author, come to learn and understand his neighbourhood?

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Wednesday December 06 2006at 04:12 pm , filed under Maps, Society and Culture, United States and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

4 Responses to “Mapping the City — But Whose?”

  • zvi says:

    I am too tired at the moment to read this entire piece (or at least to “digest it”), but it reminded me of the time that I walked across Brooklyn. I took the metro to Brighton Beach, had breakfast at some diner on the boardwalk and then asked the locals what was the “best way to get to Manhattan.” This generated a rather heated discussion about whether the metro or the bus was better. When I told them that I was walking, they said that was not an option. I insisted that this was my intention, but they all agreed that this was simply not possible.

    Anyway, I walked. I chose the most direct route (I can’t recall what street it was), which basically led straight up to the Brooklyn Bridge. I have to admit that it really was not a particularly interesting way to go. I saw lots of used car dealerships and chain link fences. It was interesting to note how each neighbourhood had a clearly defined ethnic profile.

    My only memory of the walk was when I tried to order a coffee at some little Bodega. The guy asked me how I wanted my coffee, and I couldn’t imagine what he meant. I replied hesitantly “Hot?” and the guy went ballistic! “A wise guy, eh? Do you want a regular or…?” Me: “And a regular would be …?” “What kind of an idiot are you – two creams and a sugar” (or something like that). “I’ll have mine black, thank you.” Ah, Brooklyn….

  • Nicholas says:

    Take that Self! Nothing like an intelligent and articulate scathing of an author who would use the phrase ‘there’s the interface!’ in good conscience. I thought you raised excellent points. But can the flaneur not be an explorer of both people and things?

    Thankfully, us men-about-town aren’t all clad in euro-chic black duds and armed with photographic devices with which to capture the ‘coffee-coloured man’ in its natural state. In the context of Self I agree with you fully, but I felt a pang of hurt when I gathered that as an ostensibly harmless flaneur I am a propagator of urban colonisation. Say it ain’t so.

  • dphanley says:

    You know, we just bought a condo in the suburb to end all suburbs, Orange County, California. Amazing – as the crow flies, it’s less than a mile to John Wayne (yes) Airport. So – no need for taxis or shuttles – we can just walk there! Yay. Wrong! It is impossible legally to arrive at the airport by foot – there are long roadways with no footpaths or crossing points which snkae around the airport and parking until you get to the terminal. By car, over two miles. Still convenient but – bummer.

  • […] “Like naturalists canvassing uncharted biomes, the surveyors of the Geography Collective carefully documented the features — architecture, streetlife, traffic — that composed their selected regions’ urban ecologies. They also took care to make scrupulously objective observations: “[e]ach photo is always taken looking directly forward without bias, presenting an urban view which is emotionally challenging for the photographer whose gaze is drawn towards specific people, objects and places,” the project’s website states. Theirs is a scientific approach that contrasts strikingly with similar walks taken by literary “psychogeographers” like British novelist Will Self, whose traversal of New York from JFK Airport to Manhattan was documented in an account peppered with patronizing curiosity about and sometimes haughty contempt for local residents.” […]