The Urban Existence: Life and Visions in NYC

NYC Week continues on the Same Page! Check here for Part 1 and Part 2.

By: Ian Clark

New York City is a strange concoction of uneven trends, cracks, grime, and concrete appeal.  The island of Manhattan is a fight for space; between tourists, businesses, different modes of transport, garbage collectors, homeless and financial traders.

Having just traveled to NYC with the Same Page team, I tried to take in the vernacular – the common streets, squares and parks.  The public spaces of NYC are where interactions occur and where the character of NYC is expressed to the world.  I want to talk about three aspects of my first trip to the Big Apple – the City’s public spaces, the City in our imagination, and the City’s culture.

Times Square. Big City Lights.

The public space of New York, though generally peaceful and safe, is a battle ground for competing interests. Pedestrians spill onto the roadway in Times Square, locals walk over tourists in Union Square, cabs bounce off each other down Broadway, bar-goers push through to get the best view, and delivery men brush through everyone  as they drop items onto the sidewalk. This mash of competing interests in public streets and sidewalks is the life of New York.  It is here that the city builds vibrancy, where people become accepting of other people, and where the streets are kept safe.  This messy day-to-day depiction of urbanism leaves the public areas with grime in their cracks, but creates the urban environment that people flock to for its energy.  Few areas in Toronto really do this really well (Kensington Market, Queen St. West are two exceptions). What is incredible about NYC is that so much of Manhattan and the areas I visited in Brooklyn do this constantly.

5th Avenue. Not as glamorous as you’d think.

The messy urbanism I described above has partly shaped our past and present perception of NYC.  It is interesting how different types of people imagine New York – and how fictional depictions of the city are created in our imagination.  Some people clasp onto New York as being a crime-ridden Gotham, a broke 1970s version of itself, or a racial/ethnic space of social tension and violence.  Others, of course, imagine bright lights and Broadway signs, fashionistas running across 5th Avenue Starbucks in hand, Wall Street business types pulling global market strings, or Sunday joggers in Central Park.  Either way, how we envision New York is very much influenced by its use as a character in film and television, or classic and hip-hop anthems.  It is the place where people meet Spider-Man, Kramer, Mookie, and a suited-up Barney Stinson, but also Travis Bickle, the Sticky Bandits, Newman, and Gordon Gekko.  Our perception of New York is filled with these competing characters and ideals of how life is lived in the world’s most influential city. Then, we arrive at Grand Central or Penn Station and expect it.  But New York is not just the good and bad as depicted in world culture – it is the place where people make the good and bad.  There are cities around the world that either create or consume culture – my most enduring interpretation of New York is that it is a creator of world culture.

Some of the beautiful and profane.

Culture is not just something to be seen at the MoMA, it is seen on the subway and in the streets.  New York pushes boundaries – and these boundaries can be seen in fashion stores, graffiti (some amazing examples that really work as commas in our daily narrative), book shops, on the High Line, or in the food.  The High Line is an exceptional example of pushing boundaries in urban design – by bringing together archeology, design, art, heritage preservation, environmental sustainability, and viewscape.  If you enjoy the city around you, then do not miss the High Line on a trip to New York!

I first noticed how people push the boundaries of culture in London, England.  It was there that everything seemed so much more juxtaposed that at home in Toronto.  People took visible chances in life, for example, in what they wear or how they interact – and these ideas are either praised or sidelined by the masses around them.  In New York I felt the same thing to a higher degree. It is this desire to take a chance that has allowed New York to produce culture for the world’s consumption.  This could be part of the “make or break” attitude, or maybe it is just Sinatra singing in everyone’s head (make it here, you’ll make it anywhere), but people take chances to make it big in New York.  Few ideas succeed, but the ones that do shape our lives in Toronto and the world abound.

So go see New York, and look out for the next big thing.

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