April 25, 2009

New York City: A Fully Realized Social Discourse

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:30 am by Maggie Clark

Barthes’ Mythologies came quickly to mind as I rode into New York City for the first time this past week, recessed in the back of a cab. The seats were low, with loops of sturdy material bolted to the sides for people who needed help getting up from them. A thick plate of protective plastic separated the front from the back, with a credit and debit machine mounted on our side, along with a slot for hard cash. Before me a touch screen jumped to the local news, coupled with messages from the mayor about cab service developments.

That’s when it hit me: I was looking at a fully realized social discourse — the kind I would see played out again and again over the course of my short visit to the Big Apple. Very clearly, in everything from the make-up of the car to the make-up of the whole cab fleet, you could see where different needs and wants were engaged and applied to real-world solutions: The plastic both for the protection of the cabbie and the privacy of the passenger; the low seats to further complicate robbery attempts and allow maximum room for the passengers; the touch-screen to help with long traffic times and, at least incidentally, to give passengers a sense of direct connection with the city they’re driving through. And you could see, too, the compromises in this arrangement: the loss of possible friendly interaction between driver and passenger, the loss of spatial control on the part of the passenger in lieu of driver empowerment. It was, in short, a semiotic wet dream. And it wasn’t alone.

In fact, everything in Manhattan (and what parts of Brooklyn I encountered) bore with it the social history of its development. Far beyond the striking presence of Greek and Gothic Revivalism, to say nothing of other Neoclassical structures in the basic architecture of the towering down- and uptown cores, there were still other, humbler entrenchments of social discourse plainly visible for anyone on the street. These included the newsstands — permanent entrenchments on every other corner which highlight the centrality of print media and convenience items to pedestrian life — and the billboards, the digital displays, the street vendors — all of which made every space on the street a possible zone of interaction between individuals, other individuals, and commercial products. The digital displays especially had a striking engagement with their surroundings: in the subways and Grand Central Station they made use of existing dimensions or constraints on building — whether it be an ad fitted to the space allowed by a wide beam, or a digital image projected on a towering marble column — and in so doing minimally affected their surroundings. But much could also be said about the subways themselves, which, though complex, have developed in such a way as to attend to both the needs of local commuters and those who need to move quickly over a sprawling city landscape.

And then there are the people. So much is made of the stereotype of angry or arrogant New Yorkers that I was truly humbled to discover how staggeringly polite and open to engagement so many others are. I know I was only in the city for four days, so my impression is anecdotal at best, but when an old lady railing on about the crowd’s need to find Jesus stops long enough to help direct me to the entrance of a bank, I can’t help but take pause. People responded with patience and a friendly demeanour when I needed help finding my way; I got the occasional apology from people who had to cut into my path; and I started conversation with immaculately dressed strangers who responded with openness in turn. And everywhere there was talking, talking, talking — the city never loses that animation, that constant interplay.

Yes, I also encountered the occasional arrogant, impatience, or just plain rude personality; I am in no way denying that they exist. But what I also discovered, in the way of courtesy, paints a much more intricate picture of New York life — and also, I suspect, highlights an underlying factor that allows both politeness and abrasive natures to such an extreme in the same community: in a city that is itself so replete in fully realized social dialogues, individual self-realization is itself given tremendous life.

I’d like to say that my home town, Toronto, has similarly realized dialogues — and I’m sure there are a few. But the great pleasure that comes from travelling to a place that is so alike in many ways is that the ways in which the two differ become patently clear. And in the U.S. for the first time in my life — in New York, of all places, for my first visit to the U.S. — what I came away with most of all was a sense of a standard being set. Is New York perfect? Not at all. Are these social dialogues, so concretely established in city life, finished? Not even close. (As I especially discovered when matching up the mayor’s transit and cab ads for a New York public school survey to this article in the New York Times, about the mayor’s conflicting responses to the opinions of others.) But the arena for these dialogues is so concretely defined that I can’t help but think Toronto’s own engagement with its own issues — everything from homelessness to education to worker safety to commercialism to identity to multicultural interaction — a shadow of this southern self-realization.

What am I asking for here — is it news stands on our downtown street corners? touch screens in our cabs? mayoral addresses in the form of ads across the city? Maybe. I honestly feel one can do little better than New York has in terms of the entrenchment of news media (and with it, more direct and constant civic engagement).

But beyond that, in a broader sense, I suppose I’m calling on a sense of self-confidence, made manifest in all our decision-making as a community. It is this self-confidence that I think creates the New York stereotypes — the loud-mouths, the arrogantly opinionated — but these are necessary extremes of a system that allows, as well, much in the way of a quieter, more nuanced self-assurance. And, however anecdotal my experience may be, it is indeed my experience: These more nuanced displays of self-assurance exist.

It is, in essence, a matter of effective argumentation: Arguments do not need to be made loudly, or arrogantly, to achieve their full effect, but they do require confidence; though many are made in the former way (especially among pundits!), there was just as much self-assurance in Socrates’ form of address — for though his route was a constant line of questioning, it was still his route, and by holding fast to that collection of beliefs and approaches that were his own, he enacted precisely the same self-realization.

What would our writing look like, our cities look like, our social dialogues look like, if as individuals and as communities we were brave enough to make decisions and hold fast to them — and equally brave enough, too, to make other decisions, and hold fast to them, if the first decisions proved ineffective?

I ask this especially because we as Canadians often pride ourselves on our humility, our politeness, and with it, our tact and discretion. That these values are only true to life at the best of times for us, and most other populations, is a moot point: The stereotype of the “nice” Canadian is what it is. And yet, it’s also not — for on matters of U.S. interest Canadians have absolutely no qualms about speaking our minds, and investing with a sense of higher-than-thou authority our “outsider’s” perspective on events therein. I was guilty of this. I am guilty of this. But after visiting New York, I hope not to be as guilty of this in the future.

For after visiting New York, and seeing firsthand what a fully realized social discourse can look like, I feel more motivated than ever to realize the same strength of community conversation here at home — and not just about the U.S., heaven’s no: About us. About Canada. About all the ways in which the whole wide world intersects with us and our own.

I have no idea what such a fully realized discourse will look like. I only know — I only feel — that we’re not there yet.

And I want to be a part of it.

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1 Comment »

  1. dayuse said,

    My brother, having experienced being a resident of Canada and the U.S., has always held a stronger “patriotism” (for lack of a better word) for the latter. While part of me still has a certain passion towards Canada, I can definitely understand why my brother enjoyed his life in the States; New York and Chicago are some of the few cities I can see myself living in for the rest of my life. In terms of the community’s emotion, there’s an oddly solid structure. But that’s what I see.

    When I think about New York culture, its dark side isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Raimi’s “Spider-Man” NYC does. Sure, New Yorkers aren’t always that happy, but that’s the general overtone I get when I’m in the city. There are thugs, but there are some kind people too, willing to treat you like a proper guest.


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