Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Incongruities, dissonances, disparate intentions ….

I've just spent a couple of hours looking at the "then & now" set, 14th Street — 72nd Street.

Tenth (Amsterdam) Avenue & 50th Street, Southwest Corner
(2006 above, 2010 below)

At first I was looking for, as I discussed in the immediately preceding post, signs of conflict, signs of cooperation, signs of the major groups that collectively, in conflict and cooperation, may be said to produce a neighborhood.

It wasn't long — just a few corners — before I sensed a need to simplify, and so I began to look for something much simpler, or what I thought would be much simpler: incongruities, dissonances, in the photographs.

Even this turned out to be difficult. I thought maybe it was just that the images I was looking at were too small — for speed and convenience I was using a set of medium size JPGs. So I switched to the more cumbersome but much more detailed full size TIFFs from which the JPGs had been generated.

No help at all, or very little, though I did, simply, I suppose, as a result of the more intense scrutiny, discover lots of details that I'd missed in my more rapid virtual stroll up the avenue.

But very little that I could unequivocally all an incongruity or a dissonance: something out of place, something that didn't fit.

And after a while it began to dawn on me that the problem might be not that there are no incongruities, no dissonances, to be seen in the photographs (or, for that matter, to be seen live on the street), but that there are so many of them, of so many kinds, and in such varying degrees, that they so to speak cancel one another out.

E.L.Doctorow, introducing Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary, speaks very eloquently of the "universe … of totally disparate intentions" represented by everyone going about their separate business on the street, and how "that’s what happens in the city, in that somehow the city can embrace and accept and accommodate all that disparate intention, at one and the same time."

Which leads me to thought of the street as a kind of no-man's land arising out of the unresolved but nonetheless suspended conflicts of all the different people who use it. So that the streetscape comprises all mixed up together the visible signs of the whole, only partially coherent process, in such an intense jumble that the concept of incongruity or dissonance doesn't really apply.

A sort of atonality as it were. Incongruity, dissonance, as something you notice most as a result of its absence in areas that are exceptionally homogeneous, like Battery Park City, or Trump City, or perhaps certain stretches of Park Avenue. Or when faced with the relative incongruity of some of the new buildings on Tenth Avenue, which all look more or less alike, compared to the longer standing architecture, rather a lot of which has or had been in place for well over a hundred years.

Am I only talking about architecture though? — it's certainly the easiest to recognize.

But what about the new style up-scale trash cans on the east side corners from 15th Street to 17th Street? Are these the new style for municipal trash cans? Will they eventually be everywhere? Or do they belong to the local "business improvement district," or to the developers of the new or renovated buildings there?

That's one nice thing about photographs: they stay still while you stare at them, you can just keep on looking and looking, trying to see if there's more to see (there usually is).

So, OK, what about it? Does this knock down my idea of looking for visible signs of conflict, cooperation, etc., or even the weaker form, signs of incongruity, of dissonance?

Maybe.

I'm not quite ready to give up on the idea yet, though I probably should be.

Unfortunately, there's no practical way to post the photographs at their original resolution, or I'd invite you to have a go at it yourself. You might see more than I do — I've been looking at these photographs for so long I may have become blind to a lot that's in them.

I suspect that this is what happens to everyone in the city, and in real life on the street, not just in looking at photographs. Survival — perhaps everywhere, at all times, on the central African grassy plains 200,000 years ago as well as in Manhattan today — may mean learning what to look out for and what not to see, not to hear, not to smell, what to become blind to, deaf to, indifferent to ….

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