Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Individual's neighborhoods

In the middle of muddling through the immediately preceding post (see below) I got a phone call from my photographer friend Becket Logan and we ended up talking at some length about the subject of what makes a neighborhood. He's bright guy, and I think a few of his observations are worth putting on the table, that is, are worth posting on the blog, so here goes.

Tenth Avenue & 103rd Street, Northwest Corner
(2006 above, 2010 below)

In line with what I had to say about neighborhoods and neighbors, he said that for him, for his neighborhood, what it amounted to were his neighbors in the sense of the people he saw again and again and recognized and said hello or waived to on the street near him or in the nearby shops where he made his "daily rounds" — the corner grocery, the hardware store, the drugstore, the bank, and so on.

The same people he'd been seeing again and again for years on end, in some cases for decades.

And each of those people had a similar set of relationships that constituted their immediate, individual neighborhood, in turn, some of them also shared with Becket, and some not.

And each of those in turn another set of individual neighborhoods.

Plus the individual neighborhoods of all the people who live or work in close proximity to Becket's individual neighborhood but who aren't recognizably, explicitly, so to speak, by him, as a part of his.

And their individual neighborhoods again, in turn.

And so on.

Very much, I think, on a close, a micro scale, Simmel's Kreisung sozialer Kreise — "intersecting social circles" — but at the same time, much looser than what I remember of Simmel's concept.

And yet woven closely enough together to be recognizable as a kind of higher level entity, a cluster with some however ill-defined and permeable boundaries, that seen or felt to be distinct from another such cluster that may be centered even only a few blocks further away.

For instance, what the cluster in what Becket calls his "campus" up by his studio on 20th Street, a few blocks to the west (but no further than Sixth Avenue), to the north (but 22nd Street is almost the limit), and south (but not below 18th Street), the area where the professional services are concentrated — the "photography district" — and of course the coffee shops, delis, Fedex's, copy shops, and whatnot that go along with any such area.

But not to the east, where Park Avenue represents a very big divide, a strong boundary: once you cross Park, you're in a different world, the world that culminates in Gramercy Park and environments, and then dissipates again east of, say, Second Avenue. And north of 22nd or 23rd Street (north of 23rd for sure, I'd say).

So two neighborhoods, individual neighborhoods for him: the residential one and the professional one (the "campus"). But very similar in the way in which there's a clustering of relationships, though the "campus" is rather more explicit in this regard, owing to its professional focus.

It's like "six degrees of separation," only it's only two or three degrees — or how many is it, actually? (And that's too crude a measure, but it gets the idea across, I think.)

Could we map those? Have people done this already? I don't know. But surely they have.

And again, what are the visible signs of these clusters? Or, somewhat more radically, epistemologically speaking, are the signs visible or not only to the extent that one lives or works within a cluster for which they are meaningful?

Since starting the Tenth Avenue "then & now" sub-project, it's occurred to me more than once, and keeps on re-occurring to me with ever greater frequency, that we — I don't think it's just me — don't really know much, explicitly, about how people live together, how they generate "collective actions," how, for instance, a phenomenon like "neighborhoods" actually works.

That we may not even be at the butterfly collection stage yet, that even the simplest — but there's no such thing — ethnographies are too few and too far between to provide anything much more than an occasional random strobe flash of light on what's happening in society at any level but especially the closest in levels: the street corner, the block, the neighborhood.

Not that there aren't great studies, by brilliantly insightful researchers, but that the phenomenon is so vast and so complex and, well, daunting ….

Well, it is — as my business friends are wont to say — what it is. But I gotta tell ya, it's humbling.

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