Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What makes an area a neighborhood, cont'd

While I'm working up the "then & now" images for Tenth Avenue from 73rd Street up to 110th Street I thought I'd return to the question I explored a little in a previous post, namely, "what makes an area a neighborhood?"

Originally I'd titled that post "What is a neighborhood?" but the "is" seemed so fraught with essentialist dangers that I changed it to "makes" — and added "an area" in order to emphasize a little bit the notion of process implicit in "makes."

I've been chewing on this for the past several days now, partly out of a fear that what I had to say in that post was no more than a bland repetition of some obvious, if not actually trivial, generalities. (I have a similar fear about this post, but slightly less so than with the previous one.)

But it's so easy to move into the "interesting" stuff, and to develop it in various ways without noticing that one has left the obvious, the trivial so far behind that the connection with the hard social reality that the obvious and the trivial represent gets lost altogether. So I want to stay close to the obvious and the trivial, and would rather be defeated by the difficulties they pose than to be successful — even if only in the most minor and esoteric of ways — at the cost of losing sight of them.

Of course it may be that I'm just not up to the job, in which case failure is inevitable, but until that's become obvious, it's worth a try anyway.

So the question isn't, after all, "what makes a neighborhood?" though these words roll right off the tongue or slide friction-free right through the fingers onto the keyboard and into the text.

The question is, "who makes a neighborhood?" what people? what groups of people? and how do they do it?

A neighborhood, that is to say — in any sense beyond an arbitrary label applied to an equally arbitrarily defined area — is the product, the on-going product, of a complex collective action, a sort of summation of the cooperative, conflicting, indifferent, conscious, unconscious, knowledgeable, ignorant, selfish, and unselfish actions of a whole lot of people with the most diverse and often divergent interests and intentions.

For instance:

the people who both live and work in the neighborhood, the people who live in the neighborhood but work elsewhere, the people who live elsewhere but come to the neighborhood to work;

the people who own the businesses in the neighborhood (and some of them live there, and some don't);

the people with children who go to school in the neighborhood (or elsewhere), people who don't live in the neighborhood but whose children go to school there;

the people who come to the neighborhood only to shop, the people who live in the neighborhood but do their shopping elsewhere (by now it may be clear that these categories overlap, sometimes considerably — but an individual's own interests may be in conflict or harmony with one another as well);

the people who own the buildings;

the people who make deliveries to and from the neighborhood or who own or manage the firms that make those deliveries;

the people who just pass through every day or every working day on their way to or from work, the people who pass through occasionally on their way to or from somewhere else, the tourists and other visitors;

the police, the firemen, the sanitation crews, and the emergency medical service personnel who deal with such problems in the neighborhood;

the young, the not so young, the middle aged, the elderly;

the upwardly mobile, the stable, the downwardly mobile;

the richer, the poorer, those in between;

the people who have just moved in, the people who have been there for years but not decades, the people who have been there for decades, or for their whole lives, the people who are contemplating moving out, perhaps especially for reasons having to do with their sense of the neighborhood as no longer affordable or otherwise desirable;

the city planners, tax assessors, education officials, transportation officials, health and safety officials;

and so on and and on and on.

SO complicated: a really close look at even a single intersection within a neighborhood, and a single more or less coherent group of people associated with it, takes years of research, which is probably why it's not done nearly often enough. Check out Mitchell Duneier's Sidewalk for a terrific, near-contemporary example of such a study done here in New York.

In the context of New York in Plain Sight and, in particular, my "then & now" sub-project, this raises the question of how much of these complex dynamics is visible in the result, as captured in the photographs, either individually or considered in "then & now" pairs?

Meaning: can one see not just the signs of change and what has changed, but can one see, or read from what one can see, the signs — let's simplify here — of cooperation and conflict among at least those groups that have or have had the greatest influence on the collective result, that is, on the neighborhood and its character?

So: not just signs of change but signs of cooperation, signs of conflict, and signs of the cooperating or conflicting groups with a claim to the neighborhood.

At moments like this I dream of having — no, not doing — a longitudinal study along the lines of those medical studies, e.g., of heart disease, that track a large cohort of specific individuals at regular intervals over many years.

Meanwhile, absent such a fantastic study, the question remains, how much of neighborhood-making is visible to the eye alone?

A Gedanken experiment: assume that it's the year 2110, a hundred years from now, and we want to answer these questions about neighborhood-making. We have available to us the usual sorts of data: census data, various surveys made at various times and for various purposes, tax records, building permit records, other municipal records — and photographs, including the photographs of New York in Plain Sight and the "then & now" photographs.

In short, assume that we have everything we have today, in 2010, except that in 2110 we can, alas, no longer go out talk with the people (there might be a very small number of exceptions) in the neighborhood as we can, at least in principle, today.

What then? And is that any different from the situation today if we simply don't go out and talk with the people in the neighborhoods?

(This Gedanken experiment is just a way of asking if there's such a thing, or if there could be such a thing, in some meaningful way, as a "sociology of the visual per se," as opposed to or in addition to a "visual sociology" in which the visuals, the images, are either a kind of field notes, or evidence, or a presentation medium (not that images in a sociology of the visual per se couldn't be all of those things too).

I'll be returning to this topic very soon, and may have a go at looking at the Tenth Avenue "then & now 14th Street — 72nd Street" photographs in this light while I'm preparing the 73rd Street — 110th Street set.

Stay tuned ….

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