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April 7, 2016 / Leo Hollis

In Praise of Street Corners

In 1969, William H Whyte, the author and former editor of Fortune magazine, started a new job at the New York Planning Department. Previously, Whyte had made his name in the 1950s with a controversial bestseller, ‘Organisation Man’, which proposed that the conformity of white collar life in America was crushing the rugged individualism the nation prided itself on. He had also anatomised the allures of suburbia, conducting closely observed studies on how these emerging neighbourhoods were transforming cities, and not for the better. As he entered his new role, he decided to conduct a series of experiments in the heart of the city.

Rather than assume that his office of planners, architects and transit specialists knew everything that there was to know about New York, Whyte hired a group of students from Hunter College, part of the City University, whom he stationed at various locations around the city. Their instructions were to watch how people came and went, how they used the city, how they conducted their ordinary urban lives. The results were a revelation.

Take, for example, the results of the observations that Whyte’s students made on the street corner outside Saks 5th Avenue, one of the most prestigious department stores in Midtown Manhattan. In the students’ illustration of the flow of human traffic over four days in summer, each dot represents a conversation, a moment when two people bumped into each other stopped and then had a chat for longer than two minutes.

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According to this image, more often than not, conversations happened in the most inconvenient and unlikely places: many occurred just outside the front door of the store while the majority -some 57% – were conducted at the street corner; in effect these people were blocking the most congested place where other people were trying to cross the street, to turn, to move.

For Whyte, these observations proved that people rarely used the city in the ways intended. Instead they created their own public spaces, in which they played out moments of intimacy and connection. The city is made of such unexpected moments of gentle chaos.

They can be charted by desire paths that are scratched on the map of the city by common use rather than design. Whyte’s experiments showed that people do not behave in rational ways, and follow the planned logic of places, but rather that they find their own ways to get around the urban landscape, carving out their own pathways to citizenship.

In this moment of coming together, on the corner outside Saks 5th Avenue, one can read the story of the contemporary city, caught between a vision of the efficient, smooth metropolis and how it actually is. Here we see that the city is very different to the way we are told it is meant to be. This should be a profound moment of realisation for those who  know more about the city that you think and who will be in a position to determine their future in that place: you.

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I wish to celebrate the city corner in all its messy, human, contingent and unplanned joy. When we are informed that the story of the city is an economic table to be audited, or a circuit board defined by technology, it is the everyday life on an ordinary corner that reminds us that the metropolis is a human place. It is a place where people come to make a home. It is a refuge for some, a last resort, and for others, a new start. The city can be a lonely place to the lonely, and too noisy for those that need a little peace. It is a surface that needs to be traversed, or a mystery that reveals itself coquettishly. It can be the cruellest place on earth, but also our best hope for the future.

When we think of all the beneficial qualities of the city throughout history, it is its status as a meeting place, where two paths cross, that is the most compelling. Put simply, cities are places where strangers meet, and when that happens something extraordinary occurs. By coming together, learning to live and engage with each other on the street corner and the public spaces of the metropolis, we learn the rules of citizenship, the essential practises of how to get along. In addition, as we meet in that place, so we collectively become more than the sum of our individual parts. It is only on the corner where we can build our future civil society.

Many of these urban identities emerge from the life of an ordinary street corner. In an interior space – a room – the corner is the private place, but outside, on the street, the corner turns out to be the social space where people congregate. It is a place for crossing; it is the end of the block, where one reaches the boundary of the neighbourhood; it is where police surveillance watch for crimes, (not least in Chicago where the authorities plan to have a camera ‘on every street corner’ by 2016). It is where you can find the local shop that serves the community. A jumble of streets signs, and locators that connect this place with the rest of the city as well as a diverse array of different people that come together, including those on the margins, forming into what may be a community.

All the city comes together on the corner. This is where the creativity of the city emerges through chance encounters and serendipity, with people bumping into each other and exchanging good ideas, trading half notions that reveal something new. Here one can find the source of the city’s economic genius.

And yet for so many contemporary urban thinkers, the management gurus and Silicon Valley prophets, this human huddle at the meeting place of two roads is a problem. To them, the acquaintances and button-holers outside Saks 5th Ave got in the way, blocked the paths and caused obstacles for others. These hurdles, it is reported, are barriers in the creation of the optimised city where technology makes every moment ergonomic.

In this idealised city, there are no corners, simply smooth flows of data that improve productivity at every turn. This deeply human meeting place stands in opposition against the gospel of the new era: a liturgy of connectedness, of lean start-ups, collaborative capitalism, pro-sumption, and the advantages of a Big Data system that collates every scrap of information to create vast data sets to predict our collective behaviour.

We so rarely think about how technology changes the actual places where we live – the city. Nor do we consider how these devices influence our own behaviour in these spaces. None of these interventions come without consequences, yet they have the potential to reformat space, time and indeed ourselves. What are we to do?

The things that make up our everyday lives are each like single objects dropped into the seas of our lives; each breaks the calm surface and creates a ripple that spirals out from our lives into those of others. The ruffled waters are often choppy as the impact of our days accumulate; and the ripples that form are dense and complex patterns, which may appear on the edge of chaos.

We need to be able to read this turbulence better, much like a sailor who watches the surface of the water in order to read on it the bluffs and winds that encircle the boat. The best way to navigate the city is to understand its role as a street corner, where many avenues connect, both in the digital and real world, providing a space for our interwoven lives. It is here that the main currents and flows of the city churn and combine and become thing new again.

 

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