Dasha's alternating travel - mediating mind and matter
The prospect of an “alternating travel” tour from my front door to a dead end in Brooklyn was really appealing to me because I have quickly fallen in love with the city since moving here in September.
The prospect of an “alternating travel” tour from my front door to a dead end in Brooklyn was really appealing to me because I have quickly fallen in love with the city since moving here in September. I am constantly in awe of the diversity one stumbles upon when traversing from one block to the next. The city is filled with so many humans! A multitude of lives being lived. (There is something in Brooklyn that makes me feel this more than in Manhattan. Perhaps it is the livable character of the environment, as opposed to the consumer character one experiences in Manhattan? Nevertheless, it was the realization that Brooklyn offered a wealth of continuously changing, yet historically rooted, niches and communities with which I became smitten.
This fascination and adoration of Kings County began in August during my desperate and exhausting apartment hunt. During that time I spent endless days on craigslist – a veritable warzone at that time of year – and over the course of a month I traveled back and forth from Boston to New York five times. Superficially exploring a few neighborhoods (mostly checking out what coffeeshops were around and where I could buy organic groceries) and chatting with people who lived in the area, I came to formulate my own, and recognize others’, particular generalized imaginings about neighborhoods. These understandings concerned the people who do live in certain neighborhoods, and also regarded those who could – and could not – live in those neighborhoods. I thought of this process – and the continuation of the discursive notions about these neighborhoods -- while reading in “Theory of the Dérive”, Chombart de Lauwe’s comment that “an urban neighborhood is determined not only by geographical and economic factors, but also by the image that its inhabitants and those of other neighborhoods have of it.” It is these images, rather than the geographical and economic factors, that come to define the lay person’s impression of a city. However, without attention to the larger structures that frame why and how people gain or are granted “rights to the city” – as Pinder discusses – these impressions lack historical specificity.
Henri Lefebvre’s term “the right to the city,” which Pinder explains as being “the right to dwell in and to inhabit the city, the right to urban life and encounter, to the use of moments and places, to participation and socialization” (397) preoccupies my daily experiences in Brooklyn, as I am constantly wondering, Who and what was here before? What kinds of histories are being maintained? Who in this neighborhood uses what kind of space? I can’t help but begin to think about these issues as I examine why people like me are able to live in neighborhoods like the one I live (Prospect Heights) and what kind of effects this change in demographics has on community life. This is why I found Pinder’s section ‘Psychogeography and the rights to the city’ refreshing, as he reminds the reader that psychogeographical explorations are positioned within complex urban realities that artists sometimes are and sometimes are not able to confront. He points out that the activities he describes are “relatively detached from the kinds of day-to-day struggles of poorer local residents, whose limited choices are the result, not simply of subjective and imaginative factors but, as Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan point out, ‘of the formidable economic forces arrayed against them’.” (399) However, he does compliment this perspective by suggesting the acts of psychogeographers “find different ways of attending to the ‘quality of life’ in the city” (399). It is the tension between these issues – the structures and struggles that are not addressed by these actions and those that are – that I find so intriguing and complex.
I thought about this a lot as my travel route took me from the south part of Prospect Heights, down through Crown Heights, and into what I assume is Lefferts Garden. It was a direction I had never walked. The first few blocks were in an area I had biked through a few times, but I had never actually placed my feet on those sidewalks in that way. I passed by a young woman, greeting a neighbor, “How ya doin’ today, Ms. Jerry? Its beautiful weather, isn’t it, Ms. Jerry?” And just a few moments later, a young man runs after her, “You can’t wait for me? Bitch!” She replies, “We aren’t going to the same place!” My smile turned into a sigh. I kept going, heard a father-type ask a passing child, “How ya doing in school?” I saw a great mural on the side of a Key Foods (large images of women, brown of all types, with scenes of school/work/family/play activities within the forms of their torsos), crossed Eastern Parkway, and headed down Franklin Ave. Here I felt the incongruity of my own walking with a purpose in contrast to the Friday afternoon ambience that emanated from the groups lingering in front of the corner stores. I passed by a group of four policemen strolling. This caused me to recognize my own out-of-place-ness on this block. It also recalled concerns of rights – were I of a different color and sex out of place in a different neighborhood…— and concepts of “quality of life”. I was also passed by three police cars [what I assessed to be] patrolling over the course of the next fifteen minutes.
Walking on I found the Hasidic area. I thought of that notion mentioned in “Theory of the Dérive”, “…One measures the distances that actually separate two regions of a city, distances that may have little relation with the physical distance between them…” I wondered if the black/Jew cohabitation was delineated in particular ways, or if there was some sort of historic understanding of who belonged where and who didn’t. A very young girl – maybe nine? – ran out of the door of one house holding an aluminum tray of cooked chickens (or maybe challahs?) and into another house two doors down. I glanced at the cars parked on the street. An “I [heart] Jesus” air freshener hung from one’s rearview mirror. Other cars had bumper stickers in Hebrew. An older black woman was getting out of her car and speaking to an older black man walking up the front steps of a house.
Continuing to alternate right and left, I was slowly heading downhill. I came upon a main street. Although there was much car traffic, the sidewalks were relatively deserted. I saw less Hasidic Jews. I found some open park areas connected to schools. The architecture had changed from brownstones (limestones?) to very small brick row houses. I found a huge “Jewish” hospital.
Emerging onto Utica Ave I felt like I was in a part of another city – Roxbury, MA – where large chain stores and gas stations overwhelm any sense of peace. A White Castle in Brooklyn? I was surprised. I also felt as though I had hit that dead end – the parking lots of the stores took over my path. I knew I could keep going by fudging it, but the map of Brooklyn popped into my mind (is that cheating?) and I had a sense of this walk becoming neverending if I didn’t stop here. I decided to take two lefts in a row to head back the direction I came. The route back seemed so much more familiar. The second time passing through these streets was very different from the first. I was calmer going back home. I recognized corners, buildings, people. Pinder references Doreen Massey’s work in For Space, particularly her emphasis on the “potential surprise” within space, and her “approach that emphasizes dynamic simultaneity, where space is in process and incomplete, where it eludes final determination and representation.” (390) The contrast between the dynamics of space and the constraints upon these spaces is a magic and tension most fascinating in Brooklyn. My own walk through neighborhoods I normally would never go only pushed me to further question my place – literally in this space of Brooklyn and in graduate school – within these incomplete and in-process representations that Massey discusses. How can we make urban explorations more connected to the people that actually live within their settings? It is hard not to thing of the colonial connotations of “exploration” when privilege is re-asserted in such activities. Yet, it is important to insert ourselves in these settings, attempt to stimulate conversation, and challenge the perpetuation of stagnant stereotypes or destructive representations.