Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Becoming a Creature of Habit

It seems that I have fallen into a pattern with a fellow LIRR commuter: He and I always occupy the same seating pattern on the train, and in fact seem to adapt our seating arrangements based on each other's choices. He generally occupies the two-seater in front of the one I claim. For example, if X denotes my fellow camper and I am K, then this is the arrangement we usually have:

Three seater rows
Center Aisle
Two seater rows



Regardless of who boards first, we arrange ourselves so that he has the seat in front of me. There have been instances when I have boarded first and he has adjusted his seat accordingly, moving up or back to fit the pattern. I also find that I look for him as a cut off point in terms of where in the car I want to sit. I have no reason for not wanting to move farther into the car. This commuter just seems to have marked a boundary for me, if you will. This has been going on for approximately two months. We've never spoken to each other, or shared a nod of acknowledgment. We just seem to define our boundaries using each other.

Did you ever have assigned seats in school? Teachers do it because it helps them remember the names of students and instills a sense of order in the classroom. It's nice to know you have a place, right? That you belong? I propose that these methods of organizing train us to recreate secure areas in the public at later stages. For the weekly staff meeting at my job, we all tend to gravitate to the same seats, and if they're not available, then we sit as close as possible to the seat of our preference. Those who aren't lucky enough to secure a position of their choosing fidget more and seem to be more easily distracted. Believe me, I've been there myself. I prefer a seat looking out at the river. I need to know that I'm not trapped in a box, so it's important that I face the window. When I'm late and I have to sit elsewhere, I feel that time drags by. And if I was unable to secure a seat at the table and had to take a peripheral chair, then I don't even really feel as though I'm a meeting participant. Essentially, the assigned seating model trains us to find ways to be comfortable in public by designating certain areas as our own. It helps us exert an influence over public space and claim a portion for ourselves in which we can comfortably transact our business—it teaches us how to cope in less than satisfactory arrangements. Did you ever have to sit near someone you didn't like as a result of your assigned seat? The guy in 10th grade who continually put his feet up on the back of your chair? Perhaps you didn't do anything, or perhaps you tried to trip him one day as he walked by—you should not infer, Reader, that I ever attempted such dirty tactics—whatever you ultimately decided to do, you were forced to develop strategy for managing the situation. [Left: My fellow camper takes his assigned seat.]

I think that my fellow commuter and I utilize our seating arrangements to maintain a sense of familiarity in what is a temporary setting. What strategies do you employ to maintain your sense of comfort? Do you have a favorite seat for meetings or on public transportation? At the library?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An Apple and an Orange Were Hanging From a Tree ...

Stop me if you've heard this one before:
An agricultural student said to a farmer, “Your methods are too old fashioned. I wouldn't be surprised if this tree bore less than twenty pounds of apples.”

“I won’t be surprised either,” said the farmer. “It's an orange tree.”
All joking aside. How much do we really know about the food we eat? How do items like fruits and vegetables get to the supermarket? What goes into packaging and processing them so they're safe to eat? Are local foods better?

Street vendors are ubiquitous in New York City. They sell everything—books, ties, umbrellas, cell phone accessories, hot dogs, chicken and rice lunch specials, incense, sunglasses, jewelry, and a plethora of other things. Some vendors sell fruit, providing some city residents with a source for fresh produce. I have access to one such vendor just around the corner from where I work. He's there everyday, unless its a federal holiday, pedaling his wares, rain or shine, on numbingly cold days and lazy warm ones. On Monday, he had taken refuge from the soaking rain under an overhang from the building. He sat in a folding chair, keeping watch over his goods. Very few people seemed to be buying fruit, but he maintained his position. [Right: An interested customer browses at the fruit stand.]

A recent cold spell in the United States has caused produce shortages. My local supermarket has posted signs indicating that the price of certain items, such as strawberries and tomatoes, has increased as a result. Yet the street vendor still seems to have a full stock. He's undoubtedly been affected by the same problem, but his prices haven't fluctuated in the same way. Though he doesn't have the same overhead to manage, he also doesn't have the luxury of raising prices. If he raises prices, he loses customers. And the cost of lost business isn't something he might readily recover from. The supermarket can recoup its losses from low produce sales via other products and still cover overhead and staff, but the same isn't true for the fruit vendor.

The image of the vendor sitting his folding chair stayed with me though. Like others, I have begun to think more and more about my "carbon food print": where my food comes from, and the costs—both to my wallet and the environment—of my choices. (Though I have to admit that I'm not giving up hamburgers just yet.) The idea behind the carbon food print is similar to the carbon footprint: it looks at the resources required to grow and transport food from the farm to your refrigerator. A result of this growing awareness has been a movement encouraging people to purchase locally grown produce. Luckily Long Island has a thriving farm community so produce like spinach, broccoli, apples, strawberries, and peaches are easy to obtain from local sources. And I don't have to travel far to take advantage of this either: my supermarket supports local growers at no real premium to me. Still, despite local efforts, certain fruits must be trucked/flown in. Oranges, for example, are difficult to grow in the Northern United States. It's certainly possible, but they'd require additional resources to survive colder temperatures. Unless you've got a giant greenhouse handy, and the funds to keep it running, it's probably not worth it. So in terms of making a greener purchase, whether you buy your oranges from the supermarket or the street vendor makes no difference—they've both likely had to get the oranges from a non-local source. On the other hand, if concern over the origin of food is an issue, it seems to make sense to buy apples from the supermarket where you can be sure that they came from a local orchard. There's no guarantee that the street vendor purchased his apples locally—he may be relying on a third party to get him his fruit, which also adds another layer to the to the whole carbon food print picture.

Still, I admire the entrepreneurial spirit of the fruit vendor. And I'd like to support him. A study released last year by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University suggests that in terms of making "greener" food choices, the distance our food travels doesn't seem to matter as much as our food choices themselves:
The authors suggest that eating less red meat and/or dairy products may be a more effective way for concerned citizens to lower their food-related climate impacts. They estimate that shifting to an entirely local diet would reduce the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions as driving 1,000 miles, while changing only one day per week's meat and dairy-based calories to chicken, fish, or vegetables would have about the same impact. Shifting entirely from an average American diet to a vegetable-based one would reduce the same emissions as 8,000 miles driven per year.
Good news for the fruit vendor downstairs. How does this information inform our food choices—if at all? Disparities certainly exist in terms of the availability of fresh produce in low income neighborhoods. For many individuals who live in these neighborhoods, food options are severely limited to processed, pre-prepared foods, such as fast food items. If we put the "green" concern aside here, we're still faced with the fact that over time, continued consumption of heavily processed foods and little-to no produce can have adverse health effects on this population. Creating access to healthy food options is integral, which paves the way for the produce vendor on the street who likely cannot provide solely local products. New York City recently seized this idea and encouraged mobile produce vendors in low income neighborhoods that lack supermarkets, farmer's markets, and green grocers. The mobile produce carts, known as Green Carts, were enthusiastically greeted by residents, and support for the program has grown. If the program really takes off, and more people who didn't have access to produce begin to eat fresh produce, the carbon food print created by these individuals formerly will also be reduced. My local fruit guy doesn't fall under this umbrella, but it seems that opportunities for his enterprise are growing. In a concrete desert, he is a tropical oasis, serving as a reminder that small initiatives can encourage big changes. [Left: Spoils from the fruit cart.]

Where do you get your fruit from? Do you or have you been thinking about your carbon food print? And would you buy fruit from a mobile vendor?

Algert SJ, Agrawal A, & Lewis DS (2006). Disparities in access to fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles. American journal of preventive medicine, 30 (5), 365-70 PMID: 16627123

Weber, C., & Matthews, H. (2008). Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States Environmental Science & Technology, 42 (10), 3508-3513 DOI: 10.1021/es702969f

Monday, January 25, 2010

Overheard on the Subway

It's a pretty dreary day here in New York City. It's rainy and the wind is howling fiercely in the corridors created by our sky scrapers. This morning on the subway, a young boy—possible aged six or seven—and his sister boarded the train with an adult. They were dressed for the rain in colorful raincoats and galoshes. After they boarded, the train moved into the tunnel and stopped. After a few moments with no announcement from the engineer as to why we weren't moving, the other passengers began to get a little restless. Sighs rippled through the car. The little boy who had been studying a puddle forming around his boots suddenly looked up. In a perfectly clear voice he said, "Don't worry. There's another train in front of us. We'll go soon. Right, mom?" His mom murmured her agreement, and he looked around proudly—he'd just unraveled the mystery of subway delays.

Just a reminder of the very social ways in which we come to understand our world. Stay dry/warm/comfortable during your travels today.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Gucci, Coach, and Dooney & Bourke: The Experience of Being Socially Measured

I believe I was socially measured this morning, and I think I may have passed. During my morning commute, a woman sitting across from me caught my eye, gave me a sharp nod and said, "Nice bag." Momentarily shaken out of sleepiness (I hadn't had any coffee yet), I looked back at her blankly for a second. I flashed her a quick smile and nodded a thanks, and tried to return to my state of sleepiness for a few additional minutes. No such luck. My new friend leaned forward in her seat and scrutinized my bag. When she sat back, she gave a satisfied little nod and said, "I thought so. I was considering that one." All chance of reclaiming sleepiness gone, I found my eyes studying the shiny leather of her own bag—which she held on her lap like a shield—seeking the same information she had pursued moments before, wondering at her assessment and her sense of satisfaction. [Left: A Louis Vuitton hang bag in transit.]

Commercial brands have long been used by some to create, manage, and read social status. As an undergrad, I spent some time exploring reputation and respectability via Peter Wilson's work in the Caribbean (1969). Wilson proposed that reputation was a public phenomenon, based on showings of wealth and other physical items. Reputation was therefore something that could be determined at-a-glance. If you were poorly dressed, then you must also have a poor reputation. Reputation was based in part on your public presence. Respectability however was a much more qualitative assessment: it was based in part on accomplishments. As knowledge of accomplishments is limited to a much more local group, respectability was attributed to the private realm—the immediate network of your home and close community.  So for example, the type of car you drove would contribute to your public reputation, while earning a promotion might contribute to your respectability within your family and peer circles. For Trinidadians living under and with the legacy of colonial rule, reputation was harder to come by as economics often limited opportunities to purchase the items necessary to attain public standing and become socially mobile. Some individuals managed to bring the ideas of respectability into the public sphere to author themselves as reputable via the sport of cricket, thus changing the dynamics of reputation and respectability.

Now that you've had a healthy dose of anthropological theory to get your Friday morning started, let's go back to my fashion savvy friend on the subway. In an ideal world, opinions about others wouldn't be formed based on at-glance-observations concerning modes of dress and the designer labels we sport. However, the truth is we do it all the time because it helps us organize our world. This form of public reputation—a personal brand, if you will—allows us to believe that we know something about the other person (for better or worse). I was evaluated this morning and met her standards. My bag apparently allowed her to place me in a certain category, and allowed her to relate to me—I was someone who would understand her assessments. My degree of respectability didn't matter, and really how could it? She couldn't know me or anything that I might have accomplished. Her evaluation was based purely on the way I presented myself. [Right: Another Louis Vuitton—recognizable by its signature print.]

In a recession-minded society, will labels continue to have the same value to reputations? Or will more weight come to be placed on respectability? And since respectability in this model is not based on the ownership of luxury items, how will we gauge it? Would a person reading a book on the subway be more respectable that a person with an iPod? And would the title and subject of the book matter? Would a person with a Kindle be more respectable than a person with an old fashioned book? As you can tell, I have some questions—and I'm interested in your take on this. Talk back below.

Wilson, Peter J. "Reputation and Respectability: A Suggestion for Caribbean Ethnology." Man, New Series, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Mar., 1969), pp. 70-84.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fading Landmarks, Fading Memories

On the heels of the closing of famed New York City restaurant Tavern on the Green comes news that another landmark, the Plaza Hotel, continues to struggle. In my recent post on the demolition and reconstruction of Penn Station, I reached a troubled peace concerning the price of history—acknowledging that despite the best efforts and intentions, we will still lose physical representations of our history. (I'm also currently reading The World Without Us, which has has me thinking a great deal about permanence.) While I clearly tend to get excited about the "incidentals" of history (e.g., an old well, fading commercial signage, the ruins of a hearth, a foundation line, old boundary lines), monuments tend to command public attention. The importance awarded to both "types" of historical artifacts however stems from a connection made with them, which prompts me to question how landmarks come to be—not the official process of designation, but the personal recognition from citizens that award a special status to certain places and monuments. How are these connections formed? [Right: The Plaza overlooks a snowy Central Park. Photo from New York Architecture Images.]

In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman explores the future of the planet after the human species is gone. In short, nature will erase most traces of our presence as it reclaims spaces we manipulated for development. He notes that we very rarely consider our impermanence as a species. The original seven wonders of the ancient world, for example, were meant to last through the ages, though only one—the Khufu pyramid—survived the test of time. And even the pyramid is slowly being ravaged by nature as erosive forces strip the outer layers away, gradually reducing its size. One day, Weisman proposes, it will be nothing more than a hill. The other wonders were felled by assorted natural and human efforts: decay rendered the towering wooden Statue of Zeus and the Babylonian Hanging Gardens obsolete; earthquakes erased the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria; fire ravaged the Temple of Artemis; and Crusaders razed the Persian Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Once a testament to humankind's supreme ability to conquer and command their surroundings, all but one of these monumental feats of construction are gone—and in their absence, others have taken up residence in their place, new testaments to our ever-growing ability to manipulate and mold our environment. Weisman suggests that the ancient wonders earned their status as a result of beauty, but also as a result of their sheer size:
"Human creation writ very large often overwhelms us into submission" (p 221).
The Plaza is no modern wonder, but in some ways this sentiment applies to it and all other grand landmarks. To gain landmark status is to find protection in memory from the assault of modernity. The Plaza, much like the original Penn Station, captures a moment in New York City's history when the city had come of age. New Yorkers had finished taming the island and surrounding areas, and could now focus on cultivating an image. One of the reasons for the public outcry at the destruction of Penn Station was that it was viewed as a major entry-point into New York City. Citizens felt that the grandeur of the station was a fitting welcome to what was certainly a grand and daunting city even in its youth. Completed in 1907, the building was meant to resemble a French chateau. According to the Plaza's official historian Curtis Rathje, the hotel was originally built as an extended-stay establishment, so that the wealthy could maintain an apartment in the city and escape to their country homes as needed. The Plaza thus was meant in some ways to serve as a stylish entry-point to the city as well. [Left: The Plaza in the 1907. Photo from The Bowery Boys.]

And it certainly served in this capacity, as a number of celebrities have used the Plaza address as their own. Through the ages, the Plaza has come to represent an element of the city itself—perhaps the city as we want to remember it. The sense of grandeur is still there, as is the status associated with it. It's a part of the New York City social culture. But perhaps now it is protected in part because it reminds us not of what we have done, but of a moment when the city had grasped a sense of itself. I realize that I am speaking of the city as a sentient organism, but in this sense, I am referring to the collective feeling of citizenship and community held by residents. In 1907, a hotel of 18 stories was no mean feat. It was a monumental accomplishment for its time—much as the Colossus and the other ancient wonders were for their times. But the Plaza retains its poise amidst its neighbors who now tower around it. It is no longer a literal monument, but has importance because we choose to remember it as such.

Let's hear your thoughts on this—To what degree does memory effect the possibility of preservation? Do landmarks and public monuments draw on a collective memory? How do you think these are formed?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

When Invisibility Lets You Sleep

A little late, but a story to share:

During my evening commute on Tuesday and my morning commute on Wednesday, I boarded subway cars with sleeping homeless persons. In the former situation, the sleeper had commanded an entire bench. Though people were annoyed that space was compromised during the evening rush hour, no one harassed the man. We just all packed in a little tighter instead. In the latter, the man slept in a seated position, though he still occupied at least a quarter of a bench. (I'd approximate that to be the space occupied by three people weighing about 150 lbs each.) The homeless are invisible to members of the majority in most cases. In this instance, invisibility gave them a moment's respite from the cold. The presence of these two sleeping individuals also posed a challenged to their fellow riders: these individuals were most decidedly there, but this could not be acknowledged  by other riders because it would render them visible.  If they actually existed, if they were rendered real by recognition, perhaps require action. Invisibility permitted them to slumber on. They were both securely in position when I exited at my destinations.

(FYI: I've talked about the efforts of two homeless individuals to attain visibility previously in this post.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

To Lock or Not to Lock? Questions of Personal Security

Apparently, as unforgiving as New York City is reputed to be, a growing number of people have revealed that they don't bother to lock their front door, or only lock up on specific occasions. I couldn't pass on the opportunity to write about this because it reminded me of an early conversation with someone who is now one of my dearest friends.

It began when her house guest learned she didn't lock her front door when she was in her apartment. She nonchalantly confirmed that he was right, if she was home, she didn't see a reason to lock her door. If I remember the moment correctly, I believe it was in this instant that I looked at her as though she had grown giant green tentacles from her head. Radiating incredulity, I remember asking her, in a somewhat scandalized tone, whether she had heard of home invasions. At this point, she looked at me as though I had sprouted green tentacles from my head, and shrugged, noting that this was Chapel Hill, not at all like the Den of Iniquity I hailed from. Still, after much haranguing by me, the paranoid New Yorker, she started locking her door—at least when I was there with her.

When did the idea of personal safety become so, well, personal? Some of the folks reported not locking up because they live in a building with a doorman, which they feel is sufficient to prevent unauthorized persons from entering their homes. By leaving their doors unlocked, they're recreating a sense of "small town security." And it is this sense of security that others who don't have the benefit of doormen cite—they trust their neighbors. Their attitude has been characterized with the following thinking:
I am a free and easy person who is more concerned that my house is open to any friend who wants to drop by than with possessions. I live in a fine building in which people know and respect one another and there is no need to lock my door. I live in a building in which we are all good friends, and if someone who has a few too many drinks walks in by mistake one night and falls asleep on the couch, it’s a good story that proves what a friendly place this is.
While a sense of trust in your community and neighbors is a good thing—and in some ways helps to create your sense of "home"—this seems like a very fragile arrangement. Some in the article mention a loss of faith in theft deterrent measures as a reason for not locking up. Does this response seem a bit preemptive? It appears to run counter to the protection offered by the herd. If we're all locking our doors, then we're acting in concert to reduce opportunities for burglaries. One instance of not locking up, even if it's in a "closed system," compromises safety. The security cited by "No Lock People" is flawed—the doorman could step away from his post, or someone could leave the main door unlocked, or you could find yourself having to stay away from your apartment longer than expected, etc. Anything can happen. Of course, you could double and triple bolt your door, and still be the victim of a burglary. But why make things easier for a would-be thief?

The comments have been interesting to review. They represent a varied view of personal safety—former city dwellers who never locked up are bolting their doors in the suburbs, and No Lock People who have always lived outside of urban areas talk about how they have never felt threatened, didn't feel threatened until they were robbed, or changed their minds after being verbally accosted about locking up. One commenter shared the following:
"I shared a house with a no-lock person in grad school. She would leave the back door unlocked all the time. I asked her politely to lock up and she said 'I prefer to trust people'. I could never make her understand that it was unreasonable for her to put my possessions at risk as well."
People have a right to determine their own measures of safety, but not at the expense of others. Personal safety is therefore a much more public issue than one may initially think. Yes, we want laws in place to protect us. But personal safety is also dependent on the things we do to support those laws. Personal safety is tied to public behaviors:
"The no lock people say that a determined burglar will get in whether the doors are locked or not, which is true, but I would say most burglars are not that determined! They're opportunists, rattling doorknobs, looking for the fool who hasn't locked up so they can make a quick and easy buck. We mistakenly left our car doors unlocked a couple of years ago when someone was going up and down the street breaking into cars. He/she wasn't breaking windows or using crowbars, they were just testing door handles. The $60 he took didn't matter as much as the sense of security that evaporated after the break-in. I can only imagine how I'd feel if it had been the house. Anyone who wants into my house needs to get past at least two locks now, and if I'm inside, that's only the start of his troubles."
It's an interesting way to think about the relationships we develop with our surroundings. Are you a Lock or No-Lock person? Me? I'm (mostly) a locker, even though I live in a fairly safe neighborhood, I think you just never know. When I briefly lived in North Carolina, I could never forget that I was a woman living alone, and was an aggressive locker. I don't think I ever allowed myself to relax there. I had a roommate and I don't think I ever trusted her with my safety. Much to my surprise, when I returned to New York, I found I was guilty of leaving the back door unlocked on occasion when I knew that I would be coming "right back." It surprised me. Recent events have caused me to double check when I leave the house to make sure I've locked up, even if I'm coming "right back." But I wonder if I might revert over time. I want to trust my neighborhood, as I'm sure many other people do, but does it make sense to do so when so much is dependent on the actions and desires of others?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Balancing Progress and History

I had some time at Penn Station yesterday before my train was announced, so I hung around on the concourse level for a change instead of descending immediately to the track. I really wanted to get a good look at a bas-relief that I walk past every day. You see, it features a bare breasted woman—and it's rather well detailed. Do I have your attention yet?

[Above: Bas-relief artwork at Penn Station.]

Penn Station in its original form was a grand testament to New York City's architectural enterprises. Completed in 1910, the original station was a spectacular example of the Beaux-Arts style of architecture. It featured a soaring 150-ft ceiling that allowed sunlight to illuminate the concourse from which you could watch the trains entering and leaving the station, as well as a 277-ft waiting room fashioned after the Roman Baths of Caracalla. It occupied eight acres of real estate, spanning 7th and 8th Avenues from 31st to 33rd Streets. Its completion marked a golden age in terms of development and architecture for the city, but it was not meant to be.

[This photo of Penn Station c. 1911 gives a sense of it's sprawling majesty.]

In the late 1950s, plans were quietly made to demolish this colossal building. It came down to money and development, as most things do in this city. The growth of the automobile industry and the building of highways greatly reduced the popularity of passenger rails, and Pennsylvania Railroad, the owner of Penn Station, was nearly broke. The land that Penn Station was sitting on was far too valuable to the growing city for Penn RR not to sell. So they entered into quiet talks with the owners of Madison Square Garden, which was then located on 26th Street near Madison Square. The owners of the Garden felt that given the popularity of the sporting complex, if they had the right opportunity to provide for larger crowds in a central location, they could not only boost their own commercial success, but that of the city as well. At this stage in NYC history, the midtown area was suffering. With the building of the Brooklyn and Queensboro Bridges earlier in the century, the outer boroughs were experiencing a residential boom, which drew construction and commercial enterprises out of the city. The Madison Square Garden Corporation felt that the Penn Station site was perfect for their plan: the railroad would be moved underneath the facility so that it would continue to bring people into and out of the city, with the new Madison Square Garden serving as an an epicenter for commercial development. They negotiated a deal that left the resident railroads with 25% ownership, and retained the remaining percentage for themselves, effectively seizing control of any future development of the site. [Left: Penn Station concourse, c. 1962.]

All of this happened without public knowledge until the NY Times got wind of the development plans and ran an article in 1961 revealing the plans for demolition and causing a public outcry. Architects, artists, writers, and private citizens quickly rallied to save the building, but it was to no avail. Beauty and history were no match for economics in this instance, and the case for demolition for the growing city was just too strong. So in 1963, the building came down and by 1966, the midtown landscape had changed considerably. A Time editorial stated:
"Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."
-- "Farewell to Penn Station," New York Times editorial, October 30, 1963
What does our naked friend have to do with tale of destruction? In the 1990s, to address the complaints that Penn Station was nothing more than a glorified basement, the facility underwent renovations under the Penn Station Improvement Project, which included the installment of a collection of bas-relief artwork throughout the station titled the Ghost Series. Done by Andrew Leicester, the artwork was meant to invoke the grandeur of the Roman design of the original building. The woman and her clothed friend, as well as the other Roman images, remind those who pass through the station that the remnants of the past are still with us. [Right: All that remains today of the original Penn Station are a few artifacts, such as this overlooked stairwell which still contains the original brass hand rails from the building Photo Credit: NYT.]

New York City is a place where progress and development are primary concerns. Most buildings in this city have short life spans. From the very beginning, this city has defined itself by constantly (and sometimes ruthlessly) reconstructing itself. In discussing the story of Penn Station recently, I found myself involved in a severe disagreement with someone. When I told the story of how the building had been torn down to install the new Madison Square Garden, he expressed approval at demolition for the sake of progress, citing the real estate value of land in NYC where space is at a premium and the economic and commercial benefits of redevelopment. I countered somewhat hotly that perhaps he would like to raze Ellis Island and construct a row of skyscrapers. At this point, he reminded me that even my beloved Federal Hall would one day be gone—the site where George Washington was sworn in reduced to a plaque!—as even the facade would be beyond saving. He pointed out that New York City does not capitalize on its history—it is a city far more concerned with capital itself. He asked: "If all the historic sites, the cultural sites, were removed from the city, would tourists still visit?" And I was forced to admit reluctantly that I thought the answer was yes. People travel here to see Times Square, to see the Stock Exchange, and to take pictures in front of Tiffany's. There are very few people clustered around the site of the Stadt Huys or Bowling Green.

[Above: Will a plaque like this be all that remains of Federal Hall one day?]

In any case, we volleyed a few more well-placed shots at each other before reaching a truce of sorts. I had to ultimately agree to a certain point with his argument: things must change for us to move forward. (And truthfully, I'm glad we now have building codes!)  My debate partner does have a deep respect and appreciation for history, but is perhaps less emotionally vested in the past than I am. While I agree with redevelopment for revitalization, I believe we can't lose all of our history for the sake of progress. We need a sense of who were were. We simply cannot have progress for the sake of progress. I think the Ghost Series reminds us that we build on the efforts of others—buildings may physically disappear, but their spirit lingers in unusual ways if we care to look. As recent construction in Times Square has proven, in this city nothing is ever truly gone. We build on our past, incorporating it into our present even without realizing it.

The demolition of Penn Station has been credited with mobilizing preservation efforts in New York City. Fairly recently, I discussed efforts to save the building facade of 211 Pearl Street, which was slated to become the site of a condominium. This story had a fairly happy ending, but I have to acknowledge that despite genuine efforts at preservation in other places, sometimes the price of history will be too high. The key in these circumstances will be finding ways to remind our present that we have a past.

[Above: Information under statue of George Washington at Federal Hall.]

What are your thoughts on the price of history?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Toward a Common Humanity

"Being an anthropologist means that when a natural disaster occurs somewhere in the world, a friend may be there."
I could not have expressed this sentiment any better myself, so I am borrowing the words of a member of my former UNC cohort. The recent catastrophic earthquake in Haiti has turned my thoughts to our global levels of connectivity. Anthropologists develop unique relationships with the world at large, both through ethnographic subjects who come to be friends, and even extended family, and through their colleagues who create links to other neighborhoods, cities, and regions. When natural disaster strikes, many people are forced to wonder whether and how people they know may be affected, and some are surprised at the answers.

[Above: Earthquake destroys much of Haiti, Jan 2010. Photo from the BBC.]

With thousands feared dead and most of Haiti in physical ruin, international support has been widely pledged. President Obama has promised the "unwavering support" of the United States in a press release today, and while he has not committed to a specific monetary pledge, he has urged Americans to donate "despite the fact that we are all experiencing tough economic times here at home." Global financial challenges lurk ominously in the background, and I have to wonder how aid pledges will be affected by the economic crises that have swept the world. From what I've been able to dig up on the web, some of the offers of help are as follows:
  • Aid agencies in Haiti are opening up storehouses of food and water.
  • The World Food Program is flying in 100 tons of emergency food.
  • The UN hopes to provide $10 million in emergency funds.
  • The European Union has offered $4.4 million.
  • Doctors Without Borders is offering to set up service stations throughout Haiti (providing they can get into the country).
  • The International Red Cross can supply emergency funds for 3000 families.
The BBC also details additional international aid efforts in an article on their news site. Given the devastation that has wracked Haiti, will this be enough? President Obama has stressed that support to Haiti must be an international effort if it is to be an effective effort. If financial aid is not possible, then perhaps nations can offer services and much needed resources to assist. But still, will it be enough? For a country that has long been steeped in man-made woes, including poverty and poor political infrastructure, perhaps this is an opportunity to rebuild from the very core—but to do so will require more than a gift of of a few million dollars, pounds, or euros. It will require a conscious investment in the country, and more importantly, the people.

But perhaps these are thoughts for the long term when attention to immediate needs of those who are buried under rubble or sleeping in the space where their homes formerly stood is needed. President Obama has also invoked a sense of global community:
"(T)his is a time when we are reminded of the common humanity that we all share.  With just a few hundred miles of ocean between us and a long history that binds us together, Haitians are neighbors of the Americas and here at home.  So we have to be there for them in their hour of need." [From Press Release: Remarks by the President on Rescue Efforts in Haiti.]
Certainly, local Haitian communities both here in New York and elsewhere, have mobilized to send supplies and provide physical assistance in this time of need. For others interested in providing support, social media technologies have been helpful. For example, people have been text messaging donations. Social media has also played a larger role in disseminating information and keeping family members and friends connected and informed. CNN featured a page called What We Are Hearing Via Social Media, providing eye-witness information collected from Twitter. And as I poured over the various news sites, it seemed that many of the images shown were from non-news personnel. These technologies are becoming crucial to the survival of our ever-growing and geographically-expanding networks. Web 2.0 technologies have been activated to create impromptu support networks  and share what little information people may have heard. They are proving integral to the management of disasters. And perhaps creating a global community so that when natural disasters strike, anthropologists aren't the only ones wondering and worrying about the fate of friends.

[Above: Screenshot of CNN's Haiti Twitter feed.]

I'm interested in knowing if any of you donated money via text messaging, and if so how you learned about the opportunity. I'm also interested in learning about how you are following the news about Haiti—through social media, news websites, etc.

I hope that relief efforts are swift, so that Haitians can find some comfort before they begin the process of rebuilding.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Growing Up Digital

Technology propels us ever-forward, shaping us even as we strive to create new, faster, and more stylish gadgets and processes to assist with our daily life needs. Researchers are beginning to ask how these technologies will change our relationships to each other, and are finding that the continuous march of technological advancement is building a digital divide between generations. As the author of the linked article says of his toddler:
My daughter’s worldview and life will be shaped in very deliberate ways by technologies like the Kindle and the new magical high-tech gadgets coming out this year — Google's Nexus One phone and Apple’s impending tablet among them. She’ll know nothing other than a world with digital books, Skype video chats with faraway relatives, and toddler-friendly video games on the iPhone. She’ll see the world a lot differently from her parents.
I have spent some time on this blog belaboring the point that technology has an isolating effect—that our ability to make and manage one-to-one connections is limited by our need to always be connected to everyone. (Do you really know all 500 people who are your "friends" on Facebook? Do you really need to Tweet about your Starbucks order—and why are there a hundred strangers who care?) I've spent some time wondering how the dynamics of our networks will change as we begin to manage them digitally, and recently, I've wondered how social pressure and the social order are manifested digitally. I think these are important questions to ask because like it or not, technology is integrated with our lifestyles, and we're constantly making accommodations to encourage it to infiltrate even deeper.

The article marks a contrast between the Net Generation (born in the 1980s) and the iGeneration (born in the 1990s and the past decade), citing their preferred method of communication: the latter spends more time using text messaging and instant messaging programs to connect with one another instantly, while the former still demonstrate a preference for email, which does not necessarily guarantee instantaneous responses. The point here, according to Cal State professor Larry Rosen, is that the iGeneration will grow up expecting instant responses and constant connection to one another, and will lack the patience for anything less.

But this is also a generation that will group up more primed to process information than any other. They will know how to mine the web, how to glean relevant information from different sources, how to synthesize a story out of the assorted bytes of data they have collected. And they'll be able to do all of this while multitasking at levels not previously employed by even their older siblings. This is also a generation that will have a head start on networking. They're born connected—they probably have Facebook groups for their playgroups! Networking will be second nature to these kids who will retain friendships from elementary school and kindergarten with ease. What the Net Generation has merely tapped will be unleashed by the iGeneration and subsequent web users. While some may worry about the caliber of congition with this group, I think we'll find that the world is rapidly becoming a different place, one that accommodates their relationship with technology and information.

I'm no fan of the Kindle. I feel that books should be held and experienced as much as they are read. But an entire generation may grow up knowing only digital books. My heart breaks a little at this notion, but it's the way they will come to process information. It's progress—just another step in growing up digital.

What are your thoughts about the digital divide? What is your relationship to technology? How does that differ from that of your own parents? And new parents, what have you noticed about the ways your children interact with technology?

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Management of Personal Space

How much space are you can you reasonably occupy in public before you're considered obnoxious?

During the evening rush hour yesterday on the 2/3 subway line, I camped out at my usual spot on the platform, and boarded per usual when the doors opened right in front of me. I snagged a seat across from a woman with a baby in a carriage. The carriage was positioned in front of her, so that she could feed the infant a bottle, but it blocked a seat adjacent to where she was sitting. She was seemed oblivious to the people who boarded stop after stop and looked at the empty, inaccessible seat. After the feeding, she leaned back on the arm of her male companion who was sprawled over two seats in the corner. No one asked her to move the carriage (and no one asked him to shift), but should she have made an attempt to clear the space so that someone could take the available seat? [Image Right: Carriage blocks available seat on the train.]

In New York City, we spend a lot of time in close quarters with strangers, yet this has not diminished our sometimes ferocious responses to invasions of what we feel is our personal space. But my question is this: in public, how much personal space can we reasonably claim for ourselves before we start to infringe upon the space of others?

This woman was tending to an infant, and I am sure that this held the annoyance some people may have felt in check. But this is not an uncommon occurrence. Sprawlers on mass transit are fairly common, particularly during non-peak hours. And on the LIRR, commuters have developed extensive strategies to claim space for themselves. For example, the seats are arranged in rows that can feasibly seat three people, most riders will occupy either the aisle or window seat and will use the middle seat as a "communal" space to store bags and other personal effects. In two-person rows, a common tactic for riders who want the row for themselves is for the rider to take the aisle seat and place a personal item in the window seat. At a glance, the row looks full, and most people don't want to ask others to move—it does happen, but it often feels like a production as the seated person who has to move will grab his or her bag(s) and/or package(s),appearing to bulk up in the process, and tends to sit down again with much reshuffling. There are overhead racks on the LIRR that can be used to store items, but these aren't used very frequently.

[Above: A sprawler on the subway. Could someone else have fit into the space available if he was not spread out in this way?]

We all have a right to be comfortable, and sometimes overcrowding on mass transit can hamper this, but what are our boundaries? And why do some people seem to overlook them? No one wants to rub shoulders (and other body parts) with complete strangers for the entire duration of their commute, but have we grown more opposed to any contact with others as we engage in a more digital existence? This morning during my commute, I snagged a two-seater row on the LIRR and promptly took the window seat leaving the aisle available. (The window seat option lets me nap to my destination without having to move to let the other rider off, so I personally think it's a better deal, and not too much of a hassle to have someone sit next to you. But then again, I'm a fairly small person who doesn't take up too much room). She said good morning to me as she sat down! A total stranger wished me a good morning as she entered the area next to "my" personal space! I was stunned. Sure, I speak to some of the people I see on a daily basis at my LIRR station, but people just don't seem to do this anymore—and by this, I mean acknowledge one another. The expansion of our personal space demands seems to coincide with the growing mobility of our personal lives. Our electronic gadgets that work so hard to connect us seem to have enhanced our need for a larger buffering zone in the "real" world. Perhaps we're less aware of each other as a result of the amount of time we invest checking BlackBerrys and iPhones, listening to iPods, playing video games, and so on. And as a result of being less aware of others physically, we ourselves expand—not physically, but in terms of our sense of self. [Image Left: A bag occupies a "communal" seat on the LIRR.]

Or is this simply a NYC (or urban) phenomenon? Perhaps people are perfectly reasonable about sharing space in other places. What do you think?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sometimes All That Glitters Is Indeed Gold (JH3)

Having eaten, it's time to explore the shops in Jackson Heights. There are few other places where the store fronts offer such a sense of decadence and vibrancy. Garments in colorful fabrics with intricate embroidery adorn mannequins, while ornate 24K gold items gleam brightly from behind thick glass panes. This place calls to true fashionistas—the flurry of color and sequins (and increasingly daring cuts for tops) and heavy jewelry pieces may not appeal to everyone.

Indian clothing is distinct. While other cultures may designate certain clothing as "cultural" and limit them to special occasions, the style of Indian clothing permeates all aspects of life. For example, saris can be worn everyday or for special occasions, such as weddings. While foods may be governed by a sense of nostalgia, clothing is a way of life—it's an expression of identity and belonging, both regionally and culturally. For many South Asian immigrants, clothing is a way to connect to their homeland, but it is also a statement of who they are. It can help younger generations, who may have limited knowledge of their roots, develop a connection to their cultural heritage. The clothing industry also provides a chance for dialogue to occur between South Asian immigrants and their native land: immigrants get a sense of what's acceptable or becoming trendy from the products they are importing, while their purchases tell retailers and manufacturers in India and the surrounding areas what could have international appeal, and how immigrants want to represent themselves. The outcome of this conversation is an overall shaping of culture—it must retain it's historical significance and meaning, but meet the needs and expectations of those outside of its direct influence. [Image Right: Mannequins model different Indian outfits.]

Gold is also culturally important to South Asians (as well as others.) National Geographic had an extensive feature on gold early last year and the significance many cultures afford this shiny metal. India leads the world in demand for gold, consuming 773.6 tons of gold (about 20% of the world gold market) in 2007. According to the article:
India's fixation stems not simply from a love of extravagance or the rising prosperity of an emerging middle class. For Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians alike, gold plays a central role at nearly every turning point in life—most of all when a couple marries. There are some ten million weddings in India every year, and in all but a few, gold is crucial both to the spectacle and to the culturally freighted transaction between families and generations. "It's written into our DNA," says K. A. Babu, a manager at the Alapatt jewelry store in the southwestern city of Cochin. "Gold equals good fortune."
The degree to which gold is embedded in Indian culture is apparent from the shops that line 74th Street. However, while food and clothing (albeit at a lesser degree) serve in some ways to link South Asians immigrants to both mainstream and native cultural forces, gold seems to be mostly an internal currency. That is, while food and clothing are cultural identifiers that can be used with a greater public, gold appears to circulate internally within the immigrant group as a way to solidify their connection with one another.

[Above: A gold display in Jackson Heights. Dec. 09]

The exchange of gold via the dowry practice versus the sale of food and clothing provides an interesting lens to view the ways cultural resources can be leveraged to claim an identity with a mainstream group or larger public and confirm an identity with those in the same group. At a glance it would seem that clothing also operates in this manner—when "others" view Indian clothing, it allows South Asians to claim an identity, and in wearing these items South Asians are confirmed to each other. Yet, there is a larger dialogue that occurs here that permits culture to be shaped, or transformed, or adapted, if you will. There are multiple sources of input involved: the immigrant group, the native group, and the "other." All three are reacting to the physical representation created by clothing and influencing each other to varying degrees. Whereas when gold is exchanged via the dowry, confirming the cultural allegiance of the participants, it is a more local dialogue. Gold is a cultural preservative. [Image Right: Gold bangles.]

See, I told you you didn't have to go far to experience anthropology. As luck would have it, it's only a subway ride away.

I'm interested to hear your take on the JH series, and the management of cultural resources by groups, particularly immigrant groups but any type of group you'd like to discuss is welcome. Hope you all enjoyed our little excursion to the Borough of Queens. If you'd like to visit, I dug up this little guide to help you along from the New York Times.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Chicken Tikka With a Side of Culture (JH2)

In the first installment of this series, I invited you to ride the No. 7 subway line with me to Jackson Heights, and enjoy the sights and sounds that mark the diverse population that lives in the borough of Queens. Today we'll explore Jackson Heights a bit and note the strategies employed by an immigrant group to both maintain ties to an ancestral home while simultaneously establishing roots in a new homeland.

But first, a bit of history. Jackson Heights, and really, much of Queens, was originally meant to provide a refuge from city life. Originally nothing more than a marshy section of Newtown (now Elmhurst), the area was mostly farms and fields. But Manhattanites were running out of room on the island. In the 1840s, they had begun to move uptown, but at the rate the city was growing, New Yorkers would have to spread to the outer areas of the city if they wanted a respite from the traffic, noise, and general bustle of city life. The completion of the Queensborough Bridge in the early 1900s encouraged those who could afford the rents and mortgages to flee to greener pastures in Queens, much in the same way the earlier finished Brooklyn Bridge encouraged an exodus to Brooklyn.. According to the Jackson Heights Beautification Group:
Though not explicitly stated in promotional material, it was widely known at the time that only white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were welcome in Jackson Heights, as was the case with such other middle-class suburban developments as Forest Hills Gardens and Garden City.
Within a matter of a decade, the neighborhood was a thriving garden community (much of which still remains, though the gardens are private and largely removed from public view). In any case, the financial crisis of the 1930s and the subsequent wars left many home owners in Jackson Heights with financial woes. As a result, many of the apartments were divided, and subsequent developments were offered as co-ops. The 1950s and 1960s saw an influx of young families to the neighborhood, including many immigrants attracted by the small town feel of the neighborhood.

[Image Above: Bird hunter at Trains Meadow (a road running through what would become JH), c. 1900. Image from Forgotten-NY.]

Jackson Heights today retains echoes of this small town feel—a stroll down 74th Street can transport you to an entirely new place. The street is dominated by the Patel Brother's ethnic grocery store, which is flanked by restaurants, and clothing and jewelry boutiques. The evening that I visited, the streets were still quiet around 6:30 pm as the dinner rush and evening commuters looking to grab last minute ingredients from the Patel Brothers had not yet descended on the scene. It was dinner time, though, and what better way to experience a culture than through it's food? [Image Right: 74th Street, Jackson Heights, Dec. 2009.]

Indian Taj, which I mistakenly identified as Jackson Diner originally, was relatively quiet, but filled up quickly—and wouldn't you know, my fellow diners were representative of the diversity of the area: a large Asian and Caucasian family settled behind my table, several South Asian couples were scattered throughout the restaurant, and a sole Latina woman secured a table by the door (from her familiar manner with the wait staff, it appeared she was a regular). But as I mentioned on the train ride over here, this is hardly surprising. These groups live in such close proximity to each other that it's expected you'd find a mixing of different ethnicities—people must be curious, and you can't overlook the element of convenience. Like my local multi-ethnic grocery store Manaan, which I explored in an earlier post, the Patel Brothers provide a variety of South Asian ingredients and a plethora of produce. It's probably the best place for produce in the area, and regardless of cultural or ethnic background, who can pass on a deal like that? Particularly for people whose diets consist largely of fresh produce? [Image Left: Jackson Diner fills for dinner.]

Rather, the experience offers an opportunity to look at ways immigrant groups navigate and manage their cultural identities. Food is a powerful connector. A familiar dish has the power to transport you to your childhood, your favorite memory, your past. Clearly as the Indian immigrant population grew, a sense of nostalgia grew with them. They imported the comforts of memory to help them contend with the difference around them. But their imports came to define them in the eyes of the other cultural groups. Quick, name an Indian dish! Are you thinking of chicken tikka, naan, or dhal? Indian cuisine can be rich, spicy, sweet, savory, and fragrant, but these experiences have been muted by the process of immigration, and assimilation. Instead, the culture—as have many other immigrant cultures—has come to be defined by a few readily recognizable items. Of course, commercial appeal has to be taken into account. Importing goods for a specific group may serve that group's needs, but it can be financially limiting. Now if those goods can be transformed to have mass appeal, and draw the specific group in addition to curious outsiders, well the profit margin increases. In the face of these types of pressures, culture is molded to an intermediary form. [Image Right: On this plate clockwise to center, chickpeas, chutney, chili chicken, chicken makahani, tandoori chicken, basmati rice, and naan.]

But that shouldn't dull your enjoyment of what is actually available. I've encourage you before to investigate local markets and draw your own analyses based on what you find regarding the establishment's relationship to the mainstream order. In the final installment of this series, we'll explore some of the shops along 74th. In the meantime, let's hear your thoughts on assimilation and the use of cultural products to mediate relationships and positions within the social order.

Monday, January 4, 2010

To Jackson Heights Via the No. 7 Train: Explorations in Diversity (JH 1)

This week, using a three-part series, I want to take you to a small corner of New York in the borough of Queens known as Jackson Heights—specifically, 74th Street and Broadway, a fabulous ethnic enclave where South Asians have settled and transported major cultural components, such as food and clothing, that have become huge economic elements in preserving (and presenting) Indian culture. [Right: No. 7 train pulls into the station.]

Queens has long been heralded for its diversity. In fact, while working on the Genographic Project, anthropologist and geneticist Spencer Wells wondered if it would be possible to sample all the major DNA lineages on Earth in a single street. He went to Queens—Astoria, if you're interested—and found that all 193 volunteers carried markers for virtually all the major migrations that account for our presence in every corner of the globe. People in Queens can claim a myriad of nationalities; they've also been swapping genes for generations, sharing their genetic heritage through intermarriage that has seen cultural and religious boundaries restructured and helped make cultural and religious practices more well-known to cultural others.

Excited yet? Well, to get there, we need to take the subway. Over 4.3 million people ride the subway every day, and as readers of this blog know, the volume of people on the subway makes for some interesting interactions and behaviors. The No. 7 line passes through one of the most diverse areas in the United States. Passengers on the No. 7 hail from India, Bangladesh, Korea, China, the Philippines, and many Latin American countries—and this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of origins. The subway provides a natural mixing ground, and for new immigrants, it can be the initial point of contact with members of other cultures, which can create some colorful images regarding the concept of "mainstream." Living and commuting in such close proximity, it's natural for their to be some crossover. But given this clamoring of differences, it's also important for these people to preserve their identities, which brings us to Jackson Heights. [Left: Evening commuters on the 7 train.]

While there are several such "ethnic enclaves" along the No. 7 line, I chose Jackson Heights because it provides easily identifiable contrasts that I can hopefully connect people with—samosa, jalebi, lengha, the words themselves take speakers away from the ordinary. South Asians have built Jackson Heights into a bustling center of commercial trade in cultural commodities, capitalizing on both new immigrants' longing for their homeland, and the fascination the mainstream holds for the "other."

My goal for Anthropology in Practice is to show you that anthropological observations and understanding aren't limited to the other. (My secondary goal is to try and help dispel the notion that all anthropologists carry whips, rob tombs, and otherwise live a fabulous Indiana Jones lifestyle—archaeology is an important part of anthropology, but not a single archaeologist I know has been involved in a plot that included live dinosaurs or the Ark of the Covenant.)  And I hope that I've been successful in showing that the nuances of our lives, the things we take for granted, are interesting—and telling about our relationships to each other and to the world. Our interactions with each other and our environment shape our world. And I don't mean this in a preachy way—my point is that we are very actively involved in creating the world we live in whether we realize it or not.

[Above: Subway stop at 74th Street-Broadway bustles with diversity.]

I'm fortunate because New York City offers a unique laboratory in which to examine the interplay between relationships and roles. The multicultural nature of this city adds a complexity to the social order that may not be readily apparent elsewhere. Come back and explore Jackson Heights with me—let's take a look at the management of cultural resources.