NYC: Collective Strategies

New York City can be read as an urban lab for ways of delimiting your property, of defining your (personal) space. From the basic knowhow of shutting out people while riding the subway, till the most creative ways of letting others know where your front yard starts: in this city, here people know how to do it. The city repeatedly shows off its enormous capacity of shrinking and stretching urban space, of taking into account all inhabitants’ desire to appropriate its urban space properly, trying to avoid territorial conflicts. While other big cities show rather ugly ways of defining what is publicly accessible or not, what has a collective or an individual use, New York’s dense boroughs often unveil interesting cases of territorial delimitation, independent from the money people make in each neighborhood. The Dutch building tradition of split level entrances, in all its varieties, influenced by the English care for the individual front yard, goes together with an endless list of fencing off your property in a non offensive way, from the posh West Village till the hip East-European immigrant’s neighborhoods. From Chinatown to Harlem, from the Bronx to the Lower East side, New York City remained a vivid collection of soft boundary delimitation scenarios. What a relief to see that in this city, boundaries can still be territorial suggestions, not prison-like fortifications.

(Mexico City, pictures by Solange Guaida, 2002, versus Williamsburgh, New York City, 2008)

Besides considering territorial boundary delimitation, what is most challenging is the collective character of urban space: people seem to know how to share space, without necessarily invading each other’s domains. High property values, higher density, more activity overlap and a rather dynamic demographic conjuncture resulted in an inherent ability to share spaces. The collective structure of most part of the city is characterized by a deeply penetrating collective structure of sidewalks, lobbies, hall and stairways, terraces and rooftops. Instead of only providing a buffer area between the intimate and the unknown, here collective space seems to have acquired a more structural role, the one of social cohesion.

In other words, collective space is no synonym for an area sandwiched between private and public space: it is a time-dependent stretchable horizontal surface, often including, rather than bordering private or public properties. Collective space is not necessarily a buffering intermediate space, it can contain it. Collective strategies depend on the way people share space. Instead of focusing so much on ways of separating public from private properties, should we not better concentrate on defining properly individual or collective use of spaces? How can we make neighbors or visitors share space without giving up on their privacy or feeling of security? How can we fight global real estate markets that increasingly demand segregated, territorially risk free properties?

(Collective structure in North 5 st, Williamsburgh, New York City, Ph.D. research 2007-2010)

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