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‘Polishing the Apple’: The Systematic Eradication of ‘Otherness’ from the New York Crowd

« Polir la Grande Pomme » : L’éradication systématique de l’altérité dans la foule newyorkaise
Darren Richard Carlaw


Cet article prend acte de l’état précaire de Manhattan alors que les autorités s’efforcent d’évacuer ses « outsiders » par un processus combiné de surveillance et de gentrification. Ce processus continuel de filtrage a un effet direct sur la multiplicité des foules newyorkaises alors que la présence et l’héritage historique des « outsiders » se voit rapidement éradiquée. Manhattan a constitué un espace partitionné depuis les premières heures de son histoire et son système rigide de quadrillage des artères était déjà au départ un effort d’ordonnancement d’un espace de désordre. Cet article examine cependant de quelle manière ce système de quadrillage a toujours recelé un potentiel de contestation, alors que les tentatives actuelles pour contrer toute forme de désordre au niveau des rues menace le caractère de Manhattan comme centre de créativité. Cet article examinera par la suite la rue comme espace de performance. Le tissu dense et complexe des frontières sociales à New York dicte un sens du lieu qui définit les appartenances sociales pour se distinguer des « outsiders ». Dans un tel contexte, la performance de l’identité sociale devient une méthode de survie pour le passant qui traverse une multitude de niches urbaines. Cet article propose de revoir comment des stratégies de transgression sociale employées par la communauté des « exclus » de Manhattan ont été réappropriées et/ou utilisées par l’État. Alors que les piétons sont soumis à de plus en plus de surveillance, les nomades urbains trouvent refuge sous les rues de la ville. L’analyse des tendances actuelles dans la gestion de l’espace newyorkais tend ainsi vers la création d’une ville obéissante et stérile où l’» outsidership » n’est plus qu’une simple performance.

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Segments, Seeds, Wormholes

1The fallen apple. A section of the financial district has been protected as a historical landmark : remnants of the economic centre of a lost empire, a bygone civilisation. The skyscraper monuments to capitalism are preserved, yet crumbling. Tourists graze the site as though it were the Roman Forum, searching for indelible marks made by the crowd that once pulsed through these streets. Here, there are no sandal or cart worn thoroughfares. The cracking sidewalks offer little indication of the tramping broker classes or those upon whom they trampled. At its peak, the metropolis was in a constant state of renewal, or perhaps, a state of becoming. That which was obsolete, dilapidated or defective was rapidly excised.

  • 1  My broad definition of ‘outsidership’ and ‘otherness’ echoes that of  Michel Foucault, as addresse (...)

2Envisaging downtown Manhattan as the partial remains of an ancient lost metropolis, subject to archaeological excavation, is a way of prompting a critical reevaluation of the function of the contemporary city, specifically, the manner in which history inscribes the streets. Currently, the sanitiziation of Manhattan is nearing completion. ‘Be good or be gone,’ the motto of McSorley’s, New York City’s oldest Irish tavern, could be used to describe the gentrification process itself. The East Village bar remains in existence partly on account of its past clientele, ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Boss Tweed, Teddy Roosevelt to John Lennon. McSorley’s has been preserved on account of the fact that it complies with Manhattan’s proud history of achievement : if its notable patrons have not always been ‘good’, then they have at least been successful. Without a doubt, McSorley’s has not been saved by antiquity alone ; the building that once housed McGurk’s Suicide Hall, the infamous groggery, flophouse and brothel frequented by the city’s underbelly since 1895, was demolished in 2005. As is the trend with the majority of twenty first century metropoleis, New York City participates in the eradication of spaces inscribed by ‘other’1 less desirable, histories.

3If such buildings can be torn from the urban landscape like rotten teeth, will the history of the crowd which animates the city streets be subject to similar censorship ? Be good or be gone : only obedient American capitalists will be allowed to leave their mark on the sidewalks. On Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes, the names of great achievers celebrated in ticker tape parades are literally engraved into the walkways. As rapidly as successful New Yorkers are cemented into the city’s history, those who willingly or unwillingly do not comply with the expectations of a triumphalist society recede from memory.

  • 2  A specialist reading of the street is central to the surveillance and control of the city’s margin (...)

4As Manhattan metamorphosizes into a network of sanitized, chain-store lined streets, distinguishable from one another only by name, letter or number, the crowd metamorphosizes simultaneously. This is not simply a case of the displacement of independent businesses correlating with the displacement of independent minds. Systems of access and egress at play within the city are becoming ever more complex. The post 9/11 heightening of surveillance in Manhattan serves only to intensify the selection process regarding who is allowed to walk the streets. Be good or be gone: the crowd is subject to what Robert Castel refers to as ‘systematic predetection,’2 whereby a perceived threat is tracked, detained and removed.

5To conceive Manhattan as a potentially caducous urban space is to further imagine a moment preceding its fall, when the city has achieved the goal of filtering out all forms of ‘otherness’. A cataclysmic event such as the demise of capitalism, which could prompt the decay of economic centres such as Manhattan, is implausible within the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the city is currently involved in a multifaceted process of fortification. The 9/11 bombings, the first significant breach of the city’s ramparts, underlined that Manhattan’s foundations could be shaken by an external aggressor – if only momentarily. Subsequent attempts by the State to impose an exaggerated order upon the city serves only to expose various street level conflicts extant throughout Manhattan’s history.

The Grid

6A map of Manhattan’s gridded core is representative of what Deleuze and Guattari describe as ‘striated space’. From the moment it was chalked up, the grid imposed order onto an island wilderness. The proposed network of streets stretching northwards from 14th street to Harlem mercilessly intersected natural geographical features : ponds were filled in and streams were forced underground. Pre-existing roads, other than the diagonal sash of Broadway were erased. The decision to retain Broadway, originally the Wickquasgeck Trail, which was engraved into the land by the displaced Lenape tribe, caused a minor interruption in the rectilinear rational. The route dissected the neat block pattern, forming sharp triangular shards on the map. Even before Manhattan had grown to fill the predetermined grid, Broadway offered the suggestion of disorder in a mathematically ordered urban space.

7Douglas Tallack describes how in the nineteenth century the wind would whistle ‘round the prow of the Flatiron’ and lift women’s skirts above their ankles. He reveals that ‘A man standing there would have been interpreted as hanging around with intent rather than promenading, and the NYPD would have moved him on with the embarrassing shout ‘23rd skidoo !’ This is an anecdotal example of how disorder manifests itself in the city on account of imperfections in the grid system. Triangular wedges, such as the Flatiron Building, disturb airflow through the streets, creating the opportunity for a recurring salacious event. The police presence is merely a palliative measure. The updraft is not easily remedied and generates a point of ‘play’ within the city. The NYPD attempt to impose order upon the site by dispersing stationary bystanders who have the potential to interrupt the efficient, linear crowd flow. With regards to striated space, Deleuze and Guattari state :

If it can help it, the State does not dissociate itself from a process of capture of flows of all kinds, populations, commodities or commerce, money or capital, etc. There is still a need for fixed paths in well-defined directions, which restrict speed, regulate circulation, relativize movement, and measure in detail the relative movements of subjects and objects. That is why Paul Virilio’s thesis is important, when he shows that ‘the political power of the State is polis, police, that is, management of the public ways…’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004 : 425-426).

8This statement applies directly to the Manhattan grid system. The grid serves as a regulatory network, narrowing directional choice. At the end of each block, the pedestrian is limited to four options : continuing straight ahead, turning left or right at ninety degree angles, or performing an about face. The intersection of three streets offer further directional possibilities, and therefore further potential for disorder. Tallack’s ‘23rd skidoo’ anecdote heralds a further intrusion : that of pleasure. The sensual nature of skirts being blown above ankles causes a portion of the crowd to momentarily participate in ‘free action’, dawdling and indulging rather than working, thus smoothing striated space. Police surveillance monitors the potential emergence of smooth space, and works within the space to repeatedly striate it.

9This example of the repression of a disorderly space offers a brief snapshot of one of the innumerable spatial conflicts present on the streets of Manhattan. To walk in the city is to pass through a series of contested spaces. Manhattan may be divided zonally into a clearly defined patchwork of neighbourhoods, yet there are no definite partitions between its sites of spatial conflict – each is interconnected and in constant flux. The development of blanket surveillance in Manhattan pushes the entire island towards becoming a recorded, coded space of the State apparatus, where all contested spaces are ultimately measured and dominated. Yet, as the diagonal thread of Broadway imposes a certain cartographic chaos by ‘opening up’ sections of the tightly woven grid, similarly, specific strands inherent in the Manhattan crowd serve to upset order at street level.

Nocturnal Counter Dimension

10In Low Life, Luc Sante discusses the recurring presence of the doppelganger in nineteenth century New York, using the relationship between Broadway and the Bowery as a key example. North of City Hall Park, the Bowery parallels Broadway to the east. The Bowery can be seen as Broadway’s sinister double. Whereas the downtown stretches of Broadway commemorate outstanding achievement, its midtown portion being ‘the most brilliantly lit area of the city’ (Sante, 1992 : 11) the history of The Bowery is one of failure and darkness. Sante touches upon the dichotomy between Broadway and its ‘shadow companion’ stating :

…their respective theatrical districts came to epitomise respectability in the case of the former and cheap flash in the latter…these qualities expanded in the popular mind, so that the two avenues came, however inaccurately, to stand for moral poles (11).

11Broadway’s heroes stand in opposition to the Bowery’s villains who inhabited its various flophouses. The lights of the ‘Great White Way’ are contrasted by the comparative darkness of The Bowery, permeated only by what the wandering nineteenth century journalist George G. Foster described as ‘the brandy coloured light’ which emanated from bars, alongside ‘the sound of loud talking, laughter and blasphemy’ (Foster, 1990 : 110). The Bowery’s spiritual darkness is further emphasised by the fact that it is the only major thoroughfare in Manhattan not to have had a church built upon it (Sante, 1992 : 12). Broadway and the Bowery run parallel to one another, yet as an implied order is established on the former, a corresponding disorder erupts on the latter.

12Sante argues that a similar relationship existed between nineteenth century New York’s diurnal and nocturnal populations. Whereas Broadway and the Bowery highlight spatial dualities produced within the cityplace, nightfall reveals an alternate dimension which is hidden during daylight hours :

[Nightfall] is a bridge to the past…The night is the corridor of history, not the history of famous people or great events, but that of the marginal…It strips off the city’s veneer of progress…and reveals its wilderness (Sante, 1992 : 358).

13Nightfall declares the reemergence of chaos within the city. Daytime Manhattan is in the possession of those who conform. At dusk, ‘accepted’ individuals disperse, and the city’s ‘outsiders’ rise to reclaim the territory as their own. Whereas diurnal Manhattan may have changed dramatically, Sante suggests that throughout the course of its history, the nocturnal city has barely evolved. At nightfall, the same dark alleyways appear, filled with the same malevolent characters. Sante underlines that on any given night, every street is a link to Manhattan’s violent past : ‘Any corner can be in 1860, with the walker hit on the back of the head with a sash weight’ (Sante 1992 : 358-359). The streets become a sinister palimpsest, with the gruesome details of past crimes leaving an indelible mark on the paving stones upon which they took place. Those inhabiting the night are inextricably linked. The twenty first century mugger retraces the steps of his or her nineteenth century counterpart intent on committing the exact same crime.

14Furthermore, Manhattan’s criminal organisations historically defy conventional methods of state surveillance. As early as the 1890s, gangs adopted staged identities at street level. As Sante states, ‘most Eastmans and Five Pointers were dandies, clean-shaven, manicured, their hair pomaded, who decked out in dress suits for their rackets. They used scent liberally…’ (Sante 1992 : 219). Such strategies of evasion trouble even contemporary methods of ‘systematic predetection’. Robert Castel describes a ‘dual’ or ‘two-speed’ society, featuring ‘the coexistence of hyper-competitive sectors obedient to the harshest requirements of economic rationality, and marginal activities that provide a refuge (or dump) for those unable to take part in the circuits of intense exchange’ (Castel 1991 : 294). In such a society, surveillance is focused primarily on the second of the two groups described. Although the Eastmans and Five Pointers posed as obedient ‘members of hyper-competitive sectors,’ they dealt in mayhem. By passing as dandies, their potential threat became imperceptible and therefore difficult to police. Similarly, Brett Easton Ellis chooses to set American Psycho in 1980s Manhattan due to the fact that surveillance is so intently trained on the city’s ‘outsiders’, a seemingly bland member of the broker class can commit horrific acts and remain beyond detection. Traditionally, the Manhattan crowd resists surveillance. When the thin veneer of ‘normality’ is peeled away, violent offenders are revealed to pass as obedient citizens, while in the contemporary city, undercover police officers take on the disguise of criminals in order to make arrests. A section of the crowd which moves through the rigid grid system is inherently chaotic and defies taxonomic classification.

15It is clear that Manhattan houses a unique counter dimension which resists all forms of order. This resistance manifests itself in a body of Manhattanites bent upon the disruption and reappropriation of urban space via the employment of numerous counter-hegemonic practices. With regards to bohemian-artistic methods of social transgression alone, the grid has provided a wealth of opportunity. These methods serve to create elbowroom for a ‘space of play’ in a city where, to reference Henri Lefebvre, ‘spaces of exchange and circulation [and] political space’ grow increasingly dominant (Lefebvre : 1996 172).


16The Five Points was the epicentre of Manhattan’s wild past : a nineteenth century neighbourhood held in perpetual gang warfare. The gangs brought violent disorder to Manhattan, yet other non-violent forms of subversive group activity have also lead to a temporary ‘wilding’ of the city. In the nineteen seventies, the Green Guerrillas attempted to bring a literal wilderness to Manhattan. Members of the group tossed seed filled water balloons3 into empty lots on the Lower East Side, with the intent of transforming dilapidated privately or city owned space into green space. The spaces became community gardens serving a then impoverished downtown neighbourhood. The Liz Christy Garden, located at Bowery and Houston Streets and named for a founder of the Green Guerrillas, is an example of an illegally converted green space which has survived City Hall bureaucracy and the encroachment of gentrification. On April 23rd 1974, almost a year after its creation, the Office of Housing Preservation and Development approved the site and granted an insecure lease for the monthly fee of one dollar.

17City Hall did not always contest the Green Guerrillas illegal reappropriation and reallocation of land as sites of play, as it recognised the necessity for recreational space in areas such as the Lower East Side. The garden continues to be maintained by the Guerrillas, but is overseen by the Department of Parks and Recreation. After recognising that the chain link fences surrounding the once vacant lot had been breached and control had been momentarily lost, the State worked to engineer the space. Deleuze and Guattari state : ‘One of the fundamental tasks of the State is to striate the space over which it reigns, or to utilize smooth spaces as a means of communication in the service of striated space’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004 : 425).

  • 4  Deleuze and Guattari make a direct reference to Virilio’s discussion of revolution and ‘holding th (...)
  • 5  The garden was created without State permission and its planting (in the form of seed bombing) was (...)

18With regards to the Liz Christy Garden in its nascent stages, the Green Guerrillas could be seen as revolutionaries ‘holding the street’.4 The space which they inhabited was momentarily, a rebellious smooth space lying between striated spaces. Its wildness5 challenged the rigidity of the grid. ‘Flanked’ by striated space, the garden was given a ‘communicational’ role. The State did not strive to seize the space, rather it allowed the Guerrillas to maintain their position on the street. However, once the Garden had been approved and absorbed by City Hall, it became subject to the same regulatory practices imposed upon all recognised green spaces in Manhattan. The Guerrillas continued to hold the space as though it were smooth, despite it being repeatedly surveyed by the State.

19A wider scale spatial conflict took place beneath Manhattan at the turn of the millennium. On January 14th 2000, Mayor Giuliani announced that Manhattan, which was once thought of as the crime capital of the U.S., had become ‘the safest large city in America.’ Giuliani’s ‘Quality of Life’ campaign purported to have rescued a reportedly ‘decaying, cold and terrifying New York’ from chaos. The ‘clean up’ campaign involved what Giuliani referred to as a ‘street sweep’ which targeted, amongst others, ‘predatory criminals,’ and the homeless. The actions taken against these individuals and groups varied, however, Giuliani’s overall aim remained clear : to diminish the street level threat experienced by the pedestrian whilst navigating the city. Giuliani told a local radio station : ‘Streets do not exist in civilized societies for the purpose of people sleeping there[…] Bedrooms are for sleeping’ (quoted in Bumiller, 1999).

The Underworld

20What became of Manhattan’s so called minatory populations during this period ? Many were pushed to the less heavily policed outer boroughs. Those remaining in the city were forced literally underground. Manhattan’s ‘outsiders’ entrenched themselves in the massive network of tunnels cut deep into the rock upon which the city stands. In his introduction to Harry Granick’s Underneath New York, Robert E. Sullivan states that ‘there is a city beneath the streets’ (Granick, 1946 : 6). The study, published in 1947, spoke specifically about the subterranean network of pipes and cables which brought power, water and gas to the city. In making this prophetic statement, Sullivan clearly had no idea that the subterranean network Granick described would later become home to a number of large communities. Fifty years after the publication of Granick’s book, works such as Marc Singer’s film documentary Dark Days, Margaret Morton’s collection of duotone photographs, The Tunnel, along with Jennifer Toth’s The Mole People proved that there truly was a ‘city beneath the streets.’

21The subterranean city is not accurately mapped. Plans of functioning and recently defunct lines exist, yet due to the existence of competing rail companies at the beginning of the twentieth century many tunnels lie uncharted, unfinished or forgotten. According to Toth, an example of this is the ‘Beach’ Pneumatic Transit line. This, she states, was a short demonstration line built in 1870, which was walled up after Devlin’s, the store which housed its entrance, was destroyed by fire. Workers stumbled across the tunnel whilst digging the BMT (Brooklyn Manhattan Transit) line in 1912. An internal survey conducted by the Health Department in the 1990s counted 6,031 homeless living in the tunnels beneath Grand Central and Penn stations alone (Toth, 1993 : 38).

  • 6  Urban explorer Futurebird has posted a series of photographs from her visit to the Freedom Tunnel. (...)

22Those inhabiting the tunnels included graffiti artists, drug addicts and the homeless. Freedom Tunnel, beneath Riverside Park, became an underground exhibition space for graffiti artists who were less able to express themselves above ground, due to city crackdowns. The illegal artwork is said to evolve constantly, but includes a chiaroscuro study of the Venus de Milo, and The Freedom Mural which examines the tension between city authorities and the Mole People ;6 further works reference the 9/11 bombings. The tunnel is named for the mural’s creator, Chris ‘Freedom’ Pape, one of the first artists to work the tunnel. Its name is also suggestive of the freedoms found underground, which are limited to Manhattan’s ‘outsiders’ on the city streets.

23The tunnels beneath Manhattan directly contradict the rationale of the superterranean city. Whereas the rigid grid system imposes authority, the ravel of tunnels beneath the streets is unpoliceable. This is not only because the tunnels are not fully mapped, but also because, as one police officer admits in The Mole People, police radio does not work at such depths (Toth, 1993 : 160). Manhattan’s ‘outsiders’ entrench themselves in a space which defies surveillance as a strategy to resist control. The above and underground city becomes riven apart. Pockets of underground territory become antithetical to the systems of the State. Secret communities housed in manmade tunnels or natural caverns are a revolutionary alternative to a State regulated urban existence. The city’s troglodytes are vital nomadic components of the war machine. As with the Green Guerrillas, they hold a position which butts up against striated space. Regularly maintained train lines dissect their territory. Often only feet away from the glare of passing trains are smooth spaces, the access points to which are secreted in darkness.

24The war machine takes advantage of Manhattan’s exaggerated vertical axis and its corresponding scale of power. The uppermost floors of the city’s skyscrapers are reserved for the most wealthy or influential and function as penthouses or luxurious office spaces. At the opposite end of the scale, on the city streets and beneath, poverty and outsidership are located. Daylight comes first to those positioned highest, whereas the lowest live in darkness. The war machine utilizes this darkness as a defence against striation. If nightfall declares the reemergence of chaos within the superterranean city, then the subterranean city is in a state of constant night. The war machine tactically reappropriates Manhattan’s forgotten underground spaces, many of which were created by the State in a bid to make the city more efficient via the installation of rapid transit. The underground urban network is then held as a vital point of resistance. Below ground, State methods of surveillance are comparatively ineffective, thus enabling various forms of nomadic free movement. Toth states that the city beneath the streets is ‘a strange and foreign world’ (Toth, 1993 : 42). Crossing the internal border into this world signifies a dramatic shift in power. The war machines have superior knowledge of this territory and are able to navigate skilfully within it.

25Following the publication of the Mole People, many of the major claims made by Toth were refuted. Amongst its many critics, Joseph Brennan’s ‘Fantasy in the Mole People’ provided the most detailed dissection of Toth’s work. Brennan’s article appears on the Abandoned Stations website, which he constructed as an ongoing study of disused segments of the Manhattan rail system. Brennan dismantles many of Toth’s descriptions regarding the form of subterranean Manhattan. Her claims, for instance, that seven stories of tunnels exist beneath Grand Central Terminal are revealed to be sheer fantasy (Brennan, 1996). Such inaccuracies call into question the validity of her study as a whole. It is clear that the Mole People melds fact with fiction, sensationalising and ultimately distorting the world beneath the streets. Furthermore, following the making of Dark Days, Amtrak announced that the residents of Freedom Tunnel would be evicted. By documenting the lives of Manhattan’s underground dwellers, Toth, Singer and Morton drew attention to the spaces which the war machine held beneath the streets. This in turn led to the authorities conducting more intensive ‘sweeps’ of the tunnels, in an attempt to make them into smooth, ordered space.

26To a degree, the position of such cultural producers corresponds with that of the flâneur, discussed later in this study. As with the flâneur, Toth, Singer and Morton enter the territory of the ‘outsider’ in order to explore and document that which is hidden or marginalized. Yet, by exposing such communities they simultaneously earmark them for eviction. Nevertheless, the proven existence of Mole People is an example of how the war machine can hold vast spaces within a metropolis for a sustained period of time.

27Still, even the most temporary of territorial seizures should not be overlooked. For example, high wire artist Philippe Petit demonstrated the power of the walk as a bohemian-artistic method of social transgression. On August 7th 1974, Petit illegally ran a steel cable between the twin towers and at 7 :15am made eight crossings between the two skyscrapers. Petit’s expression of free movement rapidly attracted the attention of the authorities, who threatened to forcibly pick him off the wire by helicopter. Petit had succeeded in holding a space at its uppermost reaches of the vertical axis. His steel cable forged a swaying pathway which negated the authority of the towers. Momentarily, the newly erected dual menhirs of capitalism became nothing more than elaborate scaffolding, serving only to open up the highest space of play in the city.

28Up to this point, nomadic activity has been examined predominantly within forbidden space and at the city’s extreme heights and depths. Petit’s ‘skywalk’ and the Mole People’s subterranean exploration are radical forms of free movement involving significant risks. What of the Big Apple’s central strata ; the streets themselves ? Is there a way of carving a path through this highly conflicted space which reveals the continued operation of nomads at street level ?

29Michel de Certeau’s chapter ‘Walking in the City,’ from The Practice of Everyday Life introduces the power of the walk in terms of spatial practice and performance. By briefly examining De Certeau’s theorization of walking, it becomes clear how the act could be thought of as revolutionary, not only for the activist but for the everyday pedestrian. De Certeau suggests that the city is constantly shifting (and shifted) by the walk. Walking transforms and destabilises the static urban structure lending it fluidity. The city, thus, becomes a space for bodily movement rather than economic exchange. He relates the practice of walk itself to being a ‘pedestrian speech act’ which enunciates urban space (De Certeau, 1984 : 92). The footfall of each walker tells and retells the narrative of the city. The sum of these narratives defies the dominant narrative of the State. Walking challenges what De Certeau refers to as the modernist ‘concept city’ (93) describing it as one of the ‘microbe-like singular and plural practices which an urbanistic system was supposed to administer or suppress, but which have outlived its decay’ (96).

30De Certeau’s theory underlines the revolutionary importance of the practice of urban walking, and reaffirms my earlier assertion that disorder is inherent within the grid. The pedestrian holds the potential to open up the city, expose and transcend classification and social boundaries, and ultimately appropriate power for future action. The walkers examined in the second part of this study match this photo fit. Examining the history of the walk is a way of reassessing the (d)evolution of captured and free movement within the city. Furthermore, it is a way of ascertaining how increasingly heavy surveillance has affected the crowd phenomena.

Carving the Apple

31Take a walk from Manhattan’s southern to its northernmost tip. Depending on the route, the walk is a distance of approximately 13.4 miles. Average walking pace is just over three miles per hour. With delays (the metropolis is unpredictable in nature) the walk should take approximately five hours and pass through a series of distinct neighbourhoods. Park, McKenzie and Burgess state that Manhattan is a ‘mosaic of little worlds that touch but do not interpenetrate’ (Park, Burgess and McKenzie, 1984 : 40). This statement is less applicable to Manhattan today, as the gentrification process nears its completion. However, whilst walking, observe the numerous border crossings in which you partake.

32Manhattan is crosshatched with physical and non-physical divisions. Most are delineated by roads. For example, Canal Street designates the northern limits of TriBeCa (Triangle Below Canal Street). Other neighbourhoods retain their boundaries enforced by de facto racial segregation. In 1925, according to James Weldon Johnson’s ‘Harlem the Culture Capital,’ the boundaries of the neighbourhood were ‘marked not only by brick or stone but by the change of colour of the crowds as Seventh Avenue crossed 125th Street’ (301-2). A Manhattan guidebook, published in 1931 confirms this, stating :

If you are walking absentmindedly up Fifth Avenue, and suddenly raise your eyes, you are surprised to notice… a completely exotic picture. Within a few yards, within a few minutes, the New Yorkers have all turned black (Burroughs 268).

33The guidebook was aimed only at the white urbanite. For author James Baldwin, walking up Fifth Avenue into Harlem was not an ‘exotic’ journey into another country, but simply a homecoming :

I turn east on 131st and Lenox Avenue…Along the street there are people who watched me grow up, people who grew up with me, people I watched grow up along with my brothers and sisters ; and, sometimes in my arms, sometimes underfoot, sometimes at my shoulder - or on it – their children, a riot, a forest of children, who include my nieces and nephews (Baldwin, 170-1).

34Baldwin focuses on the sense of community in Harlem. For him, walking on the downtown stretch of Fifth Avenue is unusual because all of the New Yorkers have ‘turned’ white. This example demonstrates only one of many historic borders within the city : the downtown / uptown racial divide. Similar divides exist (or existed) throughout the city, positioning a predominantly white Midtown and Upper East Side against immigrant slums on the Lower East Side, Chinatown and so on. These divides designated a definite sense of place, hence Park, McKenzie and Burgess’s observation.

35Taking the aforementioned walk from Manhattan’s southern to its northernmost tip continues to be a fascinating experiment with regards to social division and can furthermore be used as a yardstick to measure the ‘progress’ of gentrification. Depending on the route chosen, neighbourhoods such as The Lower East Side, Chinatown, The Upper East Side, El Barrio or Harlem are traversed. Each of these neighbourhoods is determined by its distinct character, but also by the manner in which it defines the identity of the uptown walker. Each neighbourhood further determines the walker’s insider or outsidership. A walker can shift from being an insider to an outsider within the distance of a block. Inclusion or exclusion depends on to what degree the individual traversing the neighbourhood complies with the surrounding crowd. A key example would be a border crossing between the Upper East Side and El Barrio. A National Geographic article discussing East Harlem in the early nineties touches upon this event. The journalist states ‘every morning for weeks I went into the barrio, and every evening I walked slowly out again, past where it abruptly ends at 96th Street. Walking down Park Avenue, I felt the eyes of uniformed doormen of elegant granite buildings examining my unshaven face, my old jeans and running shoes’ (Van Dyk 65). The journalist is met with suspicion by those employed to secure the Upper East Side on behalf of its wealthy inhabitants. He is scrutinized on account of his dishevelled appearance. A besuited resident of Park Avenue would draw similar attention crossing into nineties gang dominated Spanish Harlem. Both border crossings could result in a potential victimisation and ejection of the outsider from the neighbourhood based purely upon appearance.

36There is no one single identity which is complicit with every Manhattan neighbourhood. On an uptown walk, the crowd is constantly changing, as is the image of the individual. Within a matter of 13.4 miles the walker shifts back and forth from being a possible insider to outsider, local to tourist or predator to victim. The dramatic nature of these shifts is lessened with the progress of gentrification. Throughout its history as a metropolis, Manhattan has been a heavily zonal urban space. When Charles Dickens visited the Five Points in 1852, he required a police escort to enable his boarder crossing into the neighbourhood. During the Cold War, a fear of Communism manifested itself as a wider suspicion of all forms of ‘outsidership’. As America’s dominant classes fortified themselves against the unpredictable outsider, unseen divisions within Manhattan became as definite as state lines. Midtown and the Upper East Side were the bastions of privileged white America. ‘Otherness’ was pushed to the margins of society, existing literally at the island’s geographical limits.

37The current combination of increased surveillance and gentrification has pushed ‘otherness’ one step further : off the island into the outer boroughs, or downwards into subterranean Manhattan. Today, a border crossing from the Upper East Side into Spanish Harlem warrants less attention than in the nineties. The border has blurred or at least receded northwards, as the lower tier of Spanish Harlem has become occupied by high earning white professionals. The Upper East Side appears to have staked claim to block after block of El Barrio, an area which is now referred to as the Upper Upper East Side. An alternate nickname is SpaHa, a syllabic abbreviation of Spanish Harlem, which portends that the area will be offered the same treatment as gentrified downtown neighbourhoods such as NoLIta, as realtors attempt to rename, repackage and ultimately deracialize the area to lure wealthy white buyers. The crowd which once inhabited the lower tier of Spanish Harlem has been moved on. The new crowd melds with that of the Upper East Side. For the affluent walker there is almost a seamless transition between the two once oppositional zones. As gentrification takes further hold, all existing borders will be dissolved in this manner, resulting in the 22.96 square miles of Manhattan becoming a zone of free movement for the wealthy alone.

The City as Theatre

  • 7  Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929) centres upon the attempts of black women to ‘pass’ as white in (...)

38The crowd is deceptive in its nature. The National Geographic journalist walking out of El Barrio in shabby clothing is only one example of innumerable staged identities. The Park Avenue doormen read the journalist’s identity as being an ‘outsider’, a stray Spanish Harlemite, yet, in truth, he belongs to Spanish Harlem no more than he belongs to the Upper East Side. Manhattan has a history of racial ‘passing’, whereby the more affluent light skinned African American Harlemites ventured downtown to pass as white New Yorkers.7 However, it is arguable that all members of the Manhattan crowd partake in various forms of ‘passing’.

39Sante states that ‘Manhattan was a theatre from the first,’immediately designating the streets as a place of performance and spectatorship (Sante 71). The moment the pedestrian enters the public arena he or she becomes part of a show. To stroll by the waterfront is to idle in the galleries, and to wander down 5th Avenue is to lounge in the orchestra stalls. The stage itself, as Sante states, is rather more difficult to locate. He suggests that ‘there is no stage per se’, and that the audience is the ‘object of its own contemplation’ (Sante 71). In a heavily surveyed post 9/11 Manhattan, ‘contemplation’ could be replaced by ‘scrutiny’. Sante fails to question what type of theatre is the city most akin to ? From a range of theatre types, it is clear that Manhattan could only be thought of as an arena, or theatre-in-the-round. Street level is representative of the stage, and the spectator can direct his or her gaze streetwards from the ground, first, or forty-first floor of the surrounding skyscrapers. Similarly, the spectator can peer across at the ‘audience’ on the other side of the ‘arena’, as they too regard the performance from adjacent high-rise buildings. Yet, as in a theatre-in-the-round, the stage is the centre point of activity. The true focal point is downwards towards the hubbub in the streets.  

40An extreme form of theatre-in-the-round is the promenade production, whereby there is no separation between the audience space and the acting space. Here, the audience is permitted to come close to the actors as they perform. At street level in Manhattan, audience space and acting space merge into one. Stepping onto the street, each pedestrian, ‘takes to the stage’ thus becoming a performer and, as with the performer, each pedestrian’s age, physical appearance (including personal tastes, ‘costume’, stature and body movements) and social status (again, reflected by costume/demeanour) are subject to scrutiny. Yet simultaneously, the performer also takes his or her place in the audience, eyeing other ‘performers’ as they themselves are scrutinised. Due to the structure of the theatre-in-the-round little can be obscured from the audience. Unlike a proscenium, end stage or thrust where the performer can conceal him or herself behind scenery, the theatre-in-the-round player is left exposed.

Performance, ‘Passing’ and the Gentrification of Marginal Space

41Manhattan should be similar to a theatre-in-the-round in terms of its ‘transparency’. Yet, on the contrary, although the street is exposed to scrutiny from all sides and from numerous levels, many aspects of street life remain opaque. The main function (or plot) of the street is readable by all. This plot is played out by the three main dramatis personae : consumers, workers and tourists. The roles of the bag-laden shopper, besuited executive and baseball capped, camera toting wanderer are immediately recognisable. These three predominant groups of performers intermingle at street level filling the bulk of the performance space. However, sub plots subtly played out by the minor characters are far less evident to the casual observer, regardless of the fact that they are performed in that very same arena.

42Drug dealers, prostitutes, and pickpockets ; Manhattan’s criminal element that operate at street level, all serve as minor characters. It is essential that their performance on the street goes unrecognised to the majority. The elaborate steps, gestures and poses of the pickpocket’s performance are carried out in front of a large audience, yet to most it appears no more than the customary tangling of bodies on any busy street. To read this particular street level sub plot, the spectator requires a certain degree of esoteric knowledge. As Manhattan’s criminal element attempt to ‘pass’ as respectable citizens, undercover police officers try to ‘pass’ as criminals in order to make arrests. Criminality is merely one of many invisible sub-plots which are acted out on the city streets.

43A specific type of tourist arrives in the city with the intention of emulating an ‘authentic’ New York existence. He or she will mirror the movements and actions of wealthy Manhattanites depicted in television series such as Sex and the City. Similarly, the tourist with more bohemian tastes will gravitate towards the Village and masquerade as ‘other’ (even though gentrification drove authentic bohemianism out of the Village long ago). These performances are characterised by their ephemerality. The tourist may not have significant wealth, an intimate knowledge of designer labels or own the entire back catalogue of Bob Dylan’s recordings ; yet for an hour, a day or a week, he or she can adopt an alternate persona and act out a perceived lifestyle.

44Manhattanites are also prone to more exaggerated and prolonged forms of this phenomenon. For example, loft living is the performance of an artistic-bohemian existence, although it lacks the richness of that which it imitates. Currently, Greenwich Village boasts some of the most desirable residential property in Manhattan. Living in the gentrified Village offers an additional cultural kudos, even though the new tenants buy into what is essentially a commodified bohemia. An authentic bohemian identity is borne out of a desire for something other than the production of capital. Artistic creativity was a key unifying factor in the pre-gentrified Village. The urban professionals that replace the original community have little interest in forming a new, artistic avant-garde, but only to replicate the lifestyles of those which they caused to be evicted. Furthermore, they do not experience the same risks as the city’s willed bohemian outsiders or unwilled ‘outsiders’. The bonds formed between communities of outsiders, which are resultant from living unprotected at the margins of society cannot be replicated in post-gentrified neighbourhoods. Unlike the buildings themselves, the character and creativity of the bohemian-artistic community which ultimately made Greenwich Village desirable as a commodity, could not be prised away from the original tenants. Consequently, the invading professional classes appropriate only an empty husk of bohemianism.

45An enduring stereotype of the ‘authentic’ Villager is that of an emaciated, down and out artist. This image is founded upon the original Village bohemian’s decision to not conform to capitalist ideals, alongside the economic hardship, illness and addiction which was often part and parcel of this alternate lifestyle. Those wandering the streets of the gentrified Village adopt a sanitized, artificial image of ‘willed outsidership’ whist continuing to contribute to the mainstream in an environment of economic stability. McSorley’s motto ‘be good or be gone,’ echoes once again throughout the bohemian-artistic communities of Manhattan. Only the most successful and wealthy are allowed to remain or return.

46Artist Louise Bourgeois’s brownstone on West 23rd Street is a key example. Unlike the houses to either side, Richard Cork observes that Bourgeois’s house number has been ‘roughly painted on the wall,’ and that the metal door has been designed by the artist herself, featuring a ‘sequence of curving lines reminiscent of burgeoning leaves or fertile hillsides’. Inside, the décor is the antithesis of what is now expected in upscale Chelsea. The brownstone retains its appearance as an artist’s squat, complete with Bourgeois’s writings and drawings inscribed directly onto the peeling paintwork of the interior walls. Bourgeois’ wealth allows her to hold her position on the street, despite her continued bohemian-artistic existence. Similarly, recording artist Steve Earle has returned to the Village where he first performed as a folk singer. Earle has taken up residence near the corner of Jones and West 4th Street, the location of the cover shot for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963). At first glance, the area continues to evoke a sense of the bohemian freedom of the Village. Closer inspection reveals the presence of numerous surveillance cameras, erected to protect the property of uniformly wealthy residents. In ‘Down here Below,’ Earle himself recognises the effects of the gentrification process :  

Now hell’s kitchen’s Clinton and the Bowery’s Nolita
And the east village’s creepin’ ‘cross the Williamsburg bridge
And hey, whatever happened to alphabet city ?
Ain’t no place left in this town that a poor boy can go.

47The song draws attention to the manner in which Manhattan’s minatorial spaces are renamed and how ‘otherness’ is pushed outwards. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, billed in the nineties as showing signs of becoming a ‘new’ Greenwich Village, is now also in the process of becoming gentrified. In an online interview, Earle admits that he moved to the Village in 2005 because it was ‘a place for old hipsters’. However, the Village that Earle returned to was certainly no place for poor hipsters.

48A scattering of artists that helped forge Manhattan’s bohemian enclaves may still be spotted in the streets of the Village and Chelsea. However, they walk shoulder to shoulder with those who masquerade as bohemians. Furthermore, their place is justified by money alone. Unlike SpaHa, where the identity of the original Latin American community is intentionally dissipated, Greenwich Village is a Disneyfied parade of faux bohemianism. The crowd is populated predominantly by those who have earned sufficient capital to buy into a commodified bohemia. As the Village develops into a stage for the mere performance of hipster lifestyles, authentic bohemian identity becomes indiscernible or lost.

Border Crossings

49In many respects, the city’s layout demands performance. In Money, Martin Amis describes Manhattan’s rich and poor as being ‘as close as two faces of a knife’ (Amis 114). This further applies to the city’s racial ‘others’. In a city that has been tightly packed for the best part of its existence, performance developed into a method of survival. To move safely through a series of radically diverse neighbourhoods the walker had to assimilate or perform. Making the crossing between the Upper East Side and Harlem, the walker always knew that he or she could not ‘fit’ seamlessly into both communities. Yet, a knowledge of how the crowds moved and reacted could smooth a passage through the city. Manhattan hipsters took racial performance to extremes in their attempts to assimilate by speaking bop-talk and wearing zoot suits in an attempt to ‘pass’ in black neighbourhoods. The inhabitants of a building named P.S. 157, a converted public school on 126th and St. Nicholas Avenue exhibit a less radical example of behaviour modification. Located in Central Harlem the apartment block is occupied by gay men, the majority of whom are white. It has become, as one occupant described it, ‘a gay ghetto’ within the black ghetto (Nutter 7). Fashion Consultant Alec Floyd confesses ‘I hug and kiss in the hallway and the laundry, but outside, I don’t…This isn’t Chelsea. You have to be cautious.’ Harlem has always had a significant black gay population, however, it appears that to be white and openly gay in uptown Manhattan leaves the men open to victimization. The men check their behaviour to correspond with what is presumed acceptable in the neighbourhood to which they have relocated. The walker develops a sensitivity to the manner in which crowd, surroundings and atmosphere change rapidly within the matter of a few blocks and consciously adapts to these changes. He or she does not necessarily mimic the surrounding crowd, but merely attempts to conceal that which makes him or herself conspicuous within that crowd. Concealment of race is problematic. However, certain aspects of outsidership can be muted, as with the inhabitants of P.S. 157 who attempt to mask their homosexuality in an aggressively heterosexual arena.

50Border crossings were a key aspect of Manhattan’s history as a metropolis, particularly with regards to its immigrant populations. The city’s ethnic settlements receded or shifted partly as a result of border tension. For example, alongside deteriorating housing conditions, the race riots of 1900 forced African-Americans to move northward out of the downtown area known as ‘Black Bohemia’. By the 1920s a significant French community had developed in what was the southwest portion of the Tenderloin. Regardless of where the populations moved, the boundaries of their neighbourhoods were clearly defined. This was not to say that these boundaries could not be tested or crossed.

The Construction of Black Harlem

51The creation of Harlem as a black city within a city is a complex and conflicting narrative. In ‘The Making of Harlem’ (1925) James Weldon Johnson states that ‘It is not a slum or a fringe, it is located in the heart of Manhattan and occupies one of the most beautiful and healthful sections of the city’ (Johnson, 1975 : 635). Johnson discusses black occupation of Harlem as a triumphant seizure of land :

The move to Fifty-third Street was the result of the opportunity to get into newer and better houses. About 1900 the move to Harlem began, and for the same reason. Harlem had been overbuilt with large, New-law apartment houses, but rapid transportation to that section was very inadequate…and landlords were finding difficulty in keeping houses on the east side of the section filled (635).

52The relocation may have offered black families improved living conditions compared to those found in downtown communities, however, it is also clear that the ‘opportunity’ to move northwards was also convenient for a white society intent on the repulsion and ultimate expulsion of a race designated as inferior. The black community was shepherded into an area of the city that had not only proved undesirable to white buyers, but as Johnson states, was cut off from Midtown and downtown Manhattan by inadequate rapid transportation. Black Manhattanites were offered a better standard of living at the expense of taking a further step towards exile.

53Following the crash in housing prices in 1904, white property owners looked to the black community as a source of capital after failing to rent newly built properties to white tenants. African American entrepreneurs such as Philip Payton Jr. may have played a role in facilitating the black migration to Harlem, however, the twentieth century narrative of life in what would soon be thought of as a black ghetto was one of ongoing economic exploitation at the hands of white employers and landlords. Harlem deteriorated, in part, as a result of black workers being paid significantly less than whites for their labour and charged significantly more for rent. While landlords reaped the financial rewards of overcharging black tenants, they meanwhile neglected building maintenance.

54Admittedly, this is a potted history of early twentieth century Harlem, however, it serves to demonstrate briefly how it functioned as an area of confinement for the city’s racial ‘outsiders’. Johnson discusses the positive aspects of the migration to Harlem, yet he too is aware of the spatial limits of the ‘city within a city’, stating : ‘The whites paid little attention to the movement until it began to spread west of Lenox Avenue ; they then took steps to check it.’ The de facto colour line of Lenox Avenue was akin to electric fencing at the perimeter of a holding pen. In being penned in, the black community was subject to ‘indirect murder’. Here, the movement of the exiles could be restricted and they could be driven into poverty.

55Still, a few white Manhattanites were tempted to cross the colour line. ‘Slumming’ was invented in 1920s Manhattan. In this particular period it became fashionable for avant-garde bohemians to travel to Harlem to witness at first hand the ‘brothels, speakeasies, dance halls, sidewalks, corners and stoops’ which made up the infrastructure of this marginal zone (Mumford, 1997 : 144). For the 1920s bohemian, a cab ride beyond 125th Street into the ‘African jungle’ of the Harlem district symbolized an escape into a primitive, exotic community where the natives were uninhibited, passionate and animalistic. Writers such as Carl Van Vechten and Eugene O’Neil spoke of white ‘penetration’ into black slums. Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven describes slumming essentially as an act of interracial sexual tourism.

56In a sense, the first slummers could be thought of as pioneers as they explored the territory of the ‘other’. In sensationalising what lay behind color lines they held the potential to spearhead a mass movement of white Manhattanites into Harlem, firstly as rubberneckers and later as residents. However, Neil Smith’s interpretation of gentrification as a movement of capital, rather than simply a movement of people, complicates this idea somewhat. In The New Urban Frontier, Smith offers a detailed examination of gentrification in Harlem. He argues that Harlem is a complex case study, because of its status as a symbol of black culture, its location and its scale. Smith acknowledges that gentrification spreads at different rates within Harlem, and compares the process in the eastern and western corridors of the community. Still, Harlem conforms to Smith’s assertion that ‘the gentrification frontier is advanced not so much through the actions of intrepid pioneers as through the action of collective owners of capital. Where such urban pioneers go bravely forth, banks, real estate developers…[and] the state have generally gone before’ (Smith, 1996 : preface).

57Smith’s theory suggests regardless of whether the slummers of the 1920s or even the men inhabiting P.S. 157 think of themselves as urban frontiersmen, financial institutions spotted a potentiality for productive investment in these areas long before the first wave of newcomers arrived. This is certainly the case in Harlem, and for that matter neighbourhoods such as the Village and the Lower East Side. Smith argues that gentrification follows a cycle of disinvestment followed by triumphant reinvestment. By 1960 only 51 % of Harlem’s housing was considered sound (Pinkney and Woock, 1970 : 29). Harlem was left to deteriorate until, as Smith points out, a hiatus in the mid-1980s, when financial institutions began reinvest in a physically abandoned and ghettoised neighbourhood (Smith, 1996 : 151). As Harlem began to gentrify more rapidly towards the early 1990s, Lance Freeman notes that ‘Harlem’s homeownership rate was in the single digits’ (Freeman, 2006 : 178). He goes on to explain that ‘housing policies that allow disadvantaged residents to benefit from the wealth generated by gentrification such as homeownership, inclusionary zoning, or TIF [Tax Increment Financing] would seem to have the potential to give residents a stake in the process’ (178). However, given the homeownership rates, few indigenous owners would reap the rewards of gentrification through such economic tools. Harlem was returned from a ghetto to a smooth ordered space primarily due to the economic strangle hold the City and other financial institutions had on the community. Few indigenous Harlemites could ever afford homeownership. Therefore, with the onset of gentrification, those renting properties not only failed to benefit from the ‘clean up’, but were faced with rocketing rental costs and the prospect of imminent eviction.

The Flâneur

58Border crossing was not always a group activity such as slumming, or a mass movement such as gentrification. The Manhattan streets have mobilised generations of solitary walkers, each of whom were fascinated by the density and multiplicity of the city’s various crowds. A significant body of writers describing Manhattan employ varying configurations of the flâneur device, from Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg, Edgar Allan Poe to Frank O’Hara. The city lures the poet to take the trajectory of the sidewalk. Whitman’s ‘Calamus’ poems form links between the classic Parisian flâneur and New York wanderer. These poems are a summation of street life and a celebration of the multiplicity of the crowd. Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd,’ although set in London, is inspired by nocturnal Manhattan and describes the emergence of the city’s shadow population. This uncanny phenomenon draws Poe’s wanderer from his café vantage point into the crowd. O’Hara’s Lunch Poems are accelerated acts of flânerie, condensed into lunch breaks, where the poet’s camera eye settles on all manner of fleeting Midtown exotica. In poems such as ‘Mugging’, Ginsberg too indulges in the multiracial city, albeit in the more threatening environs of the Lower East Side. In this instance, the flâneur becomes prey for a loitering street gang. With regards to the act of flânerie, Keith Tester states :

Benjamin proposes that the hollowness of the commodity form and, indeed, the hollowness of the egoistic individuals of capitalism is reflected in the flâneur. Flânerie is a desperate attempt to fill the emptiness even though it is actually a resignation to it (Tester, 1994 : 13).

  • 8  Deleuze and Guattari state: ‘…the face or body of the despot or god has something like a counterbo (...)

59In terms of order, Tester’s argument correlates with Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of urban space discussed in section one, whereby Capital imposing its own order on the metropolis is essentially the striation of space. The city dweller turns flâneur after becoming restless and bored by the rigidity of urban life. Flânerie could be mistakenly perceived as a nomadic act : maintaining a critical distance from the crowd, slowing the pace, moving erratically and indulging in the byproducts of capitalism, rather than conforming and contributing directly. However, it is clear that although there are correspondences between the flâneur and contemporary nomad, the former cannot be regarded as a true component of the war machine. In The Arcades Project, Benjamin argues that ‘the flâneur is the observer of the marketplace…He is a spy for the capitalists, on assignment in the realm of consumers’ (Benjamin 1999 : 63). The flâneur does not function intentionally as a spy, but his movements are monitored and utilized in service of the State. In order to ‘fill the emptiness’ of capitalism, the flâneur seeks out spectacle in the crowd. In nineteenth century Paris, he was drawn to mingle with the ragpickers. In twentieth century Manhattan, the disaffected wanderer was similarly magnetised by urban outcasts. Lone hipsters scoured Harlem, the territory of the counter body.8 The border crossing into this forbidden zone was a quest for an antidote to the blandness of white, middleclass capitalist America. As a willed outsider, the hipster flâneur sought to form an allegiance with Manhattan’s unwilled outsiders.

60Those wanderers mobilized by the ‘hollowness of the commodity form’, may have found temporary solace in the ‘desert’ territories of the ‘outsider’, yet the comparative safety of affluent white America always beckoned their return. The Parisian flâneur was often criticized for the parasitic nature of his practice : feeding upon the image of the city’s ‘outsiders’ before retreating to the comfort of his home. The New York flâneur takes up a similar position, to the extent that he crosses urban boundaries in search of ‘otherness’, yet ultimately remains tied to mainstream existence – never fully committed to or aligned with the ‘other’.

61The State distinguishes the literary flâneur as a means of communication between civilisation and wilderness. The flâneur’s field notes mark out that which is desirable in the realm of the ‘other’. For instance, in Harlem, the wandering hipster noted the intimacy and vibrancy of black jazz culture as an aesthetic pleasure of ghetto life. Black music is, in turn, seized and commodified. In this respect, the flâneur acts as a ‘spy for the capitalists,’ as Benjamin remarked. When the State is aware of potential value in the barren territory of its outcasts, it will occupy, exploit, commodify and ultimately stratify that territory ; such is its rapacious nature. The flâneur, then, is an unintentional carrier of gentrification. The same phenomenon occurs in the city’s bohemias. As life in the Village is telegraphed as ‘cool’, it becomes commodified and resold at a high price to the city’s most affluent.

62Manhattan’s urban density suggested that it would be a site of intense spatial conflict from its very first stirrings as a metropolis. The history of the island itself is a condensed model of the wider struggle between the State and the war machine. This struggle has been repeatedly played out on the streets of the city and continues today. The State’s grip on the island appears to tighten, as all forms of movement within the crowd is closely monitored. Veins of ever shifting smooth space still run through Manhattan, particularly in its bedrock, as nomads are forced underground. At street level, performance remains key. In nineteenth century Manhattan, gangs passed as respectable citizens in order to escape arrest. In the twenty first century, the roles are reversed : citizens obedient to the state take on the guise of ‘outsiders’.

  • 9   Eviction from Manhattan is a complex process which Neil Smith touches upon in The New Urban Front (...)

63As Manhattan evicts those encamped at its margins, performers move in to take their place. This has a significant bearing on the crowd experience, destabilising notions of authenticity. A walk from the island’s southernmost to its northernmost tip may appear to dissect a series of neighbourhood boundaries, however, such boundaries were maintained only by the original communities who forged them, prior to their systematic eviction.9 Gentrified neighbourhoods, like Greenwich Village, masquerade as being in direct opposition to Midtown, yet, in truth, its current inhabitants are politically State complicit. As outsidership in Manhattan becomes a mere performance, its boundaries too become a series of elaborate trompe-l’œil. Struggles between State and war machine are staged events, reminiscent of the historical reneactment of battles. Current Greenwich Villagers are mere roleplayers with no intent to bruise or wound their opponents. Manhattan moves towards becoming a conquered territory, as gentrification becomes a complete process.

64The archeolgist piecing through the remains of a fallen Manhattan would struggle to find physical evidence of the existence of outsidership. The paving slabs engraved with the names of the city’s most successful citizens may be unearthed and studied. Yet, to uncover the alternate history of Manhattan’s nomads, the archeologist would have to dig. The discovery of the gallery of grafitti art in the Freedom Tunnel would be the equivalent of finding prehistoric cave paintings. Here is evidence of a lost tribe, an oppositional subculture who were repressed, forced underground and ultimately evicted from the island.

65As Manhattan moves towards becoming a gated community, the history of its ‘outsiders’ rapidly recedes. In the uniformly sanitised space that the island will surely become, it is increasingly difficult to imagine that there was ever a place here for ‘otherness’. However, the manner in which outsider culture has profoundly shaped the city is inescapable. The city’s ‘outsiders’ altered the aesthetics of the Manhattan crowd and gave identity to its neighbourhoods. Brokers may only pose as beatniks and middle class kids as gangster rappers, yet in these acts the legacy of ‘otherness’ is oddly perpetuated. Unlike those who forged their adopted identity, these poseurs are not in a position of risk at the margins of society, nor do they exhibit the same potential in terms of creative ability. Yet, they are examples of how the originality, creativity and romance of outsidership can shape mainstream culture.

66It is understandable that following 9/11, Manhattan has chosen to substitute freedom for security. However, the State utilises the threat of terrorism to control all forms of insubordination. Those unpredictable groups that exist at society’s margins may be perceived by the State to pose a genuine terrorist threat, yet they are also a potential source of new social imaginings, modes of thinking and artistic forms. The first territory to be affected by the State’s filtering process is the street. The multiplicity of the crowd is diminished, in favour of obedient masses. All traces of ‘outsidership’ are removed, apart from that which is performed and benign. Those outsiders who defy surveillance must ultimately prove that they are affluent enough to exist in the metropolis. Future visitors granted access through Manhattan’s gilded gates into 22.96 square miles of artistically sterile urban space, filled by the most complicit of crowds, need remember one motto alone : be good or be gone.

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1  My broad definition of ‘outsidership’ and ‘otherness’ echoes that of  Michel Foucault, as addressed in the last lecture of ‘Society Must be Defended’. In examining how ‘outsiders’ are managed under biopolitical regimes, and specifically in his discussion of ‘racism’, Foucault highlights the manner in which ‘certain races are described as good and that others, in contrast, are described as inferior’ (Foucault, 2003 : 255). He goes on to discuss the relationship between the death of the inferior others and the survival of the protected group. Foucault points out that the death of ‘abnormal individuals’ or ‘degenerates’ comes not only as a result of direct killing, for instance war, but by what he terms as ‘indirect murder’. ‘Indirect murder’ includes ‘increasing the risk of death for some people, or, quite simply, political death, expulsion, rejection and so on’ (256). I define Manhattan’s ‘outsiders’ or ‘others’ as those who have been earmarked as an inferior race and condemned to ‘indirect murder’ by rejection and expulsion.

2  A specialist reading of the street is central to the surveillance and control of the city’s marginalized communities. Castel draws attention to ‘systematic predetection,’ the intention of which is that of ‘anticipating and preventing the emergence of some undesirable event: illness, abnormality, deviant behaviour, etc.’ With regards to ‘systematic predetection’, the act of surveillance focuses not on the behaviour of individual subjects, but ‘factors, statistical correlations of heterogeneous elements.’ Castel continues, ‘to be suspected, it is no longer necessary to manifest symptoms of dangerousness or abnormality, it is enough to display whatever characteristics the specialists responsible for the definition of preventative policy have constituted as risk factors.’

3  Instructions on how to make a seed bomb can be found on the garden’s web page:

4  Deleuze and Guattari make a direct reference to Virilio’s discussion of revolution and ‘holding the street’ whilst examining nomadology and the war machine. The term is most appropriate here, as the Green Guerrillas momentarily occupy and convert a square of territory on the street.  

5  The garden was created without State permission and its planting (in the form of seed bombing) was dependant primarily upon chance. In comparison to Manhattan’s planned green spaces, the garden embodied a comparative chaos.  

6  Urban explorer Futurebird has posted a series of photographs from her visit to the Freedom Tunnel.

7  Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929) centres upon the attempts of black women to ‘pass’ as white in white bourgeois society. ‘Passing’ allows them the freedom to attend prestigious social events and eat at restaurants which would usually turn away black diners. Even though the women are pale skinned, they endeavour to conceal their race by hiding behind an ‘ivory mask’ of face powder. (157).

8  Deleuze and Guattari state: ‘…the face or body of the despot or god has something like a counterbody: the body of the tortured, or better, the excluded’ (128).

9   Eviction from Manhattan is a complex process which Neil Smith touches upon in The New Urban Frontier.  Smith describes the violence of the ‘frontier’ as gentrifiers seek to remove ‘outsiders’ from ‘public as well as private spaces’ (Smith, 1996 : 26). Indigenous owners unable to afford the cost of living in rapidly gentrifying areas have no choice but to move away. However, other factors such as exclusion, harassment and actual or implied violence intensify the process. Furthermore, Smith states that: ‘Denying any connection between gentrification and displacement, City officials refuse to admit the possibility that gentrification causes homelessness’ (25). As those evicted from private spaces find themselves on the street, they are met with further vengeance.  For example, Smith discusses the erosion of support for the homeless in the 1990s, including the heavy-handed tactics used by police to remove the poor from public spaces (220).  

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Darren Richard Carlaw, « ‘Polishing the Apple’: The Systematic Eradication of ‘Otherness’ from the New York Crowd », Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], #8 | 2010, mis en ligne le 25 septembre 2010, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL :

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Darren Richard Carlaw

holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne. His doctoral dissertation examines the role of the flâneur in twentieth century New York writing. He has published articles on the life and work of H.L. Humes and he has taught American Modernisms, American Genre Writing and American Poetry and the Visual Arts at Newcastle University and Northumbria University. He is currently working on a book examining the transposition of the flâneur from the European to the American city.

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Conserveries mémorielles est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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