I was wondering whether we’d be watching The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in this class and I’m so glad we did! It goes down as one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in an undergraduate class ever. Any time I’m asked to observe people in public settings, or conduct fieldwork, I can’t help but think of the narrator’s ’70s-era voiceover.
The observations we’ve had to conduct on subways is different from observing plazas in that trains are, well, moving. I know that sounds obvious, but I do think the way people sit and engage with the space of a subway car is inherently different than the way they move in an outdoor plaza or park. First, there is the fact that they’re in the car in the first place because they’re looking to get from Point A to Point B; they have to be alert to where they are every few minutes or so. Second, I think there’s this acknowledgment that you can watch people and be seen, that you’re “allowed” to, whereas on the subway you’re wordlessly agreeing to not making eye contact with anyone else.
With that being said, the most interesting thing about the video, in my opinion, is how much it’s not an historical relic. One can observe each of these social habits today. In the reading, Whyte wrote accurately saying when surveyed, people respond that they enjoy “getting away from it all,” but that “what they do reveals a different priority.” Humans are social creatures, and they love the sun, and they love being around other people. Even in a crowded place like this city, the best places to be alone are spaces crowded with strangers.
A great place to people-watch is in front of the Brooklyn Museum, where the path along the roof of the building leads to stairs going down, or to a much larger set of amphitheater-like stairs facing a water fountain where children play. Sitting with friends, or just one other companion, it feels intimate. And sitting alone, you feel like staring, and can enjoy being stared at in return.