As a small child, my parents would occasionally take me through the tunnel from New Jersey, out into NYC for a Broadway show or a family get-together. The hustle and bustle of New York City always overwhelmed me since it differed so much from the quiet little town in which I grew up. Whenever we visited, I would inevitably start to feel trapped by the city and its enormous buildings that seemed to block out all possible light and nature. As we would walk around the city, my parents, who spent many years living in the city, often commented on its small size. I, however, could not envision New York City as anything but huge until I started living in New York and lost the etic perception of the outsider.
One prominent issue that is raised by the paragraph above is the contradictory idea that New York City can at once be viewed as both large and small. The huge quantity of people and the numerous buildings certainly help to give the feel of a large city; however, the idea of largeness exists mainly as the center of etic perceptions of thought, which are streamed through the “sensory overload” that one experiences upon first visiting NYC. An outlook of smallness seems to occur only after such a number of experiences in the city that one no longer views the city as foreign, but can recall memories from individual parts and can, in a sense, claim those parts as their own. In “Material Culture as Text”, Hodder discusses the “emic” verses the “etic’, and explains that the use of space can perhaps act as a bridge between the two viewpoints. In this way of thinking, a scarcity of space in NYC can be recognized when people or institutions attempt to acquire their own personal place to live in the city. Following in the same vein as Albert’s post, obtaining private living spaces in the city can be just as difficult to accomplish as creating private space on the R train.
Another instance of the scarcity of space can be seen in Columbia University’s somewhat controversial expansion to West Harlem. Columbia University has a significantly smaller campus than most of the other universities of a similar size and thus has been crunched for space. Even with the addition of the Harmony Hall undergraduate residence and the new science building, space is still tight. What has always seemed strange to me is the way that Lerner Hall was designed to waste so much space with those huge ramps when space is already so limited. (Article on the CU Manhattanville expansion.)
The last idea that I will bring up about space in NYC is the concept of upward expansion as it relates to archaeology and, thus, the past. The idea of space is central to one's perception of the present and the past. On any archaeological excavation, one strives to locate the specific place in which past generations of humans lived and flourished. This idea of space upward for skyscrapers is strange in that the different levels of occupation all occur in one time period; yet these levels, now orientated upward, seem to exist on the same plane as that of chronological occupation that occurs in archaeology. One would then think that the upward expansion of space seen in New York City would automatically evoke the presence of previous occupation underneath the ground. However, in this case, the skyscrapers do not tend to act as signifiers for the previous expansion, now underground, that occurred upward over time. It seems to me that the lack of nature presented by these skyscrapers causes the archaeological aspect of upward expansion underneath the city to be lost as the signified. Therefore, the upward expansion of NYC creates a disconnect between the city space and the more natural underground environment of the city’s archaeological past.