Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Where the Boundaries Are: Musings on Public and Private Space

To walk a city street is a particular experience; it is not like walking a rural street, or a suburban street, or an open highway, for instance. That which makes the experience of a city street (as opposed to any other kind of street) can vary depending on the city, but there is something that is always identifiably urban to it. In 1961, just a few years before Columbia University purchased the part of W 116th Street that went through its campus, Jane Jacobs argued that the difference of the city street is the explicit separation of private and public space on a the city street (Jacobs 1961: 35). The private may spill out into the public, but rarely is the reverse true. While in different cities, streets may be places to stop, to gather, to collect, to discard, or any number of things, they are always also places of passage, places to pass through, places that facilitate access to other places. Without streets, the urban landscape cannot move, and so cannot be.

These propositions are put to the test in examining the streets and pathways of Columbia University. As the university campus sits in a sometimes uneasy grey area of being both (and neither) public and (nor) private space, the nature of its spaces of passage and access are likewise ambiguous. I set out to discover something of the history of these spaces – the streets, walks, portals and pathways – of Columbia, and found that the tension of the street has not been lost on those interacting with it throughout the years. I offer some scattered examples around which to contemplate these ideas:

Space and confinement

In some of the earliest discussions of the relative navigability of the campus, Julius Pine wrote on behalf of the Trustees of the university to the architects at McKim, Mead and White. The subject was their plans for developing the southern quadrangle, part of the land between 116th and 114th acquired by the university in 1903. He wrote:

“All of these designs contemplate flights of steps or terraces open to the street and without any enclosure, and we have reached the conclusion that this method of treatment is open to serious practical objections. With the increase in population in the neighborhood of the University there is an increasing tendency to use our grounds as a public park and to make a thoroughfare across our property, so that some form of gate at the points mentioned has become highly desirable, if not necessary.” (Sept 29, 1913 letter to McKim, Mead and White from Julius Pine on behalf of the CU Trustees)

And so plans for wrought iron gates to keep Columbia in and the street out were developed. At the time, there was no proposal to cut off 116th Street to through traffic, so the gates in question were envisioned stretching east-west along the sides of that street. It would not be until 1954 that the street itself became pedestrianized and fenced-in by the current gates at each of its ends. And it was not until 1968 that the university acquired the street itself. At that time it issued a statement including the following:

“[116th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam] is now owned by the University, just as any piece of property is owned by any private person. The only stipulation in the agreement […] is that the University must provide access to police and fire equipment in an emergency. Because the University usually allows its neighbors to traverse College Walk, Columbia does need to close it to the public at least once a year to protect its status as private property” (Columbia University Office of Public Information, May 9, 1968, emphasis added).

The boundaries of public and private are, then, not simply the domain of the university/property owner to decide; the city itself mandates how such property must be bounded in order to regulate its status. The experience of public and private space on the city street is an exercise in power relationships both explicit and hidden.

Texture and appearance

The pathways on Columbia campus are not just designed to channel movement and facilitate spatial conveyances, but through their very material composition they were designed to influence the nature of intellectual movement and facilitate scholarly conveyances. The herringbone-patterned, red brick layout of the walkways was intended to “emulate paving patterns found in the Roman forum,” and thereby bolster the “notion of the exchange of ideas in a classroom, a basis of a Columbia education” (undated early correspondence from the CU Trustees to McKim, Mead, and White).

This argument was brought up again when the walkways underwent renovations and refurbishments in the 1990s, as an objection posed by faculty members (mostly from the Departments of Art History and Architecture) to replacing the bricks with more durable materials (Columbia University Spectator Vol CXVIII No 104, Oct 14, 1994). Leaving aside the potential problematics of such an assumed semiotic leap between brick patterning and didactic exchange, particularly in the late 20th century, one has to imagine that any resonance it did have would only have been felt by a fairly well circumscribed, elite, Western and classically-trained academic community. Was the argument, then, that the streets were only intended for the passage of particular categories of people? That the meanings of such street passage were in fact embodied in its architecture in such a way that changing it would fundamentally change the street’s ability to function as it had before? Latour might tell us that the whole uproar is simply us coming to remember and recognize our relationships to the bricks as actors on the campus landscape and our lives because they have broken down and need attention (Latour 1999: 183). If so, what does a choice to maintain or relinquish our relationship with the materials of public street spaces say? Particularly if the relationship to the materials is a private one, do those materials allow the space to be public, or do they create non-traversable boundaries of the aesthetic, the emotional, and the mind?

Jacobs, Jane, 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.
Latour, Bruno, 1999. Pandora's hope: essays on the reality of science studies
, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

All other cited material and photographs are courtesy of the Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library


nasser said...

I really like this post, especially the references to Jacobs. With regards to the mention of Columbia being used as a public park or thoroughfare and therefore the introduction of gates...I wonder if gates still represent the same thing as they did back in the 1950s...I think you mentioned in class that you were interested in power...I wonder if we have got to a stage where networks need less physical, visual representations of their power/need for security (thinking along the line of Sassen, and new, seemingly concealed networks that are harder to pinpoint). Perhaps gates as weaker indexical signs? (Sorry my semiotics is very weak!).

Alison said...

Sorry for my late reply to your comment, Nasser...I think you're right to an extent, that in many cases, territory needs to be (or at least, is) bounded in less explicit ways these days than perhaps it did previously (although I worry about what that says about our internalization of propositions of access and power). But I still think there's some very visceral reaction that is generated by a physical barrier - and indeed, there are practical concerns with surmounting a physical barrier on top of the psychological ones associated with crossing exclusive boundaries!

nasser said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nasser said...

well my first comment on your blog was actually based on my own experiences growing up. a place like columbia would definitely have been "off limits" to me for sure. but gates would never been an issue. in fact, they were my ally. for example, some weekends, me and my friends used to go over to this posh "more exclusive" school. we'd climb the gates and use their facilities (and more). i say that the gates were our allies, because when we were caught trespassing and the chase was on, we knew that the middle-aged pot-bellied teacher or the older caretaker would never be able to climb the gates that we could. gates and fences never proved psychologically intimidating to us. but then again, we had a particular kind of socialization. we grew up on the streets and we always laughed when those on the "other side" thought that they could understand our senses and mental make-ups.