Wednesday, March 6, 2013

New York Travel Time

New York City is most interesting on an ordinary day.  Although one could argue that in a city of 8 million people there is no such thing as an ordinary day. Aside from that most would agree on the definition of an ordinary day as scheduled habitual routine in an absence of special events. What is interesting about an ordinary day is the way the average resident of New York City perceives time, and if there are different temporalities within the ordinary day.  Does this person experience time particular to their environment, and does the shape of that environment change the way they perceive time? Do residents of New York experience temporality at a faster rate, as the saying describes, does a “New York Minute” mean that NY residents actually perceive time faster relative to others? Do we internalize ecological time reckoning (as Gell outlines from Evans-Pritchard's terms in Chapter 2 of The Anthropology of Time) (1992), or do we have our own individual temporal perceptions?

In an ordinary day, the New Yorker invariably travels somewhere, whether it’s walking across Manhattan, taking the subway from one borough to another, riding the crosstown bus, riding a bicycle to Prospect Park, or hailing a cab in the East Village. New Yorkers are bound up in an identity of constantly moving from place to place and getting there fast. City dwellers are considered fast walkers who can point out the tourists by their slow gait.  Bicyclists are considered brave souls for competing with the rush of city traffic. The subway lines and yellow cabs are as indexical of New York as the Statue of Liberty.  In a given ordinary day these transport technologies can contribute or detract from the success of an outing. It’s possible that our notions of time are influenced by our practices and forms of engagement with people and things in the world.

Traveling from place to place becomes a kind of art form, in which a person navigates while juggling their coffee, metrocard, smart phone, gym bag, book bag, grocery bag, or parcel while dodging people running behind them on the stairs or preventing them from getting off at the subway stop. People moving with, against, and through one another are each motivated by different agendas.  This constant activity animates the city with 8 million people moving in every possible direction, contained in an area of 300 square miles. Notions of time become fragmented by a sea of individual motivations of getting somewhere, which are continually called to order by the universal temporality and the organized modes of travel.

It’s as if we are grappling with a temporality that is grounded in our experience with the world but continually interrupted by the preoccupations within each of our minds, constantly streaming with information, making decisions, losing focus, coming into focus, and returning from absorption to reconcile with collective representations of time. Does our western gaze prevent us from seeing the metaphysical splintering of temporalities that are heightened by the way people move through space time? Does the mind begin to anticipate upcoming events or relive memories during times like travel due to a lack of activity in the moment? And though we are speculating on these moments of the future or the past, are we only seeing them in our periphery so to speak?

The city can be like an obstacle course, one can freely move, but the places we move and the speeds we move at are constricted by the city plan, other people, tunnels, pathways, and structures.  Where the motion begins to feel like it is determined by a force more powerful than one’s individual will, and other times the force of movement acts against human determination, pushing one further from the desired place at the desired time. This force can be traced to our own resistance to time, the rush against time. To make it stop, slow down or speed up is something we perceive to be possible in particular moments.

Is time different when we travel?  It certainly feels different, but is our time changing shape or behavior within the liminal time of traveling between places? As Gell would argue, there is no difference between cyclical and linear time; time is not repeating, alternating, or reversing (Gell 1992), but I would say it becomes stressed, compressed, slowed, or quickened. A constricted environment like New York is radically different from nature. But substantive universal time operates the same in either location. New York transit seems to operate within a system that organizes, assembles and funnels people by common destination, while our individual perception of temporality could be dictated by our divergent interests. If we oscillating between two temporalities, it seems arbitrary to pick out one activity like traveling or ritual to circumscribe the other temporality.

The city grid form guides people and vehicles through points of convergence and then reroutes them along the grid to accommodate a constant flow of people. It seems that a tension does develop between ordered uniformity of socially imposed systems of time and the internal time of individuals.  Perhaps an effect of moving people who have a range of different internal temporalities through a uniform system results in successful enculturation of a pan-New York temporality.

In this system we are literally stacked in multi-storied buildings, and funneled through tunnels and gridded streets with building which cut us off from the sun and sky. The temporal order is bound up in the mechanical clock time that dictates public transportation. Our encounter with the natural temporal order of the day is significantly reduced by traveling underground and building up into the skyscape. This could be a fair representation of New York ecological time. Or perhaps people are transporting their minds elsewhere while their bodies travel along the municipal geometric design.  

What would make the temporal experience of New York City any different from any other major city of western modernity? Is it the impatience of residents who work against the universal time by speeding up? Are there multiple temporalities for individuals? Is travel time or mode of travel acting on the perception of time? We exist in physical isolation from the “natural” temporal order of the sun and stars, and we also invent ways to further isolate ourselves from each other by traveling with “devices” which draw us in to “doing” rather than contemplating. Is the New York cabbie using his car horn as an effective form of communication or is he aligning everyone to his temporality by honking? The car horn honks to grab our attention to the yellow cabs in the moment he decides that you are not moving at the proper pace. A soft bell dings to alert you to the opening of the subway door. Just like the Cathedral Clock, these are temporal snaps, abruptly aligning present company into the same moment.

by Lindsey Bishop

Gell, Alfred
 1992 The Anthropology of Time: Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images. Explorations in Anthropology. Oxford ; Providence: Berg.

Semonov,  Sergey. “Amateur Built Environment 1.”  Aerial Stitched Photo of Manhattan The Atlantic 9 Jan 2013

“Wole Parks stars as Manny in Columbia Pictures' Premium Rush (2012).” Wole Parks riding bicycle Ace Show Biz

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