Friday, October 25, 2013

Empire State of Mind

       I’m from a tiny town in northern Vermont (to give you an idea, we’re about 40 minutes from the Canadian border). Before coming to Columbia, I had been to the city a few times, but I had absolutely no concept of the layout of the city, and it very much existed as an abstract concept in my mind. What I knew about New York City I gained from popular music (Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z being a personal favorite - feel free to play the link at the bottom of this blog to listen while reading), the New York Times (which my parents usually only got on Sundays), and various TV shows and movies (Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, Friends…I’m starting to regret admitting these things). I had a vague concept of the boroughs, but I will admit I probably could only name Brooklyn and Manhattan before moving here. My first week, I made the mistake of asking a friend if Queens was in Brooklyn. Needless to say, her uncontrollable laughter answered my question.

            I’ve been here now for almost three months, and my concept of the city, and ideas about what it means to “be a New Yorker” have drastically changed. I’d like to explore my personal relationship to this space, and how my conceptions of it have changed, and why, and what it signified/symbolized to me before and after living here. Marcel Danesi talks about spaces as “signifying systems” in his book Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things. He writes that spaces are constructed by people in a way that gives them meaning – buildings are seen to be a “library”, “office”, etc., not just a pile of brick or stone. He also discusses how societies are perceived as “communal bodies”: for example, a society can be “healthy, sick, vibrant” etc. The city itself seems to be a living entity when we refer to the “heart” of the city or if it feels welcoming or “cold”. It is interesting to consider Danesi’s spatial theory when people stereotype or try to understand cities they’ve never visited, or are new to.
 For me, and many others, New York City is a place of opportunity, of nightlife, of lights, and of life. The skyscrapers themselves appear cold on the outside, but they promise greatness and potential as they literally touch the sky. Times Square itself (though some would argue against this being the “heart” of New York) literally pulses with movement, noise, and almost a life of its own. A friend of mine had a T-shirt with an interesting design on it. When I asked what it was, she responded: “It’s the New York City skyline!! How do you not know that?!”. In New York, simply the outline of the buildings themselves says something about the city, and, to New Yorkers, is a piece of their identity and connection with the communal body of the city’s society.

        Before moving, New York was an idea, a feeling that I couldn’t quite describe – almost comparable to how Charles Peirce would describe an icon: something intangible, that loses meaning when people try to break it down, or discuss what it is. After moving here, I’ve learned the boroughs, and found that the idea of the city has less agency on me than I originally anticipated. I’d bought certain clothes, shoes, even bags, that I thought would help me fit in to this idea of New York I’d used media and anecdotes to construct. Now, living here, I realize that while my initial perceptions of the city haven’t necessarily died, not everyone lives like Jay-Z, or Carrie Bradshaw, or Ross Geller. The signs that give New York it’s impressive, intangible identity are all still around - the skyscrapers, the noise, the lights, the life – but I have come to know the individual people that make up the communal body, and they are not so different from me.


Brett Ostrum said...

It's interesting how the way places are perceived extend to the people who live there! I had a funny experience when I first started telling people that I was moving to NYC, and realized that I did not fit in with their ideas about New Yorkers. Several people said to me, "I can't picture you living in New York". Others worried for my safety, and EVERYONE seriously doubted my ability to navigate the city. Looking back now, the comments show me how strongly the population of NYC is conceived of as a whole, and that I did not fit in with my friends' conceptions of the communal body. Interestingly, this discrepancy made it so that they could not picture me living here, and even caused some to worry about me living in the city since they saw me as an outsider from the communal body as they perceived it.

Gabrielle Borenstein said...

It's funny. Growing up I was always taught that New York City was a cultural "melting pot" or for the cynics who still think of New York as culturally segregated a cultural "fruit salad." This is all to say, New York is a place with no definite or definitive associations with respect to its citizens. Yes taxis, the big apple, skyscrapers, Times Square, etc. are all iconic or emblematic, they refer to the physical space, rather than the people who inhabit it.

I guess what I am trying to say is that the melting pot or fruit salad metaphors purport a notion of New York as a place where every and any individual can find his or her own niche. It is a city with no predefined type of person. As corny and idealistic as it may sound -- even having spent my whole life in this city -- I am still willing to stand by this. What intrigues me is the way in which the media, from the movies to television to music, has the power to distort New York as an entity to the public. The so-called signifiers may not always be apt representations of the signified in this case. As Brett conceded, appearances and the resulting conceptions of these appearances are often inaccurate. The city is just the buildings, the coffee carts, the traffic lights, but our reading of these material entities from skyscrapers to traffic appears to imbue it with a life of its own and even more so, imbue those who interact with these entities or engage in these activities with their own associative qualities.

Becky Fisher said...

Katie's blog and the comments made me think a lot about icons and the media. It is interesting experiences people associate with an icon can create various webs of interpretation surrounding one entity. In the case of New York City, I keep thinking about my parents. They watch way too much SVU and CSI. If you are not familiar, these shows involve a lot of violence in NYC. As a result, they get a little paranoid about me living in the city. Even though they know the show is fake they still know that crime in New York is real. I am sure they would still worry a little if they didn't watch it, but I can't help but wonder if it make them extra nervous. Watching the show constantly reaffirms their fears. It creates a pattern which legitimizes the city as an icon of violence. At least a little?