Walking in the City: A Reflection on Michel de Certeau

Michel de Certeau – French Jesuit philosopher and social theorist (1925-1986)

Unlike Rome, New York has never learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts. Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future


Michel de Certeau – The Practice of Everyday Life

Whenever I walk in a city I inevitably think of the French philosopher Michel de Certeau and his remarkable essay, “Walking in the City.” Published in 1980 in The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau offers a fascinating dichotomy between two very different views of New York City. The first being a view of New York from the first World Trade Center. The second being a more intimate street view of the city. Two views, one city, and for de Certeau, a remarkable contrast between seeing the city with the celestial eye of a god and the more humble view of those who live “down below.” Describing his view from the World Trade,

Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. Beneath the haze stirred up by the winds, the urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea, lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sinks down at Greenwich, then rises again to the crests of Midtown, quietly passes over Central Park and finally undulates off into the distance beyond Harlem. A wave of verticals. Its agitation is momentarily arrested by vision. The gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes. It is transformed into a texturology in which extremes coincide—extremes of ambition and degradation, brutal oppositions of races and styles, contrasts between yesterday’s building, already transformed into trash cans, and today’s urban irruptions that block out its space.

Standing in the new World Trade Center, my mind couldn’t help but wonder at what de Certeau would see. What would he think about this view? How would he see this new “wave of verticals” spanning the horizon?  Today, the views of the new World Trade Center still reveal that same celestial godlike kingdom he saw nearly 40 years ago. From the observation deck, the entire world lies before your eyes. The city bursts forth across Manhattan, and consumes Midtown and Harlem in a “gigantic mass” with seemingly no barriers to impede its progress. Indeed, even nature is subdued by the city as it spills across the natural barriers of the Hudson and East rivers into Jersey City, Queens, and Brooklyn.

Today’s view obscures nothing and everything. Moreover, you can still see all within this celestial kingdom. Like a god, you observe the brutal endurance of the old as the city fights against its past. New construction in Hudson yards challenges the city. Glass and steel hover over Midtown’s brick and mortar past. The financial district rules the city with temples of commerce and banking as older buildings slip further and further from view. From on high, even the Empire State Building seems quaint when reduced to one building among thousands.

And yet, today’s view also obscures everything. The view from on top reduces the city to a view. Enclosed within the glass of the observation deck, the city becomes an object. It’s the concept city that only an architect could appreciate. There’s no sound, no city noise to remind you that you’re still in the city. A city without people, this celestial kingdom is void of life. Are you still in New York? It’s hard to say looking down from 1,250 feet. Truly you can see everything, but what you see isn’t the city. It’s just a sea of buildings, construction, and architecture. In de Certeau’s words,

To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp. One’s body is no longer clasped by the streets that turn and return it according to an anonymous law; nor is it possessed, whether as player or played, by the rumble of so many differences and by the nervousness of New York traffic. When one goes up there, he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators.

Thus, to return to the city is akin to what de Certeau calls an “Icarian fall.” You leave this fiction, this place of the gods, to take your place among mortals once more. Here, “down below,” you discover the true New York. A city not of building and skyscrapers, but comprised of walkers—the true practitioners of the city. New York, perhaps more than any other city, is defined by the everyday experience of those below. Its masses, commuters, and passers-by shape the city in their image. The buildings merely comprise  the backdrop for the millions of stories acted out each day. New York doesn’t belong to the architects. It belongs to those who walk below.

There is nothing quite like walking in New York City. To walk in Manhattan is to be grasped by its presence — its sights, sounds, smells, and streets. Both wonderful and overwhelming, New York is an assault on the senses. The city is a living force, a meeting place of spatial stories of people going to-and-fro. Fixed yet transitory, New York’s rigidity (its skyscrapers, bridges, and tunnels) exists in stark contrast with its transitory people— its living story. I can think of nothing more provoking and exposing than walking in Manhattan. New York is a true city, a living city, that will call you to both consider its mysteries and give yourself to it. Even weeks after visiting, there is something about New York that calls to you. It’s a presence that you can’t easily shake off. The city imprints itself on you just by walking to-and-fro across its streets and avenues. Its movement and energy is comprised of continual narratives of millions of walkers. An endless supply of new and old stories fill its sidewalks, subways, and buses. The walkers move here and there. Walking where, I wonder? There is always somewhere to go, which offers these practitioners infinite choices of where to go. On the street everyone is transitory.

The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered.

For de Certeau, these walkers form spatial stories. Walkers transform empty places into lived spaces through improvisations, shortcuts, and wandering. From above, it’s impossible to discern all the ways that people move here and there. We miss the ways that walkers “weave places together” through new and unique movements. Thus, New York city walkers create stories as they move from place to place. The city is “a space of enunciation,” whereby walkers act out new possibilities and mold space in their image.

 

Walking it Times Square is an immersive experience

You can see these stories throughout the city. The character and movement of each location changes, depending on these walking stories. Walkers in Times Square move with a walk of consumerism and awe. It’s a start and stop movement of the gaze and selfie. There is a chaos of uniformity. No one walks in Times Square to get anywhere. Instead, one walks with the intention to immerse oneself in time and space. There is no way to walk efficiently here (nor are you expected to). Walking is a process of halting, dodging, and crossing to avoid an unending mass of bodies. And yet, there is a order to this chaos. The walkers just know what to do. The story of Times Square is the story of the remarkable way people navigate this maze of humanity. Its awe and wonder isn’t in its flashing lights and enormous advertisements. Times Square is remarkable because of the intersecting mass of living stories walking up and down the street. It is the intersection of the world.

The walking of passers-by offers a series of turns and detours that can be compared to ‘turns of phrase’ or ‘stylistic figures.’ There is a rhetoric of walking.

You can discern the differing rhetoric of walking between the tourist and the New Yorker. The pace of walking is different. Determined and goal oriented, a local walks with a clear purpose. The sights and sounds of the city no longer hold any sway or influence. The local simply needs to be somewhere else. The tourist walks with an uneasy carefulness, as if he or she needs permission or assurance to go either here or there. Halt, stop, look characterize the tourist. However, the walk of locals is a wonder to behold. Bold and undeterred, the local knows the city. The streets, subways, and buses belong to the local. He or she commands the city’s pathways, fashioning it with a narrative of power and control. Watching how New Yorkers navigate the subway and its stations, it’s clear that they walk with the authority to write their own stories. They walk as authors. New York inscribes itself on the tourist, but the local inscribes his or her story on the city. Thus, to ask directions is the clearest sign that you’re not part of this story. Your walk indicates that you’re not a contributor to this story.

To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper.

Walking is, of course, transitory. The city streets embody the liminal experience of being in-between. One walks to get toward where he or she needs to be—work, school, home, etc. For many it’s temporary, it’s easy to step in and out of this liminality. You’re free to wander, stop for coffee and smell the roses before reaching your intended destination. As a temporary space, the city streets of New York are inviting. They make for an interesting page on which you can write your story. “Will I walk down 5th avenue or take a detour through Central Park?” “I’ve never been to this coffee shop before, I wonder if it’s any good?” New York is the ultimate liminal space. Its possibilities appear to be endless.

Nevertheless, the temporal liminality reflects the privilege of those who can seamlessly hop in and out of it. New York reflects the uncomfortable truth that walking is only available to some. For many, liminality is a permanent state of lacking a place. New York’s homeless and disenfranchised live, in de Certeau’s words, a “universe of rented spaces haunted by a nowhere or by dreamed-of places.” Thus, it isn’t unusual find those with no where to walk to. Consequently, they’re forced to make the transitory their home—Subway cars, transit stations, and city streets. Even in a transitory place, New York’s homeless are unable to actualize their stories. Their narrative is overlooked and forgotten, as they must sleep in places where others walk. This reflects an uncomfortable reality. A reality which New York seeks to hide with its glitz and glamour. Beneath the shiny lights and steel cathedrals, the city is,

Transformed for many people into a ‘desert’ in which the meaningless, indeed the terrifying, no longer takes the form of shadows but becomes . . . an implacable light that produces this urban text without obscurities, which is created by a technocratic power everywhere and which puts the city-dweller under control (under the control of what? No one knows).

In New York, this “implacable light” is everywhere through advertising and wealth. Capitalism is neither subtle or subdued here, rather it assaults your senses with light, video, and sound. Billboards and signs call for your attention—“walk here!” And “look at me!” Walking is not all that it appears to be. To walk is to be bombarded by a series of narratives competing for your money. Indeed, even culture and history isn’t immune to the monetary effect. A price must be paid to enjoy all that New York City has to offer. Walking may be free, but the entrance fee will cost you.

What can be seen designates what is no longer there: ‘you see, here there used to be . . . . ,’ but it can no longer be seen.

Returning back to the World Trade Center, I wonder what de Certeau would think of this new World Trade Center. Its views are unquestionable magnificent. It’s hard to not feel like a god in its celestial temple. Despite its grandeur, I have a feeling that de Certeau would walk past it without giving so much as a passing glance. I believe he would be more transfixed by what is not there—symbolized only by two large apertures. An absence that suggests the fragmentary and finite nature of our lives, our achievements, and even our greatest monuments. The absence of presence is often more striking—more haunting than our grandest celestial kingdoms.

You can read Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City” here.

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