The New York Walk

April 22, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The weather was perfect Saturday for the informal and unofficial semi-annual Sociology Department New York Walk. And walk we did. We started at Port Authority.

The new murals in the subway station there deserve a better picture than the little thumbnails here.

When you get out on the street in New York, you miss a lot if you look only at eye level. A lot of the interesting things to be seen are up above — the ornamention at the top floors of the buildings, the gargoyles, the windows.

Of course, at street level too you can run into interesting things. Here are two of our walkers, Priscilla and Miriam, with a guy they seemed to recognize and who was kind enough to pose for a picture.
(Full disclosure: Samuel L. was not really there. Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum on Forty-second St. has this likeness outside.)

The great economist and game theorist Thomas Schelling once gave a roomful of law students in New York the following problem: You have to meet a stranger in New York City today, and you have no way of getting in touch with him. The trouble is that you don’t know the time or the place. All you know is that he wants to meet with you, and you want to meet with him. Where and when do you go? Students weren’t allowed to consult with one another, yet most of them wrote the same answer:

The information booth under the clock and Grand Central Station at noon. (As you can see, we were a bit late, and whoever the stranger was, apparently he didn’t wait around for us.) Schelling was interested generally in how one person’s decisions affect those of other people and how those decisions in turn affect yet others. The where-to-meet problem is about the coordination of behavior, and the lesson Schelling offered is that some places are more important than others as “focal point[s] for each person’s expectation of what the other expects him to expect to be expected to do.”

What he should have added was that even if the other guy doesn't show up, you can have a great time just wandering around in this grand piece of architecture.

We took the subway down to the Lower East Side and had lunch at a hole-in-the-wall Thai place. Here are George, Joanne, and Tanya standing just outside.

We've been doing the New York Walk for decades now, and for us old timers, it's about change — the Disneyfication of Forty-second Street, the rehabilitation of Grand Central, the gentrification of just about everywhere. Those changes are invisible to city-walkers who are seeing these places for the first time. But sometimes you can see the neighborhood in transition. In the 1970s, when we first started doing this walk, The Lower East Side looked and felt much like it must have fifty or sixty years earlier — the stores with cheap clothes displayed outside. The stores were still owned by Jews, though the many of the customers and sales people were Hispanic. You can still see some of that. But now much of the sidewalk space seems to be take up by cafes like this one.

You can't read the street sign, but this is at the corner of Orchard and Stanton. Orchard Street, a name once synonymous with tenements and pushcarts. And now you can get a burger here blackened with Cajun mayonnaise or with chipotle pepper and avocado. Oy.

That’s why I particularly liked this fabric store that has probably been around for most of a century. It's squeezed into a narrow space on Stanton Street and doesn’t look like much. Inside, the store goes back forever, with bolts of fabric in every color and texture you can imagine randomly lining the wall. I mean it looked random to me. But I’m sure that if I'd asked this man in charge for some particular item, he could have taken me directly to it in two seconds.
But stores like this one are glimpses of a fast-fading history, and they are quickly giving way to boutiques (two of our walkers, Tanya and Joanne, were particularly taken with a black cotton top that was only $275), cafes, pricier restaurants, cell-phone stores, and real estate offices.

And now, as I think about Thomas Schelling, I realize that my decisions are part of the reason for the change. I'd never buy fabric; I don’t sew my own clothes, and neither does anyone else I know. Sewing machines are all computerized now, and a good one costs thousands of dollars. When I look at the labels in the clothes I buy, they all say made in places on the other side of the globe.

1 comment:

trrish said...

Yay, the New York walk.

I went on a few, back in my day. The one I remember the most was, I think, 1985. I was engaged to be married and walking along and talking with George and others and realized I was so not ready to be married. Good call, in retrospect.

I always loved NYC, and I loved the Montclair State sociology department, so the two were a perfect combination for me.

I had pictures, somewhere.