“Flânerie can be understood as the observation of the fleeting and the transitory which is the other half of modernity to the permanent and central sense of self…. It is a way of going on precisely because it is so utterly futile” (Tester 7).
It’s hard to be a true flâneur when one is asked to be; that is, being assigned to walk around the city without purpose, it was at first difficult to let go of expectations and simply walk. Cameras in hand, I marched forward from the 1 train towards High Line Park.
The High Line
I had never been to the High Line before, although the concept of an “industrial” park interested me; I always imagined it to be very steampunk and gritty, with wiry metallic “plants” and shadows of its former function as a freight line. My imagination stayed just that, for the reality of the park is less eccentric and more of an elevated walk through the city, treating the buildings like giant sequoias in a large, abstract garden. The juxtaposition of painted brick building and vibrant grassy ground is a pretty collision of gritty urban structure and the freshness of nature. It adds more to the illusion of walking through the city as if it were a garden. The planners of the High Line were quite the innovative bunch; they succeeded in smoothly mixing nature with the city, and then implanting park-goers right in the middle of it, able to enjoy their surroundings without feeling much different from walking along a slow-moving city block.
A view from High Line Park, of High Line Park near 23rd Street and the brick “garden” that complements it.
Formerly a freight line, High Line Park reminds me of what Certeau says: “…New York has never learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts” (127). The High Line’s very being has been mutated from its original purpose; instead of being a freight line, or the rusty old remnants of one, it has become a park. Not only does this transformation reflect New York City’s ability to constantly update itself, but it makes for a unique park. A pretty awesome park. Sure, there were no metallic trees, but they still had the old lines running through the park. These were definitely my favorite part, as they showed the park’s history, and looked pretty cool, too. You could walk on tracks without worrying about the third rail!
Rails at High Line Park. My favorite park of the composition there
I take the F down to Chinatown, refraining from walking there only due to a time budget. The F lets me off near Straus Square, an area of Chinatown I am not much familiar with. I figure that will make my favorite neighborhood more “flâneursy” or “flâneurable”.
I love Chinatown. Like the High Line, it’s a blend, albeit a different type of blend. Chinatown is a mixing of cultures – those from East Asia and that of America; more specifically, that of New York City. Generally speaking, Chinatown is delicious B grade restaurants, quick walking, beckoning shop keepers willing to strike a deal, food carts selling simple sweets whose aromas fill the air, a lot of honking from the street, lots of talking incomprehensible to me. Chinatown is also a crowded place. It has not entirely followed Koolhaus’ proposals of continuously moving upwards (at least in the area of business), but does follow his notion of continuous crowding. It’s the perfect place for flânerie because it’s a good place to get lost in a crowd while still being important. Every vendor wants your business. Every passer-by wants their personal space, so you’d better watch where you’re lest you want glares or foreign exclamations. Even more conducive to flânerie are the streets; unlike the upper West Side, Chinatown is not numbered, so the streets are haphazardly named with tons of back streets and crevices to explore.
There are many artistic aspects to Chinatown. For one, the calligraphy is appealing, although maybe it’s just the linguistics nerd inside me squealing. The writing is like water, flowing in each character. It’s omnipresent; not just on business awnings but on street signs, too. Another beautiful aspect is the red. Red is a bold colour, a colour of passion and assertion and, in China, luck. As I walk through Chinatown, I notice the collective presence of red: red awnings, red font on signs, red good luck charms, red bean paste, and even red, East Asian style shades on the street lights.
Toto, I don’t think we’re at the High Line anymore…
Getting off the F train and walking into Chinatown. Red awnings, calligraphy, food, and crowds of people.
My feet take me someplace new during my travels. A little place called Kimlau Square. It is mostly grey and stony, with a statue of an imposing man, and a monument for Chinese-Americans who died for our country. Although plain and gray, it is as an aesthetic piece; it is simple, balanced, and noticeable in the city maze.
The simple, solid memorial in Kimlau Square stands out in the city.
Thank you to those who died for our freedom.
I continue to walk throughout Chinatown, eventually finding myself in familiar territory near Mulberry Street. It is past noon; my journey is coming to a close. There is only one thing left to do…
Dumplings and a Snapple for four bucks! Did I mention that when good Chinatown food hits your taste buds, it is the equivalent of your eyes seeing Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding Feast At Cana?
A Final Thought: Snippets
“The flâneur is the secret spectator of the spectacle of the spaces and places of the city” (Tester 7). I felt like just that: the hidden watcher of the city. I observed little happenings as I strolled through Manhattan blocks and the High Line, and even in the subway:
I’m on the subway and hear two men talking heatedly in French. I wish I did not have to get off so soon; I was hoping to catch some words or maybe gush over them.
As I walk from the station to High Line Park, I see a Batman painting on the window of a bakery. Big Booty Bread Company, to be exact.
At the High Line, everyone is staring at two window washers. I am staring at everyone.
A model poses for the camera. A group of friend converse. A young man sits, lonely.
A little boy uses a bench as a slide. Clever. I wish I were that small again.
People watch people as if they viewed are penguins behind glass at a zoo. But the viewers are the ones in the cage.
Too perfect to see while we’re discussing Beethoven in class.
(Funny thing: After all this, I have to say I kind of did escape my problems for the majority of the time I strolled, although more so in the familiar crowds of Chinatown than the new, less packed High Line.)