Fear in the bones and the right to the city, or: The Monster at the End of the Block
A piece I was commissioned to write earlier this year for the catalogue for Juha van ‘t Zelfde’s exhibition Dread: The Dizziness of Freedom, opening at De Hallen Harlem in the Netherlands on 06 September 2013. I hope you enjoy it. (You can find out more about the show and the catalogue here, or purchase it direct from the publishers.)
When I was 18, I moved in with my first real girlfriend, to a draughty ground-floor apartment on East 7th Street between Avenues B and C. This was the winter of 1986-87, a time at which the edges of Manhattan Island (or, for that matter, its core) hadn’t yet been subjected to the concerted pacification campaigns of the Giuliani years. The act of choosing to live downtown, if you were among those for whom it was a choice, still meant accepting some level of risk and physical danger into your life. This was especially true in the neighborhood where I lived, in Alphabet City, where a common rule of thumb had it that A stood for adventurous, B for brave, C for crazy and D for dead.
And it was true, or felt true. Those were the days in which crack cocaine and the 9mm semiautomatic handgun first came to prominence in the psychic life of New York City, the years of the Guardian Angels, “subway vigilante” Bernie Goetz and of Michael Griffith being hounded to his death in Howard Beach. The tension was just something we lived with — more of a constant thrumming note in the background than anything else, though it occasionally crescendoed to apocalyptic-feeling levels. (Early one morning, my girlfriend and I woke to an unusual sensation of heat in our ordinarily-freezing room; it was the five-storey squat in the block behind us, whose backyard butted up against ours, burning to the ground — in fact, being watched as it did so, by the evidently unperturbed personnel of the Fire Department and the HPD, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.)
However it may have swollen, crested and then receded from day to day, the predominant emotion I remember from those years is fear. I was afraid of cops. I was afraid of skinheads. I was afraid of the pack of Puerto Rican kids who used to tool through the neighborhood on BMX bikes, hassling Chinese-restaurant deliverymen and the occasional unwary NYU student. I was afraid of the ubiquitous Missing Foundation graffiti that confronted you on every block, the shadowy band’s sigil of an upside-down martini glass enormous in ashy black Krylon on every second building front, bracketed by the legends PURGE and THE PARTY’S OVER.
Most of all, though, I was afraid of the Avenue C end of my own block. In fact, I’d rarely wander any further east than the bodega directly across the street from our apartment, which, but for a few cans of Goya beans, dusty bricks of Bustelo and cartons of island-grade bug spray, never seemed to have much on the shelves. (My housemates and I were certain it was a front for a crack-dealing operation.) It was as if some vast and only semi-permeable membrane had been stretched across the roadway, a thickening of the dread in the air to the point that it was physically difficult to pass through; in all the time I lived on East 7th, I only once recall walking the few blocks to the river. The cold grey light of that single occasion remains hypernaturally vivid in memory, which is what happens when what ought to be uncomplicated everyday experience is etched in the neurons by a jittery endocrine surge.
Like most of the people I knew, I armored myself against the streets in a drag of Schott biker jacket and chain-wrapped combat boots. It was, for the most part, sufficient. I was able to convince myself that I looked tough enough to constitute a disincentive to anyone inclined to hassle me — in fact, my armoring may well have contributed to others’ discomfort more than it alleviated any of my own. But I also made a concerted effort to perform everything the leather jacket and boots implied, as if along with my clothes I had to strap on a set to the shoulders and a walking gait capable of warding off the various bad but never quite fully-imagined things that might happen to me.
In time, all of this taught me something valuable about the nature of life in cities. When fear is an everyday thing, it becomes a habit that settles into the bones. It conditions the hours at which you leave the house, the routes you take, the way you hold your body, the things you carry. And utterly groundless though the great majority of my worries may have been — however precious and pearl-clutching it was for this bourgeois kid to quail at circumstances the overwhelming majority of my neighbors confronted every damn day of their lives, without even the option of picking up stakes and moving to a less fraught neighborhood — I could no longer pretend that the city was in any sense a safe theater of operations for me. Or, by extension, for anyone else.
And that was the crucial insight. It may have been the first time in my life I fully and directly understood the calculus some enormous percentage of people living in every city on Earth are forced to perform every time they walk out the front door. For not a small number of us, the mere act of walking out onto the street is an act that brings us face to face with our own precarity, and not merely the economic precarity we’ve all gotten used to in these austere days, but the deeper contingency of our very being in the world. Under conditions like this, the need to perform the most basic daily operations — shopping for groceries, say, or doing the laundry — becomes something that must be weighed against the risk of being mocked, harassed, mugged, beaten, or worse.
This calculus, unsurprisingly, weighs disproportionately on the elderly, on immigrants, on the homeless, on those who are by fate or choice visibly different than the majority population of a neighborhood, and above all on women of all backgrounds and descriptions. The right simply to be in public, secure in one’s bodily integrity, is and can never be taken for granted by anyone who belongs to any of these groups. And though a great many things have changed in the world since I managed to connect the dots and figure this all out for myself in the winter of 1986, the reality of fear is sadly not among them.
When people live this way, their access to the city’s nominal opportunities is radically curtailed. All of the urban amenities that might exist — not just in theory, on paper, or in principle but actually exist — are simply not present for them in quite the same way as they would be to someone who didn’t have to account for the perception of threat. The landscape is permeated by invisible gradients, boundaries and lines of force, and you disregard these only at your own peril.
If you yourself are an immigrant, of course, or disabled, or queer, or fat, you understand all of this immediately, implicitly, without needing to have it explained. It’s only a revelation to those who are lucky enough never to have felt the burden of any such fear — and such people tend to get prickly and defensive when the subject is raised, as though their interlocutor means to park sole and exclusive blame for this set of circumstances at their feet. Mention any of these facts in polite company, however diffidently, and you can surely expect to be accused of indulging yourself in the worst and most hyperbolic sort of left-wing rhetoric. Even to utter the word “privilege” is to chance having yourself dismissed as a hectoring scold.
And so I learned to talk not of the moral dimensions of this failure, but of its practical implications.
My understanding of the cost of fear starts with my reading of American sociologist Mark Granovetter’s landmark paper of 1973, “The Strength of Weak Ties.” “Weak Ties” concerns the diffusion of information in social networks; Granovetter’s thesis is essentially that we learn the most from people we know the least — more precisely, that because we generally share a very wide range of beliefs and assumptions with those we’re closest to, we tend to receive truly novel information from people to whom we’re only loosely affiliated.
A big city, of course, ought to be wonderful at generating just the kinds of weak ties Granovetter’s paper described. The encounters that take place while waiting at a bus stop, over the counter of a deli, the happenstance conversation with the next person in line at the supermarket — these are, at least potentially, hinges between entirely different ways of life, and moments at which information might pass through the membrane. But these are precisely the opportunities that drop off when fear is the order of the day, for reasons that are both physical and psychic.
The first is a matter of simple availability: you obviously can’t contribute to, or derive benefit from, a milieu you’re not in in the first place. The second has to do with your receptivity, your openness to the unpredictable. Divining the intentions of those with whom we’re unfamiliar, personally or culturally, is hard work. When you’re always on alert — pre-emptively cringing from the violence you assume and believe is headed your way eventually, from one or another direction — it’s exhausting to submit every chance encounter to an on-the-spot risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis. It’s safer, and certainly easier, not to drop your guard. And so we stay in our comfort zone, and default to engaging people with whom we’re already more or less similar.
Which is to say that I was denied learning anything from the people down the end of my block of East 7th, and they from me. I don’t want to get sentimental about this and suggest that we need have been best friends, sending choruses of “Kumbaya” pealing into the air of the Lower East Side and so on. But neither was that what Granovetter was getting at. All that is necessary for information to flow is simply exchange.
In this regard, I don’t even think “exchange” means anything particularly declarative. I mean the casual intelligence that two or more people cannot help but impart to one another simply by virtue of being copresent: the way we do, or do not, respond to the utterance of a well-known name. The expressions that cross our countenance upon hearing certain words or ideas, before we master our facial musculature. The way someone holds a bag, a phone, or a newspaper; the pocket in which they keep their wallet; the particular style with which they address the task of locomotion. All of these things are, at least in potential, the makings of urban savoir faire.
There’s a way of quantifying what is lost when we withdraw from the possibility of such exchanges: Metcalfe’s law. This is a notion drawn from the theory of telecommunications, which states that the value of a network rises as the square of the number of connected nodes. The very first telephone, in other words, is entirely worthless: what of value could you possibly do with it? But it leaps in value the moment a second telephone is brought into existence. The number of potential connections, and the aggregate value of the network as a whole, expand geometrically with each additional phone that is added to it. What does this terribly abstract framing of things imply for city life? It means that every one of us who connects to the network of possibilities that is any great city benefits from it — benefits more, in fact, the bigger and further-flung that network is — but that the network’s power, capability and value are tremendously enhanced by the fact of our connection. And to a very great degree, we connect to any such urban network physically, by being bodily present in it and to it.
And that’s why it matters, concretely and in terms the hardest-knuckled quant can respect, whenever someone is prevented from full participation in the city by the gnawing sense that they are a target. I am convinced that every such event is a double loss, doubly felt. Because Metcalfe’s law has an inverse, too. Every person that huddles behind a triple-locked door — or who does make it onto the public way, but only as a timid presence, tuning out everything but the mission at hand — does not simply shut out the city and its possibilities. They represent a corresponding, exponential loss to the city. Not only is the person deprived of the things the city can do for them, in other words, but the city is deprived of the perspectives, skills and capabilities they might have offered the collectivity. You don’t need to acknowledge a moral dimension, or find the language of privilege and exclusion particularly resonant, to understand why this is an outcome we might wish to prevent.
And if weak links do, counterintuitively, turn out to be the thing that binds the whole city together as any kind of psychologically recognizable entity, we’re actually indulging much more damage than we think in allowing these conditions to persist. Or at least that’s what seems to be implied by my reading of Metcalfe and Granovetter: if what you want is to disrupt a city’s overall social cohesion — and limit its ability to conduct novel and potentially vital information from one community to another — there’s nothing more effective you can do than sunder the weak links.
By contrast, though, what if you’re interested in improving the city’s ability to benefit its citizens, and benefit from them in turn? There’s a potential point of intervention at the threshold of public and private, whenever people are faced with the choice of fully committing themselves to the public way or remaining in an environment they perceive as offering them shelter. What might outweigh fear, at such a moment? Awareness of the actual conditions someone might confront, and of the resources they may be able to draw upon in doing so. Confidence in their own capability. Bonds of solidarity — the idea that whatever threats do exist in the world, no one is forced to face them alone. In a word: information.
There’s nothing information can do about that fear per se, especially once it’s set itself up in the body. Not being the kind of thing that can be refuted, it remains beyond the reach of mere facts. But practical informational tools can and do give people the strength to act and to be in public regardless of their fear.
For example, some women I know use Google’s StreetView on a regular basis to scan the neighborhood around destinations that are unfamiliar to them, especially if they’re planning to arrive there after the fall of dark. They use the service ahead of time to determine points of particular vulnerability, and plan routes with more lighting, population, and activity. It gives them a sense that they’re more in control, and that often turns out to be just enough to coax someone out the door.
Or consider a mobile application called Stop and Frisk Watch, developed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and translated into Spanish by a group called Make the Road New York. “Stop and Frisk” is a policy instituted by the New York City Police Department; in theory, it permits a police officer who has reasonable suspicion to believe that a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime, to stop and question that person, and search them for any weapons they may be carrying. In practice, the NYPD’s own records show that nearly nine out of every ten of the more than four million New Yorkers subjected to such street interrogations since 2002 — the overwhelming majority of whom were black or Latino — have been completely innocent.
If you are young, male, and black or Latino, in other words, you have a nontrivial chance of being stopped by the police every time you step out of doors, and if you think that doesn’t contribute to people’s sense that their very personhood is being called into question, you’ve never met a New York City police officer. By giving those subjected to the policy a way to record and report their experiences, Stop and Frisk Watch helps them resist, even a little, the sense that power in the world is exclusively arrayed against them and there’s no recourse or succor to be found anywhere.
What’s at stake in both cases is the basic right to be in public. To be sure, constraints on this right are experienced in different ways by different populations, and to varying degrees from one individual to another. But what so many of these abrogations all have in common as a ground note is the experience of bodily dread. And if we’re to take “Weak Ties” and Metcalfe’s law as our guides, this dread, when surrendered to, quite literally undoes the bonds which make any city what it is — weakens its resilience, hampers its ability to convey vital information from one neighborhood, district or community to another, and corrodes its own ability to respond effectively at moments of crisis.
It’s precisely Granovetter’s weak links, in fact, that turn out to furnish cities with an unusual and highly desirable property: that of getting stronger under stress. This is the quality Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “antifragility.” You may find Taleb fatuous; I certainly do. But antifragility is a terrifically important idea. When a city is confronted with some sudden external shock — a Blitz, a Fukushima, a Sandy — it’s the tenuous relations that get activated, the nodding acquaintances that are based on very little more than recognizing a person from one or two prior encounters. It’s these, and not the stronger bonds of affiliation and existing affinity, that wind up furnishing the grounds of cooperation under the most difficult circumstances, and that can in turn make the difference between a community’s survival and its disappearance. And these are the relations that never come into being when we let fear shut us in, off or down.
Any means of which we can avail ourselves, therefore, that dispels our fear, and does so without adding to the burden anybody else is forced to shoulder, is something that can only strengthen our cities, our selves, and their ability to mutually reinforce one another. And this is something that we all ought to agree is desirable, whether or not we ourselves are moved by the moral dimension of dread’s persistence.