While questioning the definition of vacancy, we thought about how vacancy is in part informed by a person’s culture, age and size. (And even the fact that they’re a person). And then while doing the slow walk, we considered what it is like to live in New York City as a person who has difficulty walking.
So for this week’s assignment, imagine a person (or animal!) who walks very differently than you do, be it due to age, or size or experience. Walk like that person (or animal) for the allotted time, and try to notice the things you think they would notice, think about the sorts of things they would think about.
How did it differ from how you’d typically perceive that space?
Last Tuesday, I had left my cookie dough at Liz’s apartment in Park Slope, a family-filled neighborhood in Brooklyn. That’s about three and a half miles from my house and work, and so in planning my walk, my only requirement was that I would pass by her house at some point. Well, one more requirement: I had to do the walk before the cookie dough went bad, as she had explicitly noted upon my visit that the one drawback of her lovely new home was that the refrigerator didn’t have a freezer.
I set out after work today to retrieve the dough and consider the question of vacancy. I’d been assigned the following prompt by the London group:
Every time you come across a vacant space, a dead end, or a cul-de-sac, reflect or respond in whatever way you want (be this a photograph, a dance, writing, reading, singing a song, a moment of silence, etc., etc., etc..)
My friend Katy was intrigued by the prompt, and lives loosely along the general direction we were heading, so she decided to join me.
Immediately, as the sun began to set over Manhattan in the distance, we realized that we didn’t know what constituted a vacant space. And for the next few hours, as we walked through the neighborhoods of Dumbo, Downtown Brooklyn, Cobble Hill and Gowanus, we questioned the idea of vacancy.
Here were some of the things we considered:
What is the definition of vacancy? We kept coming back to intent. That a vacant space is something that is intended to be filled, but is not. So a parking space is vacant if it is meant to have cars in it. A house is vacant if it could have people.
Can a space be vacant if it is not planned to be filled?
We were interested in time as it relates to vacancy. Some buildings are vacant during the day (many homes), while others are vacant at night (office buildings, the Brooklyn Court buildings we walked through). And then there are some places that are seasonally vacant, like an ice cream shop in the winter. We remarked on a Halloween shop we passed by, and how they seem to leech upon vacant storefronts for the month of October. Where do they all come from?
Vacancy is also a function of where you are in time. What is a moment? If it’s several minutes, and people walk past in that time, is it not vacant even if it feels like it is right now?
Vacancy relates to scale. A street might look vacant to us if we’re the only people there, but if you were looking down at NYC from a plane, it would look quite filled.
Vacancy can relate to who and what you are. A park might seem vacant to a human, but it might seem very filled to a dog, who can smell dogs out of sight.
We wondered for awhile if parks are vacant spaces at night. If you’re not supposed to go in there at night, is it vacant? Or can it only be vacant if it’s empty during open hours.
We realized after an hour or so that we were focused on visual vacancy. We thought about sound filling space, too.
Is vacancy the same thing as being alone? Can a space ever be vacant if you’re witnessing it?
Why does vacancy seem to have a connotation of scariness? Is it because you expect it to be empty, but maybe there is secretly someone there? But there is also safety in large vacant spaces, where you can see if others are there from afar.
We marveled for awhile at a park in Downtown Brooklyn that was completely fenced off, but was accessible if you stepped over the fence. Would an adult even think this was a park, and thus, if it were empty, perhaps it would not be vacant? But would a child, who could easily slip under the fence, even realize that people might not want to go in? For a child, would it be vacant? We stepped inside and felt like we were doing something wrong, even though there was nothing that said we couldn’t go in. Why was that?
We thought about vacancies in the sky and below us. We didn’t think the sky was vacant, but then we saw a plane, and realized it was important that the plane moved through vacant space. We admitted we were nervous about falling into those basements below the sidewalk. How vacant space is there below the sidewalk?
Are streets vacant when they’re not filled with cars? Or are they only streets by definition because they are an open space for people and modes of transportation to use?
We walked by the jail in Downtown Brooklyn and thought about how a jail implies a vacancy somewhere else, wherever the incarcerated person isn’t.
We thought about the cultural perception of vacancy. If you see a shrine that was supposed to be empty, and you know about the religion, you might think it was filled with something meaningful. Otherwise, you might just think it was an empty space.
Sometimes vacancy’s goodness or badness depends on your need. We walked by a CitiBike bikeshare stand that had no vacancies or open bike slots. If I wanted to take out a bike, that would be good. If I wanted to return a bike, the lack of vacancy would be frustrating.
We saw some street art and realized we had been thinking about vacancy in three dimensions. But walls are vacant 2D spaces. We saw some graffiti near a vacant space that was walled off, and we wondered, why are so many vacant spaces in New York City off limits? Is it because people are worried that someone will do bad things in the vacant space? Who gets to decide? What if someone builds something beautiful. We thought that was similar to rhetoric about street art on blank walls.
We walked down a street with large front yards. Some seemed vacant, others didn’t. We noticed that plants seemed to signify a lack of vacancy, whereas there was no plant life in the places that seemed vacant. But we realized it was only certain plants that signified a space being occupied; others seem to represent vacancy, like weeds that grow when nobody is around.
Near the end, we passed a vacant lot that looked exactly like what we imagine when we hear the word vacant. It was scary, but for no good reason. It was dark, but unlikely to be dangerous. I walked inside, Katy a little too.
We ended in Gowanus, at a Shuffleboard Club. Gowanus was a whole neighborhood of post industrial up-until-recently vacant spaces. Perhaps it is only in a place with so much vacancy that you could open something so whimsical as an enormous shuffleboard club in the middle of a bustling city.
In places with more space, outside of cities, do people even consider these questions? Or is vacancy only defined by the fact that there are things taking space nearby, and vacancy is the difference?
I dropped Katy off at Shuffleboard, and walked on alone. I found it was much easier to ponder these questions with someone else, and had trouble focusing. I called my dad, and talked with him about vacancy. He was interested in the strict definitional approach to vacancy versus the feeling of vacancy.
I arrived at Liz’s house, and picked up my cookie dough. Leaving a vacant, cookie-dough-sized space in her fridge.
Near the end of the journey, we remembered that we had to do the slow walk. We had just begun the long block on Union Street, between Smith and Hoyt. We felt extremely uncomfortable. We had just turned off a major retail strip, and we wondered what people would have said if we’d been walking on the busier Smith street.
I was immediately reminded of when I’d hurt my foot a few years ago, when I’d been living in an apartment two blocks from the subway (that I’d bragged how close to the subway it was), and suddenly the subway seemed absurdly far away. Each step was painful, and I couldn’t imagine how I mindlessly did the walk each day. Your speed really defines space.
We talked about our grandparents, and how they walk slowly. We considered how cityplanners time the crosswalk countdown–do they account for someone who walks very very slowly, and give them enough time to cross the street? We tried it and we just made it, as a truck driver stared at us strangely.
We learned, though, that you can’t jaywalk while slow walking. A group of four men, drinking on their stoops, were staring at us. Normally, we’d walk away quickly, but it became quite awkward, so we decided to cross to the other side of the street. A car started to come, and for our safety, we walked quickly to the other side. Both wanting to get away from the men, and avoiding cars, we realized how much we use our speed for safety.
As we slow walked on the other side of the street, a few people passed us, staring. The only person to directly comment was a boy, maybe 10 years old, who said, “I think you guys have ebola.”