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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Subway Seat

“What makes you decide on where to sit?”
This is a question I have been meaning to ask random people on the subway. Why that particular seat? Why not the other one, or even none?

Sense of Ownership: Comfortable Rider, NYC Subway, October 2009
By taking a closer look to peoples’ facial expression and body language for choosing a seat after entering the subway, which for me is always a fun people-watching game, we can see that most people take action after taking a quick scan around the subway. Some rush to grab the first available seat that immediately catches their eye, some wait around for others to take a seat first then decide, some notice a small space between two other seated persons and somehow manage to squeeze (or even force) themselves into that space, and some even choose not to sit at all while there are a few available seats. What are the indications for such decisions and behaviors? Why do some assume that they have the right to be inconsiderate of others, force themselves to spaces and peoples boundaries, without asking or thinking twice?  

Assumed Rights: Inconsiderate Rider, NYC Subway, December 2009

But wait, the story continues even after a seat is chosen...

I am sure you have seen –if not taken such action yourself, as I have observed many times by many people, that some leave their seat, or walk to the other end of the subway car, or even walk out to the next car, once they are being approached by a ‘homeless person’ (which I in fact dislike this disrespectful phrase) performing and/or asking for money. Its fine, no need to feel guilty if you too do so –as we can categorize you with the other group of people that their personal social-standards drive such behavior. I actually once noted a family of four (good looking parents, early 30’s, with a 3 or 4 year old boy in mommy’s arms and a cute baby girl in her stroller being pushed by daddy), step into the subway, take a close look around and leave for the next subway car (decision made by the wife) just because a homeless person started speaking out loud to the crowd after simultaneously entering at the other end of the same subway car. Interesting, right?
Reality: NYC Citizen, Brooklyn, December 2009

 In contrast, we often see, not as frequent though, that some people very politely offer their seat to elderly, pregnant women, mothers carrying an infant, or someone with too heavy bags/packages. It feels nice to see how some of us could be so considerate of others and aware our surrounding.
Respected Social Values: Happy Riders, Berlin Subway, June 2010

I think our behavior and decision making in social settings, partially depends on how much we are willing to make a simple and short connection with a stranger simultaneously using the same public space, and add a personal touch to it. Regardless of how we read it (as either taking a risk or being too easy going), they too, as much as we do, have the same right of using that space to their own desire as long as everyone is respectful of each other. But, how can we define ‘respectful of each other’, when we are sharing a public space only for a short period of time, while being strangers without knowing who the other person is? Yet, by default, we all expect that everybody must have a good understanding of the most fundamental principles and values of social behavior and respect –common sense, right? Except how realistic is this expectation? How did you and I personally learn to respect these values and be considerate of others? That’s right, through our parents, family, teachers, good friends, higher education, etc. However, did we all (everyone, from all socio-economical levels) receive an equal amount of attention and education throughout life to have an equal comprehension of respecting social values? –One of the most fundamental and crucial factors for our most common behaviors in public settings. It is this inequality that results to the shaping of a society containing various socio-economical layers, with members that are individually dissimilar to each other. Even though, it plays to our advantage by creating a uniquely energetic and interactional community, neighborhood, or city, but it also directs the individuals, as well as the groups as a whole, to define a fine line of categorization between each other, as an indication of which bubble they belong to including assumptions of which spaces they have granted access and rights to.
Social Action: Locally-Organized Public Pillow Fight, Union Square NYC, April 2010

Social Attraction: "The Artist Is Present" by Maria Abramovic', Moma NYC, March 2010
Linking our story here today to my blog entry earlier this year on April 1st 2010 –“Share a Cab”...Actually Lets Rephrase That: “Rule-out the Poor Again, (that takes a look at the socio-economic justice of the “Shared-cab” program (Share a Cab) implemented by the New York Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) and how it could changed the public ridership face of uptown NYC), the following question is raised: Would a well-supported high-society person living in a McMansion in the Hamptons of NY, or a luxury condo on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, be willing to share the same cab for 10-15minutes with a hopeful hardworking immigrant living in the dark and poorly ventilated tenement building units located in the same flattering and fashionable city of Manhattan (not even Harlem, Bronx, or Queens)? It’s a brilliant idea, as I always support novel proposals favoring our society, but while we are spending the time/energy/funds for a new plan, why not plan on implementing a new program in such way that could benefit a larger group of users or even majority members of our society, rather than catering to a particular group of users? Isn’t this type of social-injustice (sometimes even environmental injustice) considered as Classism –discrimination on the basis of social class?
Breaking a Bubble: Private Wedding/Dinner Rehearsal Planned by Hotel on Public Sidewalk, Berlin, July 2010
But maybe this Classism is just an innocent result of the education inequality that we talked about earlier. Should we just surrender to this dismantling injustice by accepting the isolation and categorization it creates, and presume that it’s inevitable? Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we, as individuals living in the American/Western world, are known to living an isolated lonely life. Living a conservative, riskless, structured lifestyle has become the main principals for many assuming to have a safe and comfortable life. Why not be more spontaneous, open to making new connections, and mix-in with other NYMates –society members in general?
Public Family: Sunset Park Community Members Unite After Disaster, Brooklyn, NY, September 2010

Try turning off your iPod while riding the subway to home and let a random person start a conversation with you. Take off your Ray-Ban sunglasses while rushing through the Midtown crowd and allow a tourist to ask for directions. Rather than sitting on the same bench to read your book in Central Park every Sunday, choose a bench next to a homeless person that is people-watching. Or go have a drink one Friday night in Harlem instead of your favorite bar in the East Village. Think about all the random incidents and encounters you have had so far in life by coincidently running into an old friend, a successful businessman, or a well-known author, that have brought you unexpected and desirable future opportunities; or perhaps how you have had the chance to become a helpful link for them. We never know who we come across in our life, right?

As I always say “meeting a person is always an experience for me, because ‘everybody’ has something to say”.

Think about it, it’s true. The admired professor at Harvard, the famous Italian designer, the teenage rock-star featured in People, the best-selling New York Times author of the year, the successful restaurant owner in East Village, the responsible Target employee, the respectable train conductor, the hardworking graduate student, the out of control cab driver, the unemployed alcoholic, and even the unpleasant homeless person... they all have an interesting life story behind their cheerful or exhausted face, that if not connecting us to future opportunities, as least we can always learn a lesson or two from it. I am always intrigued by such stories, so I’ll leave you with that thought hoping to have brought out a tiny portion of the ‘risky side of you’!
One of Us, Storytellers: NYC Citizen, Manhattan, September 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

"New Yorker"?

A few days ago (the first week I started my new job) as I was walking down on Broadway to the office in the morning from the subway station in Soho, I realized that have joined the “New Yorker” crowd and routine: taking the subway in the morning and going to the office, 30-60min break for the work day, leaving earlier in the afternoon and taking the subway to classes, getting home late after class... etc.
While I was walking fast and observing the people that I passed by, I thought “wait, am I a ‘New Yorker’ now?” It might sound funny when you hear it, but the point is: have I finally developed a ‘sense of place’ after 27 years of relocating and moving around?

Where do you consider your “home”? Why?
Is it because you were born/grew up there, have many memories, or lived there too long...? What are the elements in the environment you live in, that played/plays an important role in developing your sense of attachment to that ‘place’? Where is a ‘place’?

Living in Denver for the first 9 years of my life, in Iran for the following 15 years, and Denver (again) for 3.5 years after that, has definitely granted me a very complex sense of attachment (aside of all the memories and experiences). I was always confused on how to answer the question “where do you consider home”? Is my home where I was born –Germany, or where I grew up –Denver, or went to school –Iran/Denver, have many friends and family....?
But there are various aspects of NYC that have had a positive impact on the comfort and sense of place I have developed in NYC over the past 6 months; The pace of life yet calm and relaxed environment, the ease of networking and making connections, the educational and professional opportunities, the diversity and mix of cultures.... etc. In general, all the qualities I have been expecting from my desired city to live in. As well as the many details that are in sync with my personality and who I am.

I think a “place” is where it gives me the comfort and motivation to socialize with others in that environment, is where I am eager to walk around for hours and just observe my surrounding, somewhere that enhances my experiences and shapes my memories... The most interesting part is that, all the elements and characteristics of a city/environment are not shaped by themselves over time anymore. They are all programmed and planned, in the smallest details, by a group of people who care and understand the importance of our attachment to a place.
...and that has made all the difference.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Please Recycle After Use" ....Why?

Frequently we see these few words throughout the day: on the plastic bottle of the Fiji water we drink, on the brown paper bags we bring home from Whole Foods, on the box of merchandise we buy from IKEA... Do we really read this and follow the “instruction” each and every time? –that’s a different story.
As we all know, the rules and processes of Recycling were introduced and adapted to reduce the negative and threatening environmental impacts.
It is great to see how responsible and considerate industries and people have become during the past decades by raising awareness and educating/inspiring/motivating each other. But, how often do you ask yourself “why recycle?”
Why are we recycling so much? Why produce so much, to consume and at the end recycle it all. Isn’t that an extra effort? Why not start from the beginning rather than the end: start producing less.

Subway Advertisement -Tehran, Iran
In order to stand in line while we are at the DMV, Immigration Office, Health Care Offices, etc. we must take a number printed on a piece of paper and wait for our turn. That small piece of paper is merely printed out for a 5-30min use (in our hands) before ending up in the recycle bin. What a short life-cycle, huh?! It’s the same story with the deposit/withdrawal slips at the bank, merchandise price-tags in stores, grocery store plastic bags, vitamin packs, checkbooks, post-it notes, etc. All of which go through the same consumption process -with a slightly different and shorter/longer life-cycle.
On the blue plastic bottle of food for my beta fish is printed: “feed 2-3 times a day”. A couple thoughts come into mind after reading this “helpful instruction”: 1.Of course for marketing purposes you (as a manufacturer) want me to use this product as much as possible to finish it and buy a new one as fast as possible. A very innocent marketing trick right?! 2. What happens when the bottle is empty? I just throw it away (or to speak the 21st century language: “recycle it”) and buy another one? And keep repeating this process until –god forbid, the fish dies... I guess that’s the “cool thing to do” nowadays.

Painting By: Regan Rosburg (www.reganrosburg.com)

Much to discuss but I must run to an exciting class, so I want to leave you with a very interesting quote from McDonough and Braugart’s amazing book: Cradle to Cradle –which I HIGHLY recommend you read regardless of your field of interest and professional occupation.
“Recycling is an aspirin, alleviating a rather large collective hangover....overconsumption”

A Dear Fiji Water Consumer, NYC, September 2010

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Share a Cab"

Courtesy of  www.yellowcabnyc.com
It’s been a couple of months that the shared-cab program (Share a Cab) by the Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) has changed the public ridership face of uptown NYC. The idea of two or more people –strangers, sharing a taxi and paying a discounted fare seems to be very efficient and beneficial.

On the other hand, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has proposed and approved new budget cuts and as a result many service cuts –such as reduced subway frequencies, as well as elimination of student metro cards and some bus/subway lines. This is in addition to the income reductions of the higher level management positions, in order to fight with the current financial crises. It’s a practical solution for such situation.

However, let’s begin the short journey of this week’s commentary from a different starting point: As most would agree, we have two major socioeconomic groups in our society: the rich and the poor.
The rich are the ones living in uptowns and downtowns (city centers) in luxury housing, condos with magnificent views, maid services, nice cars, access to private schools, out of state colleges, salary jobs, paid vacations, organic food, gym memberships, etc. How do people from this category, move around in town? Personal cars and/or taxis –that’s right, CABS.
Now, the second category which literally is considered as ‘the second/third class’, is the poor: commuting to the city center for work early in the morning, while living in public housing (not that there are many left), or in the suburbs/rural areas, multiple households in small affordable spaces, view to the neighbor’s bedroom window, no private transportation means, may be able to afford public schools and local colleges, hourly non-secure jobs, 12 hour shifts, cheap fast-foods, discounted grocery, local and community sport teams, etc. How do these people commute to city centers for work and/or school? Buses, subways, trains, etc. –PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION. 

As I wrote on January 6th earlier this year, the cab-sharing program promotes social interaction in public spaces, increases space efficiency for both pedestrians and automobiles, and has a cost benefit to the “users”. Which is the whole point of this brilliant idea, right?!
All of our brilliant and novel ideas for our cities are claimed to enhance the life and convenience of the "users" (or city-dwellers). But if we take a closer look we can clearly see that this “social enhancement” is done to the cost of social injustice and inequity. Which group of “users” are we particularly planning and designing for?

In a nutshell, with all the budget and service cuts in public transportation and the implementation of shared cabs it is the poor who will continue to suffer as users, and the rich continue to become “richer”. It is the poor who is riding the busses and subways to commute from the suburbs to the city center for work every day. Especially since they have been, and continue to be, displaced from the inner city and public housings to the suburbs and rural areas; due to the amazing effort of private developers (money + power) with the cooperation of the City (authority) for replacing public housing with so-called "essential luxury housing".
The wheels of the city are running by this socioeconomic group of the society, “the working class”: a combination of immigrants and/or groups of color in lower income communities that have no other choice but using the buses and subways to get to the city center every day and SERVE "the better half". On the other hand, it is the 'uptowners and rich' who get the most benefits and advantages of these brilliant ideas made by the “People in Power”. They don’t need to worry about the public transportation budget and as a result service cuts, because they don’t use mass transit. Perhaps they are too special to ride with “the other half” on the same bus and subway. All they need to be thinking about is the cheaper exciting or frightening new experience of sharing their sacred cab space with another rich stranger. “But hey, it’s totally worth a shot, I get to ride a cab for a lot less than what I normally pay”.

....why do the “People in Power” usually end up having “polluting jobs”?!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Education and poverty

School's out
Education of the poorest varies widely among countries
Jan 22nd 2010
From Economist.com

This is quite interesting and sad... especially the RED dots!


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

iPods, Interaction, and Public Spaces

How often do you NOT use your iPod?!

..."NO! I missed my stop again!"

The subway ride back home tonight after having dinner in east village at Cafe Orlin (one of my favorite places that I highly recommend), was uneventful yet quite interesting. As usual (given the "people watcher" that I am by nature), I was entertaining myself by watching people, reading the look on their faces, and their activities. A few people were reading and a couple taking a nap on their way home from a hard day at work, while a young girl (in her mid-twenties, dressed up in her own style) walked in the subway with a very insecure look on her face and the impression of "just left a party". But what was more interesting was a lady listening to her iPod and quite disconnected from the outside world. It didn't take long that she realized she missed her stop and had to rush out of the subway at the next station.

When I was moving to NYC, I was told by a few people that the NYC subway is a great place for interaction and meeting new people. That sounded fascinating to me... However, all I have noticed so far on the subway rides is the typical western isolation. Yes, public spaces here in NYC are full of people and great places to potentially meet new people, but unfortunately the majority of the population these days isolate themselves by their iPods. I think this new desirable and entertaining technology (iPod) is dictating and affecting our communication system. When people enter a public space with an iPod in their ears they are making a statement. They are basically saying "please do not disturb me, I am not in the mood to talk to you or even smile and interact"...

This is something less noticeable in Denver -where I lived, for a few years. Especially when taking the BX bus to commute from downtown Denver to Boulder for school. Sometimes people would even get really loud and excited about the individual/group conversation they were having with each other. By comparing Los Angeles, Denver, and New York City to each other, I would definitely say Denver has the highest 'public' interaction; and maybe that's one of the reasons why Denver is a popular tourist and residence destination. In Denver it is very easy to connect to the environment, engage in public conversations, and make new friends. I actually meet one of my great friends in 2007 on my way to school from Denver to Boulder after he asked what language I was speaking on the phone earlier on the bus ride.

Not that people in NYC are disrespectful and not helpful, as I have always found some one to help with directions and questions when needed. But on the subway here, seems like people are not interested or secure enough to suddenly smile and start a conversation with the person next to them. Reading a book or listening to the iPod appears to be more convenient and 'trouble-less'. However, the environment also plays an important role in directing people to interact and communicate with each other.
I certainly do not find the subway stations here a very attractive place for interaction. I personally prefer to start a conversation with a stranger in a bar or Bryant park for example, rather than the underground subways. One of the very interesting features of public transportation in the Middle East is the 'shared/public' cabs. Other than the private car service they have (which is basically like the taxi cabs here), there are also public cabs which have a designated street/route and four different people can ride the cab at the same time. I remember Istanbul, Turkey have taxi vans as a public transportation mode that they call it "dolmoush".
The demand for these public cabs is high and sometimes finding a ride home could be a challenge, but the fare is cheaper and it also is a great way for 'public interaction' while riding from point A to point B. I heard that NYC has a temporarily plan for implementing this public-taxi system in the uptown area as a test.

This question has been occupying my mind for a while now: how can we enhance the underground subways in NYC with a limited budget to create a more attractive and interactive environment?
MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority in NY) has implemented a few innovative programs so far; like MUNY (Music Under NY) where local musicians perform live music and attract people in groups. Even though its been quite successful and interesting, it still does not fill-in the social gaps among people.

Is it worth the effort of enhancing the underground public space/life while people isolate themselves with their personal preferences?