Michel de Certeau's essay Walking in the City illuminated a recent trip I experienced with my Service Learning group. On Monday, my group decided to take advantage of the warm weather and locate an abandoned Richard Serra sculpture and photograph it in order to make a proposal for its reinstallation, which is the main goal of the project. Though we knew that the sculpture was somewhere in the South Bronx around the 134th Street and the bridge to Randall's Island, we were unsure of its exact location so we spend several hours thoroughly examining the area.
Other than drifting during commutes or "exploring" Manhattan for new restaurants, I never approached my walks around the City with questions such as, "how could something be abandoned here?" and, "how can the abandoned be reintegrated to benefit the community?" Every element of the area had to be examined.
Unsure as to what exactly we were looking for, other than that it would be large and constructed out of steel, we looked anywhere we physically could enter to make sure that we weren't missing anything. Being that the area is mostly occupied by industry storage lots, power generators, and huge warehouses that compress the City’s garbage, there really weren’t many places where we could go. Our search led us to the water bank where we followed a path around the edge of a fenced off plot of generators. We were commenting on the amount of trash on the muddy bank and joking that this sculpture probably didn’t exist when we noticed several flat pieces of metal that were upheld by wooden beams. I don't know who made the observation that we were looking at shelters but, the three of us uniformly turned around and rushed to trace the path back to the street.
We didn't speak for a while.
There was something incredibly disturbing in finding the homeless literally pushed out to the extremes of the City’s space. This five foot wide piece of land between the extent of industry and the natural boundary of water was probably the last remaining physical space that was unclaimed towards the City’s conceptual identity.
I realized that I was so shocked to see the homeless on the outskirts of industry because I've grown so accustomed to seeing them in the highly urban areas of the City. I admit that I interact with the homeless in a similar manner to Richard's interaction with the vagrant woman in Mrs. Dalloway. While Richard "bore his flowers like a weapon," (Woolf, p. 113) it's become my second nature to use a book on the subway as a distraction from having to make eye contact with the homeless. Though I do happen to donate money and occasionally receive a "God Bless," when I say that I don't have any cash on me, which, as a student, is usually the case, I don't feel that interconnection that Woolf so successfully establishes between Richard and the vagrant woman, "still there was time for a spark between them." (Woolf, p.114)
Instead of this sense that everyone is bound by a unifying thread of human existence what remains are questions like Richard's, who initially wonders what could be done about the vagrant woman, presenting her as a problem that must be solved. Here, as discussed in de Certeau's essay, is where the problem of space becomes very real within the City. As Manhattan expands throughout its conceptual space and further develops its own identity, it becomes crucial to regulate its organization since Manhattan is confined to the physical boundaries of the island. Unfortunately, the homeless often fall into the category that de Carteau describes as, "a rejection of everything that is not capable of being dealt with and so constitutes the 'waste products' of a functionalist administration." Organizations and programs are constructed to “solve” these “problems” but they often only create an abstraction of power within the City that extends their administrative and ideal space, while attempting to utilize their limited physical space.
Several Bronx-based groups interested in ecology are currently working on creating a "green path" for bikes from North Bronx to Randall's Island that would run around the outskirts of industry. I can’t help but wonder how this would affect the inhabitants of the shelters.
We did find the Richard Serra sculpture, which was amazing. In that sense, exploring the area really was successful. Still, the shelters linger in my mind.