Social Strategies for Hard Times

An artist I saw recently on the nightly news had her own studio–but no one was buying.  When people are worried about putting food on the table and health insurance, the artist realized, paintings aren’t usually in their budget.  “But at least,” she told the reporter, “I hope that my old customers will still drop by if only to chat.”

When economics define hard times, it’s important to remind ourselves to take pleasure in the non-material reward of connecting with others.  It doesn’t pay the bills, but it can help alleviate the stress. And stress, as we all know, makes us more susceptible to illnesses, which then makes a bad situation worse.  Researchers put the risks associated with social isolation right up there with smoking and obesity. Continue Reading »

The Paradox of Fleeting Relationships in Small Spaces

New York Times reporter Ariel Kaminer is surprised that four minutes into a shared cab ride, she and her co-rider, a recent college graduate, “had already done money and politics, things people supposedly don’t discuss with strangers.  So I asked if she was a person of faith, and bingo, we hit the trifecta, all before the meter even registered $5.”

Kaminer’s piece, Taxicab Confessions, written after the second day of a new cab-sharing program in Manhattan brought to mind some fascinating research I uncovered when working on a chapter about how relationships unfold.  It helps explain what makes sharing a small space with a stranger so intimidating and, at the same time, why we sometimes break all the rules and let it rip with someone we just met, even in a very short period of time.  Continue Reading »

Talking to New Yorkers About CS

Later today, I’m at the 92nd Street Y’s Tribeca facility.  In New York, half the population lives alone and yet New Yorkers rank far lower than their country cousins on scales of loneliness.  Why? They cultivate–and value–their CS.  These are the points I’m going to make: Continue Reading »

High Line: A New York Fairy Tale

Everyone’s talking (at least in New York) about the new High Line park in lower Manhattan, an urban oasis built on old elevated railway overlooking the Hudson River. It’s not quite complete, but verdant enough for picnics, photos, and parades of people–18,000 to 20,000 visitors on the weekend.  In my parlance, it’s not just a new park, it’s a “being space.”  And, as reported in a recent New York Times article, High Line is doing its job–encouraging people to connect:

It even inspires crusty New Yorkers to behave as if they were strolling down Main Street in a small town rather than striding the walkway of a hyper-urban park — routinely smiling and nodding, even striking up conversations with strangers.

“Here people tend to be more friendly,” Kathy Roberson, who is retired but does volunteer work with the poor, said on Saturday. “Those same people, you might see them someplace else and, you know,” she broke off, raising her eyebrows, “they’re kind of stressed.”

One of the best things about the park is that residents in the area are proud of it:

Despite the complaints about noise, gentrification and tour buses spewing forth their cargo, many locals have fallen so hard and fast for the park that they are acting as impromptu tour guides, eager to show off their new love interest.

I also can’t help but love the High Line’s history, because it exemplifies the power of consequential stranger relationships–people from different worlds coming together on common ground.  Referred to in another New York Times article as “something of a New York fairy tale,” the once-upon-a-time began ten years ago.  Joshua David, a writer, and Robert Hammond, a painter met at a community board meeting and discovered that they both wanted to save the abandoned railroad trestle.  They then founded Friends of the High Line and recruited others to help make their dream a reality.  The High Line opened in June of 2009, and even in this economic downturn, it is revitalizing the neighborhood–not to mention putting smiles on people’s faces.  Jane Jacobs would be proud.

The P in Public is for People

A few months ago, when the New York transit authority announced plans to discontinue certain bus routes to cut down on costs, the bottom-liners who make such decisions probably didn’t think much about the social angle–the casual conversations and the lost connections that would result.  New urbanists frequently make this argument about architecture and city planning: Buildings and plazas are often erected without regard for the people who will inhabit the space.  Where do they hang out, schmooze, and get to know each other?  Such social engagement is, arguably, a key prerequisite for a civil society.

In the face of $1.2 billion debt, though, the transit authority had to do something.  Besides, most of us don’t usually think of buses and computer trains as social space.  They’re conveniences.  Indeed, most of the uproar about the reduced services brought cries of “how will we get to work?” rather than “what about the people I saw every day?”  Which is why I found “The Last Bus,” an “op-art” piece by Miranda Purves, so refreshing.  Purves admits that when she first began to take the B75 in Brooklyn with her three-year-old son,  the trip was little more than a painful necessity–a way to get from here to there:

Initially, I resented this routine: crabby bus drivers; occasionally menacing-seeming passengers; the excessive lurching. But slowly, I became familiar with the other regulars: the old woman with the bad knees en route to her quilting class, the drunk in a wheelchair who still maintains a cheerful independence.

Purves also describes the single mother and her son– “doughnut friends”–who, along with other regulars, became part of her daily routine.  She and her son depended on seeing them, and they made the B75, as her son put it, “our bus.”

Realizing that a hundred other bus route and five subway lines were doomed, Purves decided to spend some time traveling with Jason Logan, a graphic illustrator to sketch out the social scene on other routes throughout the city as well.

Both Jason and I have always been drawn to this phenomenon of people, behaving for the most part civilly, getting from here to there, side by side. And we wanted to find some way to convey the less tangible costs of service cuts and fare hikes.”

Her article and his illustration appeared in the New York Times this past March (2009)–a reminder that public arenas, stationary or on wheels, are “being spaces”–places where strangers become consequential strangers.  The piece bears looking at…again.  (And don’t forget to click on the PDF of Logan’s drawings–even if you have a slow computer, it’s worth the wait.)

Why We Need Being Spaces

An entire chapter of Consequential Strangers is devoted to being space, a term coined by trendwatcher Reinier Evans in 2003 to describe Starbucks and other  commercial environments that did away with harsh fluorescent lighting and plastic chairs, so that customers would be encouraged to hang out.  The sociological underpinnings of the concept are embodied in Ray Oldenburg’s notion of  the “third place.”   Neither home nor office, a third place can be a tavern or coffee shop or public plaza or the lunchroom at a company–any place you can kick back, schmooze, and just be.   And of course the notion of creating these kinds of environments–whether you’re talking about a stores or an entire city–is what propels the new urbanism movement.   Being spaces are safe, civilized, welcoming places where strangers can become consequential strangers.   This video, created by independent filmmaker John Paget, winner of a Congress for the New Urbanism charter award, shows why we need to design and build more being space: