The Situationists' psycho-geographical map of Paris

One’s perception of the city is fragmentary. In a city of such a bulk as New York it is almost impossible sometimes to relate between places. For example, Broadway in the 20’s has nothing to do with Broadway in the 30’s. Even if you walk all the way down Broadway, along the way from A to B your mind loses track of your previous positioning and its relation to where you are now.

The underground adds a whole different level of abstraction to all this though. If it is different to navigate on the ground sometimes (without a map, that is), when you enter the underground you lose any sense of real space whatsoever. Landmarks that you would have navigated by otherwise, become just names on signs and arrows. You are forced into trusting that whatever is written or told is true; you cannot make paths – you follow them. It’s like flying a plane in the fog, being guided only by your flight-control systems and the voice of the dispatcher: you see nothing, you can independently navigate by nothing, you only do what you are told and hope the systems are correct. The distances become measurable in minutes, because there is nothing that would remind you that you are actually traveling through space: all you see from the window of your car is blackness, all you feel are random accelerations and decelerations; the stops are scattered in pure black space and bare no real relation to anything but themselves, the way hyper-space portals are always depicted in the movies. You might just as well be standing still, and the world were moving around you, rather than vice-versa – you really don’t know.

It is only when the train starts running above ground, in some sections, that you start to realize how immense the distances you cover are and that you are actually moving between real physical locations. As the subway almost never runs on the surface in Manhattan, this phenomena is mostly applicable to other boroughs, such as Brooklyn, which I know the best. A sea of houses. And kids. There are so many kids in this city. And many of them don’t really know where they live. Manhattan is just as distant a sound for them as it is for us, tourists and visitors, if not further. It is a land they know they’ll never reach.

Exactly because of all this fragmentation, taking a cab can sometimes be such a rewarding experience in this city: suddenly the path you otherwise take blind-folded under ground, becomes visible with all the buildings and places that are otherwise substituted by signs. On the other hand, taking a cab also changes the scale thus making the “fluidity” of cityscape more accessible. You suddenly can relate to the “bigger picture”. The map becomes less clear and detailed, but much smoother. Try it – it’s fun.

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