Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Intersections Are Contests

Yesterday, we reviewed some of our favourite Toronto intersections. We were also asked to reflect upon our experiences of these spaces. The words we chose reflected the notions we also discussed last week, words such as “diversity” and “accessibility.”

Yonge and Dundas provides, in some sense, both diversity and accessibility.

Try and visualize with me. You have emerged from the depths of the TTC into a blinding, deafening, muting swarm of people and things. Electronic billboards many times larger than your body. More massive are the buildings which form a cage of concrete, with only the distant sky above. Street performers make tremendous noise and movement (singing, shaking, gyrating, flailing their limbs, calling out) – all of these sights and all of these sounds. And the smell of street food, of gasoline, and the smell of the people that surround you on all sides, the smell of different places brought by some of these people. In the confusion of all these sights, sounds and smells, people brush past you, invading the “personal space” so important to many of us. All these sources of stimulus and you haven’t stepped 10 paces outside the subway. This is an example of just some of the information you are receiving in a busy Toronto intersection like Yonge and Dundas, and more precisely Yonge and Dundas square which is a meeting place for many but a resting place for few.

This sensual information – the sights, sounds, smells, touches – these are each embodiments of Yonge and Dundas culture. I think that precisely what is embodied is the imagined community we have named the market. The market makes accessible goods and services to be purchased. And there is some amount of diversity in what is available for purchase: television, clothing, food and city tours just to name a few. Though each can be purchased and consumed, the medium of consumption is different in each of these examples: clothing is worn, food is eaten, television is watched and listened to, and city tours are in some cases watched, listened to, worn and eaten.

You, the person reading this post, have probably decided that what I have been describing as diversity is shallow relative to other examples of urban diversity. This is a description merely of a diversity of things to be purchased at Yonge and Dundas. None of my examples were of things visitors could sell themselves in the market. None of my examples were of those objects or experiences existing outside of the market.

Yonge and Dundas (click the image to enlarge)
Screen Capture from Google Maps
In relation to the intersection between Baldwin and Augusta, the south entrance to Kensington Market, the intersection between Yonge and Dundas is best described as another species of intersection. Of course, there are things for purchase, but the volume-dial has been aggressively spun to a nearly inaudible frequency. The goods are in many cases on-the-street to enable consumers to touch and to closely view the clothing and food for themselves. The street performers are here, as they are at Yonge/Dundas but they do not need airhorns or amplifiers to make themselves heard. If you are at this intersection you do not need to expend effort to make yourself visible because there are less people and crucially for my purposes, there is less noise (phonic noise, visual noise, olfactory noise).

Baldwin and Augusta (click the image to enlarge)
Screen Capture from Google Maps
The messages of Yonge and Dundas are received, while the messages of Baldwin and Augusta are exchanged. There is no sending return messages at Yonge and Dundas. It is a cacophony of noise. Who could hear you with all this stimulus to receive? Of course the people immediately around you might think they hear something but this exchange will almost certainly falter. You'll have to repeat yourself over and over again because another custom at Yonge and Dundas is not to receive messages. At Baldwin and Augusta you must learn to pause long-enough to make these exchanges.

I have used the word must to describe a custom which you may think is voluntary. Why would I make an argument like this? This is a conditional, must-not usage. You must not break the law. You must not disobey your authority figures. You must not create dangerous situations. Each of these must-nots is predicated on the idea that you respect the customs of your environment, and if you contest the customs at any Toronto intersection you should be prepared to endure societal disgrace. The faces of societal disgrace include: stares, jeers, whispers, pointing, unintended injury, intended violence, malice, confusion and so on. These society-level behaviours exist wherever you find people, but the specific expectations and the degrees of severity you find are highly variable.

A consequence of participating in quieter intersections is an increase in what other people will expect from you and what you can expect from them in return (an exchanging of expectation). A consequence of participating in a noisier intersection is a decrease in expectation and an increase in the volume of information which you are exposed to.

When you and I decide to respect or contest the customs which surround us we are exercising our agencies. Depending on where these customs exist, we may need to work harder to express this agency. If we do not express our agencies we silence ourselves. If we remain silent we allow others to speak for us.

I hope that some of you will be willing to respond to me but I can appreciate that the internet can be both an extremely noisy and an extremely silent environment. I'm hoping for reasonable criticisms (I really wanted this first post to be in even less detail so I fully expect disagreement and corrections) and reasonable suggestions of how I could expand my connection between information and cities. I would also really appreciate any other examples of intersections (or of any additional social spaces) where these ideas could be brought to bare.


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