New York City, with a population of over 8 million people, is a city of diversity. Not only native New Yorkers, New York City is also home to immigrants from all over the world, foreign students, workers from all over the world of all races, creeds and even economic standing. Unlike Hollywood’s portrayal of New York City’s glitzy life, the city has historically been home to people of all classes and socioeconomic backgrounds.
However, for the last 20 years, Rudy Giulliani’s policies to make the city “cleaner” in the mid-1990s (which involved the rise of land value in Manhattan, the transformation of Times Square into an American capitalist fantasy of nation-wide chainstores, the restructuring of police security throughout the city) and Michael Bloomberg’s subsequent policies towards policing, property value and influx of high-income taxes have created a problem of inequality in the City. Many urban spaces that previously hosted vibrant communities (in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens) were torn apart with increase of rent prices and gentrification (Delaney 1999). More and more, New Yorkers (both native and non-native) have been pushed by increasing rent prices towards the peripheries of the city.
Despite these transformations in the City over the last 20 years, there are still certain places where this multiculturality continues to reign; where classes are apparently leveled, or at least where individuals still recognize each other as members of an imagined community of “New Yorkers” (Anderson 1983). Among these urban spaces of multiculturality are subway stations across New York City and subway trains, where all New Yorkers converge for daily transportation and commuting. In the NYC subway system people of all classes, ethnicities and social backgrounds acquire the possibility of seeing and recognizing each other as New Yorkers, even if they do not engage directly with one another. Subways trains and stations become sites of “civility” (Ikegami 2005), social spaces where people can acknowledge each other as equals. Civil society (a society in which common concerns are discussed and acted upon rationally and as a group) is necessary for a real democracy to exist (Tocqueville 1835-40, Habermas 1962, Cohen and Arato 1991, Putman 1994, etc.), but in those cases where it seems that it is disappearing or non-existent, “civility” allows for the emergence of alternatives to what we usually know as democracy. New York City might be an increasingly unequal metropolis, where rent prices are increasingly driving those who can no longer pay the high rents to the outskirts of the city and where communities have been broken, but there is still a sense that in subways and trains everyone in the City belongs to something bigger and more diverse. Manhattanites (still to this day a very diverse population) commute with a great variety of people: Eastern European immigrants mostly settled in Queens; African Muslims and African-Americans in the Bronx, West Harlem and throughout Brooklyn; ethnic Indians and Pakistani throughout the city; Chinese of all origins in Flushing and Lower East Side; Greeks and Egyptians in Astoria; South Americans in Jackson Heights; Korean foreign students in mid-Manhattan and Brooklyn; Albanians, Hungarians and Romanians in Sunnyside; Poles in Greenpoint; etc.
Why subways? New York City, due to its urban planning throughout the 20th century but particularly in its latter half, has favored mass transportation systems instead of cars (unlike everywhere else in the United States). However, subways are more than just “not cars”: if one takes the subway accompanied, the subway ride is a catalyst for conversation; if alone, the subway is a deeply individual introspective space in which most people read, listen to music, study, think, observe the changing panoramas outside, etc. Subways are personal spaces where very personal experiences take place every single day. As such, people have a relationship with subway lines and stations (those one frequents and knows, and those in which one has to find their ways alike), all New Yorkers (native or not) know what it feels like to wait for the train to come, what it feels like sitting next to someone that one would not normally socialize with outside of the subway train, or how it feels to enter a personal space of observation and solitude during subway rides. Furthermore, consciously or unconsciously every single person in a train knows that others are also experiencing these moments. It is in that knowledge and common experience that people recognize each other as equals and engage in civility everyday while riding the subway.
Co-presence (being at the same time in the same space) of people is important for civility to exist because culture and meanings are never static, they are created in interaction between individuals (Goffmann 1966, Mead 1934, Berger and Luckmann 1966). But even when there are no direct interactions between individuals there can be a consciousness, a realization, that there are people one sees everyday in the subway who are going through same situations as us and similar lives to ours. People create the social world together, but this creation is based on how we understand it in our consciousness (Schutz 1967). Civility is based not only in the actions of people, but also in how people perceive and understand themselves phenomenologically within a society. Likewise, civility is not necessarily dependent on interaction between individuals, but rather, contact (Delaney 1999) and acknowledgment. As mentioned above, whilst civil society requires a certain degree of equality and interaction, civility requires acknowledgment that other people are also part of an imagined community with subjective worlds similar to ours. This is the reason why even people listening to music or “minding their own businesses” in the subway can participate in civility as long as they know that others have worlds of their own, parallel even if no interaction with strangers takes place frequently.
The photos here presented are the product of 6 years of roaming in New York City subways on a daily basis, be it to get to school, go home from work, or just being out for a walk. A diversity of formats and media were used: black and white and color, film and digital. In doing so I have tried to represent the variety of the city. This variety is a testament to worlds that exist between the personal stories (the micro) and “civility” (the macro) in subways. In this series, I have tried to convey not only the energy that takes place in subway trains and subway stations, but moreover I have tried to portray the emotional level that lies in-between the micro and macro experiences. That is, the life that occurs in the individual lives that experience the subway system, where individuals acknowledge each other as different but equal at the same time, leading their lives between personal stories and the urban life of New York City.