Skip to main content

Walking Off the Big Apple with the Situationist International

I've recently been reading fascinating, stimulating, and exasperating literature by members of the Situationist International, an avant-garde assembly of street-aware groups active in Europe in the late 1950s and the 1960s.

Paris, with its ancient central core, a multitude of meandering streets, and engineered wide and straight boulevards, served as their main laboratory. This tight-knit but contentious group, whose central figure was an impassioned, brilliant and sometimes ill-tempered intellectual by the name of Guy Debord, took upon themselves an intense investigation of what they called psychogeography, an inquiry into the ways our environment affects emotions and behavior.

Their advocacy for a radical rethinking of how we relate to our own physical environment and the ways we interact with the street in our everyday life should appeal to anyone fantasizing an escape from their normal route (and routine). Reading their essays in Situationist International: Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, rev. and expanded 2006), is already causing me to rethink how I relate to the streets of New York.

The Situationists sought to challenge the ideology and power of urban planners in post-war Europe and what they perceived as the deadening imposed conformity of these plans. The Situationists were inspired by their predecessors in the surrealist and dadaist avant-garde, but their anarchist politics took them beyond the dictates of the subconscious. The world of dreams and the irrational was not the final frontier. Rebellious to the core, they eschewed following the paths dictated by the state, a notion they took literally.

The revolutionary frontier was the street. The events of May 1968 took place within a complex organization of barricades, the result of tactical manoeuvres by students who had read their Situationist texts. The uprising is sometimes cited as the culmination of these works.

Through their strategy of dérive, a complex practice of unplanned walks, and the concept of détournement, a form of culture jamming, the Situationists seem truly visionary. Yet, Guy Debord and his associates were not alone in questioning the shape of the modern city. Jane Jacobs' resistance to the New York of Robert Moses comes to mind. Her influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, dating from 1961 and contemporaneous with the Situationists, celebrates chaos, natural urban order and the camaraderie engendered by historic neighborhoods of a human scale. Of course, as a resident of Greenwich Village, the book is pretty much required reading. The points of departure are considerable, however, only partially explained by the historical, political, cultural and ideological differences between the United States and France.

Debord introduces his essay "Theory of the Dérive" (1958) with the necessary distinction: " One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll." In a dérive, Debord writes, the person lets go of any preconceptions and normal motives to "let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there."

I have not made my way through the anthology adequately enough to comment further, but I am in process of some self-psychoanalysis with regard to my chosen identity as a flâneuse. After these readings (on top of Walter Benjamin's famous flâneur critique) the concept seems hopelessly bourgeois. Re-reading some of my writings, though, I might already be engaged in some situationist practices and just didn't know it. I may be up for this game. At the very least, I'll be more aware of the false barriers that separate spaces in the city and will keep my eyes open to new possibilities within the great urban labyrinth. My goal is not passive tourism but the re-enchantment of the street. I may have found some new company here.

Image: Le parapluie rose de Greenwich Village. August 2008. Walking Off the Big Apple.









Popular posts from this blog

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

The City Turned Inside Out: A Walk from Battery Park to Fulton Street

While the cast of HAMILTON sings “The World Turned Upside Down,” New Yorkers could easily hum along to “The City Turned Inside Out” this summer. (not a real song) Where once a city’s important work took place indoors - within the soaring office buildings, famous restaurants, legendary museums, and storied performance halls, the COVID-19 epidemic has literally turned the residents outdoors.  New landscaping in Battery Park At least it’s summer in the city, when spending time outdoors is common and pleasant enough. Still, the city remains strange this summer of 2020.  Shade plants like hosta thrive in Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty is in the distance. With the absence of tourists, and with office workers connecting virtually from home, many of the city’s main attractions aren’t attracting many visitors. A walk from the Battery to Fulton Street on a pleasant Thursday afternoon bore this out.  Statue Cruises is still sailing. It’s uplifting to at least find plants that are alive and

The Season of Owls

 A walk in Inwood Hill Park. The days following the holidays and the first of the year make a good time to check in on life in the winter forest. I have a forest just down the street from me in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. There, a vast old growth forest still stands. A Barred Owl faces the setting sun in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. A few weeks ago, someone on a local Facebook page posted a snapshot of a Barred Owl, and I was keen to go looking for it in the park. I didn't find the owl on the first day, but the next day I saw it. A handful of birder enthusiasts were already on the scene and kindly pointed it out high up in the pines. What a beautiful creature!  A stand of White Pines provides the habitat for the Barred Owl. The owl is in this picture. I know, hard to see.  Since my first owl visit, everyday life during the otherwise dreary post-holiday doldrums has taken on a finer aura. I have returned several times, each taking a different path up to the o

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements. UPDATED October 10, 2020.  Many favorite local destinations have now reopened.  Hand sanitizer dispenser at the Marble Hill station of Metro-North's Hudson line Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations    • Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map  (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity. • As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER. • The  9/11 Memorial  reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices. • (update) Libraries: NYPL. T he library will allow a grab-and-go service at 50 locations.   • Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets.  • The High Line  reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entra

An Early Autumn Walk in Central Park: 2020 Edition

This week, the singer Diana Krall released a cover of “Autumn in New York,” the standard by Vernon Duke. An accompanying video , filmed in New York by Davis McCutcheon and directed by Mark Seliger, portrays the city in moody yet beautiful black and white tones. Beyond the lack of autumn colors, the film shows the empty streets of the pandemic city. The mood riffs on the underlying melancholy of the song’s lyrics, that the fall season “is often mingled with pain.” Approaching The Mall in Central Park  When I think of autumn in New York, I automatically imagine walking in Central Park in the vivid colors of the season. The images here, from a meandering one-mile stroll this past Saturday, show only a hint of autumnal glory but reflect more conventional representations of both the season and the song. Yet, walking in Central Park at the beginning of autumn is tinged for me with a hint of sadness, or truthfully, with some anxiety about the coming months. The Mall in Central Park I hadn’t v

MoMA in Masks

Update. Beginning September 28, MoMA will require all members to reserve tickets in advance.* Walking into the gallery devoted to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (c 1920) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Saturday afternoon, I saw a woman seated on a bench. She was looking at the artist’s dreamy depiction of his garden at Giverny, and I thought for a moment she might be dreaming as well. As she was the only person occupying what is usually a packed room for fans of Impressionism, I was hesitant to invade her private garden reveries. At MoMA I would enjoy my own such private moments with my favorite MoMA works that afternoon, including Marc Chagall’s I and the Village (1911). The painting depicts a colorful and geometric fairy tale of peasants and animals, memories of the artist’s childhood home outside Vitebsk. And I had a long time to feel the scorching sun of photographer Dorothea Lange’s Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle (1938), a setting closer to my hometown. Later I wou

Walking It Off: Coping with Holiday Stress During the Pandemic

When I began this series, “Pandemic Posts from the Pause: New York City in the Age of Coronavirus” in March of 2020, I could see the first young greens of spring from my window. New Yorkers were told to stay home then and away from others. As someone who enjoys walking in the city, I knew that I would need to sacrifice many things this year. I was not going to give up walking. I quickly figured out that I could safely go to Inwood Hill Park near my house and wander the trails in the old forest. In March, I could breathe in the spring air away from others. There was little else to do during those early days of the “pause.” New Yorkers suffered greatly at the beginning. In a few months we were able to get the numbers down and to manage some semblance of human interaction, at a distance and masked.  Now, with the beginning of the holidays, the city and nation faces the existential threat of the virus’s return, the political assault on democratic norms, and the ongoing threat of the clima

A Morning Walk from Penn Station to Times Square

Penn Station to Times Square New York City entered a new phase of the reopening on Monday, but you would never know it from a morning walk in Midtown on the day after.  At 34th Street and 8th Avenue, an outsize reminder of the public health crisis from Montefiore Medical Center After running an errand near Penn Station, I decided to take a walk up to Times Square and Broadway before heading home from 59th Street and Columbus Circle.  34th Street looking east toward the Empire State Building I wasn’t altogether prepared for the sights and sounds of this time and this place. Like many other New Yorkers, I have rarely left my neighborhood for the past four months.  8th Avenue at W. 38th Street After exiting a quiet Penn Station near 8th Avenue and W. 33rd Street at what would normally be the end of rush hour, I found myself suddenly dropped into a city (mostly) bereft of crowds.  A few commuters near Port Authority and The New York Times building, 8th Avenue and W. 40th Street Yet, I had