Around the Big Apple

Even though land that I live‘s on break, I’m going to share a couple recent news pieces I’ve written for New York Press that have me thinking about place in unexpected ways. It’s shameless self-promotion, sure, but I also think it will provide some good food for thought as we prepare to relaunch the site. 

The first is about the horrific death of Jessica Dworkin, a South Village resident who was hit by the rear of a truck turning at an intersection and dragged for two blocks under its rear wheels. Most residents I spoke to were not only traumatized by the accident’s gruesomeness, but also by the disorienting sense of absence it left them with; Dworkin was a very public artistic eccentric, known by everyone as much for riding around the neighborhood in odd clothing on a foot scooter and chatting up trees as for her gregarious kindness. Though few people knew her personally, there was still a pervasive sentiment that her death was a significant loss, more to the neighborhood itself than to individuals in it. As one resident said, “Her death is a loss to the community. Part of the neighborhood’s unique character went with her.”

It’s obvious that a place can be defined by the people in it, but I’m fascinated by this possibility of individuals becoming, in effect, part of the landscape. We say that people have special places in our lives, but Dworkin literally had a special place in the West Village — on the street, in front of a few cafes where she spent every afternoon. Her routine presence gave the neighborhood a very physical sense of her absence, of empty benches and tamer sidewalks. Don’t we all have that guy who always wears the sweater and glasses in the library or that smiling barista at the coffee shop or that wrinkled man in the corner of our bar — those people who frequent places so diligently that we accept them as simple facts of those places’ existences? I wonder how people synonymous with the places we inhabit actually shape our experiences there.

It’s misguided, of course, to reduce people to place and overlook the dimensions of their character. I’m interested in what these regulars add to their haunts that wouldn’t be there otherwise, though — and what is missed, inevitably, when they are gone.