Monday, September 8, 2008

On cityscapes, or: I can't find what I need

It is only once removed from a familiar environment that your assumptions are exposed to the air. In particular when travelling it is those day-today things we look for without seeing and use without questioning that are suddenly absent, and we find ourselves helpless without our safety net of patterns and expectations.

Sometimes strange things appear too, disrupting our sense of what should go where and the proper grouping of things. In Europe it is the ubiquitous tabac, selling cigarettes, stamps, magazines, coffee, and all manner of other goods and sundries - but once you realise the range of bits and pieces they sell, and that there are three on every block, they get used regularly. There are also the services, the mammoth petrol/mini-mart/fast food service stops on the motorways, also useful in their own way and like a servo on serious steroids.

In New York it took me a few days to work out why a city similar to Melbourne in so many ways felt so unbalancing. Sure, there was a different mix of cultures and language, and a much more urban and dense environment with many millions more people packed in, but we are both primarily Western, English-speaking, multicultural, cosmopolitan cities with a strong liberal artsy element and a great familiarity, at least from our end, through a lifetime of TV and film.

So what made me feel so off-kilter, so surprised, so much like I was struggling with the basics?

As we went about our days gathering activities and things, we began to search for those goods and services we needed. We needed stamps and letterboxes for our postcards. We needed supermarkets so we could cook. We needed internet access to keep up with our online worlds. We needed bookshops and cafes and banks. And we needed a beer.

What was missing from the streets of New York was so those services and facilities that we expect to see in any shopping centre at home - post offices, supermarkets, internet cafes, bookshops, cafes, banks and pubs. It meant we had to work out where these things were sold if not where we expected them, and that we had to re-think how certain services are offered.

In NYC we saw very few post offices and although we could buy stamps elsewhere, the lack of the post office as a business centre of sorts where you can pay bills, buy mobile phones and transfer money, was marked. The main post office, although open 24 hours a day, had a pitiful shop to buy mailing boxes in,and as far as we could see, offered mailing services only.

There were, where we stayed in Spanish Harlem, small grocery stores carrying roughly what I would expect to find in a milkbar plus some fresh food, lined up and proliferating block by block. But no supermarkets - perhaps outside of Manhattan.

ATMs were mostly found in almost every one of these grocery stores. This was the primary souce of getting hot fresh cash. Bank branches were midtown only and most banks after hours required you to swipe in with their own bankcard to use the ATM.

We saw some internet cafes, but only after we'd used one. In fact, to find that one in Chinatown we prevailed upon a nice lady in a shop to let us Google local internet cafes. The irony was palpable.

And despite the behemoth booksellers of Barnes & Noble and Borders, we saw only one or two of them and virtually no secondhand dealers except for the dusty specialists in Greenwich Village. Also, while we expected to see those American bookshops everywhere but didn't, we didn't see the spawning multitude of Starbucks we expected either. In fact, I'd venture that there are more in London. In London Starbucks is supplemented by Coffee Republic, Cafe Nero and Costa, whereas in New York we saw only a couple of Cafe Miros. Neither city, but especially New York, has small cafes where you would expect to meet someone, have a casual business meeting or take a break from shopping, and we wondered if this in fact contributed to the legendary (and now confirmed by our aching legs) manic pace of Manhattanites - they are simply not encouraged but their urban environment to stop.

Finally, there are great swathes of Manhattan without pubs or even bars. You can usually go into a restaurant and sit up at their bar, but that's not really the point. We felt like alcoholics searching so painfully for a pint.

All of this came into sharp focus when I landed in London. In Central London, and in most local high streets, I can expect to walk for no more than 10 minutes before finding a Royal Mail office, 5 minutes before finding a bank, 3 minutes before I come across a Tesco or Sainsbury, and certainly no more than 1 before finding a pint! It's not that post offices, banks, supermarkets and the like are qualifiers for society; it's that Australia being so much closer to the UK in history and culture, our cities are laid our with a similar idea in mind. We share so much with the US, but not the constitution of our cityscape.

Travel opens minds to culture, art, history, language, architecture, religion, society and environment - but also to those everyday things we never have pause to consider.

No comments: