Saturday, October 25, 2014

Forth on Fourth Day of Action: Faux Stores & Pretend Street Furniture Promised

Is the Fourth & 9th Street subway station "Brooklyn's ugliest"?  Park Slope Civic Council's Forth on Fourth Avenue committee thinks so, and is planning a day of action on November 21st, in order to foster improved conditions at the station.

We will host a "pop-up" event to reignite neighborhood imagination about rider amenities and street-level improvements at the 4th Ave/9th St Station transit hub. In a one-day action in November, we’ll set up a fantasy shadow station, using props - temporary lighting, wayfinding signage, discussion boards, big visuals, and pretend “street furniture” - to play with and capture improvement ideas.

And tucked into this bizarre description of the day's activities, we find the dreaded wayfinding signage phrase again.  Wayfinding has been hijacked by urban planners, and in the process, lost its navigational romance.  Gone the association of travel by map and compass, or nighttime travel by the stars, and in its place the prosaic means of finding one's way around a bus station.  That signage add-on really finishes it off.  Something about this turn-of-phrase when applied to an easily navigated location (the subway station here, the Atlantic Avenue underpass there) seems to suggest that the average pedestrian has the directional skills of a two year-old.  But maybe that's the case.  How about the wayfinding maps installed on city streets last year?

Even with smartphone maps, a waffle iron street grid and numbered streets in most of Manhattan, too many pedestrians are getting lost in New York City according to the NYC Department of Transportation. The solution, or part of it, will begin rolling out in March: maps. Lots of them. Designed just for pedestrians to be placed on sidewalks and eventually on bike share stations all around the five boroughs.
... The sidewalk signage will show pedestrians where they are and which way they are facing -- a study last year found that&many New Yorkers couldn't point to north when asked. Transit, local attractions, and businesses are placed on a large map of the local street grid with  circles indicating where you can reach with a five minute walk, and how long it will take to get to other attractions. Like countdown clocks in subways, knowing the time and effort involved in a trip can make it more appealing. The signs, the DOT hopes, will encourage more walking. (WNYC)

In the meantime, I'll hold onto wayfaring, which seems to have been left alone thus far, and is, of course, the stuff of rich literary tradition;  I think of Borrow:

... who inspired the surge in path-following and old-way romance that occurred in mid-nineteenth century England and America, the effects of which are with us still.  Borrow took to tramping in the 1820s, and he followed paths for thousands of miles through England and Wales, across the Channel into France, Spain, Portugal and Russia, as well as south to Morocco, coming to know the cultures and peoples of the road: the Romanies, the nomads, the tramps, the guildsmen, the shepherds, the farmers and the innkeepers.  
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot - Robert MacFarlane (Penguin, 2012)

or of Chapter Nine in The Wind in the Willows, Wayfarers All, when Ratty, disturbed by his fellow creatures' turn-of-the-season restlessness, meets a a"lean and keen-featured" seafaring cousin,  who fills Ratty's head with tales of his journeys and tempts him to join him:

And you, you will come too young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still 
waits for you.  Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! 'Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new

or, of course, of Whitman:

I tramp a perpetual journey,
My signs are a rain-proof coat and good shoes and a
staff cut from the woods;
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, nor church, nor philosophy;
I lead no man to a dinner-table or library or exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a 
My left hand hooks you around the waist,
My right hand points to landscapes of continents, and
a plain public road.

Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you
You must travel it for yourself.

Wayfaring is an untamed activity, whether rural or urban.  It lacks schedule or logic; it pauses, circles, detours, changes its mind and acts on a whim.  It embraces chance, and distraction.  It requires an open heart and an open mind.  It can tolerate solitude, and is always curious. It stops to talk to those it meets along the road.  Wayfaring is not a commuter figuring out how to get from the F to the R.   A Brooklyn wayfarer would surely be familiar with many of the borough's subway stations  and a good portion of the borough's streets, and have walked the platforms of stations grimmer and uglier than poor old Fourth and 9th. 

I'm all for prodding the wretched MTA.  Let's see the renovations finished, the stores open, a decent PA system running, and by all means more signs, as long as the lovely old Manhattan & Coney Island tiles are kept intact.  And a station good scrub down wouldn't hurt.  But we don't need anything too fancy here.  There are far more pressing issues on Fourth than station beautification:  the blight of luxury development, and the attendant loss of small businesses and affordable housing. These are the real problems here on the avenue.

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