One of the great changes in my life has been the loss of an active life on the street. Part of this is due to my moving from Miami to Saint Paul, the latter being a rather cold and quiet city. Some of this is a decline in a public life for everyone that I find disturbing.
It starts with the complete lack of pay phones. It used to be that everyone with an answering machine had an office on every corner, if they wanted to work it that way. In a world of cell phones, the pay phone has disappeared almost completely. Newspaper racks are less common as well, requiring a walk down the block. Mailboxes are equally hard to find, popping up so infrequently that they now look out of place where they sit.
Our key connections with the rest of the world were once scattered along bubbling sidewalks, acting as a kind of furniture for the milieu going by. These connections are now privatized and off the street.
Some cities still have street food and musicians, which I simply love. Big cities like Manhattan and Philly will always have someone selling hot dogs or pretzels, maybe even ice cream along the street. Miami had fruit vendors who could brighten any day, along a few shots Caf� Cubano from the barristas on the street. That doesn’t happen in most cities, however. I know of one hot dog vendor here in Saint Paul, and that’s that.
Where did everyone go? I tend to blame the automobile, since a people who use transit are a people that have at least some contact with the street. Sadly, I think there is more to the problem, as shown by the one street tribe I left out – the hustlers.
You can still find guys doing 3-Card Monte in Manhattan, but it’s pretty hard to find this anywhere else. Hustling is something best done on the internet, because that’s where the money is. It doesn’t come one Hamilton at a time, it comes one google adsense account at a time. Who pays for all this? Retailers who want to direct traffic their way. Where does it go? Just about anywhere these days.
Your favorite blog might have some paid links (I don’t, as authorsden.com doesn’t allow it) but so do the online versions of newspapers. So do those weird sites with a ton of keywords and nothing else that show up when you do a search for something. My favorite example was one guy who wants to make a living as a blogger, saying that he tried online porn but it was too hard to make it work. In a previous generation, he’d be hustling on the street.
There are several peculiar features of this new version of street life. For one, the money paid to google adsense, while amazing, is largely wasted. It won’t be there forever. I’ve been on the retail end of things, and getting a good return on this stuff is very hard. I think that the amount of money being spent on this stuff comes from a “Frontier Mentality” where everyone is trying to grab as much territory, i.e. market share, as they can. That means they deliberately spend more than is justified by short-term profits. I believe that while online retail is still growing, people will not see significant gains in market share develop from large google expenditures. That means it will all dry up as they wise up.
But the most chilling thing of all is that this online agora is not like the real street life of a city sidewalk. I routinely “meet” people that live in New York and San Francisco and even Bogota, but only so many people who live in my own neighborhood cross my screen. Organizing a city to make it better used to be all about getting word on the street, but there is no street to get the word out on these days. Real human contact is something that happens in a separate box from communication – in a coffee shop or at a convention or some other pre-arranged events. I’m free tomorrow at 2:00, what about you?
Our lives have changed in ways that take us out of contact with our neighbors. Between the steel and glass cage of an automobile and the warm glow of a computer screen, our human interaction has taken us away from a public life. This life used to fill our bellies and connect us with the world, but more importantly it connected us with the people we share a corner of the planet with. This cannot be replaced by any technological marvel. The lack of a pay phone may seem trivial, but it is a warning that we may be in the process of losing much more.