New York is packed full of people. We have about 27,500 people per square mile – compare that to Chicago’s 12,500 or LA’s measly 8,200 per square mile and you’ll get a bit of perspective on just how packed in we all are. You and everyone else will get used to the small apartments, cramped grocery stores and shoulder-to-shoulder subway cars and eventually you adjust your life to fit into your newfound spacial constraints.
But as everyone condenses their lives to fit within their tiny-bedroomed apartments, their lives also start to spill out into public without even realizing it. If you are from a small town or a suburb somewhere, think of all the random things you see people doing in their front yards: breakups, celebrations, cook-outs, arguments, reunions, etc. Walk around New York long enough and you will realize that the sidewalk is everyone’s front yard. It is not all that uncommon to come across a very personal moment while walking through the city. You may only be a part of it for a brief moment and see just a small snippet, or you may be waiting for the N train, leaving you to experience a full scene on the platform. Either way, this shared space creates a sort of unspoken understanding between people living here: we all share the same space and while we may not particularly relish each insight into other people’s lives, that deeper intimacy with strangers is part of what makes the experience of living in New York what it is.
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In my two and a half years in the city, I’ve seen fully setup barbecues with 20+ people on the sidewalk still going strong at midnight, children getting spanked, a woman throwing her shoe at her husband/boyfriend, discussions of a $175 million corporate acquisition, celebrities eating hot dogs, employees being fired and people face down getting handcuffed- not to mention more bodily functions of all types than I care to think about.
It seems like it goes without saying that the sidewalk is a common space for all New Yorkers, but you will see that it’s a very different experience than you can find in any other city. The things you find on the sidewalks of this city are diverse and scattered, but they are part of what makes living here such a unique experience. It just takes a little while to get used to your new ‘front yard’.