Sonali Bhasin in New York

At 3 am on Sunday morning, while waiting for the 2 train to make an appearance at a crowded platform in Brooklyn, I sat down next to a group of noisy young tourists my age. Head down, music plugged in, I focused on drowning out the noise around me when yet another garbled announcement about schedule changes played overhead. I looked up, around, and – to my surprise – straight into the friendly smile of one the tourists sitting next to me, with his hand outstretched in a high five.

I’m not an unfriendly person, but enough time spent in New York has taught me to be wary of anyone who makes eye contact in public. This guy was definitely making eye contact, and his smile was growing as he waggled his hand in my face, waiting for me to high-five him back. After freaking out and looking around for a second, I smiled in response and gave him a high-five as the 2 train finally pulled into the station. His friends cheered, and I rushed to get the train, but the memory of that random 3 am connection has stuck with me all week.  It takes guts to try and connect with a total stranger in public, but perhaps he was just brave enough, and I was just curious enough, for it to work. That isn’t often the case in this city, where I am as guilty as everyone else of sticking my elbows out in a crowd and staring into space, blinkered by my music, my phone, my pre-tea stupor.

This summer I am interning in New York with Terrapin Bright Green, an environmental consulting company that aims to design more sustainable spaces by reconnecting them to nature. Believing that good design can be restorative, regenerative and improve the quality of people’s lives, we are working on guidelines for more ‘natural’ built environments. As a result, I am doing a lot of reading on buildings and shared spaces, and how they can be designed to be comfortable, productive and engaging. One of the books is a history of Jane Jacobs’ feud with Robert Moses in the 1950’s and 60’s. Moses, a ‘master builder’ of New York, is responsible for the Henry Hudson Bridge, the Cross-Bronx Expressway and Lincoln Center, among other things, and was behind the plan to bulldoze Greenwich Village to create a network of highways and high-rises. Jane Jacobs lived in the Village and its lively, engaging streets and downtown areas were what she valued most in her neighborhood. Jacobs believed that cities were like ecosystems that needed to grow organically, and defended mixed-use developments and the rights of citizens in her work as an activist and journalist. She won her fight with Robert Moses, and Washington Square Park still exists today in one of the city’s most vibrant neighbourhoods. A New York Times review of her work wrote: “Ms. Jacobs’ prescription was ever more diversity, density and dynamism — in effect, to crowd people and activities together in a jumping joyous urban jumble.”

Public space and design are two of my personal interests, and were what compelled me to go back to graduate school. Growing up in colourful and chaotic New Delhi, personal space has always been a luxury. There are people everywhere. And it’s one of the things that can make the city frustrating and claustrophobic. But it is also one of the reasons I love it so much, and something I was reminded of when I returned home last month. I can’t escape interaction here, whether it’s an auto rickshaw ride with a driver telling me that as an only child, I need to act as both son and daughter to my parents; my friend Devika teasing a young vendor in a flea market for the puppy-dog face he uses to attract customers -”as if you haven’t eaten golgappas in ten years”; or being sat on in the Delhi Metro (this doesn’t have a punch line, it really just happened, and I try not to think about it). In crowded markets, on city roads and public transport, people voice their opinions and business freely and frankly. Yet for all this openness, Delhi can be a dangerous city for pedestrians, commuters, and especially, women. The Delhi Metro has a special compartment for women, marked by a pink flowery sign on the platform like a tampon commercial. It is a well-defended space, but a rare one in Delhi, and it begs the question – why isn’t the rest of the city equally woman-friendly?

In cities that can be isolating or threatening, moments like that platform on a Sunday morning are unique. I want both of my cities, New York and New Delhi, to be sustainable, their public spaces open and welcoming, and their citizens friendly and curious.

This evening I am going to go watch Tootsie in Bryant Park for free, something I’m hoping my F&ES classmate, Ben Friedman will join me in. It’s one of those wonderful New York summer things that bring people together in their love of the city’s parks, impossibly long evenings, and Dustin Hoffman in drag. Bryant Park, by the way, was redesigned in the 1930’s by Robert Moses after it had been neglected for years. In the 1980’s it received another makeover from William H. Whyte, a sociologist and observer of public space, and one of my personal heroes. He changed two things: added moveable chairs to give people a sense of empowerment, and lowered the park, which made it more accessible, visible, and most importantly safe. Tonight it will be packed with people, and at the end of the movie, when the credits roll as Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange walk down the street together, the audience will clap and cheer and strangers will high-five each other across picnic blankets. And for a few hours, a group of people will feel connected in a small space in a big city.


  1. Pingback: Sage Magazine – School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Summer Blog ’13

  2. well written sonali,interesting observation and interesting comparisons,

  3. Interesting!

  4. Great read Sonali! Especially now that I know New Delhi and can relate to the context you’ve given here.

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