The Unobservant City

While trying to come up with an appropriate topic for my blog post this week, I found myself browsing through the Urban Studies Twitter list.  I clicked on an interesting article, which in turn had a link to an even more interesting article with the evocative title, “Why Aren’t Cities Littered with Dead Pigeons?”  My interest was piqued.  It’s an intriguing question, and one I’ve never taken the time to consider.  As I read through the article, I found myself simultaneously fascinated and nauseated – interspersed among the interesting facts and quotes from primary sources on the topic were a number of pictures and videos of pigeon-disappearance in action.

Apart from the obvious answer of “because other animals eat them,” an interesting insight was the remark that there are dead pigeons in the city; most city-dwellers are simply too unobservant to notice them.  This concept – the simple not-noticing – makes me wonder what else goes overlooked in city life.  In the hustle and bustle of going from Point A to Point B, what other elements of the city are ignored?  This question made me think of the reading we did for class on Monday, when we read “The Metropolis and Mental Life” by Georg Simmel.

Simmel wrote about the phenomenon of the blasé outlook, an occurrence that he wrote was found only in the city.  This blasé outlook is “at first the consequence of those rapidly shifting stimulations of the nerves which are thrown together in all their contrasts and from which it seems to us the intensification of metropolitan intellectuality seems to be deprived” (105).  What Simmel is getting at here is that being unobservant is a necessity for urban life.  There is much that goes unnoticed by citizens of the city, and there is nothing wrong with that fact.  It is okay for Bobby Walker to stroll past not only the dead pigeons, but also the graffiti, the street vendors, the crazy guy, the homeless woman, and the troupe of street performers without ever noting their existence because noticing every single detail on his daily commute to work would be overwhelming.

Time Square

There is an overload of information and stimuli everywhere you look in the metal-and-concrete labyrinths that are cities.  As a recent tourist to New York City, I can say that by the end of my three-day trip, I was not only physically exhausted, but mentally exhausted as well.  I wanted to make the most of my limited time in the Big Apple, so I spent every waking moment drinking in as much of the city as my eyes would allow.  My eyes were on a repeating cycle: look UP at that billboard okay now LEFT at that store window and FORWARD okay I’m not going to run into anyone DOWN at the gutter RIGHT wow that guy is dressed like a matador and back UP another billboard TURN AROUND get a second look at that…  There is no way I could visually inspect everything so thoroughly on a daily basis without losing my mind.  Simmel was right when he wrote that a blasé outlook is essential in the city; the crazy person seems to be a common element in urban neighborhoods, and it seems the city itself lends a hand in creating the crazy.

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3 Comments

Filed under City Cultures

3 responses to “The Unobservant City

  1. auburn22

    I find your article, “Why Aren’t Cities Littered with Dead Pigeons?” to be quite fascinating. Prior to our class discussion I had never really thought much about how unobservant city people are. I have always envisioned them rushing around an acting impersonal, but the concept that they are so overstimulated that they do not even notice dead animals in their path is very intersting. Perhaps it is most shocking to me because I am from such a small town that any minute difference is very apparent.

    I must say that I always shared a similar experience on my trip to New York. Immediately after leaving New York City I knew that I would have to revisit the city because there was no possible way for me to see even a fraction of what I would have wanted to see due to the craziness and stimuli of the city.

  2. aualum12

    I also wrote about how unobservant many people in the city are. This concept of being unobservant is foreign to me because I am most likely one of the most observant people you will ever meet. The fact that city people do not take note of dead animals they encounter on the streets brings to life just how unobservant they can be. It seems as if they have trained themselves to not be distracted by the people, animals, and objects that they come in contact with in their everyday lives.

    I have never been to New York, but I have been to London and Paris. During my time in these cities I did not necessarily think about how the people from those cities disoriented themselves from what was going on around them. However, when I look back on my trip now, I realize just how unobservant the people in these cities were, even though I did not notice at the time.

  3. The idea of observation and attention is really important in writing about the city. You use that idea to link an urban pest problem and a very funny description of being a tourist (a matador?!). I’d suggest continuing to think about these issues and what your outsider’s perspective might bring to the conversation. How is the attention you paid as a tourist different from the attention of the flaneur, for example?

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