07 November 2006

Urban Exploration

NYC Photo by Pete

I just returned from a quick jaunt around New York. There is no better way of exploring a city than aimless wandering. Whenever I visit a new city I like to spend at least one complete day with no destination in mind and not using any form of public transport or motor vehicle. Truth be told, I was quite daunted at the thought of exploring New York in this manner but recently I have been reading and writing about various 'subversions' of the urban realm. First with skateboarding (see the WEND entry) and now I'm working on a story about Parkour.

Anyway, I'm exploring the idea that activities such as skateboarding and Parkour are potentially revolutionary activities that subvert the intended use of the urban environment. This is nothing new of course. Radical urban theorists, counter-culture documenters have been writing about such things for decades. And of course sympathetic art critics have said the same about graffiti.

However, I also think that our increasing isolation from nature is forcing us to find ways to tap back into our natural state. Pre-agriculture, we ran, climbed and jumped to survive. Play was intrinsic to hunting and surviving. Given that 95.5% of our existence was as Gatherer-Hunters it is not surprising that there remains within us a desire for reckless abandon. Just because we no longer spend our days out in the elements it doesn’t mean, that need or desire has been completely suppressed. And perhaps, it is never stronger than when one is completely submerged in the urban realm.

With skyscrapers looming overhead grid-like street layout, dictating your journey and shopping and business dictating your activities, no wonder one feels the need to break out and rediscover ‘play.’

To me the ultimate recreational arena is the beach and the ultimate recreational activity is wave-riding, surfing. I feel that activities such as skateboarding, Parkour and even graffiti are efforts, conscious or not, to achieve the same liberation of the human ‘spirit’ as surfing.

I know I have written about this before and I will write about it again but the idea that liberation can be found by subverting the city was never more prescient than Paris in 1968, when striking, workers, students, artists and agitators, ripped up the cobble stones to fight the police and discovered that underneath was sand. Under the paving stones, the beach. Sous Les Paves, La Plage.

So, I spent a couple of days pushing my skateboard, up and down Manhattan, weaving in and out of traffic, looking for things to skate and going nowhere for no reason other than to experience the megalopolis. I won’t even attempt how great it felt to ollie over manholes, while zooming against rush hour traffic or to stumble upon various banks, curbs, ledges and other obstacles along the way. I will say that, until civilization crumbles, and it will, there are a number of ways in which caged birds can sing.

While I was there my mum ran her third marathon this year. In a sense she was doing the same thing described above, however, I don't think I could work within such rigid confines.

Anyway, congrats mum!