Ethnography of the Street: When is a Place not a Place?

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    March 2011 |I N F O C U S

    Conversely, local residents typically thought and talked about their environment at the larger and apparently more familiar scale of the neighborhood. Sometimes they did not recall which of the local businesses they use were located on which streets. The commercial street is an immediate environmentif one stands outdoors in a city, the chances are strong that one is in a streetand it is usually easier to define and circumscribe than a neighborhood. But paradoxically, this latter, looser space makes more sense to city-dwellers as the appro-priate scale and scope of their daily activities. The street was not necessarily invested with meaning in a way that made it a place from the users points of view.

    Etic Field Site, Emic Place?That said, the streets sometimes did emerge as salient places for their users, namely in activities intended to celebrate or promote locality. Sections of Sherbrooke Ouest and Jean-Talon Est had merchants associations named after these streets. A large company spear-headed and sponsored (not without controversy) a day-long celebration called simply Saint-Viateur festival de rue (Saint-Viateur Street Festival) as a way to give something back after ten years in premises there. The commercial neighborhood street was not always a meaningful place in the ebb and flow of everyday life, but it could be useful when place-making, or indeed place-marketing, was an explicit goal.

    The slipperiness of the street in my fieldwork shows that senses of place are contingent, emerging at different scales and in relation to specific fields of social action. As a field site, the neighborhood commercial street was a useful way to capture certain very urban kinds of interactions and relations. As a place, it often frag-mented into the smaller building blocks of its indi-vidual stores and other micro-places, or melted into the larger neighborhood. It still reappeared in some circumstances as a useful hook on which to hang urban identities. Recognizing how different spatial catego-ries are constructed serves to remind us of the often productive tension between etic and emic categories in ethnography.

    Martha Radice is a social anthropologist whose work focuses on the social, spatial and cultural dynamics of cities. Her publications include Feeling Comfortable? The Urban Experience of Anglo-Montrealers (Presses de l Universit Laval, 2000). She is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University.

    P L A C EF I E L D N O T E S

    Martha Radice Dalhousie U

    Sometimes a place that an anthropologist identifies as meaningful turns out to be less so to the people who lead lives there. Cities can be particularly tricky places for anthropologists to grasp. How can we capture the city as a city, at the level where its urban qualitiesdensity, heterogeneity and mobility of populationreally matter? Anthropologists are still given to studying city life from the perspective of one of its constituent neighborhoods or subcultures. However, as Colette Ptonnet (1982) has argued, even if we could study every single urban social milieugraffiti artists, financiers, yarn-bombers, trade unions and the myriad ethnic and religious groupsmuch of what is truly urban would still slip through our fingers.

    Placing the Urban One strategy anthropologists adopt is to focus on tightly delimited but highly frequented field sites in public or semi-public space, such as plazas (Low), street corners (Liebow), markets (de La Pradelle, Bestor) and ceme-teries (Ptonnet). This allows us to observe interac-tions that span small physical but great social distances, between people who are largely unknown to each other or who are just passing through. It can help grasp both the diversity and the anonymity of the city.

    With this in mind, I conducted ethnographic field-work on commercial streets in multiethnic neighbor-hoods of Montral to investigate how city-dwellers live with difference in the public spaces of their everyday lives. Taking sections of four streets as my field sites meant that I could hear from many users of the streets: residents, merchants, workers, customers, visitors, hangers-out and passersby, as well as municipal plan-ners and officials, all from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds. Each street had a unique mix of ethnic origins, as declared by local residents in the census and inscribed by business owners on their storefronts. They also varied by socioeconomic circumstances (affluent and gentrifying or middling-to-poor) and urban form (broad arteries on the edge of neighborhoods or narrow streets in the heart of them), presenting a range of condi-tions for urban encounters.

    The Street as PlaceYet the question was, were these streets really places? On the one hand, neighborhood commercial streets seem like perfect symbols of a city, as microcosms of social relations. Not only are they a stage for diverse urban actors playing different roles, they also juxtapose various types and scales of spaceretail and residen-tial, commercial and community, public and privatein a way that is uniquely open to incremental change. The Chinese pastry shop becomes a sushi bar, the TV repair shop becomes a hairdressers salon. These quali-ties help explain the renewed scholarly interest in streets as objects of urban research in North America, western Europe and Australia.

    On the other hand, as my fieldwork in Montral got under way, I found the street as a place to be surpris-ingly elusive. As an anthropological concept, place is widely understood to be made by the people who use and imagine it. Place equals space plus meaning; indi-viduals and groups make places relevant and mean-ingful through their actions and ideas. While I saw the four commercial streets as distinct, identifiable places, the scale of the street often disappeared when research participants spoke about places that made sense to them.

    Storekeepers and employees often took conversa-tion off the street and into what they knew best: their own businesses. For example, when I asked one caf co-owner how he explained the rising popularity of Rue Saint-Viateur, in the Mile End neighborhood, he replied, I kinda like it. It makes for a new breed of people coming in and Im always happy to see more and more new faces.

    Store workers spend so much time dealing with busi-ness inside their stores that they sometimes have little to say about the street itself. This is especially so for those who mainly work backstage, making products or getting supplies in. When I asked a baker on Rue de Lige whether he frequented the streets cafs, he heard a ques-tion about whether he had cafs as clients. His construc-tion of his own place of work did not map onto my construction of the street as object of study. This gap was less apparent when I interviewed one of his employees, who worked at the counter. Cashiers deal more with the public and have greater opportunity to observe what happens outside the store window. They could usually say more about what happened on the street.

    Ethnography of the StreetWhen is a Place not a Place?

    Rue Saint-Viateur, Montral, from the bagel shop to St Michael the Archangel church. Photo courtesy Martha Radice

    Stores on Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montral. Photo courtesy Martha Radice

    Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montral, from the Iranian videoclub to the home-made pasta restaurant. Photo courtesy Martha Radice