I came across an exhibition called “Empire Skate: The Birthplace of Roller Disco” as I was visiting Brooklyn Public Library during the Spring Break in 2019.
This exhibition was about the stories of people who skated at Empire, weaving together national histories, such as the role of skating in the Civil Rights movement. Brooklyn’s Empire Skating Rink closed its doors on April 23rd, 2007 after sixty-six years of skating. However, this exhibition made me realize how different Brooklyn was compared to Manhattan.
I also realized that places such as the Empire Skate represent certain racial groups and their history. It was my third time visiting New York City when I got the inspiration for this paper. I was mostly around Manhattan during the first two visits like any other tourist. Although I was quite impressed by Manhattan and felt like ‘I was in a movie,’ I did not realize how mall-like and crowded Manhattan was until I spent my third visit mainly around Brooklyn. Manhattan, in my opinion, lacked a distinct identity due to the hyper-diversity and the chaotic nature of the borough compared to Brooklyn.
Without a doubt, Brooklyn felt more ‘real’ than Manhattan. Brooklyn was ‘real’ because it did not resemble a scene from a typical Hollywood movie; Brooklyn had a distinct identity. So, I decided to spend more time observing the everyday life of Brooklynites instead of visiting other touristic places in different parts of New York City.
For three days, I would wake up and leave Jim and Mehraneh’s house at Park Slope in Brooklyn and stroll around the borough. I especially enjoyed my daily visits to Brooklyn Public Library and Prospect Park. While spending my time observing my surroundings, I realized that there were fundamental differences between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
First of all, the demographics change a lot. Brooklyn is not as chaotic as Manhattan. Furthermore, the people I saw on the streets or at the Brooklyn Public Library are very different from the people I saw in New York Public Library and around Manhattan. The difference between the demographics of Brooklyn and Manhattan made me question the relationship between the concepts of race and space. Most public spaces in Manhattan are not racially homogenous because of the tourist inflow, whereas public spaces in Brooklyn tend to be occupied by racially homogenous groups.
So, I asked myself, “Do we experience integration in urban life as much as we know and talk about the phenomenon itself?” Based on this question, I will explain how racial dynamics shape our understanding of public spaces and building intimate social networks. I argue that false knowledge of integration is at work in public places of Brooklyn and that integrated groups are not the norm.
In order to challenge the normativity of the concept of racially integrated public spaces, I would like to discuss the implications of public spaces. The term “public” is usually associated with “openness” and “diversity” and implies the idea that public spaces are for “the people.” But who are “the people?” Is it the white woman I saw every morning, taking a walk at Prospect Park? Or is it a group of young black men waiting on the street corner in Brooklyn? How do we interpret these groups when we see them in public? Do we immediately imagine a scenario where these two groups peacefully interact with one another?
If the answer is no, or ‘highly unlikely,’ then it can be inferred that public spaces are in fact racialized through daily social actions and interactions between different groups of people. Hence, I will be examining racial dynamics and the relationship between race and space from a predominantly micro-level perspective. Dixon et al. note that “Michel de Certeau (1984) famously contrasted two views of the city” (1549).
According to Dixon et al., the first view is “a kind of top-down perspective that city planners and demographers tend to adopt” thus, it can be considered as a perspective that produces “bird’s eye visualizations of urban space” (1549). Contrarily, the second view is a bottom-up perspective that “prioritizes the situated perspectives and practices of those who walk the streets, encounter, and interact with one another, and use specific routes, facilities, and places” (1549).
Similarly, I will be using Certeau’s (1984) bottom-up perspective in my examination of racial dynamics in public spaces. Thus, I will be focusing on the recreation of identities, racial preconceptions, and stereotypes by means of social interactions between different racial groups.
Although I will be examining racial dynamics in terms of public spaces, spaces can take up different forms such as political space or simply physical space. I argue that none of them are race-neutral because race operates at conscious, subconscious, and physical levels. Hence, spaces are racialized at both conscious and subconscious levels through our social interactions with other people. In a general sense, racialization involves a series of complex processes based on racial stereotypes and inter-group relations within a society.
If racialization is a process that is imposed on a certain minority group by a dominant group, then what is a racialized space? Racialized spaces can be understood as an extension of larger racial projects which ascribe certain characteristics to a group of people. I will use Anderson’s notion of “the white space” (2015) in order to explain racial segregation in public spaces as well as racial homogeneity in relation to building intimate social networks.
According to Anderson, “the white space” is considered as “informally off-limits” by the black persona whereas “the black space” is constructed as the opposite of “the white space” (10). Accordingly, the white space is considered “off-limits” by the black persona due to several reasons. According to Anderson, if the black persona judges a setting as “too white,” they can feel “uneasy” because black people are often absent or marginalized in such spaces (10).
Hence, it is inferred that “the white space” is categorically defined and perceived by black people for they must navigate through these spaces and adjust their comfort levels accordingly. I acknowledge that discussing racial dynamics in public spaces through the paradigm of “the black-white binary” (Delgado & Stefancic 2017) overlooks the fact that spaces are not only racialized as “white” and “black” but also as Latino/a, Asian, Kurdish, etc.
However, employing this paradigm serves my purposes because I will be highlighting Brooklyn’s Blackness in relation to the reconstruction of the black community’s image in public spaces.
Brown notes that “the study of the way particular ethnic groups come to be associated with a community’s image, what Graeme Evans has called the ‘symbolic association’ of a group of people with a community, helps one to truly comprehend how places and social spaces are created” (5). Therefore, people reconstruct social spaces as racialized spaces through the process of “symbolic association.”
Accordingly, people acquire certain stereotypical representations about a certain racial group through the mainstream media and associate such symbols (i.e., violent, fearsome, etc.) with a whole community. Hence, the image of a community and its members is defined by the stereotypical racial signifiers that manifest themselves through our social interactions in public spaces. I argue that one such example is Anderson’s concept of “the iconic ghetto” (2015).
Anderson argues that “the white space” is constructed through the association of “the iconic ghetto” with black people (2015). While Anderson does not deny a physical ghetto and its negative implications exist, the iconic ghetto “has become a highly negative icon in American society and culture, serving as a touchstone for prejudice, a profound source of stereotypes, and a rationalization for discrimination against black people in general” (13).
The iconic ghetto is different from the physical ghetto because it functions as a metaphor for the black community; it is an icon justifying “the implicit racial order – whites as dominant and blacks as subordinate” (Anderson 13). Moreover, the iconic ghetto is the prototype of any black space, hence the opposite of the arguably safe and non-violent white space.
I argue that the notion of the ghetto contributes to further racial segregation and racialization of public spaces by the very connotations of the physical ghetto. A physical ghetto is the part of the city where minority groups live due to economic, social, and cultural othering. Thus, a ghetto is an inevitable result of practices of othering as well as economic and social disparities experienced by minority groups. Additionally, the ghetto proves to be a useful source for the reproduction of racial stereotypes due to the criminal activities that take place in the ghetto. Furthermore, Anderson argues that the image of the ghetto and its implications of violence and criminality is associated with the black persona regardless of their actual socio-economic status (19-20).
In this sense, it can be inferred that the black persona is defined based on their symbolic association with the iconic ghetto regardless of socio-economic status. Furthermore, the process of symbolic association often occurs subconsciously. I remember seeing a group of young black men in Brooklyn, waiting on the street corner at night, smoking, and I immediately associated them with selling drugs.
I was surprised that it did not take a second to associate these men with criminal activity while in fact, all they did was to stand there and talk to each other. Maybe I was right, but the point is, we tend to categorize people we see on the streets based on racial stereotypes.
Consequently, it is clear that racial stereotypes are imposed on our subconscious through the mainstream media and the dominant discourse around race in our respective societies.
Research by Eylül Arslan