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I am a Spectacle: New York Walking Culture for Women

I was so excited to move from Queens into my New York University dorm on tenth street.

I often visited the city for family excursions or girlfriend brunches, but that was the extent to which I knew Manhattan. I was eager to learn more about it, and not just see the magic of New York, but actually live in it. As a Native New Yorker, I thought I was prepared for what was to come. I was ready for the glamour, but also for the rubbish because let us face it, New York is a rusty gem. What I was not ready for was the sexual harassment. Living here for almost nine months made me reimagine the way a woman is perceived in a large city. Being a young woman in the heart of New York has shown me how space is overpowered by men. Women are accessories to New York City. It is a man’s city, and women are just walking in it. I realized this one fall afternoon while sitting in Washington Square Park.

I sat on an empty bench before the start of one of my classes, in a crevice of a corner tucked away. The surrounding trees created a low canopy, almost touching the top of my head, shading me from the cloudy sun. I could feel the pores near my nasal area expanding, secreting oils which created a “natural glow” to my face due to the mildly thick humidity. I periodically looked at my phone, even though I knew there was nothing new to check. It was pure force of habit. I dabbled with my school ID. Occasionally I tried to attain the attention of the well-pampered dogs crossing into my view, all while working to avoid eye-contact with the dog owners, or more commonly the dog walkers. I did not want to interact with anyone except for the city dogs. In short, I was minding my own business.

I looked up to right-hand corner of my rectangular view, to find an approximately 5'5" man in his late 20s lingering around at my sight. I forcibly met with this pedestrian’s eyes which were some variation of brown, not too dark nor too light, welcoming but doubtful. This man seemed to want to say something, which he only said because I must have given the facial approval to do so, without even knowing.

“This is nice spot to sit at” he said. I kept my agreeing reply minimal. “Are you a doctor for the school?” the pedestrian asked, while referring to my student ID which was inverted, to further a dialogue I thought would end soon.

I answered in an offended yet laughing way that I am a student. He did not seem to be embarrassed for the mistake. Instead, it invited him to join me. Surprised by this act, I became uneasy. I subtly grabbed my bag, while not losing eye-contact with him, bringing it to my lap and slowly putting away my things.

He commented on how mature I appear, again, I laughed, not genuinely but nervously. I did not understand what this person wanted from me.

I was too afraid to look at my phone for escape, and my quick scanning for a savior in the park failed me. While he spoke, I pretended to listen, but in reality, I was thinking to myself, questioning the purpose of this person’s actions: why were they so close to me? Are they bored? Are they after something? As these questions entered but never exited my brain, I became more disconnected. I tried to conceal the fact that I was uneasy. They had to have bought it, why else would they have continued to inquire about the things I do for fun or mention how cute they thought Kerry Washington was? Or did they? Although I was edgy, I did not evade the situation. He told me where he lived, his favorite coffee shop, and his allergies. I told him nothing. My incremented silence diffused the conversation.

“It was nice to meet you” he said.

“It was nice to meet you” I replied.

He left. I was relieved. I still debate whether or not this was a form of harassment, and maybe it was not. I go back and forth on my opinion, but one thing I never question is the power men have over urban space, and the relative powerlessness of the women in those spaces. Privacy is a luxury that I have rarely encountered in the public spaces that men so calmly occupy, and I am often times forced into participating in conversations I much rather would not.

I do not have the same power over the space around me as a man does because New York is a city that was built for a man, by men. New York boasts an imagine of choice over the experiences we are take part in, but this is not always true for me. observes that in New York City “every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.” I have been a part of these so-called spectacles. I have experienced when a guy unsolicitedly cat calls me, winks at me, or makes kissing noises. I cannot walk down Broadway wearing a skirt without getting smirks and slick comments.

But I have never chosen to partake in these "spectacles". I simply am the spectacle for the gaze of the man.

It is time for New York City to recognize its women, respect them, crown them, and make them a part of the city, and see them as more than just a muse. I believe that one can be empowered by the things that make up our environment.

Rebecca Solnit does not mince words when it comes to writing about women in New York City. Her piece “The Power of Names” opens with, “walking down the city streets, young women get harassed in ways that tell them that this is not their world, their city, their street; that their freedom of movement and association is liable to be undermined at any time” (Nonstop Metropolis, 85). I wholeheartedly related to these comments. My freedom of movement has been compromised by a man time and time again.

However, I cannot allow sexual harassment to dictate my life. I cannot hate the city for it even if that is sometimes how I feel. I can never lend myself to enjoy the gems of the city if I am so hell bent on making sure I look “safe” for the city. If am I going to make this relationship between New York and I work, I am going to have to show it, and the sexual harassers, that I can be the boss of my own spaces. I will wear what I want, walk as I want, speak, smile, move, and occupy as I want.


Alexa Brady is a rising sophomore at NYU studying Journalism, Media, Cultures, & Communication.​

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