This is a story about living in a time and place where the word “environment” is inevitably commandeered by other words like “built” and “urban.” Where secondary environments are forced to squeeze through the gaps left in the more prominent kind and set up shop on the sly, unwanted, like weeds through the cracks of a neglected sidewalk. It’s a testament to how great a psychic gap we’ve put between ourselves and the weedy stuff of life that a group from Barnard College and Columbia University has taken it upon itself to help us bridge it. And they’re doing it using two of the tools most emblematic of our daily urban cocoons—an iPod and a cross-town subway train out of 42nd St/Times Square.
The group is a collection of architecture students, designers, and researchers led by Columbia’s Urban Landscape Lab; the cross-town subway is the 7 train; and the project is Safari 7, an exploration of New York City’s urban ecosystem that makes use of the 7 train’s mostly elevated, largely east-west trajectory as a kind of cross-section through the city’s layered landscape. Safari 7’s mission is to gently trick us into re-examining the environment part of “urban environment.” Or, even more daringly, to push us to a place where no modifier is needed—a place where we start to realize that the natural and man-made are less layered and more squished together with the knowledge that sometimes it’s gross and weird, but also interesting and faintly reminiscent of childhood adventures when dirt was, among other things, meant for eating.
The promise of adventure is also the carrot I dangle in front of my friend one weekend afternoon when I begin to download the Safari 7 podcasts for my voyage through subtropical Queens. I briefly wonder if any famous explorers hail from that great borough and find online that both Simon and Garfunkel come from the neighborhood of Forest Hills, which, frankly, is a revelation. My friend is intrigued. It could be that he finds the idea of Queens tantalizingly exotic. In case he doesn’t, however, I underscore the fact that very little walking is required. In fact, Safari 7 embraces the compartments of the 7 train as “eco-urban classrooms” where wearing headphones is not only allowed, it’s mandatory. I imagine the two of us synchronizing our podcasts and nodding to each other knowingly as insightful narration reveals the secrets behind and beneath the borough’s vacant buildings and cemeteries. That’s my first mistake. We have some trouble getting the podcasts on his iPhone and so we will have to share one set of headphones. I fret that this will compromise the immersive aspect of the project. I’ve also downloaded the podcasts three times out of the crippling fear that I will miss one and somehow throw off the narrative sequence to some unimaginably detrimental end. Finally, we head to Times Square and the adventure begins.
“Oh, like those self-guided museum tours,” remarked another friend a few days before when I describe the weekend’s project. “Yes, exactly” I think to myself, though hopefully with less risk of looking like an incurably enthusiastic tourist. That’s my second mistake. I remember this line of thinking when I find myself unfolding the generously sized Safari 7 map and glare at it like it might be an abstract expressionist painting loaded with hidden meanings. What I’m actually trying to do is align the right podcast to its corresponding subway stop, something that I find incredibly stressful but imagine to be thoroughly necessary, even though I’m wobbly on my feet and the map is likely in three other passengers’ faces. Third mistake. As it turns out, calibrating the podcasts geographically is not essential to the experience at all. Each mini-episode lasts no longer than three-and-a-half minutes and is intended as a world unto itself rather than part of a ride-long story. Whether you’re listening to tales of oysters in Queen’s Bay, hidden gardens in Jackson Heights, or chickens in Corona Park, you rarely need to fix your sights on anything in particular. The point, I think, is to look out at everything and daydream instead about what you can’t see. Except it’s really hard to daydream when you’re trying not to step on people while holding onto an iPod, a map, and one earpiece. Thus, I can say with the utmost confidence that the number one most essential thing when embarking on a Safari 7 is the ruthless homesteading of a window seat—an objective that is especially unrealistic on a day when emergency track work has packed the 7 train to the brim, thereby obscuring most of the windows from view.
I urge my friend to crane his neck towards Queensboro Plaza and listen to a jaunty mediation on squirrels. It’s worth noting that the production on the podcasts tends to the clever. Pop music references and occasional interviews with people doing variations on “Ick!” are meant to balance out the more science-y content. The squirrel one, for example, kicks off with a sound bite from a scene in Sex and the City in which Sarah Jessica Parker’s character refers to the mammal at hand as “a rat with a cuter outfit” (I totally remember that episode). My friend looks unenthused. I suspect he can’t hear all that well. If there’s one thing people take advantage of on an elevated train track, it’s the triumphant return of their cell phone service. Still, I point out New Calvary Cemetery between the 46th Street and 52nd Street stops and strain to listen about the effects of human burial on the city’s ecosystem (it’s bad, of course.) Apparently dead people have giant carbon footprints. (Note to self: consider organic burial.) Somewhere in the back of the car, someone preaches the gospel in loud Spanish.
When we disembark the train at Willets Point and head to Flushing Meadows, it occurs to me that I’m very glad to be going to a new park, especially a peculiar Robert Moses creation with slightly sinister World’s Fair remnants that I last saw featured on an episode of Flight of the Concords. My friend agrees and comments on his now-expanded consciousness of the city. I pause as proverbial light bulbs go flickering and a kind of internal podcast starts (fearing ridicule, I keep this to myself):
Once upon a time in mid-1950s Scotland, a bunch of French beatniks got together with some people from the provocatively named International Movement for Imaginist Bauhaus. Not to typecast, but they were probably high as kites and what happened there isn’t of too much concern save for the fact that it contributed to the thinking of the French theorist Guy Debord who, several years later, found himself urging people to ‘drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work, and their leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’
Mon dieu! Safari 7 had sent us on what Debord called a dérive—a drift, a passive movement through urban space which has freed us to inhabit the environment in new and unexpected ways!
I ponder this as we weave our way to the rusty, vaguely sci-fi towers of the New York State pavilion. The adventure had proven logistically messy and I’d let it turn me into the kind of control freak that Safari 7 is most desperate to reach: someone who can’t just relax and learn to love the germs, as it were. My dream of gazing poetically out the windows of the train while the Safari 7 team lulled me into pseudo-transcendental bliss didn’t even have a chance. However, it’s with no little amount of pleasure that I have drifted through cemeteries, contaminated water, patches of milkweed and flocks of pigeons to a corner of the built environment I’d been waiting to free from its associations with HBO original programming. It was a good moment in a loud, crowded, imperfect city, like trolling the African bush for a shy heard of elephants before finally spotting a lion.
The Safari 7 Reading Room is on exhibit now through December at Studio-X, 180 Varick Street.
Minna Ninova is a writer based in Manhattan.