A map of the area under observation.

William “Holly” Whyte’s studies have helped us understand how people interact in public spaces. The studies, however, were performed during the 1970s, before there was such a strong presence of electronic media as there is right now. Inspired by Holly’s methods and curious to determine how speakers affect the use of public space, I recently spent two weeks observing one of the spaces that Whyte studied. I was particularly interested in determining if music and sound changed the nature of pedestrian interactions.

The South Street Seaport district is made up of a series of pedestrian streets located on the southeastern edge of Lower Manhattan’s Financial District. The area is located close to important tourist destinations like City Hall, Battery Park and the Brooklyn Bridge. It is, in many ways, an outdoor shopping mall. Vehicular traffic is cut off from the street, and–instead of cars–one can find permanent and semi-permanent commercial kiosks scattered all around. Restaurant terraces also spread onto the streets, taking up more pedestrian space that is normally allowed on commercial thoroughfares in Manhattan.

I performed my observational research at the intersection of the Seaport’s dock and the FDR freeway. This space, physically set apart from the rest of the Seaport’s streets by the massive, six-lane, elevated highway, is a place with great acoustics. It is a strategic place from which to bounce sound.

The FDR freeway makes the area a strategic place from which to bounce sound / Photos: Alan Grabinsky

I visited the place three times over the course of two weeks: on a sunny Saturday afternoon (4-6pm), a rainy Monday at mid-day (12-2pm) and a rainy Friday morning (10-12am). As one might expect, Saturday afternoon was when the space was the most crowded. On Monday and Friday, a smaller crowd was still milling about. Yet even if the number of people using the space changed drastically, the uses of the space did not. As mentioned earlier, the space is mainly a destination for tourists, with companies like the Circle Line Ferry and Blazing Saddles Rental Bikes capitalizing on the constant flow of national and international tourists that move about the district.

The area where I performed my research was particularly noisy, with sound coming from the river and colliding with noises coming from inland. I heard the occasional squawking and flapping of seagulls and the periodical sound of a boat horn (coming from the New York Water Taxi). Added to these noises were the constant whooshing of cars on the FDR, the squealing, hissing brakes of tourist buses as they stop to pick up visitors, and the shouts and chatter of tourists and tour guides. In such an acoustically charged environment, any sound that is planned and specifically targeted to someone immediately stands out. This is the case with speakers, and their function to attract attention from customers.

Mapping the South Street Seaport’s soundscape / Photo: Alan Grabinsky

The interesting thing about how and where the speakers were placed was that the sonic territory claimed by each one of them did not overlap with the others (see map above). Apparently, the only sound that drowned the other ones was the sound NYC Water Taxi horn, due to its particular strength. It is as if the noise within the space was being self regulated by the users (or a third party) to keep the sound levels comfortable for the pedestrians: it seemed to be an example of the subtle, equilibrating nature of public behavior that seemed to fascinate Whyte.

Most speakers were set up inconspicuously throughout the area, all of them facing towards the main pedestrian path. I did not see any outdoor speakers set up for internal enjoyment within a business. Restaurants like TGI Fridays have speakers facing the pedestrian pathways under the FDR. The NYC Water Taxi station has speaker that call the person in the line. There are also speakers blasting music from a stand of t-shirts. Individuals were also using portable speakers, especially tour guides, who used attached them to their belts in order to talk to the crowd.

Amongst the most distinct sounds heard in the port was of Middle Eastern music, coming out of a Hot Dog/Hallal Food stand. The cart had an old speaker set up on the roof, carefully protected by an umbrella (picture below). This speaker was especially loud on Saturday and was quieter during the weekdays.

This vendor strategically uses sound to attract hungry tourists craving an “exotic” lunch / Photos: Alan Grabinsky

The ironic thing about this particular set up was that the vendor was actually listening to private music on his iPhone while the music played out loud. This allowed me to deduce that the speaker played music that was relevant for the customers, not for him. This music was used to make the hungry tourist crave an “exotic” platter—and it worked. Situated as it was under the FDR Drive, the noise that came out of this speaker would bounce from the highway into the dock, attracting hungry tourists that had just gotten off one of the boats.

As visitors move through space, they enter certain sonic atmospheres and are drawn to—or repelled by—the sounds and noises that they encounter.  The South Street Seaport is an example of a highly charged sonic environment where sound-making machines are used to influence pedestrian activity. Aware of the many ways in which sound works, businesses have strategically set up their sound equipment in order to draw attention to their merchandise. Making sound in this space thus becomes a way of claiming territory; it is a way of asserting one’s presence in the public realm. By making sound, one is actually transforming the uses of the built environment. In this case, the freeway structure becomes an amphitheater, making the public space a stage from which to call out to the passing crowd.

Observing the South Street Seaport’s Soundscapes: Holly Whyte Revisited was last modified: October 18th, 2012 by Alan Grabinsky