Stephen Goldsmith on ‘The uses of sidewalks: contact’

“The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self appointed public characters. A public character is anyone who is in frequent enough contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function—although he often does.” (Pp 89, Death and Life of Great American Cities, On the uses of Sidewalks: Contact)

Larry Selman and Alice Elliot

Larry Selman lives on Bedford Street in New York City’s West Village. He is a public character of the first order, a community activist and fundraiser, and suffers from severe developmental disabilities. He has raised tens of thousands of dollars for national and local charities though he lives in poverty himself. It is estimated that because of Larry’s efforts, his block association has given more than $300,000 over the decades of his making contact with his neighbors on Bedford Street.

Alice Elliot is one of Larry’s neighbors. She’s a documentary filmmaker, was an actress for 20 years, and is a great observer of people, places and the relationships born from those places. When Alice discovered Larry and his plight in their neighborhood, the two of them set off on a 5-year collaboration to tell Larry’s story. Set within the streets of the West Village, it seems only fitting that Bedford Street intersects with Hudson Street, the street where Jane Jacobs lived. Alice and Larry’s unlikely intersection elegantly illustrates contact on the street. Like a flipbook of Ben Shahn’s candid street photos stitched together with story, Alice’s documentary film titled The Collector of Bedford Street is a Jacobsian specimen seen through the lens of a camera-cum-microscope.

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The social structure of the sidewalk is generative. Like leaf-cutter ants we clip away and transport the stuff of our lives, including our stories, emotions, needs and fears, and through this build a social economy. Larry Selman clipped dollars from the willing wallets of his sidewalk contacts, and transformed it into charity for groups such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association, AIDS Walk, The St. Vincent Pediatric AIDS Clinic and many more organizations. The social structure and functional social economy of Larry’s world has been a model of generativity. Those in his neighborhood invented new ways to support Larry, just as Larry worked to raise funds for people he did not even know.

Larry's Neighborhood Trust

As if out of the pages of Jacobs’ chapters on the uses of sidewalks, the story could also be used to illustrate some of Jacobs’ observations in Systems of Survival and The Economy of Cities. The sidewalk contact between Alice and Larry ultimately led to a trusting, emergent economic safety net that transformed Larry’s life. When his neighbors learned that after Larry’s expenses for rent, utilities and phone that he only had $10.00 per month to live on, they established a fund much like a neighborhood bank, to create an endowment specifically for Larry’s living expenses. This self-organizing system of neighborhood support for one public character, a character whose mental disability doesn’t interfere with his ability to support people for whom he feels empathy but does not know, is part of the ecology of our cities; creative, resilient, collaborative, and generative.

Erik Erikson defines generativity in part as “the psychosocial sense [referring] to the concern for establishing and guiding the next generation, and is said to stem from a sense of optimism about humanity.” If Erikson is correct, then public characters like Larry are beacons of optimism born on sidewalks.

Those who observe characters and places clearly, people like Alice Eliot whose focused lenses point us to both stories and justice, are the people who are truly advancing the observations of Jane Jacobs.

In Jacobs’ discussion about contact on sidewalks she also paves our way toward a deeper understanding of the nuances of public and private space. What Alice has documented shines light into the shadowy spaces in our lives where the intersection of the life of the street with our private world leaves us with the inescapable knowledge that everything is connected. For 40 years on the same sidewalks walked by Jane Jacobs, characters like Larry Selman pave the way to understanding the soul of a citizen, and our power to generate change.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Stephen, this is such a wonderful post. Larry reminds me of Tony Clemens, a homeless man in Toronto’s Roncesvalles Village. One of the locals teamed up with him to create a blog so people could check in with Tony and hear his stories. When he died this past October, the comments poured in on the blog and a memorial soon sprang up.

    I only knew of Tony because one of my friends lives in the neighbourhood and spoke with him often, but I’m sure there are many in the neighbourhood who know each other because of Tony. The police are quoted in this article that Tony was “the eyes and ears” of the neighborhood.

    1. Heather, thanks for the introduction to Tony’s story. I looked at the links in your message and now want to forward this to some friends at the Community Writing Center here. Students at the Center have a DiversCity writing program, and this story could be very meaningful for them.

      Sounds from the descriptions that beyond being the “eyes and ears of the neighborhood,” Tony was a connector, too.

      Do you live in a neighborhood that keeps the Tony’s of our world safe?

      1. Stephen, I’m not sure that I do. I wonder sometimes if the people who live a few streets over do though. As I read through Death & Life this time around, I’m thinking a lot about the fact that I live in a condo complex, and how much it disconnects me from street life and my neighbours. All of the people I know in my neighbourhood either live in houses or on the ground floor, or I knew them before they moved here.

        Down the road, though, there’s a little street that had a street-long yard sale a few summers back that they let us participate in, and I think they would be able to support a Tony or a Larry in a way that my condo complex can’t (or doesn’t? unclear to me).

        There are two keys to the Larry story for me: There were a group of neighbours who already knew each other and felt joint responsibility of the neighbourhood, and there was Larry. I suspect we might have a Larry or two, but we condo folk don’t know the neighbours that well.

  2. Thank you for lifting Larry up. We have our annual trust meeting this Saturday morning where neighbors check in an we look at how we are managing our financial responsibility to Larry.
    Beyond the block, Larry’s film has been seen by over 16,000 young people around the world through the Kiwanis International service leadership training program. Larry is an unlikely person to be considered a community leader, but I think your well written article is right on spot.

    1. Jennifer Johnson says:

      Alice,
      “Could I see you a minute?”

      Thank you so much for sharing this lovely story, and for being the lovely person you are.

      Thank you for your inspiration.
      (btw, I am a student of Stephen Goldsmith’s, here in Utah)

  3. Mary Rowe says:

    What a wonderful post. Thanks Stephen!

  4. Jennifer Johnson says:

    Such great story-sharing…

    The heart of the piece and many of its images (“camera-cum-microscope” and ‘leaf-cutter ants” to name a few) remain with us.

    Thank you.

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