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Those “Gorgeous Incongruities”: Polite Politics and Public Space on the Streets of Nineteenth-Century New York City

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The streets of mid-nineteenth-century New York City were sites of complex social engagements and economic activity. The promenades along both Broadway and Fifth Avenue were highly scripted rituals, where social mores and upper-class values were enacted and embodied on a daily basis. Focusing on analyses of three images, I argue that these streets were also the sites of political activity, but a politics that I define as “micropolitics” of “tactical” transgressions made possible by the structure of these social rituals. By making such an argument, I show how the streets of nineteenth-century cities were neither completely democratic nor totally controlled public spaces. I also provide a broader alternative to thinking about politics, one that understands the complex and contextual nature of human agency, and suggest that our frameworks for thinking about contemporary public space may be blinding us to potential sites of transgression.

Keywords: New York City; Public space; micropolitics; transgression

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Florida Atlantic University

Publication date: 1998-06-01

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