Soundwalk in the City: Reclaiming Urban Reality
? 2003 Atsuko Miyawaki
Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
Soundwalk released by Oversampling, Inc. has emerged in March 2002 with a whole new approach to urban tourism. Soundwalk comes in an audio recording in digital
format with a site map drawn on the back of the CD cover. The map is marked corner names such as Canal & Eldridge as if the listener already knew what is on that block. This is indeed the key factor: Soundwalk is an “audio guide for insiders.” While the
tourist industry expands travel destinations and processes more and more international tourism receipt, Soundwalk resists traveling too far. It takes you to your neighborhood. The only thing you need is a portable CD player with a headphone. Just step out of your home and the voice takes you to the “unknown places” you have never been in your neighborhood. The “neighborhood,” however, does not have to be yours. The listener is guided by the voice of an insider who is a long-time resident in the neighborhood. The voice lets you own the area for the duration of the tour. If you are an outsider, you can be a temporal insider. Soundwalk speaks to people‟s desire to own the space. The moment
you turn the sound on, you are “inside” of the city.
Oversampling, Inc. has so far released six editions of Soundwalk—NYC: Lower
East Side, NYC: Chinatown, NYC: Dumbo, NYC: The Bronx, NYC: Times Square, Paris:
St-Germain-des-Pres. An up-coming edition, NYC: Meatpacking District, will follow in
January 2004. A Parisian, Stephan Crasneanscki, invented Soundwalk in order to
introduce his adopted neighborhood—New York City‟s Lower East Side. He later
founded the company, Oversampling Inc., and has continued to create Soundwalks in his
collaboration with Michel Sitruk who is also from Paris. Their microscopic vision of metropolis point out blind spots in the city and highlights the very reality of urban ignorance. In big cities such as New York City, people walk the same block and turn the
same corner everyday, they follow the same path as they took yesterday and forget to sense the changes. Soundwalk remind the listeners to look around instead of looking down your feet, to smell, to touch, to feel and pay attention to what is behind the urban streets. Soundwalk stimulates your sensory nerves and opens your eyes for the unfamiliar within the familiar.
Get Ready to be Chinese .
Jami Gong who was born and raised in Chinatown guides the tour NYC:
Chinatown. He becomes the voice in your head and your task is simple and clear—just
follow him. Gong tells you, “These are my blocks, these are my streets, these are my people. So listen to me carefully and I will take care of you.” In order to complete the
tour properly, there are rules to be followed. Gong notes these rules:
The most important one is to follow the rhythm of his foot steps, be one with him. ;
; Never cross streets or turn any corners that he did not mention.
; Let him take control of your body and mind, he will allow you to observe and
being observed. During the time together, he will bring you into places where you
are not supposed to go. So please behave and be very discreet. If you get caught,
leave immediately. Remember, he does not even exist, he is just a voice in your
“Get ready to see, to smell, to touch and be Chinese. Are you ready? Let‟s go.” You are at the corner of New York‟s Chinatown and now you walk as a Chinese in Jami Gong‟s shoes.
As you follow his foot steps, you come to the first stop:
In front of you, there is a door being held up with a piece of string, 29
Eldridge Street. I want you to get inside. Now you are inside, walk up
the stairs to the first floor. On the right side, there is a big gray metallic
door…this is the sweatshop, the core of Chinatown. My Mom works
here, she is No. 7. She makes as little as two dollars an hour in a ten
hours shift six days a week…I can hear them, the whispering, they must
be from immigration…
There is actually a door held up with a piece of string at 29 Eldridge Street and there is a gray metallic door as I walk up the stairs. The door was closed on my visit and there was a guy in front of the door threatening me with his silent gaze. Although my physical body paused in front of the closed door, Jami Gong in my head opened the door and walked me inside. He saw his mother working with No. 7 plate on and heard people whispering about immigration authority. His voice echoed in the same way as my voice would echo in the sweatshop. He closed the gray metallic door and took me outside. This was the moment of schizophrenia: my mental journey went beyond reality. Nobody hears the voice except myself. I was standing in front of the sweatshop with goose bumps, feeling my heartbeat getting faster with the fear of unknown and voyeuristic pleasure. It did not matter I did not walk into the sweatshop, I sensed it.
Jami Gong continues the tour and makes a total of twenty-five stops at such places as a local mall, Nom Wha Tea Parlor, Transfiguration Church, Senior Citizen Center, and Buddhist Temple. The tour experience is not heavily focused on those stops though. The walk between the corners and stops also contains sensory experience. Music combined with on-location sound gives an aural feel to the blocks and places, and the rhythm determines the speed of the walker‟s foot steps. As I walk into the mall, the music shifts to electronic sound with fast tempo. My foot steps naturally speed up, the music and sound characterize the energy of the markets in the mall, and I get to the exit at the exact moment the music stops. My movement is choreographed by Jami Gong‟s brief
insertion of voice such as “turn left,” but interestingly the walk starts to become “my walk” as I start to get the right tempo. “Be one with me,” Gong told me. Surprisingly, it happened. Gong‟s narration and my movement produce a double first-person perspective
of the audio-vision kind: Gong‟s vision projected through my ears, while my eyes watch
an on-going reality.
The collaborative perspective creates a unique mixture of past and present,
memory and reality. At the corner of East Broadway and Catherine Street, Gong asks, “Do you see the tall black building? That is the Millennium Hotel. The World Trade
Center used to be to the left and right of it. What a view we had…not anymore. Now it‟s gone, all gone.” The sound of airplane follows his voice. All the memory and images flush in my mind, and my eyes place the twin towers on their one-time site. My vision and Gong‟s vision intersect as two pictures that overlap each other. But do not forget, this is a vision about Chinatown—melancholic Chinese music reminds me to follow
Gong takes me to the corner to see the shadows of World Trade Center after the visit to the local Chinese mall and market. There is a jump from local memory of Chinatown to the mourning of WTC. I question myself, “who owns this memory?” The
mourning of WTC often televised as a national memory eliminates the singularity of the event. As a representative figure of the neighborhood Jami Gong‟s expression of sorrow
for WTC complicates the status of memory: his mourning is more than that of an individual. Sociologist Paul Connerton claims:
To say that societies are self-interpreting communities is to indicate the
nature of that deposit; but it is important to add that among the most
powerful of these self-interpretations are the images of themselves as
continuously existing that societies create and preserve. For an
individual‟s consciousness of time is to a large degree an awareness of
society‟s continuity, or more exactly of the image of that continuity
which the society creates. (1989:12)
The repeated commemorative acts of 9. 11. have transformed memory into a ritual. The inviolable state of memory has become a strategic tool of the nation-state, and it neglects the memory that is embodied by individuals. Jami Gong who was born to immigrant parents and raised in Chinatown claims his Chinese identity within the national memory of WTC. New York‟s Chinatown continues to be the ethnic Other in the city, just as the people of Chinatown. Gong‟s mother said on the way to the local mall, “Baby, this is not the Bronx or Brooklyn, this is not even New York, it‟s Chinatown.” Gong agrees,
“Chinatown is a world within world.” Although many white Americans and Chinese American began to live in Chinatown by preference, the original residents barely had a choice. American studies scholar Michel S. Laguerre claims:
First of all, in the case of most enclaves that developed prior to the
proclamation of Civil Rights Act, the decision to live in a segregated
neighborhood was not a voluntary one. Rather, the dominant system
sought to prevent ethnics from living in white neighborhoods, which left
them no choice but to live in ethnic enclaves. (2000: 3)
Struggling with the Chinese exclusion acts, Chinese identity was established in the city as that of an alien. Since then, the “alien status” of Chinese Americans in the city has
been passed from generation to generation. In contemporary America, the exclusion of Chinese transformed itself into an attraction to the exotic—the ethnic Other.
Jami Gong says, “What a view we had…not anymore. Now it‟s gone, all gone.” He told me the fact that WTC is gone without articulating his thoughts. What is gone is the symbol of New York—the place Gong belongs to as an ethnic Other.
Who Are the Insiders?
The insider vision for NYC: Chinatown is created by Jami Gong and his
collaboration with Michel Sitruk and Stephan Crasneanscki. New York City where long-time residents claim the “real” New Yorker status, Sitruk and Crasneanscki struggle with people‟s perceptions toward their non-American status. Sitruk and Crasneanscki had a
female visitor early this year who was a long-time resident claiming to be a pure New Yorker. She boldly questioned, “Why would I let two French guys to show me Chinatown? I am not going to pay twelve dollars to buy this thing from you.” Sitruk and
Crasneanscki told her, “We don‟t show you anything, we don‟t interpret anything. Jami takes you around.” The crucial part of the tour is the guide, or, in Sitruk‟s word, “narrator” who has to be an insider. You will take a tour with a Chinese narrator not with
two French guys. Sitruk and Crasneanscki walk and study the neighborhood in order to create the map, script, and content collaboratively developed with Jami Gong. The script for the tour is neither an embodiment of outsiders‟ visions nor one of Parisian egos.
Sitruk explains, “Before going to a neighborhood we are completely blank and soak up what is going on right now. Everything is processed and mixed, that‟s what we give. Script, map, and content are created in a pure collaboration. We step back, we do not push.”
In the case of Chinatown, the status of a narrator is not only being a long-time resident but also a racially identified insider. The fact that Jami Gong was born and raised in Chinatown, and his family members work and make life in the area gives legitimacy to the tour and affirms the credibility of the walk for a listener who jumps into
the unknown. The reliability and safety of the tour, in fact, is a significant aspect. As the CD cover of Soundwalk indicates:
Soundwalk is to be used only with the express understanding that the
makers, producers, owners, and investors of Soundwalk, cannot be held
legally liable for any injury, accident, arrest or other damage suffered by
a user of Soundwalk. Oversampling Inc. makes no representations as to
the safety of the tour. The user expressly accepts and assumes any and
all risks that may exist in the use of Soundwalk. Soundwalk is a unique
experience, set in the real world. Use common sense. Be ready for the
unexpected. As you do in real life.
The optimal hours are also indicated on the cover. Optimal hours for Chinatown tour are “Monday to Friday 10am to 4pm.” This is much more limited than those of NYC: Lower
East Side, “Monday to Sunday 10am to 11pm.” The hours are due to the tour route. While NYC: Lower East Side takes the listener to such subcultural sites as Club Tonic, VIP lounge for sneaker collectors, and ABCNoRio—a center for art and activism, NYC:
Chinatown goes to the sites that preferably be accessed during day time. Although NYC:
Lower East Side takes you to relatively populated places, the ending spot is the Angel Orensanz Foundation on Norfolk Street which could be a desolate spot in the evening. In other words, all editions contain possibilities of some danger and unexpected troubles. Since there is no guarantee that a soundwalker does not get into a trouble in the middle of the tour especially late night, the person who takes the listener to the places and the choice of route have become critical factors. If the narrator who takes you around is a long-time resident in the neighborhood, the listener will trust the guide‟s foot steps: an insider should know how to walk without getting into a trouble.
The choice of narrators has changed since the first released edition NYC: Lower
East Side in which the narrator is an anonymous female. From NYC: Chinatown onward,
the narrator has started to reveal his or her identity. Filmmaker Asa Mader is the narrator
for NYC: Dumbo, a Puerto Rican graffiti artist BG183 (aka Solero Ortiz) for NYC: The
Bronx, and tour guide adventurer and playwright Timothy “Speed” Levitch for NYC:
Times Square. The latest design for NYC: Times Square runs Levitch‟s brief biography
on the back with his photograph. Using a well known figure as a narrator undoubtedly appeals to consumers interests. The commercial aspect of Soundwalk has not changed
the structure of the tour, but changed the accents of the tour.
There was no rethinking of the concept because there was no commercial
thinking before we actually started. We did backwards: first came up
with the idea of Soundwalks and only then started to think about how to
market this. Today a year and half later, probably the only change that
has occurred with the concept itself is that the personality of the narrator
has received more attention. That has become really the anchor point of
what we do. So, synchronization remains important and so does the map.
The sound mix and a good execution of it are still important. In the case
of the Bronx CD that we did in summer, we realized that we are seeking
more and more high profile narrators that we can put on the cover. It
gives more value to the experience.
NYC: The Bronx is the edition for which they chose Puerto Rican graffiti artist BG183 as the narrator. BG‟s personal life as one of the founding members of the TATS Cru, legendary Mural Kings of the Bronx, adds color to the tour and stimulates listeners‟ curiosity to get into his universe. “The value of the experience,” however, depends on the listener‟s sense of value. Although the profile of the narrator has gotten higher, the basic rules of choosing a narrator stay the same. The first key is being an insider, second is someone who is still over there, and the third is the personality. “The more colorful the personality, the better” as Sitruk says. He continues to explain that the narrator should be a person “who can tell you the changes in the neighborhood and who knows a lot of people in the neighborhood, who can point you out to the secret places and hidden place
and so on.” Importantly, the aim of Soundwalk is to let the listener own the space, get
deep into the city and find out what is behind, not about discovering the narrator‟s personal life. The narrator‟s dynamic personality, memory, and voice give a human dimension to the city, and his or her mission is to “let the neighborhood speak.” The interaction between the narrator and people in the neighborhood presents a multivocal reality which is not visible for blasé walkers (Benjamin: 1973).
The incorporation of interviews with the neighborhood residents is carefully structured. The residents never speak to the narrator, they speak to you. Jami Gong says, “Now look just behind you, 32 Mott Street, the oldest general store in Chinatown. Get
inside, we are going to have a little chat with our friend Paul Lee, the owner.” We (Gong
old pictures, counter, ceiling, and people paying their and I) get inside and look around—
bills. The invisible owner comes to me and starts talking about the history of the shop. The narration seamlessly continues and shifts the voices: Gong to the shop owner, the owner to Gong to the last Sicilian survivor of Chinatown to a monk at the Buddhist Temple. The tour is complemented by the walker‟s sonic interaction with neighbors, and never ends with a single-voiced narration. Soundwalk‟s strategic approach successfully
avoids the authoritative voice of the narrator and over-personalization of the script.
A soundwalker in the city gets to know the neighborhood informed by the neighbors and a narrator, who are the insiders in the city and in your mind. Your walk is a narrator‟s walk, his walk is your walk, he talks to the neighbors, so do you.