I am neither a tourist nor a local. I was born in one place, raised in another, and moved soon thereafter. I’ve lived in New York for a few years, but I have friends who have never left. I get annoyed when tourists take up the whole sidewalk, but I am flattered when people ask me for directions.
In thinking about tourism in New York City, there are maps to pour over, statistics to crunch, buses to take, books to read… How is tourism different today, given the rise of hand-held mobile devices? How do people define tourism in general? Am I (still) a tourist?
I started at what a relatively savvy tourist might consider the beginning: The Times Square Info Center, recently featured in the Architectural League’s New York Designs lecture series:
“What used to be a room filled with brochures, counter agents, and lines, is now a technologically-advanced visitor center that allows you to piece together your own itinerary through the city on one of three interactive map tables, creating custom maps and guidebooks which you can print out, email to yourself, or take with you on your mobile device.”
The design of the space is clean and open. This choice encourages visitors to share with one another, as well as with their iPhones. The most local, the most up-to-date information is communicated, after all, by word of mouth. Technology simply records, organizes and delivers it.
“People want information that is not only portable, but also reusable and searchable.” -Claire Weisz Both the space and the user experience of the Info Center are designed to organize information in a new way. There are no lines to wait in, but rather kiosks to gather around. Information – details, addresses, pictures- can be shared in two significant ways. The primary format that the Info Center promotes is mobile. All information gleaned from the various screens can be emailed directly to individual visitors. As you enter, you pick up a “puck” from a table. This puck, seen below with an ad for Lucy’s Legacy printed on one side (I understand Lucy’s an Ethiopian hominid that we’re all related to), contains a graphic code (like a simple bar code) on the other side. The kiosks recognize this code and store your individual information, which you can later email yourself or print out and take with you.
This much I knew going in. But the actual experience of visiting led to some surprising insights and (re)discoveries. Check out the video below:
I leave the Info Center feeling like a “new tourist.” I don’t have a static map, I have addresses. I don’t have a list of highlights, I have a list of different kinds of places (a gallery, a restaurant, a cultural point-of-interest), all within walking distance from each other. The brochure model is a-geographic: it doesn’t matter where I am as long as I reach these particular destinations. The new Info Center, however, has chosen to organize those bullet points in proximate geographic sequence, starting with my chosen point of origin. Ultimately, my list leads me to a neighborhood rather than a series of isolated destinations.
And then, the question becomes, once I’m in that neighborhood, will the itinerary burn a hole in my phone, or just get me in the mood to explore? Will I, scavenger-hunt style, feel like I have to hit all the places on my itinerary? Or will the list serve as a casual reminder of where my chosen points of interest are in relation to each other?
“More and more people see urban exploration as an activity to do on a regular basis.” -Claire Weisz The format of the information becomes significant, as well. With the information on my phone, my tourist status is hidden – I don’t have a book or a map to blow my cover. It that way, I feel freer to wander. The technology has enabled a sense of freedom, if not a sense of immediacy. There is no fear that my information is out-of-date (in some ways, this is a false sense of security as, clearly, websites and digital information can fall behind the times). It all feels fluid, not restrictive.
Finally, I realize this information is not limited to tourists in the strictest definition. That is, as much as I use UrbanSpoon or even Everyblock, am I not simply seeking out information about a new place? As Adam Greenfield pointed out in his forum post last week, “nothing in the world is as interesting as information about place when you’re in that place.” The ubiquity of hyperlocal news and information only further supports this idea that we can all be tourists in the places that we live.
Claire Weisz, principal of WXY Studio, which – along with Local Projects – is responsible for the design of the new Times Square Info Center, describes how the way in which the center organizes information can help support this shift:
“Sometimes it seems like tourists are a commodity like sugar, coffee and other things consumable, spurring growth in our local economies. But simply seeing fewer tourists in the regular places doesn’t mean there are fewer around. In some sense, tourism has evolved into an activity everyone does – like getting exercise, fresh air etc. We are all tourists and I would say cultural critics of our own environments. Flickr, Facebook, Twitter as venues for commenting, observation and recording of movement between places have spurred this. Perhaps that is why something like the new NYC Information Center is an enhanced portal and so has turned into both a tourist hub but also an outlet for organizing infinite bits of information. People want information not only to be portable but also to be reusable and searchable while on the move. So, it’s not that the brochure is dead, it’s just that its usefulness seems limiting. Having a tourism moment in daily life is like having a regular day while on vacation in a remote location. Urbanity continues to fascinate, and more and more people see urban exploration as an activity to do on a regular basis.”
Exactly! I walk to Washington Square Park and ask a sample of people how long they think one has to have lived in New York before one can consider herself a local.
The answers from the “actual” tourists were interesting. Most of them were content to walk around, had a good sense of where they were, and were confident about how the city worked. I asked a few of the “locals” about giving directions and found, for the most part, locals underestimate the wayfinding capabilities of these tourists. Here’s some of what they had to say:
The design of the new Info Center enables and encourages the ways, it seems, many tourists like to wander. The design promotes a geographical understanding and engagement with the city. My list, for example, was based around a neighborhood and points all within walking distance. Taking that information with me only furthers encourages walking, which everyone agrees is the best mode of experience.
I never ended up (intentionally) going to the basketball courts, or to the Merchant’s House Museum. I still have them listed on my phone and maybe someday I’ll stop and watch a game. I don’t feel obligated to go because, local or not, New York is home. And maybe that’s what makes tourism so unique here. At the risk of sounding like a real estate commercial: however long you’re here, you’re home. The new innovations in the tourism industry – like providing a personal email of an itinerary based on walking-distance – provide that sense of independence. You can choose a destination, or you can choose to wander. You have the tools and the choice. You can follow a book, a street sign, an iPhone. You can be a local. Or a tourist.
Sara Bremen is a master’s candidate at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) where she studies new media, computer programming, and interactive design. She lives in the West Village.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.