Beleaguered Backstage

Illustration by <a href="">Martina Paukova</a>
Illustration by Martina Paukova

Last week, we published the winner of As Seen On [ ]: Maya Sorabjee’s “The Wandering Women,” which took us to Bombay for a look at the radical combination of loitering and gender in the face of the predatory male gaze. “Beleaguered Backstage” by Andrew Renninger, one of two runners-up, returns us to New York where a solitary moment now counts as luxurious. Renninger’s essay employs theories of sociology, behavioral science, and urbanism to query how the city’s increasing exclusivity affects privacy and, fundamentally, the ability to act oneself. In an era of co-everything and economies supposedly based on sharing, what becomes of our cities when there are so few places to be alone? –J.T.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me! — Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

While doing ethnographic research for his doctoral dissertation in the 1950s, Erving Goffman noticed a peculiarity in the interaction between hotel staff and a guest at the bar of his accommodation. The guest, dissatisfied with his service, and the concierge were engaged in a pas de deux that closely matched the game between confidence man and mark. Goffman’s observations would later serve as the foundation for his seminal text, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, wherein he made the case for a “dramaturgical” conception of social life. Goffman concluded that everyone was, at least minimally, performing in social life. In New York City, and most pronounced in Manhattan, performative aspects of everyday life are pervasive. As we cohabitate, co-work, and socialize, we are rarely out of earshot or eyesight. Consequently, the Goffmanian game, in which we curry favor or avoid judgment from anyone and everyone, hardly ends. Even if a sociologically blind economy has cast aside privacy, sociologically perceptive policy can reclaim New York City’s lost space for self-actualization.

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman explored the theoretical roots beneath the Bard’s claim that “all the world’s a stage.” He delineated three regions relating to performance, each grounded in spatial practice: offstage, frontstage, and backstage. Critically, backstage is the only space wherein we can feel free to be ourselves. When front and center, we must perform; when we are offstage and with the audience, we must negotiate numerous expectations as they pertain to our “character.” One could conceive of an infinite number of back-front-off arrangements, and backstage vis-à-vis one situation may still necessitate performance: even behind the curtain, we cannot offend our fellow cast members. Thus the purest backstage is the privacy of our own room.

Herein lies the problem hidden within the demise of truly private space: the performance never ceases.

New York City embodies many of Goffman’s theories. Indeed, few cities live out such manifest civil inattention — Goffman’s term for mutually averted gazes as strangers pass. Moreover, in New York City as in London or Paris, people are governed by sartorial prepossession, a concern with costumes that differentiate front from back. It is a dress code predicated on the belief that the world watches each and every one of us as though we occupy center stage. Psychologists Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Medvec, and Kenneth Savitsky refer to this natural tendency as the spotlight effect. They explain:

Because we are so focused on our own behavior, it can be difficult to arrive at an accurate assessment of how much — or how little — our behavior is noticed by others. Indeed, close inspection reveals frequent disparities between the way we view our performance (and think others will view it) and the way it is actually seen by others.

Ray Oldenburg, in 1989, identified three regions of urbanism: first, second, and third places. The first place is the home, the second is work, and the third the waypoint in between — the American bar, German bierstube, Italian taverna, or French café. With the proliferation of the open office and its sine qua non, the cubicle, our second place has become rife with spotlight effects. Third places, including Goffman’s hotel bar, have also lent themselves to conspicuity. Until recently, though, there was ample space to retreat from view — there was a backstage.


Goffman might look at the current composition of spaces in Manhattan and see that backstage is under siege. On one hand, this period looks like one of relative prosperity: prior to the passage of the “New Law” in 1901, the distended Lower East Side tenement district housed over 1,500 people per hectare, or one person for ten square feet of space — including streets. On the other hand, New York City is far removed from the mid-60s real estate market that allowed minimalist artist Donald Judd to purchase an entire SoHo building for $68,000. (Judd himself would later leave for Texas, troubled by the real estate explosion caused in no small part by his homesteading.)

Shared apartments, aided by websites like Craigslist and SpareRoom, are the norm among millennial urbanites, but they are increasingly cramped. As a recent article in the New York Times pointed out, New York City’s true one-bedroom apartments are being slowly converted into two-bedroom apartments, sans any “living” space. The number of apartments with more than one tenant per habitable room rose 16 percent between 2006 and 2013. In Manhattan, with median rent for one-bedroom apartments greater than $3,200 per month, and median income at $66,000 per year, sharing is almost a necessity. The Department of Housing and Urban Development considers an individual to be rent burdened if annual paid rent exceeds 30 percent of his or her income; median annual rent is nearly 60 percent of median income. More than ever, the choice between living in Manhattan or the Bronx, with a median rent of $1,750, is one between retaining or relinquishing the right to a backstage.

What happens when people are constantly moving from one spotlight to the next, like performers on stage?

We also have pod hotels, where one can only lay claim to privacy for the express purpose of sleep — as if solely to satisfy the most primal need for safety in Hobbes’ state of nature. Rooms in Manhattan’s Yotel, which start at 170 square feet, are capacious when compared to those in Osaka’s capsule hotel (its inspiration), which gives each guest a 100-cubic-foot rectangular prism and a storage locker. But Yotel represents a troubling trend in New York City. Importantly, what Yotel stakes its brand on is expansive common space: it boasts a combined 20,000 square feet of lounge, bar, restaurant, and terrace. On our mission to bring affordable accommodations to Manhattan, we have pushed the privacy of backstage aside, preferring affordable yet pooled resources instead. Preoccupied with pecuniary matters, brands transparently and intentionally apply a new ethos of sharing.

Companies like Krash, a sort of WeSleep counterpoint to WeWork, are even expanding the concept of “co-” from second place to first place with the promise of “immersive co-living in Boston, NYC, DC.” As privacy shrinks at the office and at home, the presentation of self never sleeps. Urban citizens cycle through dramaturgical confrontations many times in a given day. On the street, the distinction between observer and observed can rapidly reverse. Without a spatially allocated backstage, performers must sometimes produce one from nothing: Goffman describes restaurant waitstaff appropriating the booth farthest from the entrance for respite and gossip. Those staff, however, are still performing, albeit to each other, and with an eye directed toward the nearest supervisor at that.

Herein lies the problem hidden within the demise of truly private space: the performance never ceases. To complain about our cohabitant, we must climb into our bar costume and perform for the masses while we chat. To avoid the people-watchers of the world, we must don a cordial countenance and return to our Krash.


Endless inseparability from groups poses its own problems. In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated that conformity is the natural tendency within crowds: participants were markedly less accurate determining line lengths when confederates in Asch’s experiment voiced their incorrect opinion. People, it seems, are pulled toward the collective even when they know better. Further, studies in surveillance demonstrate the power of out-group observers — other patrons of your local pub, perhaps — in influencing individual behavior. Employee productivity actually increases when office surveillance is at a minimum: performing well, even in the office, requires a backstage. A nosier boss — an added spotlight — can do more harm than good, so what happens when people are constantly moving from one spotlight to the next, like performers on stage?

As in many other cities, the problem in New York is most pronounced for the city’s homeless. With almost 60,000 men and women on the street, the homeless are more numerous now than at any time since the Great Depression. More than a third of these people are children. Homelessness presents an extreme case in the tension between public and private, between front and back.

If laws prohibit the publicization of putatively private activity, these laws must be changed or private space must be protected.

Without a home, or some semblance of a home base, the boundaries between off-, front-, and backstage are blurred. The University of Colorado geographer Don Mitchell explains:

Homeless people are in a double bind. For them, socially legitimated private space does not exist, and they are denied access to public space and public activity by capitalist society which is anchored in private property and privacy. For those who are always in the public, private activities must necessarily be carried out publicly.

When disallowed activity is moved from back to front, Goffman claims, we are likely to offend. This is evident in the array of negative emotions associated with homelessness. The homeless are also often linked with deviant yet often trivial behavior: urinating in public is illegal in every state. Though more complicated than backstage and frontstage, it would certainly help to provide some privacy.

For Mitchell, this is a problem of policy. If laws prohibit the publicization of putatively private activity, these laws must be changed or private space must be protected. In light of relatively calcified social norms, the onus is on municipal governments to provide a backstage to their homeless. Housing is a right, according to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Within this need, however, cities like New York — ones that ought to aim higher on Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs — should secure more robust backstages for all.


As frontstage has appropriated our first and second places, the last bastion of backstage is a specific variety of third place. While there is no substitute for solitude, the consolation in major metropolitan areas might be places of relative reprieve. Though Manhattan parks are overwhelmed, there is latent space to be enlisted. The blocks of the Commissioner’s Plan are hollow — made so by rear yard requirements — yet rarely accessible, even to their buildings’ occupants. Rooftops too often follow a binary: either monetized as a bar or abandoned as a blacktop. Indeed, even New York City’s parks contain the revenue-producing additions of carts and stalls.

Spaces are available for public use if they follow the logic of capitalism. In the contemporary city, as geographer David Madden explains, “the ‘desirable’ public is counted upon to participate: to watch, to consume, to occupy space so that it will not come to be perceived as undesirable.” More spaces could be left “undesirable,” ready for the urban citizen to do as he or she pleases — without performance.


Can’t get enough? Listen to actor Peregrine Heard’s rendition of the piece from our January 13th reading of the winning essays at Greenlight Bookstore:


Andrew Renninger is an urban planner and designer, based in New York City, with passions for urbanism, behavioral science, and the blending of the two. He comes to the city by way of London and Philadelphia.


The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


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