The body codes of urban space

Eugène Atget, Three women in a doorway on Rue Asselin (Paris' red light district
Eugène Atget, Three women in a doorway on Rue Asselin (Paris' red light district)

I just returned from a brief trip to Denver, which is in its urban spaces quite a contrast to New York City. It’s a vaster, emptier city, with harsh high desert sunlight that makes its public squares seem even larger, anticipating the hordes of people for which they seemingly have been designed to arrive, eventually.

But then, these initial impressions of Denver were wrong, as they always are—like anything, like a forest, or desert, or beach, once one stops and waits and observes, life begins to emerge, interactions start to happen. Movement makes stillness—in speed is action erased. So, I stopped to make a phone call outside my hotel, and while talking, watched a couple of women across the street, whom, I slowly realized, were prostitutes. They propositioned men passing by and walked into the street if a car slowed. They were dressed as if for a night out, and I had at first taken them for two young women going out for some drinks, but then, as so often with prostitution, their movements were slightly off, a different pattern from the usual movements of people on the street. Unlike, perhaps, women meeting each other for a night out, they did not move on, and instead stayed in one place—inviting interaction, rather than considering or avoiding it.

Then, on the other end of the block, a young woman walked into view, walking backward, filming a young man, who would walk toward her, run, then walk again. Some sort of fashion shoot, although unlikely because nobody held light reflectors or lamps or any of the other equipment most shoots seem to use, so maybe a project for school. Moving backward and forward, they met up with the prostitutes, and then stood around talking, smiling, laughing, almost like they knew each other. I blinked or a truck blocked my view, and then two more prostitutes had joined the first two and the filmmaker was backing into an alley behind them, the man already lost to view.

It was all mysterious and, watching them, I felt my own female identity in an urban space. As the other times I’ve encountered prostitutes on the street, I felt invisible—my own body language on the street is of non-engagement, my dress code most often protective, drab in comparison. In Paris, there was one street lined with prostitutes, and they had a body language that the men walking by understood—their eyes didn’t turn toward me at all. I “spoke” in a different language, one soundless in that time and space. Those blocks in Denver felt threatening later as the sun went down and I searched for a store—needed some water or something and, female stranger in a strange town, I was a wary flaneur. I scanned rather than observed—out of my place. Each city has its own codes of movement, of interaction—I remembered how I went from 1980s New York to New Orleans and was terrified by how geography insisted I change my body codes of protection. I spoke the language of subways, delis, streetlights—trees, darkness, house-lined streets were not in my syntax. Even if I were invisible beside those prostitutes, the reasons behind their existence made my own presence on a city street subject to cautions. And so, how can my bordered (bindered?) experience of public space lead to valid articulation of urban environment?