Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

The psychological interface between individuals and the city

Films like Groping challenged Jane Jacobs’ thesis that watched streets and well-used city sidewalks are safer than others, portraying the scale of the city and the weak social ties it produces as inevitable, often racialized, barriers to social intervention. The quality and look of street-level urban social interaction became a convention of visual cultural portrayals of the city, and the Genovese murder in particular. As I have argued elsewhere,

The neighborhood where the murder occurred became synechdochic for an image of the whole city, and U.S. urban life more generally speaking, as besieged by racialized street criminals. The 'crime' the news covered around the Genovese assault was not murder but the fearing and fearful White urban populace that became apathetic in the face of danger it perceived in the streets.

In New York in 1970, Stanley Milgram openly lamented the under-theorization of the city as a psychological space. While ‘numbers, density, and heterogeneity are demographic facts’, he suggested, ‘they are not yet psychological facts…. Psychology needs an idea that links the individual’s experience to the demographic circumstances of urban life’. That idea took form in his concept of ‘overload’ to explain how people selectively decide when and for whom they will involve themselves with strangers in the city. After the 1964 Genovese murder, Milgram’s research shifted from his prior work on obedience to authority toward urban psychology and the experience of sensorial overload, a concept he first wrote about in a 15 June 1964 Nation article co-written with Paul Hollander on the Genovese murder as ‘the limitations to the Samaritan impulse in a major city’. For Milgram and Hollander, ‘a calculated and strategic indifference is an unavoidable part of life in our cities’. They urged readers to face this realization ‘without sentimentality or rage’, and to recognize that for white middle-class city dwellers, ‘the symbolic significance of "the street”’ was perceived as a space of danger and chaos.

Originally published as ‘The murder they heard’, Milgram and Hollander’s article on the Genovese murder was subsequently re-titled in later re-printings as ‘The urban bystander’, suggesting that the Genovese murder represented not so much a specific case of non-intervention by bystanders but a general type of subject position in the city that films began to dramatize in the 1970s particularly about New York. Like Groping, Milgram’s and Harry From’s award-winning 1972 film The City and the Self poses the urban as an imposing space of mass transportation and vertical living in which universal psychological human traits map directly onto the specific urban streetscapes of New York City. Combining art film and documentary traditions, the film posits psychological truths about urban overload and selective attention based in Milgram's and other social psychologists’ research, some of which was directly inspired by the Genovese murder. 

In the film’s opening sequence, shown in the first clip above, the camera moves from the de-peopled train yards of New York City to the increasingly claustrophobic spaces of subway transit and crowded rush-hour sidewalks, projecting a psychological view of the city as a space of overload in which the individual subject appears, not overwhelmed, but habitually detached by the repeated experiences of dense urban living. Drawn from the concept of surplus input from electrical engineering and computer science, Milgram defines overload as the psychological quality of experience produced at the interface between the individual as system, and the city as pulsating force field.  In one scene, Milgram walks along a crowded Manhattan sidewalk, stopping to lecture to the camera on his concept of urban overload. Asking his viewers the question ‘Is this what the city has made of us?’ in a short segment of the film on the Kitty Genovese murder (see third clip), Milgram moves from reflecting on the moral decision urban dwellers face on whether or when to intervene to help others, representing the city as the source of their agency either way. The facts of urban life, he concluded, ‘were outside the person’ in the urban structures of social relations, suggesting that the city generated the psychological problem from which Genovese's neighbours suffered.

From the vantage point of the early 1970s economic down turn and rising crime rates in New York, Milgram and From’s film attempts to diagnose a universal urban psychology from the particularities of New York relations of stranger sociability on the streets, sidewalks and mass transit systems of the city. While Milgram and Hollander’s 1964 article interpreted press responses to the Genovese murder as an attack on the city, by 1972, Milgram’s film levels a critique at the psychological fallout of city living. Indicative of his externalist theory of psychology, the city bore the burden of urban dweller’s psychology. Because Milgram did not see the city as a racialized, classed and gendered space of social relations, he ignored other explanations - about racism, sexism, class inequalities and institutional neglect - for why people may not intervene to help others.

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