Summer Panhandling Strategies

(by kdcosta) Jul 24 2014

Image by Ed Yourdon. Click on image for license and information.

Image by Ed Yourdon. Click on image for license and information.

My office moved a few blocks south earlier this year, which puts me in the Flower District and means that I have a fifteen minute walk from Penn Station. As the summer months wane, the obstacle course of tourists and panhandlers grows more complicated. In this regard, New York City is like any summer town: an influx of visitors during the warmer months means an increase in profitable opportunities in many contexts. It's a pattern that you can readily observe in some of the smaller towns on the eastern tip of Long Island and in other small town vacation destinations. In a metropolis like New York City (and this applies throughout the boroughs), it might be harder to catch because the hustle and bustle never quite slows to sleepiness as it does in "proper" summer towns, but the ebb and flow is there: as the number of tourists and vacationers increase, so too does the number of panhandlers.

Panhandling (begging) is as old activity. There have always been people who have had less than others and had little means to get more to survive. The ancient Greeks referred to this group as the "ptochos," from the root meaning to crouch or cower—essentially placing this group on their knees. This position of submission serves as a sign of their inability to offer repayment. Reciprocity is an important mechanism in relationships, and is a foundational element in communities. It also plays an important role in establishing an individual's legitimacy as a member of society, so an an inability to offer repayment renders him socially invisible.

This wasn't always the case. In medieval England, beggars were a normal part of society, and paying alms to support these individuals was a Christian duty. However, following the Black Plague and the rise of the Industrial Revolution, this view began to shift. In both of these instances, the available work didn't match the pool of able workers, either requiring additional fitness or skills that the population didn't possess. The result was a labor shortage that increased the number of abject poor. As these numbers grew, so too did the belief that these people were a threat to social order and social prosperity. As a result, the English passed a number of laws to limit and control begging, with punishments ranging from removal and resettlement, to imprisonment and forced labor, to branding, whipping, and even death.

These types of laws made their way to the American colonies and were generally upheld until the 1960s when activists began to criticize them as vague and unconstitutional. In 1980 the Supreme Court ruled that solicitation to contribute money is protected speech, but it upheld restrictions on where direct solicitations could be made. This meant that local governments could regulate the time and/or place of begging—so for example, panhandling in a park after sunset could be a misdemeanor.

Officials have looked to regulate panhandling because of the perception it generates. For example, a 1988 survey by the New York Transit Authority found that one of the reasons the public viewed the subway as a dangerous place was due to the prevalence of begging. This became a key point in Giuliani's campaign to clean up New York. One outcome from that initiative was the passage of regulatory measures to curb aggressive panhandling (e.g., begging near a restroom or ATM, physically obstructing someone to make a request, following someone with the intent to intimidate, using foul language if refused.) However, in the early nineties, these types of laws in New York were overturned by the federal government for being discriminatory based on the rationale that there were different groups throughout the country were presently engaged in very public means of fundraising (and presumably were using similar tactics).

Because the regulation of panhandling varies greatly, panhandlers have had to become more strategic. A successful panhandler is someone who isn't perceived as threatening, and presents a need as a part of a larger story. Three basic types of panhandlers have emerged: the hard-luck storyteller, the sign-carrier, and the cup-shaker. Each method offers a degree of agency to the actor and touches upon differing degrees of required engagement for both the individual and passersby.

For example, on the Long Island Rail Road, it's not uncommon for storytellers to board the trains a few minutes before they leave and ask for a specific, small amount of money:

Excuse me, folks. Can anyone help? I need $2.80 more to get a ticket to xxx. Just $2.80. Can anyone help?

If there is no answer, the story progresses:

I've just been released from the hospital. I was hospitalized because I had an asthma attack. I'm trying to get home. Can you help?

In these instances, the panhandler has to move quickly. If he doesn't succeed in one car, he has to pass to the next and has to be sure he is off the train before it leaves the station. The strategy is artful. It's more believable because he needs a specific amount. The backstory adds a human element—asthma, trying to get home: these are relatable points. This strategy demands that the audience recognize his personhood and include him as a member of society.

However, it's a strategy that has a relatively short lifespan because regular commuters will be able to readily identify repeat occurrences. There's a general uptick in this method during the summer months, closer to the end of the week, when there is a chance the panhandler might encounter someone who has not seen him before. While these trains carry everyday commuters, they also carry weekend vacationers to the Hamptons, so there is an assumption that the people in these cars may not necessarily be local and may be willing to believe this story. This method is more likely to lead to harassment from local officials, however, because it makes the panhandler more visible.

Aboveground, signs are still important and they're popular because they're the least obtrusive means of panhandling. They should be readable from a distance and at a glance because people aren't going to stop. In general, people are encouraged not to see poverty because it infringes on the equanimity of the social state. In fact, this is a main social combatant for panhandling: telling people to ignore panhandlers, and to not feel guilty for doing so because these pleas aren’t genuine. Proponents of this messaging maintain that there are services available for people in need, but overlook the challenges in getting that assistance.

These less vocal actions also mean that the panhandler might get less than someone who is more assertive, as in the case of the storyteller. They also tend to take up spaces in less trafficked places, which can contribute to a lower intake, but means that they might be able to occupy a space with relative stability. Signage makes a surge during the summer months because it can be an outdoor activity. Signage indoors will attract unwanted attention from officials and likely get the panhandler ejected from the space they're looking to occupy. In fact, any kind of indoor occupation during the summer months may get you ejected. It's not uncommon to see police officers rousting sleepers along the back corridor of Penn Station during the summer months (though they may be more likely to overlook those individuals during the colder periods of the year.

And of course, there is the tried and true method of simply shaking a cup with change—presuming you have some change to shake. This method requires nothing from the panhandler in terms of an explanation and nothing from the passerby in terms of assessing a need. The call to action is clear: put your change in my cup. But it may make people uncomfortable because it forces a closer degree of contact. Where the hard-luck story tries to justify the ask, and the sign-carrier asks for no interaction, you come close to the cup-shaker for the exchange, and you have to acknowledge that they are begging.

New Yorkers, are there other types of panhandlers that you're encountering? What strategies are they employing?

And if you're not a New Yorker, how is panhandling viewed/managed in your hometown?

Welcome (back) to the Urban Ethnographer! At least once a week, we'll take an ethnographic look at life in New York City and the surrounding areas. My hiatus was rather extended, but I'm glad to back here on Scientopia, and I hope to see you on the block!

Want more?
References:
Patricia K. Smith, Patricia K. "The Economics of Anti-Begging Regulations." The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Apr., 2005), pp. 549-577

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Lessons From the Leftover Vault

(by kdcosta) Jul 22 2011

There are secret places all over New York City--that is, if you can manage to escape the glare of lights and the siren-song of the tourist traps of midtown—but often, they work hard at being a secret and brandish badges of exclusivity. Then there are places that feel like a secret, and when you stumble upon them, it's piques the imagination.

History functions similarly. Sometimes, it teases: you know it’s there, and you have to follow the trail to uncover it. And other times, it remains completely hidden until the right circumstances jostle it from its hiding place.

A friend introduced me to a fantastic spot downtown called Trinity Place—it’s dark, the booths will swallow you, and it's rarely ever super crowded. It's a subterranean location, and it's easy to miss as you walk by because the windows seem to gradually melt into the sidewalk. I know. It doesn't sound particularly striking, but that's because you actually have to walk through the doors to be swept off your feet: Trinity Place boasts two 35 tonne bank vault doors that date to 1904.

Trinity Vault

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A Tale of Two Undergrounds

(by kdcosta) Feb 24 2011

Explorer hikes in Tibbetts Brook, which runs through a Bronx sewer. Credit: Steve Duncan, NYT

Explorer hikes in Tibbetts Brook, which runs through a Bronx sewer. Credit: Steve Duncan, NYT

"To be happy, stay hidden." - Yopie, Parisian cataphile

Ever since reading Jennifer Toth's The Mole People as a teen, I've been intrigued by the metropolitan underground. Cities teem with life, and change happens at a dizzying pace. But what lurks beneath the streets remains a mystery to many—it almost remains a realm lost to time. Yet, to think of this space as stagnant would be foolish: from Paris to New York City, the subterranean has a life and character all of its own. And if you look closely, you'll find traces of the urban centers on the surface—almost as though these spaces contain seeds of the personalities that thrive above ground.

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Mad Science! Creating a River of Slime

(by kdcosta) Oct 29 2010

River of Slime. Copyright Columbia Pictures

It's pink. It's angry. And it wants you to be angry! It's the river of slime that the Ghostbusters saved NYC from in the 80s. Fortunately, Vigo has been banished--permanently, since there haven't been any instances of of giant Stay Puffed Puft Marshmallow men and the Statue of Liberty has remained firmly anchored in the harbor. But all the same, it might be sort of neat to create your own river of slime to deploy--as long as it was slime that lacked the ability to be emotionally manipulative:

Well, now you can! PopSci has a five minute video on how you can make your own rheopectic slime! What's rheopectic slime? It's slime that doesn't follow Newtonian laws:

Most fluids get less viscous the more you manipulate them--think of how honey or oil become "wetter" as they warm up and more solid as they cool. Those are Newtonian fluids. But non-Newtonian fluids do the opposite: they get more solid the more they're manipulated. So if you let this slime sit on a surface, it will pool out into a flowing mess, but if you play with it, it becomes thicker and bouncier. You can even form it into a ball.

This would have worked perfectly for the river of slime--the slime would have done all the work on it's own in terms of "flowing" forth and conquering the city. To recreate the effect, all you have do is let the slime loose on a flat surface. Maybe strategically place a few miniature figures in the way? So, grab some Borax (use less for flowing slime, more for slime you want to shape), pink food coloring, glue, and water, and get to it! Here's the video: DIY: Make Your Own Slime.

Disclaimer: Kids, don't try this alone. Grab a parent and do it together. Do not eat the slime. (why would you want to? It's slime!)

For even more fun, mad science/scientist posts today,  visit the Scientopia homepage to see what's been brewing on some of the other blogs.

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Residents of Trinity: Robert Fulton

(by kdcosta) Oct 26 2010

Last week we stripped Trinity Church back to its foundations. This week I’d like to take a look at the history the building watches over. The churchyard is the final resting place for a number of revolutionary soldiers and Daughters of the Revolution, as well as a number of notable New Yorkers who helped shape the destiny of the colony. Let’s take a look at one of these churchyard residents.

Grave Marker for Robert Fulton at Trinity Church

There are two large markers in the churchyard: that of Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton. As the story of Hamilton is widely known, we’ll focus on his neighbor Robert Fulton, the American engineer and inventor credited with developing the first commercially successful steamboat—the North River Steamboat. Fulton’s creation ferried passengers between New York City and Albany. It seems fitting that Fulton has a place here at Trinity not just because he had a major influence locally, but because he shared something in common with Richard Upjohn, the architect for Trinity Church: both following a passion that was different from their intended profession.

Though Fulton demonstrated an interest in all things mechanical at an early age, he also learned to sketch at an early age and appears to have been influenced by family friend and artist Benjamin West to pursue a career as an artist. He moved from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to the city of Philadelphia in his late teens where he made a living doing landscapes and apparently made some powerful friends, including Benjamin Franklin. In 1788, at the age of 23, Fulton decided to go to England where he lived with West and earned an income painting portraits and landscapes—but like those driven by other interests, he continued to develop and tweak mechanical tools and paraphernalia—similar to the way Upjohn continued to study architecture while working as a woodworker to make ends meet.

Sketch of the Nautilus, Fulton's submarine. Credit: Wikipedia

Fulton did not invent the steamboat. The technologies necessary for this endeavor were fleshed out by the French inventor Denis Papin in the late 17th-century. His ideas were expanded on by his English and German colleagues (similar in many ways to the DIY revolution of today). And eventually the steamboat grew out of the efforts of Claude de Jouffroy in 1774. In the U.S., it was not until 1787 that a successful steam powered boat was developed by John Fitch, who hosted a demonstration on the Delaware River, but failed to secure a monopoly on the patent which is actually what opened the door for Fulton's success.

Meanwhile, Fulton would move to France in 1797, where he was recognized for his inventions, and was able to learn about steamers from James Rumsey and Claude de Jouffroy. He set his sights on submarines, and designed the Nautilus, which survived submersion for a full hour at a depth of 25 feet (7.6 m). He tried to get the French government to subsidize the plans for the Nautilus, but they were not interested, and he turned his sights back to steamboats in 1801 after meeting Robert Livingston, the US Ambassador to France. The two designed and built a steamboat that they sailed up the River Seine, only to have it sink after the run. Not one to be discouraged, Fulton tried again, and the result was the North River Steamboat.

Replica of Fulton's North River Steamboat. Credit: Wikipedia

Fulton’s legacy in New York echoed in the fish market that bore his name for more than a century. The market was successful partially as a result of the ferry service that brought customers across the East River from Brooklyn. When the Brooklyn Bridge was built, declining ferry service was a primary reason the Fulton market faltered and eventually found it necessary to refocus its business. His physical mark on the city is preserved today in the streets that bear his name in Manhattan and Brooklyn, that stand like the halves of broken trail on either side of the East River.

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The Vigilance of Trinity

(by kdcosta) Oct 20 2010

Trinity Church, N.Y.C. 1791. Digital ID: 801103. New York Public Library

Trinity Church, N.Y.C. 1791. Credit: NYPL Digital Archives

Standing directly at the western end of Wall Street, Trinity Church is perfectly framed. Seriously, the young colony could not have chosen a better spot. Today it looks a bit out of place at first glance, but its Gothic spire and dark exterior seem to hold the nearby skyscrapers at bay—which is fitting since this building reigned as the tallest in the mid-nineteenth century. Sunlight and shadow coexist perfectly on the grounds, making the surrounding churchyard a refuge from the busy city that flows around the land. Buildings have lives of their own. They have histories, and they mark and record the history, culture, and time that passes around them. Trinity Church, which is one of New York City’s oldest houses of worship, is no different.

Wall Street, N.Y. Digital ID: 809984. New York Public Library

Wall Street, N.Y. 1847. Credit: NYPL

Wall Street, N.Y. October 2010

In 1696 the Anglican community of the growing colony petitioned Governor Benjamin Fletcher for land for a parish. He approved the sale of the downtown plot to the Crown, which then issued a charter to the parish with a rent of 60 bushels of wheat annually. The church appeared to be well received. In fact, legend has it that even famed Captain Kidd pitched in to help with construction. This building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1776, which was believed to have been set intentionally and destroyed twenty-five percent of the city. Rebuilt in 1790, the roof of the second building collapsed under the weight of snow 40 years later, and the third building—the one that stands today—was constructed in 1846.

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The Smell Next Door

(by kdcosta) Oct 12 2010

Truffles from Mont-Ventoux. Shared by Poppy on Wikipedia.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the ways a smell can help trigger a memory. Yesterday, I saw this article in the New York Times about a smell that's driving people away. It seems that residents in one luxury condo building are coping with a smell of a different sort: truffles.

The problem started after Urbani Truffles--an Italian truffle company--purchased a retail condo in the building and began using it to store boxes of the high-end mushroom. While truffles may be wonderful when served over your favorite dish, they're actually quite pungent. And it's creating a problem for folks who want to rent or sell--or just live--in the building.

The story reminds us of how personal smells can really be. Real estate agents, who are professionals at marketing undesirable spaces, are having a hard time masking this particular odor:

One [agent's] clients sold his 12th-floor penthouse in Gramercy Park after a bakery moved in and he couldn’t tolerate the odor of onion bagels. (Another family, she noted, bought a TriBeCa loft over a spice shop because they found the smell of curry comforting.)

Maybe the building needs to start marketing to truffles aficionados.

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Smarter Traffic Solutions–But Will They Work in the City?

(by kdcosta) Oct 06 2010

Hey, Drivers, is there a traffic light you know you have to make? You know the one--it takes ages for the light to change from red to green, and the green light is only what feels like a few seconds long. Well, what if there was a smarter traffic light? What if it could sense the traffic flow, and change to match the volume of cars on the road? According to ScienceNews, researchers from the Santa Fe Institute are working on just this particular solution (see original working paper here.) It sounds like the end of road rage, but will it work in New York City?

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Women’s Health Writeup Roundup: The Best Cities for Women

(by kdcosta) Sep 27 2010

Sci had a great idea to dissect the articles in Women's Health and take a look at the information being offered to women on heath, wellness, relationships, and life. It meant taking a good, hard, in-depth look at the popular expert material offered to female wellness consumer. The results were a little alarming. Take a look around Scientopia today for more on beauty tips, doctor's visits, fidelity, and more.

Hey ladies, want to feel better? Or have a stronger heart? Maybe you'd like to prevent breast cancer? Or find a hot date, or just live longer? Well, what if I told you that I could show you the secret to achieving one of these goals? Really, pick one and I could give you a little assurance on how you'd just taken a preventative measure. How? Well, according to this slideshow from Women's Health, it all depends on where you live. They've identified the best cities for women interested in pursuing one of the objectives above. But before you pack your bags, let's take a look at the information they're really offering.

First Women's Health reports that San Jose, California has the second lowest depression rate in the nation. The reason? More women reported working out at least twice a week in comparison to other places surveyed. Exercise releases endorphins which increases positive moods--that's great, but does it really mean that if you live in San Jose you'll be more likely to exercise? It's possible. Over time, you may be more influenced by your peer group, and if they're into exercising, then you might take up that activity. But that's not a guarantee.

The other benefit of living in San Jose, apparently, is the serotonin:

San Jose averages 300 sunny days a year, so residents soak up mood-boosting serotonin and vitamin D (five to 30 minutes in the sun twice a week is all you need).

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. It helps regulate the cardiovascular and muscular systems, and parts of the endocrine system. And some research has suggested that low levels of serotonin may be linked to the onset of depression. While sunlight may help boost serotonin production, it does not account for the sole means of your serotonin supply. Your body naturally produces serotonin in levels that are related to diet, exercise and stress. Just so we're clear, "soaking" up the sunlight is not the only way to get serotonin--in fact, you've probably got the right supply already. Not that there's anything wrong with getting some fresh air and exercise and enjoying the sunlight (while wearing sunscreen), but living in San Jose will not necessarily restore your body's chemical balance.

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The wind began to switch / The house, to pitch *

(by kdcosta) Sep 17 2010

In 1938 Eastern Long Island took the brunt of a hurricane that swept through the New England area. It was devastating:

Credit: SUNY Suffolk

The Dune Road area of Westhampton Beach was obliterated resulting in 29 deaths. A cinema at Westhampton was also swept out to sea; around 20 people at a matinee, and the theater — projectionist and all — landed two miles (3 km) into the Atlantic and drowned. There were 21 other deaths through the rest of the east end of Long Island. The storm surge temporarily turned Montauk into an island as it flooded across the South Fork at Napeague and obliterated the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road.

Since then experts have been warning New Yorkers that we could get hit again. It's become a favorite fact on Discovery Channel disaster projection programs that New York City is only a few feet above sea level and the storm surge could wreak havoc, particularly by immobilizing the subway system. As Live Science writer Robert Roy Britt says, "it is a question of when, not if."

But the promised storm has only been a vague threat so far. A few weeks ago, New Yorkers braced for Hurricane Earl. The Wall Street Journal's Metropolis projected that:

Residents will see the worst of the conditions as Hurricane Earl makes its closest approach. That means gusts up to 80mph on the Jersey Shore and Eastern Long Island, with gusts to 100mph at Montauk Point.  The city could see gusts to up 40mph, higher in the top floors of Midtown skyscrapers.

We all waited a little anxiously. And then nothing. Earl gave us some wind and a bit of rain, but it largely ignored New York City and western Long Island--though I'm told there were some fantastic swells out at Montauk.  This cycle of warnings and misses has left many New Yorkers a bit skeptical about "a big one." And curious as well about what these storms can actually do. Well, last night Mother Nature decided to give us a taste of what sudden strong winds and heavy rain could do and the responses were interesting to note.

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