City Symphonies Pt. 2

The morning of Saturday, Oct. 3 I dusted off my weathered Panasonic DVX100 out and headed off for Prospect Heights for my second round of shooting for the City Symphony assignment, again adhering to the rules set out for me: stick to Prospect Heights during the hours of 10 am to 1 pm. I stayed with my initial idea of documenting stoop sales occurring in the neighborhood, but in riding around the area I quickly found that threatening storms and gray skies seemed to have scared off both shoppers and sellers alike. The next morning I had much greater success. Strong sunshine and 75 degree weather had sent both stoopers and bargain hunters to the streets in droves.

Over the course of several hours, I managed to interview nine sellers, some of whom were individuals, and others who were in pairs or larger groups. I again limited myself to two questions: why are you having a stoop sale, and what are you selling? One thing I noticed immediately was that people’s motivations for having a sale had changed dramatically in the space of a week. The first day I shot my initial Vidster footage used in my pitch, Saturday Sept. 26, many people had cited an impending move as the impetus for their sale. A week later, with no shift in the calendar month approaching, most sellers seemed motivated by a simple intent on making the most of the good weather, with many assuming it was the last warm Sunday of the year. Again, I found that the best stuff happened after I turned the camera off and engaged my subjects in conversation.

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At the intersection of Sterling and Butler, I met Alfredo Ceibal, a self-described “painter of the painterly tradition” who had come to New York decades ago as a struggling artist, only to find success and return to Guatemala, his birth country, in an effort to give something back to the motherland. I had a great conversation on the death of the American newspaper and shared a fascination with Maori culture with one-half of a couple who had lived on Park Place, near the intersection of Washington Avenue, for close to 30 years. There was something so satisfying about witnessing stoop salers interactions with their neighbors and friends; it was almost like watching the social fabric being woven firsthand. Conversations were not limited to the simple mathematics of buying or sellling–people were having conversations about history, politics, art, and culture, among many other things. The experience immediately brought to mind descriptions I have read of the Agora, the common public markets of ancient Greek city-states that also functioned as a space for public political and philosophical discourse. Though, of course, stoops sales are decentralized in a way that the Agora was not.

During the editing of my rough draft, I was sometimes torn between including small gems that I had captured, and trying to remain somewhat true to the City Symphony genre. In the end, I decide to sacrifice my sentimental attachment to some of the footage in favor of a stricter presentation of information I had gathered in response to my questions. I ended up cutting out four of the interviews–sometimes because of poor production values, but in other cases because of an arbitrary gut feeling. Here is the result:

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I got a wealth of helpful criticism from my co-collaborators during last Sunday’s critique session. Aside from suggestions on cleaning up some portions of distracting audio, the overwhelming consensus seemed to be that I should attempt to focus more on the relationship of seller to good. What are the stories behind some of the more unusual items for sale? What sort of attachments might stoop salers still have to some of their wares? How did the items come to be in their possession? These are all useful interview questions to pose. I was also interested to learn that my peers were largely uninterested in footage of the sellers interacting with buyers and browsers. I also got some good ideas on incorporating better transitions between the stoop sale sites, some of which would attempt to incorporate motion to give the viewer a sense of traveling within the neighborhood. (I agree with the critique that the transitions between sale spaces are jarring, but was left at a loss for how to connect the interviews.)

The next step, of course, is going back to get more interviews. It remains to be seen if I will have repeated success in being blessed with weather conducive to stoop sales.

One thought on “City Symphonies Pt. 2

  1. Christopher Allen

    Nice work Rahul, and thanks for opening up your process. I’m attracted to the different way people display their items. The corner of the man in the hat is so chaotic and excellent. The stoop sale is a smart subject. It is this moment when the interior and private contents of the city invade the public and become visible. Perhaps you could buy an old record from someone at the start of the piece and that could become the score. We all probably haven’t though enough about music with these symphonies.

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