This piece was written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive, and published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
Though it’s not unique to New York, the service door entrance is used in a way that is characteristically New York. New Yorkers use this space as an outlet, as a piece of municipal furniture. As a door setback from the sidewalk, it offers a place of refuge. It’s a spot for pedestrians to stop and catch their breath from a sidewalk with heavy foot traffic. New Yorkers are constantly on the move, and sidewalks are the main thoroughfare of daily life in the city. They are the highways for the commoner.
New York is sometimes referred to as the concrete jungle. Living in such an environment offers few opportunities for the individual to rest. Benches and other objects are few and far between. Thus, the New York pedestrian must seek the interstitial spaces for a much-needed respite. And this is what the service door entrance offers.
It officially says to the passer-by: “this space serves a purpose and this purpose only,” yet, it also invites the tired walker in to rest. It is a place for The Smoker to retreat and enjoy their cigarette. It is a place for The Dollar Pizza Eater to finish their slice. It is a place for The Construction Worker on break to recline and unload what’s weighing on their mind to the omnipresent Shrink. It is a place for The Person Who Forgot Their Umbrella to seek cover from the rain. It is a place for The Anxious Person to have their own momentary bubble to escape from the world.
Without the service door, these people would be left lost on the street. They would be left in the way of the hustling Sidewalk Users. These people would be subject to side-eye glances from New Yorkers who bumped into them, to “excuse me’s” from Tourists, to ankle hits from Package Deliverers’ hand trucks.