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Sidewalk Ballets

Julia Folkes

In a passage from Death and Life of Great American Cities quoted more often than any other, Jane Jacobs famously described these daily interactions on her block in the West Village as a “sidewalk ballet.” Shopkeepers swept outside their stores while bantering to residents as strangers walked by on their way elsewhere. Jacobs valorized the mix of leisure and business, the constant buzz of activity, and the prominence of people in defining place. Her encapsulation has inspired numerous critical perspectives, uses, distortions, and ongoing debate about the sidewalk element of her metaphor: the nature of urban economies, the role of architecture and design in influencing behavior, and the impact of municipal policy.


But what about the ballet?


I am interested in street life that captures the daily performance people in cities, from graffiti to the “theater of the streets” to formalized Open Streets with scheduled events. “On the street nobody watches; everyone performs,” Gornick claimed. How and why has this performance of expression and creativity come to define contemporary urban life?

Activities, publications, and other results

Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey (2002)

A Place for Us: West Side Story and New York (2016)

Curator, Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York, Exhibition at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts/Lincoln Center (2018-19)

“For the Love of Strangers,” Pre-Existing Conditions: A 2020 Reader, eds. Thomas Sugrue, Caitlin Zaloom (2021)

Research for Etienne Charles’ commission for New York Philharmonic, San Juan Hill: A New York Story (2022)

Culture City: The Rise of the Arts in New York (manuscript in progress)

Courses: Arts and Social Engagement; Art+City

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