Urban Semiotics

Arrived, bags collected, just look at this place! 


Hungry, jet lagged, I need a bite to eat.      


Detours, delays, dead ends, I wish I brought my map.

The halfway yellow, I think I can make it.

Another red, why do I hit them whenever I’m rushed?

Finally a green, let’s go baby!

Stick man’s blinking, 10 seconds to cross.

Get money out, I’m going to be here a while.

 Shit, where are the public washrooms when you need them?

Escalators to the right, sore feet, bad back.

Bus stop outside, $2.50 exact fare.

Get off at the café, espresso to go.

Garbage can on the corner, full to overflowing.

Smoking break, 15 minutes max.

Meet Jenny in the parking lot, blue Matrix.

I’m lost, is that a question?

Dialing your number, must be en route.

Need some air, let’s get outta here.

© Charlene Kwiatkowski

. . .

Waiting at a red light on my way home from work today, I was thinking about how much of our urban experience takes place through signs. The city is a language with its own shorthand of visual clues offering us the information we need to know in as short amount of time as possible.

The city isn’t just one language either – multiple languages and sub-languages co-exist in this space. The above narrative shows one way of reading/writing the city. When I visited the MoMA in New York and their “Talk to Me” exhibit, I encountered another set through the work of artists Emily Read and Chen Hsu. Their “Homeless City Guide” offers a completely different set of urban semiotics.

This list of symbols was developed amongst the urban homeless in the 19th century who drew them on whatever surface available to communicate vital information: here’s a safe place to sleep, too many police in this area, a squat’s going on if you want to crash, and hungry? Soup run, 3 out of 5 stars.

Is this code still in use today? Read and Hus’ work gets you thinking about the old-school power of the word-of-mouth, word-of-hand method of knowledge sharing. These pictograms are like a secret language or code  (a “hobo code” if you will) that literally draws or writes a story through the city – a mystery story for those who don’t speak the code.

How do you read the city? What signs do you look for? What code do you speak?

Whose Space is it Anyway?

“I am twenty-one years old, my name is Ripley Bogle and my occupations are starving, freezing, and weeping hysterically.”

Apart from seeing and walking by homeless people on the streets with the occasional offering of a granola bar, chocolate muffin, or whatever I have on me at the time, my closest interactions with them up until this past week were through literature. The eponymous narrator of Robert McLiam Wilson’s novel Ripley Bogle takes the reader on a convincing tour of London through the eyes, stomach, and feet of the homeless, based on the author’s own street experience. “Here you are in beggary. Fun? We’ll see,” says Ripley Bogle as he goes on to acquaint us with poverty’s meanest and dearest friends: Hunger, Agony, Boredom, Coldness, and Exhaustion.

Much of my learning has been through books, through school, through a formal education. This past week I had the opportunity to experience an education of a different kind towards the homeless.

In a volunteer capacity, I helped conduct interviews with numerous homeless people about their experience living on the streets. I couldn’t even make up some of their stories even if I tried. They were shocking and sad. After spending some time with these people and listening to their stories, I began putting human faces to the terms “poverty,” “homeless,” “marginalized” – concepts that had previously been abstractions.

Apart from the many battles these people fight, the one that became very evident to me, mainly because of the following incident that happened, was the fight for space in the city.

One place we conducted these interviews was on the outdoor steps of a church – which I assumed was a perfectly valid place to sit seeing that there wasn’t a bench nearby – but apparently not. A police officer drove up, got out of the car, and informed us we were not allowed to be sitting on these steps. A sign on the church also indicated this, which I hadn’t seen. These steps were private space and we were illegally using them. As a result, we did the rest of the interview standing next to the steps.

After a strong warning, the cop left. The homeless we were with told us afterwards that they would have gotten a ticket if my fellow interviewer and myself hadn’t been there.  That saddened me and made me realize the lack of space that exists for the homeless in the city.

Where do they go when they don’t have a space and they can’t use seemingly public spaces like outdoor steps for basic human acts like sitting or sheltering themselves from the rain? Who gets to say who uses which space in the city?

If they’re not even allowed to sit peacefully on the steps of a church, a place typically regarded as a sanctuary, where in the world (or rather, the city) can the homeless go?

What’s more, if the homeless aren’t even made to feel welcome outside of churches, how much more inclined will they be to step inside these churches, something I hope my church realizes as talk percolates about erecting a fence around our disused steps. I always thought (and told them) the fence was a bad idea, but now I have a clearer picture why – not thanks to literature, but to life.