sound, sight & sentiment in yellow springs, ohio

Parking lot ethnography

Today I pulled myself into a neat little parking space next to a shopping cart rack with the intention of observing how folks move about in the space commonly known as a shopping center. Shopping centers are one of the most fascinating American trends I can think of. With their big box grocery stores, fast food franchises, off-brand clothing stores, and dry cleaning centers, they seem to lurk around the corner from every struggling small town in Ohio. They are not particularly appealing places to be, but their draw seems to lie in their convenience.

This particular shopping center is relatively small, relatively new, and in a location which has a smaller demographic than many other local areas. Sitting about six miles down a country road from the village of Yellow Springs, it skirts the edges of the city of Fairborn, a small city with a large “underserved” population. For many in Yellow Springs, the shopping center marked the advancement of sprawl into the first bit of farm and field which flanked the north side of the highway—marking the edge of Fairborn’s commercial development. This development now has grown another block away from the highway (and into the country), and the long horned bull who graze near an intersection now stare blandly at Speedway customers and a large traffic light. The big old stone house that sits upon this property is as beautiful as ever, but the old white barn across the road is no longer cared for. Each year, its disrepair is more evident, causing passerbys to wonder if the property owner has given up.

I am not opposed to change, and while I’m wary of calling every new development progress or even economically beneficial, this is not a story of how sprawl is encroaching upon the real and the good. This is a story about different places and how they affect who we are.

My capstone project is, so far, lacking in deep methodology. I’m plowing through materials as quick as I can manage, and with a book lent to me by my professor Jim Malarkey (The City and the Sign), I am finally getting into material that feels generative in the sphere I’m playing in. But this is a post on parking lot ethnography. Because that, apparently, is what I am doing.

This is my audio recorder, a Sony PCM-D50. And that is the window of my car. I was there to observe and to record some audio of parking lot sounds, an attempt to catch a bit of the day-in-a-life ambiance that folks like myself move through while getting the domestic business done. (Funny, stated here, that being domestic has anything at all to do with a paved parking lot six miles from home, but these are the times we live in.)

Soon after turning on my recorder, all the noises I could have hoped to record seemed to fall from the sky for the benefit of my recording them: the adjacent car door closing, the engine starting, a cart rolling by and crashing into other in the rack, people talking from afar, a siren passing.

It is a breezy sunny day, a midsummer afternoon that hints that fall is coming just around the corner. My windows are down, the pad of paper that I am taking notes on is rustling a bit in the breeze on my lap. When cars pull in, I do not look up, but use my peripheral vision. A professor of mine walks by, but I do not call out.

Two women pull their cart up to the back of their car, the car next to mine, on the other side of the cart rack. There is a young toddler, about a year old I would guess, seated in the front of the cart. Loading groceries into the car, one woman says to the other woman, “I don’t know, all that noise would make me feel like beatin’ him.”

And the mom says, “Oh, he just sayin’ ‘blah-blah’ all the time.”

And they kept loading the plastic grocery bags into the car, and the toddler kept up his sweet “blah-blah,” and I began to sweat.

Surely, every word they said was recorded in perfect clarity. Did they know they were being recorded? Did they have the right to know they were being recorded? Did they notice the odd tool perched on my window, and were they about to ask me what in the hell I was doing?

Two things became clear to me in those few moments that seemed like an eternity. First, that spoken words must not be taken out of context. The story above is verbatim, and it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. Yet, the two women seemed warm, both to each other and to the child. The toddler was having a fine time, and the mother’s reply was affirmative of her son. For the rest of the day I wondered about that transaction I had witnessed. Was the choice of words and the statement of the first woman just a cultural performance? There was no anger or frustration in her statement. It was just a statement, said the way I might comment upon the weather to my companion. And can anything actually be inferred from such a moment in time?

That second thing that became clear to me is that we move through shared spaces believing we are leading private lives. We move with an assumption that we are not being recorded or photographed, and that if we were, we would know. How often do we know?

There seems to be a chasm between this assumption and the tools we carry around on a daily basis. Granted, few carry professional audio recording devises every where they go, yet most phones can easily take pictures, audio, and video. This week, a woman was arrested after someone published a cell phone video showing her dragging an immobile child across the floor of a store. Without getting into a conversation on what is or is not ethical behavior—nor upon whether visual portrayals of circumstances accurately portray the moment they capture—what new understandings ought we (as citizens and as individuals) have about privacy and personhood, given that the tools we all carry in our pockets and purses (and the channels we have for mass publishing) allow for a whole new level of capturing our movements and expressions in shared spaces?

As for my own ethical dilemma, in being the intrusive and unannounced recorder of private moments in shared spaces, I was relieved of the decision of what to do (or what not to do) with that recording. My recorder was on pause.

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