From The New York Times
By JULIE SCELFO
Published: November 11, 2009
WHEN Suzi Jones and her husband purchased an apartment on the fourth floor of a brownstone in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, two years ago, Ms. Jones, a freelance art director from Atlanta, thought what she would like most would be the hardwood floors, the tin ceilings and the renovated kitchen and bathroom.
Soon after moving in, however, she discovered what she has come to think of as the apartment’s best feature: its view into the neighbors’ private lives.
Ms. Jones, 41, was reading on the couch one afternoon when the Italian love song “Volare” began playing outside. Through the window, she could see what looked like a party being given by an elderly Italian woman and her husband in the garden of the brownstone directly behind her building. Charmed by the couple — who were celebrating the husband’s 80th birthday, she soon found out — and their happiness at being surrounded by what appeared to be family, Ms. Jones pulled up a chair to watch.
“She’s wearing a tight white jumpsuit and sunglasses and high heels,” she said. “He has completely black hair that’s swept into a pompadour. There’s all these little kids and other family members and they’re grilling.”
By the time someone turned down “That’s Amore” so the woman could toast her husband, Ms. Jones was smitten. “It’s part of the charm of the neighborhood,” she said. “There’s still a very old Italian contingent here that lives the way they lived 40 years ago. Nothing made me happier than getting to see inside their lives.”
The ability to observe the private lives of strangers from the windows of our homes — and the knowledge that they can often watch us, as well — has long been a staple of city life, one that was immortalized in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film “Rear Window.” It has provided material for countless movies and books since then, most recently “The City Out My Window: 63 Views on New York,” a book of drawings by Matteo Pericoli that asks well-known New Yorkers to describe what they see from their windows, and is the subject of “Out My Window NYC,” a new series of photographs by Gail Albert Halaban.
This often inadvertent voyeurism gives rise to relationships that can be deeply meaningful, although the people involved may never actually meet, said Ethel Sheffer, an urban planner and past president of the American Planning Association’s New York Metro Chapter. “One doesn’t always know their names, but it’s a connection of some sort and it becomes part of the fabric of your life,” Ms. Sheffer said. “The density and the closeness, even if it’s anonymous,” creates a sense of intimacy, she added, and “makes for an understanding that we’re all here” together.
Or as Ms. Halaban, a fine art photographer who spent more than three years on her project, put it: “In a large city where there’s a lot going on around you, it can feel very isolating and lonely. By having contact with these total strangers through the window, it’s a safe way of having a relationship without the hard part of a relationship.”
These anonymous connections are vital because they supply not just a sense of community but one of emotional stability, said Karen L. Fingerman, a psychologist at Purdue University and the author, with Melinda Blau, of “Consequential Strangers.”
“In the modern world, where we spend so much time with people other than intimates,” Dr. Fingerman said, relationships with strangers “have implications for our well-being, how secure we feel in the world, and how stimulated we feel by our environment.”
It’s a more intimate version of what Jane Jacobs called the ballet of sidewalk life, noted Calvin Morrill, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and an editor of “Together Alone: Personal Relationships in Public Places.” “Simply looking out your apartment window and seeing other humans doing an activity in a consistent way and at a similar time can provide stability and support,” Dr. Morrill said. “People are making dinner, they’re sitting down with their families, or they’re alone watching the television — there’s a kind of reassurance there.”
Moreover, in an age of reality TV, watching the neighbors can seem just like watching television. In some cases, it’s almost exactly the same thing.
Kerry Gaertner, 30, who lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, was watching one of the first episodes of “The Real Housewives of New York City” when she realized that one of the stars, Alex McCord, lived directly across the street. Fascinated, she began making mental notes every time she saw Ms. McCord and her husband coming or going.
“If their car is gone,” Ms. Gaertner said, “I wonder, are they in the Hamptons?”
Although their relationship consists mainly of “nodding hello in the morning,” she said, she now feels obliged to act as their defender, making sure acquaintances know that she seriously doubts their on-screen portrayal as “social climbers.”
“They’re perfectly nice,” she said. “If they weren’t on television, they would be totally unremarkable neighbors. And I mean that in the nicest way possible.”
Mark Morris, the choreographer and dancer, whose view is included in “The City Out My Window,” said he regards the building across from his home on Third Avenue in Manhattan, where people are constantly moving in and out, as something of a cineplex. “There’s an empty apartment, and I see the new people, some couple, come in,” Mr. Morris, 53, said. “Then they cover the windows. Then you can’t tell from across the street if they’re male or female — and they’re naked, which is always interesting. Then a few weeks later, it’s empty again.”
To satisfy his curiosity, Mr. Morris said he keeps a set of binoculars handy, and isn’t bothered if the neighbors watch him in return. “It’s kind of comforting,” he said. “Everyone is alone together in their own separate units, but everybody knows how together they are. I don’t think it’s creepy. It’s kind of nice. That’s why you live in a big city.”
Using strangers as a buffer against isolation is common. Lisa Rubisch, 39, a commercial director and mother of two, said that when she lived on West 85th Street in the mid-1990s, she used to watch a man across the street whenever she was unable to sleep.
“He would sew in the dark every night, except for a small desk light. His hands would flutter up like a moth to the light,” she said. “I found the image so lonely and sad, but somehow soothing. Maybe because I was lonely, too. It gave me comfort.”
But anonymous companionship that promises comfort can sometimes deliver the opposite.
After she and her husband moved into a third-floor loft in SoHo in the 1970s, Debrah Pearson Feinn, a painter, thought she had found the ideal companion for her nocturnal work sessions — the painter in the third-floor loft across the street.
“At night my lights would be on, and my man across the way, his lights would also be on,” Ms. Pearson Feinn said. “It always made me feel good — oh, he’s working; we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, making art.”
One night, after he had been keeping her company for about a year, the man’s lights did not go on. “Two weeks later, I found out he had committed suicide,” she said. “I was told he jumped off the Staten Island Ferry.”
For months, Ms. Pearson Feinn, now 62, said she felt a sense of loss whenever she saw the darkened room. “I didn’t even know his name,” she said. “But I missed him. It made me feel bad to see his studio empty.”
Richard V. Hamilton, a real estate agent with Halstead Property who lives in Chelsea, was confronted with an even more immediate experience of death one Thanksgiving a few years ago, when he glanced out his window while preparing hors d’oeuvres and saw what looked like an older woman’s body lying in a kitchen across the airshaft.
Mr. Hamilton called 911, and the police eventually gained access to the woman’s apartment. They discovered that she was indeed dead — and had been lying there, unnoticed, for at least two days.
“There was a very sad element to it,” said Mr. Hamilton, 48, who watched with his dinner guests as the emergency workers wrapped and removed the body. “It was a holiday weekend. Nobody was calling and checking, nobody knew,” he said. “She basically died alone.”
Later, he saw the woman’s furniture removed, the kitchen floors replaced and new tenants take up residency. The experience still haunts him, he said, because it reminds him of how fleeting life is. “It was the end of one person.”
For Mr. Hamilton, though, what is sometimes more disturbing than the things he has seen out his windows — including strangers in the heat of romance “so many times I don’t even watch anymore” — is the thought that others can observe him, even doing mundane things like taking out the garbage or watching television.
“I want privacy,” he said. “The home where I grew up in South Carolina was at least three miles to its nearest neighbor.”
When he is showing clients ground-floor apartments that face the street, he said, he warns them that living there “is a bit like being on display, like in a store.”
Ms. Pearson Feinn, the painter, said she long ago got used to the idea that neighbors can see into her loft, which has 16 enormous windows.
When she had one of her first dinner parties after months of remodeling, a neighbor who had watched the construction and was having his own dinner party that night stood up with his guests and applauded Ms. Pearson Feinn’s gathering.
“I thought it was a hoot,” she said, but one of her guests took offense, because he “felt his privacy was being invaded.”
Some people, in fact, claim to observe an unwritten code of looking away when they inadvertently observe something too private.
Ms. Rubisch, the commercial director, describes herself as “nearly obsessed with watching people,” but said she still makes a point of avoiding the windows directly across from her apartment near the Bowery, where the blinds are always open. The woman who lives there often wears nothing but underwear, Ms. Rubisch said, “so I try not to look. And the way the street is, we’re very close. You can really see every detail in the room.”
Even Suzanne Vega, a New Yorker who has made a career of chronicling the private lives of city dwellers in her songs, said that when it comes to actually watching a stranger in his or her own home, she feels uncomfortable. “Somehow the stark reality of seeing someone that I don’t know raiding their own refrigerator or doing other things, I’m, like, no thank you,” said Ms. Vega, 50. “I’m much more likely to look at someone on the subway and imagine what they’re doing.”
Those who don’t mind watching and being watched, though, sometimes find that good things can come of it.
Not long after losing her nighttime painting companion, Ms. Pearson Feinn noticed another painter across the street observing her at work. Their anonymous relationship continued for several months, she said, until finally he “called me and said ‘Hi, I wanted to introduce myself.’ ”
“We literally started a friendship,” she continued, “and he came over and had dinner with me and my husband.”
More than 30 years later, they’re still friends.