Wheeling NY City

By Laurence Parent.

Obama & Me

October 7, 2014

I have been typing on my computer for the most part of this morning. I have to submit a scholarship application in two days and unlike some of my friends – salut Marianne! – I didn’t start working on it months in advance.

I am happy with the work I’ve done today. I deserve a treat. Leaving the apartment is one. New York is a treat.

My mom and I leave Little Italy to go to the High Line. The nearest subway station is not accessible (and I believe that my mom is a bit traumatized after I told her about my first adventure in the NYC subway), so we take the bus and walk/wheel for about 35 minutes.

The High Line is a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. It runs from Gansevoort Street, in the Meatpacking District, to West 34th Street, between 10th and 12th Avenues.

There are 11 points of access, six of which are wheelchair accessible. As we arrive at the intersection of 10th Avenue and West 14th Street, we quickly locate the elevator, which is a little bit set back from the stairs. In the elevator, I notice a sign indicating that the West 14th and 23th Street elevators are temporarily out of service. Hmm… what elevator are we in again? I take a picture with my phone, thinking that this information could come in handy later.

My mom and I make our way slowly – well, at pedestrian speed – to the north, taking in the rich diversity of the vegetation and the architecture. The surface of the High Line, which is made of wood, is great to wheel on. I finally have a break from unpredictable New York City curbcuts. We are not the only ones who have decided to enjoy a stroll on the High Line this afternoon, but it is not too crowded either. There is air to breathe.
High Cinema
We’ve been walking/wheeling for maybe 30 minutes when we are suddenly blocked by a barricade a police officer installed right in front of us. The officer leaves without saying a word and walks towards the elevator, a few meters away from the barricade, where he joins a few of his colleagues. We are at 23rd street. Many people start to gather and wonder why we cannot continue on our way. A gardener who works in the park stands next to my mom. She asks him what is going on.

Gardener: Probably a motorcade.
Mom: A murder?!?!
Amused gardener: No, it is probably the Presidential motorcade.
Mom: What?

My mom, a French speaker, hasn’t heard the word motorcade before. I am also a French speaker, but that word is familiar to me. I watched a couple of documentaries on JFK’s assassination a few months ago.

The gardener smiles. I assume he is joking. But it quickly becomes clear that he is not. The barricades in front of us are real. Our movement is blocked. The police officers are real. We are in New York. The elevation of the High Line offers a beautiful spot to anyone who might want to try to do what has been done before…

I cannot help but get excited. This is ridiculous. How often do you get excited when your movement is blocked? Not too often, I’d say. As I text my dad to let him know what is going on, an excited woman says “The President is in New York today!”

A few minutes later, my dad texts me the President’s schedule for the day. Obama arrives at John F. Kennedy airport at 1:40pm. At 2:25pm, he will be attending a private Democratic National Committee roundtable in a private residence in New York. That residence could be anywhere but it appears that his motorcade will take 23rd street. I check the time. It is 1:53pm.

A police officer walks towards us and instructs people to leave and take the stairs behind us. The friendly gardener talks to the officer to know more about the situation. The police officer confirms that the High Line will be closed for the next two hours and that people must leave by taking the stairs. Nobody complains. “Well, if it’s for the President!,” a man exclaims joyfully. People leave slowly and I am finally able to talk to the police officer. “I cannot use the stairs. Could we use the elevator to exit?” I ask him.

He had clearly not planned for my presence. He tells us the next elevator is at 14th street. I don’t say a word. I am new in this city. Distances are still a vague concept hard to grasp and it also annoys me to have to go all the way back to 14th street, when everyone is able to exit by the stairs. I think he sees that in my eyes. “OK. Follow me”, he finally says as he moves the barricade for us.

I must confess that it is not so much that I don’t want to go back to 14th street. It is more that this feels like one of those moments when having access to spaces the able-bodied don’t could be interesting.
We take the elevator down to the 23rd street. Obama has cut our stroll short, halfway through the High Line, but I am not upset. There are barricades all along the street as far as I can see. There are also a lot of police cars and people start to gather along the barricades. I am a little bit disappointed to see that the elevator did not bring us to a place where no other people are allowed.

23rd street is completely blocked. There are a few black luxury cars that pass. These people clearly work for the President’s security. I would personally just stay there and wait for the Presidential motorcade to pass by, but my mom is not impressed. Clearly, she is better than me at resisting American propaganda. My interest in seeing the Presidential motorcade definitely doesn’t come from her. She is much more interested in walking to the Chelsea hotel, where Leonard Cohen and many other artists have written songs.

We try to find a place for her to sit and wait for me to wait for Obama. There is none. I know my desire to wait here is ridiculous. I like to believe that my politics are far removed from Obama’s. What am I doing here wanting to see his armoured motorcade?

We leave and walk towards the Chelsea hotel. The world goes on and it is a good thing that I don’t give too much of my attention to the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful and destructive army on earth.

As we move east, we still see a lot of police cars. A helicopter overflies the area. It is hard to forget about Obama.

The Chelsea is not very far. As we approach it, we notice that it is under construction – and it is not wheelchair accessible. Poor mom. We decide to walk/wheel towards Chelsea market, which is a few blocks south west of the hotel. According to Obama’s schedule, he should arrive anytime soon. If we walk towards Chelsea market, we might arrive just in time to “see” him, I secretly hope.

Chelsea is a primarily residential neighbourhood. Poverty and wealth overlap in these streets. On 22nd Street, a man in tattered and dirty clothes eats a sandwich, as he sits on stairs that lead to a house he most likely doesn’t own.

When we arrive at the intersection of 22nd Street and 10th Avenue, the street is blocked. My mom has no choice but to find somewhere to sit and wait. I get closer to the intersection next to the barricades.

The security is no joke here. Police on motorbikes come from the west and turn right on 9th Avenue. And suddenly people start to scream and wave at the President, who is in one of the many limousines. I start shooting a video on my iPhone as my mom finally joins the party. That was Obama! And then there are an impressive number of black trucks and official cars. Two trucks have their back door open with an armed guard ready to jump out of the car and shoot. I have probably never been surrounded by so many armed people ready to kill me, and yet I am filled with excitement. The long parade is not exactly festive, but the world – on the corner of 22th Street and 9th Avenue – has stopped. I contemplate what power looks like and feel privileged to see it from up close. It lasts for about 2 minutes.

The show is over, but we are still blocked by the barricades and the police. A guy gets angry. He is the only one to question what is happening. How can one man blocks all of us? How is this possible? But this not a space to criticize what is happening.

After a few minutes, the barricades are removed and we can continue our way to the Chelsea market. 22nd Street is completely blocked between the 9th and 10th Avenue. As we cross the street, I can see the Presidential motorcade has stopped in front of a house. The area is transformed into what is called a frozen zone. A frozen zone is a high-security area that is off limits (“frozen”) to pedestrian and vehicular traffic. I briefly stop to take a picture, even though I feel like the police want us to keep walking.
As I wheel, I think about Obama’s mobility and mine. For a few minutes, our unequal mobilities intersected. Power was displayed, choreographed and celebrated. I think about how often I feel like I am moving through a world that wants me to be powerless. I think about how hard I have to fight to get on a fucking bus. How many worlds of difference are there between Obama and me?

There is not a red light that can hold Obama back. Literally. The man can go through all the red lights he wants. A subway station was shut down because of its proximity to the fundraiser. Not that that changed much for me at all. That station is not wheelchair-accessible to begin with.

My short encounter with Obama reminds me of something I learned when I was first introduced to mobility studies.

Mobility is a social product embedded with power relations and located in a specific spatial and historical context. Obama and I are the perfect embodiments of this dynamic.


October 8, 2014

I read in the newspaper that Obama attended two private fundraisers in New York yesterday. He hauled in as much as $810,000 for the Democratic National Committee at the Chelsea townhouse of Bill White, former president of the Intrepid Museum. White is known for being a key figure in state pension fund scandal. In 2010, he paid a $1 million settlement after it was revealed he brokered hundreds of millions of dollars in state pension fund investments in a firm that later gave donations to the state controller’s campaign. He was not charged with wrongdoing.

I wonder how much money went into the security measures that enabled him to move through New York City yesterday. He surely needs up-to-date assistive technologies, a great number of personal support workers and quite a bit of special accommodation – which makes me wonder, what does constitute undue hardship in the United States of America? Fixing curbcuts and making subway stations accessible?


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2 Responses to “Obama & Me”

  1. Wow, such a disturbing/genius post!!
    I didn’t know you had a blog. I can’t wait to read everything.


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