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In 2007, the Whole Foods supermarket chain built one of their largest stores on New York City’s storied Lower East Side, occupying an entire block of East Houston Street from the Bowery to Chrystie Street. For the well-off, the abundant availability of high-quality organic foods was a welcome addition, but for the majority of locals, many of whom had roots going back generations to New York’s immigrant beginnings, the scale of the new store, selling wares that few of them could easily afford, was a symbolic affront to the traditions of this part of the city.
When I conducted research at the site in 2011, my interest was more pedestrian: how did this megastructure – plopped into a neighbourhood populated with tiny bars and restaurants, bodegas, pocket parks, playgrounds and many different styles of housing – influence the psychological state of the urban pedestrian? What happens inside the minds of city-dwellers who turn out of tiny, historic restaurants with bellies full of delicious knish and encounter nothing but empty sidewalk beneath their feet, a long bank of frosted glass on one side, and a steady stream of honking taxicabs on the other?
To find the answer, I led small groups from site to site and had them answer questions that assessed their emotional state via a smartphone. At the same time, I had participants wear bracelets that measured their skin conductance – a simple but reliable window into their alertness, readiness to act, pay attention or respond to threat.
One of the sites in the study was midway along the long, blank façade of Whole Foods Market. A second site was a few steps away, in front of a small but lively strip of restaurants and stores with lots of open doors and windows, a happy hubbub of eating and drinking and a pleasantly meandering mob of pedestrians.
Some of the results were predictable. When planted in front of Whole Foods, my participants stood awkwardly, casting around for something of interest to latch onto and talk about. They assessed their emotional state as being on the wrong side of ‘happy’ and their state of arousal was close to bottoming out. The physiological instruments strapped to their arms showed a similar pattern. These people were bored and unhappy. When asked to describe the site, words such as bland, monotonous and passionless rose to the top of the charts. […]