Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Squatting and bullying on the sidewalk

There are two related, interconnected phenomena involving the use of public space: squatting and bullying. Squatting is taking over a public space for a use that wasn't intended, usually one that is relatively private. Bullying is using superior force to abuse others.

Some squats are very noble, others are generally positive: a political demonstration, a game of stickball, a tamale vendor. Some are a lot less positive: a race riot, a game of three-card monte, a drug deal. Your own opinion and morality will determine which ones you think are positive, and to what degree.

So far I've been talking about squats where the squatter has roughly equal power to the "legitimate users" of the public space. But when there's a big imbalance of power, things can get really ugly. That's when squatting and bullying combine to form a menace.

I'm thinking specifically of sidewalks. Sidewalks have all kinds of unintended uses, but their primary, intended use is to facilitate walking. They do this by being a pedestrian space where large and/or fast objects are not allowed. They are very important to our goals, because we need walking to be a viable alternative to driving for many trips. If the sidewalks in an area become unusable or absent, people on foot tend to avoid that area, or to get into cars.

Of course it's possible for intended and unintended uses to coexist on sidewalks. Jane Jacobs famously discussed the "sidewalk ballet" of unintended uses that allowed her West Village block to be so vibrant and safe. What I'm concerned about is when there is so much squatting that the sidewalk becomes useless for walking. Some uses are officially permitted - as in, the users have a permit. "Sidewalk sheds" (aka scaffolding) are a big one. Sidewalk cafes, store enclosures and news boxes also tend to take space away from walking. On some sidewalks there's plenty of room; on others, it gets to be a problem.

Some uses are not officially sanctioned, but still on relatively equal terms. Sidewalk cycling, sidewalk used clothing sales and the famous double-wide strollers of Park Slope are examples of this. When two friends walk abreast for social reasons, even though it leaves no room for anyone else to pass, that's a way of abusing the sidewalk.

And then there's bullying. I remember one night when I was eight or nine, and three big guys were walking down the sidewalk towards me. They didn't get out of the way, and just knocked me down. My dad yelled at them, but they laughed and walked away.

Then there's the kind of sidewalk bullying done with cars. It's bad enough when someone parks a car on the sidewalk, but it's worse when they block the sidewalk, and the worst is when they block the sidewalk and drive towards you, so that you have to get off the sidewalk or go backwards.

I'll talk more about this in future posts.

No comments: