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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Claim to the Sidewalk

Last night, the @placardabuse Twitter account posted an observation that a burning police van was parked on the sidewalk. It got me thinking. Streets are famously the contested spaces of protest and revolution, so it may be worth looking more closely at how those struggles are being fought within our public right-of-way. In the conflict over who controls our public space, there is a hierarchy within the streetscape driven by tactical considerations as well as the issue of who occupies the image of the street.

The first thing the NYPD seems to do when trying to "control" a protest is to keep the protesters out of the roadbeds. This has strategic aspects, as well as the potential for abuse.

Often this appeals to a traffic management justification. The transportation rationale implicitly prioritizes the movement of people cutting through the area in cars over anybody using the sidewalk, who becomes trapped on the overcrowded sidewalks. It sets the privileged minority who own cars in New York City above the majority who live car-free. It does also keep the roadways open for emergency vehicles to get through quickly.

Rapid responses may be critical to provide medical assistance for anybody who may be injured by a confrontation or stampeding from the crowd.  It also allows the police to mobilize their own resources, enabling them to respond with overwhelming force, both in terms of bodies and weaponry.
Former Mayor Giuliani once expressed this rather concisely:
I have a zero tolerance for riots. I, you know, took over a city that had two riots in four years and I had none. And they knew they couldn’t riot on me. And when I saw the people on the street in New York City, I said to myself, you’re breaking Giuliani’s rules. You don’t take my streets. You can have my sidewalks, but you don’t take my streets, because ambulances have to get through there, fire trucks have to get through there. People die when you crowd the streets of New York City with protesters. You can do plenty of protesting on the sidewalk.
As the statement by Giuliani shows, there is a hierarchy here between the "streets" and the "sidewalks." There is also a power of ownership ("my streets") at work here, and the protesters are merely allowed use of the lower status portion of the public space by those in power.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Forbidden Forest

I assume all kids who grow up in neighborhoods on the edge of wooded areas live in a land with made-up names for places defined by childhood imagination and fears. We certainly did. There was the Pretty Forest, the Forbidden Forest, and the Beaver Pond.  Ironically, the engineered drainage stream that formed the spine of our childhood wanderings, and continued into town as a major landscape feature, had a real name.  That name was unknown to us and unneeded.  It was "The Creek," with a sense of primacy that needed no description to distinguish it from others.

The names were passed along among the kids.  We learned them from older siblings and friends, and younger kids picked up the usage from us.  I don't know the origin of the name "Pretty Forest," which was the closest and most widely used of the wooded areas.  I guess it did look kind of pretty when you looked up at the sky through the trees, or when the leaves kind of, sort of changed color a bit in the fall.  The name "Forbidden Forest," on the other hand, seems to have arisen from parental prohibitions against going too far, and was almost certainly reinforced by the fear kids had about following the creek out of the woods into the open to get to the next thick stand of trees.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Not-So-Safe Streets

During the current global pandemic, there has been a precipitous drop in driving. Traffic has all but evaporated on New York City's streets. Meanwhile, sidewalks and parks are not providing enough space for people to walk for essential trips, including some basic exercise. Repurposing the residual street space for walking is an obvious solution, and one that is increasingly pursued in cities around the world. New York has been slow to follow, with the Mayor resisting the very idea until continuing to refuse to open streets became politically untenable. Under order of the Governor to do something, he initially opened a few random streets and posted lots of police officers on every block. Shortly thereafter, he pulled it, claiming the police costs were too high.

Public and political pressure continued to mount, expecially as examples continued to come in from other cities. Photo after photo of from other cities closing streets with simple barriers without a heavy police presence made it untenable to continue insisting that New York City was so unique that we could not open our streets too. Finally, another small number of short street segments were announced for an initial opening this past weekend.
The first day at the Oval only had a small hiccup. The barriers were placed at Reservoir Oval itself, stopping traffic after it had turned onto the inlet streets, with no good way to turn back around. When the street openings were announced with their mileages, I wondered why DOT had not taken credit for the additional mileage from those side streets. The day before the street opened, my 8-year-old son was even thinking out loud on his own about where the barriers would need to be placed for these streets. Just a couple hours after the Safe Street opening, the NYPD recognized and corrected the situation by bringing out additional barriers to intercept the drivers before turning onto those streets. Still, it was an inexplicable mistake for professionals to make.